A long time ago I had a boyfriend who used to unconsciously signal that he was about to deliver unwelcome news by saying, “ya gotta love this…” As it turned out, I didn’t gotta, and his “love” was a hollow thing. A more solid love – in this case, a father’s love for his daughter – is this post’s Valentine offering.
The “valentine” (as I think of it) came to us in 2007 as part of a generous gift from Bruce Gimelson of letters and photographs relating to Henry Ward Beecher, Class of 1834. To reduce a huge life to a few sentences, Beecher (1813-1887) was a wildly popular preacher at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn (1847-1887), a rebellious son of Calvinism, an eloquent anti-slavery advocate, and the 50-year husband of Eunice Bullard, by whom he had 11 children, 7 of whom died early.
The Beechers had a troubled marriage and Henry was rumored to have had several affairs, the first as early as his ministry in Indiana during the 1840s. According to Debby Applegate’s superb biography of Beecher, The Most Famous Man in America, the minister may also have been the father of Violet Beach, who is on paper the daughter of Moses Sperry Beach, publisher of the newspaper “The Sun” and son of the founder, Moses Yale Beach, of the Associated Press. Applegate’s biography considers the affair between Henry and Moses’ wife Chloe and the likelihood that Henry was Violet’s father. While we might wish for DNA evidence, what we have in this case is photographic and manuscript evidence. Among the former is this:
In addition to the convincing documentation of the relationship between Chloe Beach and Beecher that Applegate assembles in her biography, we also have evidence of Beecher’s attachment to Violet Beach in 12 letters that were part of Gimelson’s gift. In 8 of the letters, Beecher signs off as “grandpa,” which he means “in spirit”; in the other 4 letters, he is “Henry Ward Beecher,” safer still. But in a letter signed with his full name in the spring of 1885, Beecher refers twice to a “daughter” and writes with good-humored outrage as a protective father whose child has been slighted. Surely this energetic letter soothed Violet’s wounded heart and made her laugh too. What more could Beecher do, what more could Violet ask? Maybe it doesn’t matter whether he was her “real” father or not.
My dear Violet –
You are quite right in all you say about Will’s engagement, but you don’t go half far enough. It is a crime that cannot be excused, nor can language be found that will make it more odious. I am ready to stab him & poison her. Should such conduct go unpunished, the whole world might catch the infection & grow as wicked as they were before the flood. For is it not said that they were “marrying & giving in marriage” – until the flood came & swept them all away” & served them right too! I don’t know – I fear stabbing will be too good for Will. It will let him off too soon. Let’s see if we can’t think of some choice torment. What say you to letting him marry this outrageous sweetheart, & be compelled to live with her? And then, in about 25 years let them have some good for nothing fellow walk up & marry their daughter. Yes, that will be better.
But nourish your wrath. Don’t let it go out. I will send you a vocabulary of words, & a few oaths suited to this occasion – and you can copy them off & recite them morning & evening instead of the good prayers in the Episcopal Book – which are weak & cool affairs whereas you want damnatory & red hot petitions. Trust Providence, my dear. Read the Objurgatory Psalms. Begin with Psalm 137:7-9, Psalm 69: 22-28, Ps. 59: 10-17. But, above all, that choice Psalm 109.
I would suggest, also, that for a while I would let the New Testament alone – as it may somewhat interfere with the sentiments expressed in the psalms.
I will try to help you all I can, & will invent a few new oaths by the time the old [staple ones] get cool.
Yours in the bonds of an Everlasting hatred of all who get married to anyone’s daughter.
Henry Ward Beecher
Apr 8, 1885, three days after Easter
This letter sent me scurrying to find Psalm 109* and vowing to add “objurgatory” to my regular vocabulary.
I wish I knew who the odious Will was. I wish I knew whether it was on account of the inexcusable little cur that Violet never married. Instead, she lived out her adult life mostly at the family estate in Peekskill, N.Y., and died in 1946 two days after Valentine’s Day.
*Psalm 109 from the “New English Bible: the Old Testament,” Oxford University Press/Cambridge University Press, 1970.