One sunny Sunday morning in Brooklyn Heights, you may have spotted a young woman posing a small stuffed doll of a man in front of various sites around town and snapping cellphone shots of him.
That would be my daughter.
A perfectly normal college student who works at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Conn., during school breaks, Sophie has developed an admittedly eccentric obsession with Harriet’s younger brother Henry Ward Beecher. (We’re trying not to worry too much about her.)
Beecher was the charismatic 19th-century preacher whose dramatic abolitionist sermons and mock slave auctions did at least as much to lead to the freeing of the slaves as his sister’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” He delivered his sermons at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where he was summoned in 1847 to lead the fledgling congregation.
Folks came from all over the world to hear him, with as many as 3,000 people cramming into the church when he preached. He was like a rock star. He’s considerably less famous today, but he still holds enough historical sway that there’s a stuffed-doll version of him on the market. A sympathetic friend of Sophie’s gave her one; she’s perhaps inordinately fond of it.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Beecher’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, for which he fervently pressed. So we Hugets decided to pay homage to “The Great Divine” by visiting his spiritual home base in leafy, brownstone-lined Brooklyn Heights.
Our first Beecher sighting was in Columbus Park, where a big honkin’ statue of the man, wearing his enormous signature coat, looms. He looked old and grumpy to me. But seeing this statue was about as close as Sophie’s ever going to get to meeting her idol. The way she squealed and ran toward him, you’d have thought that she was a preteen who’d spotted Justin Bieber.
Sophie and her doll posed for pictures. Then we meandered over to Plymouth Church, where a different statue (created by Gutzon Borglum, who also sculpted Mount Rushmore) showed a younger, happier-looking Beecher. I was starting to see the appeal. Beecher’s heavy-lidded eyes, lank hair and teddy-bear build are oddly alluring. For a dead dude, I mean.
We took more pictures, then went inside for the 10 a.m. service. Sophie was happy to hold in her hands a copy of the revolutionary Beecher hymnal, the first to present music and lyrics together rather than as separate elements. Beecher designed it that way, to make it easier for the congregation to sing along.
A young seminary student delivered the sermon that day; a congregant later told me that this, plus the mid-summerness of the day, probably accounted for the low turnout that morning. Sophie was surprised that so few people were there. She thinks that Beecher, or his legacy, deserves better. I think she’d imagined being part of an enthusiastic, swooning crowd, stirred up by Beecher-like preachifying.
Well, that didn’t happen. But after the service, Sophie mounted the pulpit and stood right where Beecher himself had once stood. The Beecher doll posed there, too.
We joined our fellow churchgoers in the building’s arcade, where we were offered hot and cold beverages, bagels and Goldfish crackers as we examined the historic artifacts on display (including a chunk of the original Plymouth Rock, a nod to the church’s New England Puritan heritage).
A “tour” was offered at 11:15. Our guide had us sit in the pews while she talked, rather than haul us around the building. She pointed out the stained-glass windows, which feature historical figures — including Beecher — associated with freedom, and the roughly 4,000-pipe organ. She listed some 19th-century luminaries who’d been to Plymouth Church, including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, William Makepeace Thackeray and Sojourner Truth.
Besides the four of us, just two other people stayed for the tour. This meant that we had no competition for seats in the Abraham Lincoln pew. On Feb. 26, 1860, before he announced his candidacy for president, Lincoln attended Beecher’s service at Plymouth. He’d been invited to speak at the church, but at the last minute, organizers opted to move the event to the new Cooper Union in Manhattan, where Lincoln ended up delivering the career-making address in which he voiced his opposition to slavery.
Apparently Lincoln attended church in New York only twice, both times at Plymouth. I’m sure that his pew, marked with a silver plaque, has been reupholstered umpteen times. But it’s still kind of cool to sit where the Great Emancipator once sat.
Our guide explained that although there’s little hard proof that the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad — participation was, after all, illegal, so few records were kept — its spacious basement probably served as a haven for slaves fleeing to freedom. The church’s reputed role as “Grand Central Depot” helped land it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
All that was interesting enough. But Sophie was disappointed when our guide ended her presentation without mentioning the salacious scandal that roiled Beecher’s life. He was accused of having an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, a pious parishioner and the wife of his friend and colleague Theodore Tilton.
The ensuing kerfuffle, culminating in Beecher’s civil trial in 1875, riveted the nation for months. According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “The Most Famous Man in America,” by Debby Applegate, it earned more headlines than the whole Civil War. Beecher’s jury wasn’t able to reach a verdict. But the specter of adultery (and perhaps not with just Mrs. Tilton) shadowed him until his death in 1887.
Beecher, his long-suffering wife, Eunice, and four of their children are buried a few miles from Plymouth Church in the historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Their marker, a rectangular hunk of granite with the potentially ironic inscription “He Thinketh No Evil,” would be ostentatious for the likes of you or me. But in this cemetery packed with monumental monuments, it looks downright modest. One of my favorites among the pictures Sophie took that day shows her Henry doll lying next to the marker.
Founded in 1838, Green-Wood was a fashionable final resting place for the well-heeled; its lush grounds made it a prime picnic spot, too, and for a time it attracted about a half-million people a year. The cemetery has 560,000 “residents,” including Elizabeth Tilton, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Boss Tweed, Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Morse and F.A.O. Schwarz.
A map distributed at the main gate helped us navigate our way to Beecher’s grave. Afterward, it was fun to wander the hilly, winding paths, which are lined with tall trees and awesome statuary (including pyramids, obelisks and, well, other really big objects) and in some spots offer grand, unaccustomed views of Manhattan. We kept our eyes out for monk parakeets, supposedly descendants of parrots that escaped years ago while being shipped through Kennedy Airport, though we didn’t see any.
When we got home, Sophie posted a few of her photos on Facebook under the heading “What HWB did this summer.” (Okay, maybe we should worry a smidge.) For a little stuffed fellow who’d spent a summer day in a church and a graveyard chasing his dead former self, ol’ Henry looked pretty happy.
Huget is a freelance writer in Hartford, Conn.