An Iconic Image: Henry Ward Beecher in Puck Magazine

By Patricia Marks

Depicting a popular reformist pastor as a plump scapegrace with hair flying and amorous inclinations is an unlikely mission for a popular magazine, but that is the image of Henry Ward Beecher that Puck magazine (1877-1918) promoted. During its first decade ending in 1887, Puck conducted a vigorous campaign against questionable behavior by the clergy, and Beecher, the first pastor of Brooklyn’s Congregationalist Plymouth Church, figured prominently in both illustrations and commentaries, despite his earlier reputation as abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage. By virtue of his involvement in an adultery scandal, however, Beecher became a living expression of the magazine’s attack on discrepancies between word and deed, whether spiritual or mundane. Inspired by the iconic Shakespearean figure of Puck, whose mischievous “What fools these mortals be” quip became the magazine’s motto, editor Joseph Keppler and other cartoonists and writers such as Frederick Opper, Bernard Gillam, James Albert Wales, and H.C. Bunner caricatured and satirized Beecher, whose reputation, idiosyncratic dress, and informal preaching style attracted overwhelming crowds. Beecher’s weakness for the fair sex, his evangelical style, and his social and political involvement all became targets for Puck.

The Beecher–Tilton trial in the 1870’s was, in part, the grounding for much of Puck’s satire. Accused of adultery with the wife of journalist Theodore Tilton, Beecher was let off the hook by a hung jury. The cover that appeared in 1878 entitled “Reconciled” suggests the magazine’s attitude toward that exoneration: as a pencil-thin Tilton leaves the country with his wife, a corpulent Beecher laughs uncontrollably. Earlier illustrations address his propensity for philandering as well: in the centerfold “A Traitor to the Cause: Beecher Joins the Russians and Astounds the Turks,” for instance, while the primary focus seems to be caricatures of Alexander II and Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a background sketch shows Beecher in his Brooklyn chariot approaching a decorated “seraglio,” where the adorned and adoring  women stretch out open hands to him.

Religious issues were, however, the mainstay of Puck’s attention to Beecher. Brigham Young’s death on Aug. 29, 1877 provoked an outpouring of cartoons and commentary, with Puck maintaining that Beecher should head out to Salt Lake City to comfort Young’s heartbroken wives. Later, the controversy over the existence of Hell, sparked by a sermon by the Westminster Abbey Canon Frederick Farrar that nixed the idea of damnation, evoked a caption saying “Mr. Beecher says he d-d-doesn’t believe in hell—(and then he shivers).” And Puck, which lambasted any brand of religion that did not live up to what it preached, included a sly reference to Beecher’s reputation in its centerfold “The Religious Vanity Fair,” with Beecher shown lolling on a comfortable settee under a sign “Beecher’s Only ‘Love’ Road to Heaven— Sleeping Car.” Puck’s sober comment is that “All we can do . . . is to obey the laws, be a good citizen, be kind to our neighbors, mind our own business, and do no man wrong.”

In both graphics and commentary Beecher was often coupled with Thomas DeWitt Talmage, whose sensational preaching style brought overflow crowds to the Central Presbyterian Church, twice rebuilt as the Brooklyn Tabernacle. They are pictured, for instance, in “The Rival Revivals,” in which Beecher marches arm-in-arm with a flirtatious lady dressed in red, white, and blue, while Talmage, who marches on stilts, is surrounded by signs like “The Standard of Acrobatic Religion Must be Raised,” and “Gymnastics and Religion Hand in Hand.” Puck’s perspective was that the revivals were unsuccessful: the two are shown sitting sadly together at the “Failure of the Brooklyn Revival Business” and being knocked out at the “Tournament of Sensationalism” because of their “old and effete methods.”

Beecher’s activities outside the church also attracted the sprite Puck’s attention, especially when at the age of 65, he became Chaplain to the 13th Regiment of the New York National Guard in Brooklyn. Beecher claimed that young men needed guidance; Puck and others reminded readers of the Tilton scandal and what it saw as his earlier questionable behavior. Similarly, Beecher’s Canadian trip to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1879 evoked editorials and drawings, claiming that men would need to accompany their wives on shopping expeditions, that hospitals and toy stores would be expanding infant care sections, and that the legal profession would be preparing itself for divorce hearings. In the “jubilee” centerfold, Beecher, clad in a plaid kilt, dances exuberantly with the Marquess of Lorne, husband to Princess Louise—“Beecher danced before the Lord,” Puck quips.

As time went on, the focus of Puck’s caricatures shifted from direct religious references to more pointed political barbs. Beecher was compared to Roscoe Conkling, member of the House of Representatives, who was also accused of having an affair; Puck’s Sept. 10, 1879, cover pictures “Two Effects from Similar Causes,” with a cloaked and “abashed” Beecher huddling bereft near a building while Conkling, surrounded by prostrate women, triumphantly rides the Republican elephant. Beecher was also shown with an elegant young woman, spokesperson for party, who declines Beecher as an escort, saying, “My reputation is quite bad enough already.” As the political climate in the 1880’s became more querulous, Beecher was increasingly included in caricatures that pictured him in subordinate positions or holding absurd views.

During Puck’s first decade, then, Henry Ward Beecher was for the most part pictured as a plump, rumpled, and undignified leader. Puck took umbrage at his penchant for the fair sex and his influence over the young men in the National Guard; it suggested time and time again that it was the Devil himself who ruled over the church. Eventually, however, as the magazine’s audience grew, the magazine broadened its concerns, signaling a change in editorial focus to other issues including health, politics, and social changes. What also changed was how Puck portrayed Beecher. The memorial that appeared in Puck on March 16, 1887, for instance, praised him for being “among the great men whom America has produced.” His mid-life scandals that invoked Puck’s anger about the interface between religiosity and immorality are secondary to his honesty, originality, courage, and sincerity. The magazine concludes by praising him for “loving his country”: “when he died we lost a great American.”

The study of the depiction of Henry Ward Beecher in the first decade of Puck’s existence, then, demonstrates the development of the periodical. No longer primarily a project of one man—Joseph Keppler—and no longer a periodical with a restricted audience (by 1884 the readership had grown to 125,000), Puck became an outspoken critic, reflecting the changes that led to the twentieth century. Despite criticism and threats of lawsuits and boycotts, it fearlessly maintained its determination to point the way through satire and caricature what it saw as the truth.