Thursday, July 21, 2011

Eunice Beecher stood by her man

Life at the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe in Mandarin often included knitting and card games on the porch.

Henry Ward Beecher
In the 1860s, Henry Ward Beecher was the era’s equivalent of a rock star. He was a fiery preacher and a vehement abolitionist, who wrote newspaper columns and made impassioned speeches around the country.

In the 1870s, a close associate and protégé accused him of having an affair with the associate’s wife. The subsequent investigations and trial became a drawn-out soap opera, every salacious tidbit covered in detail in The New York Times. Throught it all, Beecher’s wife, Eunice, in the grand Tammy Wynette-style tradition, stood by her man, visiting her dour expression upon the proceeding as she attended court sessions every day.

Beecher was eventually found to be not guilty of adultery, although public sentiment at the time was similar to the public sentiment in recent well publicized murder trials.

Eunice Beecher
That tawdry episode was long behind them (though Beecher’s reputation never fully recovered), when they visited Beecher’s famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) at the Stowe home in Mandarin near Jacksonville. The Beecher family wintered in Florida regularly for many years and Eunice wrote letters to friends about the conditions she found in Florida, a place she clearly enjoyed.

First edition
Eventually her letters were collected into a slim volume published by D. Appleton and Company in 1879. A copy of Letters from Florida by Mrs. H.W. Beecher is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. In it she warns against people who form a quick impression of Florida after only a brief visit. She cautions that it takes living in the state or at the very least wintering there several years in succession (as she and Henry had done) to really understand the virtues of the region.

Eunice preaches the value of applying oneself to building a life under adverse conditions in Florida and the rewards for doing so. It is a book she wrote in later life and stands in stark contrast to the experience she and her husband had when he received his first call in 1839 to preach in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, then a frontier wilderness. Historians suggest that Eunice was miserable there and much happier when the family moved to New York City.

Eunice was a sickly woman but the regular visits to Florida must have improved her health. She outlived her husband who died in 1887. Eunice also published books of poetry as well as Motherly Tales and All Around the House, a guide for establishing a happy home. Some historians suggest that given her husband’s philandering reputation, she was hardly an authority. Still, she and her husband had 10 children.

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