Victoria Woodhull was once one of the most recognized names in America. Today, one is likely to draw a blank stare when that name is mentioned. But in the mid-nineteenth century, she dominated the news more than just about any other woman in America. She was a spiritualist and clairvoyant, publisher, stockbroker, public speaker, divorcee and free love advocate and, to boot, the first woman (maybe) to address the U.S. Congress and to run for President of the United States…at a time when women had not yet even gained the right to vote. She spent the presidential election day in jail.
She was outspoken and notorious. To her detractors, she was no more than a self-promoting prostitute. To her supporters, she was a beacon of hope for the emerging suffragist movement in America and a forceful campaigner for women’s rights. Here is her tale.
Her Dismal Early Years
Woodhull was born in 1838 in rural Homer, Ohio, the seventh In a somewhat undomesticated brood of ten children (three of whom died when she was young), and was named after Queen Victoria, whose coronation was in that same year. It’s difficult to imagine any young girl having a more wretched upbringing than hers. Her tempestuous mother, “Roxy” - or sometimes “Annie,” was illegitimate and illiterate and given to hearing voices of spirits and seeing visions. She was also a follower of the Austrian mystic, Franz Mesmer (think of “mesmerized”).
It was her father, “Dr. R.B. Claflin, American King of Cancers,” however, whose impact was felt the most by young Victoria. Familiarly known as“Old Buck,” he was a petty criminal, scoundrel and con artist posing as a doctor who would go from town to town selling worthless concoctions as cancer cures, sometimes potentially deadly ones. His “elixirs” were nothing more than snake oil made of alcohol and vegetable oil, but they were not necessarily benign. One of his lye preparations, for example, actually burned the skin. In 1864, the police raided his clinic and charged him and his family with medical fraud and other crimes, but they never went to court. Buck was said to be affluent early on, but he lost his land when Victoria was three years of age and the family was left with only a ramshackle house and a decrepit gristmill. His life of dishonesty and fraudulent wrongdoing followed.
Among his other schemes, Buck also would peddle the psychic powers of Victoria and her youngest sister, Tennessee, a.k.a. “Tennie,” touting their ability to thwart diseases ranging from cold sores to cancer. Victoria purportedly was able to communicate with her siblings who had died in infancy, and Buck saw this as a way to make money through fortune-telling and spiritual acts performed by the girls. Victoria’s clairvoyance included the Greek orator Demosthenes, who appeared to her as her primary patron saint starting when she was about age ten. The girls sometimes worked shifts of twelve hours a day or more and charged one dollar per séance.
Buck was accused of burning his gristmill down in 1849 after heavily insuring it. His arson and fraud were discovered when he attempted to claim the insurance compensation and he was run out of town by vigilantes. This was then followed by a town “benefit” to raise money for the rest of the Claflin family to leave Ohio. Some biographers have suggested the blaze may have started accidentally when Buck was out of town. Whatever the case, the bucket-brigade was unable to put out the fire.
There is some evidence that Victoria was abused both physically and sexually by Buck when she was a young girl. Allegedly, she was starved, and he whipped her as well. And it appears likely he molested her sexually based on assertions of two of her biographers, Theodore Tilton – a contemporary and friend of hers – and Barbara Goldsmith.
Woodhull was denied the opportunity for virtually any formal education. She began elementary school when she was 8 years old but attended intermittently for just three years before ceasing her schooling. Her handwriting was said to have been atrocious but her teachers were struck by her high intelligence.
Escape to Marriage
Beginning when she was twelve years old, Victoria became quite ill with an ailment that included extreme fatigue, fever, rheumatism and chills. When she reached age fourteen, the family brought in a handsome young doctor, Canning Woodhull (Channing in some records), from just outside Rochester, New York to treat her. The state of Ohio did not require any licensing or formal medical education at the time and her biographical materials suggest it’s not likely he had any.
As she recovered, Canning began to court her, using terms of endearment like “my little chick” and “my little puss” to show his affection. Soon, he asked her to marry him and she happily accepted his proposal, seeing marriage as an escape from her miserable life. When they wed on 20 November, 1853 she had barely reached the age of fifteen and he was twenty-eight.
It didn’t take long for the true Canning Woodhull to emerge as an alcoholic womanizer and morphine addict. Just three days after the marriage he was located in a brothel and within a few weeks was exchanging letters with his mistress, whom he had sent to the country on the day of his wedding to Victoria so she could birth his child. Victoria was still young and innocent and by no means had become the social revolutionary who was to emerge later, so all she would do is pray for his reform and change. Canning moved to Chicago where he hoped to make more money from his so-called medical practice. He put up his mistress in a fashionable boarding house but Victoria was relegated to a tenement and was often left alone. She did not have proper clothing and, even in the cold Chicago winter, would go around in only a thin calico dress without petticoats and pantalettes.
Victoria gave birth in 1854 to a son, Byron, who was born with a mental disability. She blamed it on Canning’s alcoholism. Other accounts say it was attributable to a fall from a window. Still another suggested possibility is that it was the result of Canning’s beatings during Victoria’s pregnancy. We don’t know. She took care of her retarded son throughout her life.
Victoria returned from a visit to her parents after Byron’s birth to find Canning in bed with his mistress. At that juncture, he departed the scene for a month and Victoria was left with neither money nor food and provisions. Sometime after his return, they moved to San Francisco where she supported Canning from her work as a cigar girl, stage actress (widely considered to be akin to prostitutes in those days), seamstress and, evidently, occasional prostitute - which was legal at the time. Over the next several years they moved throughout the country with stays in New York City, Chicago and Cincinnati. At one point, Victoria and Tennie teamed up to practice as spiritualists and “magnetic healers” and would sometimes take their show on the road.
A daughter, Zulu (later called Zula) arrived in 1863. She nearly bled to death at birth because Canning was in a drunken haze and could not tie off the cord properly. Ultimately, he decided his best course was to head off to the local pub, leaving the job to others. Canning had essentially deserted Victoria by now, returning to the fold now and then only to collect money. Victoria decided to initiate divorce proceedings against him after eleven years of marriage and went on to work as a spiritual healer and medium in Chicago and Terre Haute to earn a living. She continued her financial support of Canning even though they had separated. She also kept his surname.
In the mid-1860s, Victoria married Colonel James Harvey Blood, who also was marrying for the second time though his divorce from his first wife did not actually take place until a year after being wed to Victoria. There is no formal record of the latter marriage either but they were apparently satisfied with what amounted to their common law status. He was a Civil War veteran who had served in the Union Army and subsequently was elected to the post of city auditor in St. Louis. He and Victoria apparently were compatible and Blood was known to have made many contributions to her later speeches.
Blood was regarded as a thoughtful gentleman who shared Woodhull’s affinity for free love and spiritualism. Later in the marriage, Victoria’s vengeful mother would condemn him during open proceedings of a court trial for his adoption of free love. She had taken Blood to court for “corrupting her daughters,” saying in her testimony “there was the worst gang of free lovers in that house…that ever lived.”
Advocacy of Free Love
In the years that followed her divorce, Victoria did, indeed, become a devotee of free love, likely brought on in considerable measure by Canning’s unfaithfulness during their marriage. Divorce in her time was rare and extremely difficult for women in most U.S. states and jurisdictions. Divorced women were typically stigmatized and viewed as social pariahs, and it was much easier both socially and legally for a husband to secure a divorce than a wife. In Woodhull’s view, the woman had few ways to escape an unbearable marriage.
She believed that any woman should be able to leave a loveless marriage without impediment, just as she had finally left the union with Canning under her own free will. She said, further, that “the choice to make love or not was in every case the woman’s choice…to woman, by nature, belongs the right of sexual determination…when the instinct is aroused in her, then and then only should commerce follow.”
In contrast, opponents of free love at the time attacked it as a dangerous threat to the institution of marriage and families. In the absence of sound birth control methods, the question of who would bring up the children was inevitably raised. They also argued that venereal disease would become widespread just as it was then among prostitutes.
Woodhull’s stand on free love is famously encapsulated in her memorable 20 November, 1871Steinway Hall speech in which she said: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.” Free love under her doctrine did not exclude monogamous relationships, but the woman retained the right to change her mind and the choice to make love had to remain with her.
This statement from Victoria’s speech had been provoked at the time by comments from the audience by yet another zany and tempestuous member of the Claflin clan, her younger and apparently envious sister, Utica, who called out to Victoria while waving a white handkerchief “How would you like to come into this world without knowing who your father was?” Turmoil ensued in the hall, with shouts from the audience which seemed at least partly in support of Utica. Finally, a voice called out “Mrs. Woodhull, are you a free lover?” whereupon an angry Victoria threw away her prepared remarks and made her celebrated free love pronouncement.
Woodhull’s public stance on free love earned her many critics and adversaries. The renowned cartoonist, Thomas Nast, for example, satirized her in a full-page drawing in Harper’s Weekly, depicting her all in black as “Mrs. Satan” with a snarl and bat wings emerging from her shoulder blades. But she also had her supporters. The Pittsburgh Dispatch hailed her as “the most prominent woman of our time.” Several months later, she had become so celebrated that she was selected to give the keynote address at the national convention of the Equal Rights Party. And, subsequently, she became its standard bearer for the presidential election of 1872. More on this later.
Woodhull, Claflin & Company
By 1866, Woodhull and Colonel Blood had settled in New York City, joining Tennie who had arrived earlier. The sisters spent time there visiting the brothels on Fifth Avenue, laudanum in hand as a cure-all to protect against possible disease. It is widely rumored that they, themselves, also participated in the profession and accrued income from it, though Victoria had previously spoken out against prostitution. She also had come to the point of view that marriage was no more than another form of prostitution. A curious mélange of people – rich, poor, gangsters and so on – frequented the brothels. Among them was that wealthiest of all Americans at the time, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, railroad and shipping tycoon and financier.
During this time Victoria opened a salon, reportedly for intellectual discourse among those radicals, politicians and others sharing her views on such topics as free love and spiritualism. A less charitable characterization advanced by her antagonists was that the salon was used by Victoria as a money-making front for magnetic healing, fortune-telling, spiritualism and prostitution under the guise of free love. Contemporary accounts suggest it likely was some of both.
Victoria and Tennie met Commodore Vanderbilt shortly after his wife died in 1868. He was Seventy-Four years old, probably lonely and soon attracted to the sisters. But it was Tennie, some fifty years his junior, who stirred him the most and in short order she had become his mistress. She spent a great deal of time at Vanderbilt’s Manhattan townhouse where his servants would find her, flushed and happy, in his bed in the mornings. She was every bit a woman, though she expressed a preference for wearing men’s garb from time to time. He fondly called her his “little sparrow” and he was the “old goat” to her. Fortunately for her, she did not contract his advancing syphilis which was already starting to affect his cognitive processes. Even after Vanderbilt married a much younger cousin in 1869 (forty-five years younger than him), Tennie continued to sleep with him for a while. It has been said he seriously considered marrying her before marrying the cousin, but his family was strongly opposed to that prospect and it went no further.
Vanderbilt’s interest in the sisters extended well beyond cavorting with Tennie in the bedroom. He mistrusted medical doctors, had become a believer in spiritualism and, in recent years, had been seeing a medium named Mrs. Tufts to communicate with spirits consequential to him from the nether region. But she retired and Victoria, with her credentials as a spiritualist and clairvoyant, was an ideal and worthy successor.
During the course of the relationship with Vanderbilt, Victoria would pass on to him “stock tips from the spirits,” much of it actually coming from a madam who had made Victoria’s acquaintance and who eavesdropped on her high-roller customers. In today’s world such activity, of course, would border on insider-trading and probably would be illegal. Vanderbilt did very well in the market using her advice and once promised Victoria half of his profits when he sold stock short at $1.50 a share from his portfolio. It’s not clear if he ever delivered on that promise, but he did give the sisters’ financial advice that led them in turn to make $700,000 during the gold panic of 1869.
Subsequently, with Vanderbilt’s financial backing, Victoria and Tennie became the first female stockbrokers on Wall Street with the formation of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. in early 1870. They debuted on its inaugural day from an open carriage wearing matching dark-blue attire with “scandalous” ankle-length skirts. There was a frenzy among reporters and onlookers as the sisters descended from the coach. The commotion was sparked as much by their actually appearing in that financial mecca in an open, instead of covered, carriage as by the venture they were about to undertake. A hundred police officers had to be called to keep order.
Their elegant offices consisted of two rooms in the stylish Hoffman House on Broad Street. Portraits of Vanderbilt and other leading notables of finance and politics were on prominent display. They charged an advance fee of $25 for consultations and maintained a special women-only lounge in back just for their female clients – small businesswomen, actresses, madams and high-priced prostitutes, teachers, society women and the like. The venture was an immediate success and they were soon dubbed the “Bewitching Brokers” and “Queens of Finance” by newspapers. Susan B. Anthony called Woodhull, Claflin & Co. “a new phase of the woman’s rights question.” But several men’s journals panned them with sexualized images of Victoria and Tennie running their firm. And the New York Times questioned the venture’s likelihood of success because of the sisters’ relationship with spiritualism.
Within three months they had earned huge profits from their enterprise, in good measure due to the previously untapped wealth of their female clientele. They were able to rent a deluxe apartment in Manhattan’s elite Murray Hill neighborhood and to throw expensive parties and furnish entertainment for those from the ranks of the political and financial elite. But they never did gain a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and it took another century for a woman finally to achieve that goal.
Paradoxically, while Virginia was making money on Wall Street she was also embracing causes that hardly reflected a capitalistic bent. Among them was the International Workingmen’s Association, an organization comprised of various communist, radical-socialist and anarchist groups. She also called for income tax and land redistribution, concepts then very alien in America. At the same time, she started to emerge as a political force as an advocate for women’s rights.
Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly
In the end, Commodore Vanderbilt withdrew his financial support and advice after receiving a letter from Roxy, evidently under Tennie’s forged signature, clumsily attempting to blackmail him. Later, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. went bankrupt as a consequence of the nationwide depression of 1873. Before that, however, it provided Victoria and Tennie with ample revenue to start a radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, and, later, for the presidential run by Woodhull. The newspaper started up barely three months after the brokerage firm had opened and during its six-year run it achieved a national circulation of 20,000.
The paper’s masthead stated it was “The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World” and it addressed a host of controversial and taboo topics such as free love, women’s suffrage, spiritualism, licensed prostitution, short skirts and birth control (historians disagree on Victoria’s actual support for it). The newspaper published exposes of corrupt congressional land deals, stock swindles and insurance fraud. It also printed the first English-language version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
A Presidential Run…and Scandal
On April 2, 1870, Victoria announced her candidacy to run for president of the United States through the New York Herald. History books often record her candidacy as the first by a female, but the legitimacy of that claim has been disputed because she would not have reached the mandated age of 35 for president on election day, nor was she a candidate from a major party – her party was the Equal Rights Party. As a female was she was not even eligible to vote. Her running mate was the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who never acknowledged his own nomination and voted for U.S. Grant. His position on the ticket gave Victoria’s foes ammunition against her as they raised the specter of miscegenation, especially given that that Douglass was already married to a white woman. Ugly rumors spread.
Woodhull received no electoral votes in the election and the actual number of popular votes cast for her has remained a mystery. She suffered in a personal way, as well, from the innuendo and rumors that had circulated during the campaign. In addition, speculation about her sex life persisted. Canning Woodhull, seriously ill from his alcohol and morphine addictions, had resurfaced and was taken in out of “Christian duty” by her and Colonel Blood. The possibility that she was sleeping with both of them under the same roof and at the same time titillated her adversaries and the press. (When Canning died a few years later, Victoria feelingly memorialized him in an obituary in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.)
Her landlord evicted Woodhull because he viewed her as a scandalous tenant. She could not get a rental anywhere and was turned away by several hotels. For weeks she was forced to live with her family in her office and sleep on the office floor. Her twelve-year-old daughter, Zula, assumed an alias so she could go to school without being harassed.
Seemingly always in the midst of controversy, Victoria still had been able to burnish her political credentials during the period leading up to the presidential campaign. She had become an able orator, gave public speeches and, in 1871, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee – the first woman ever – to address them on women’s suffrage. The speech was so impressive that she was invited to speak to the National Women Suffrage Association the next day. She had now been propelled at this point into the top ranks of the suffragist movement and had the support of such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher. She was seen as the newest champion of women’s rights.
But in 1872, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly published a story that precipitated a nationwide scandal and proved to be a drastic tactical error on Woodhull’s part. The prominent Protestant minister and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame), Henry Ward Beecher, had railed from his Plymouth Church pulpit against free love. But it seems that one of his parishioners and his best friend, Theodore Tilton, was being cuckolded by Beecher at the same time. Tilton revealed this to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Woodhull’s suffragist collaborator, who in turn told Victoria of the affair. By now, Victoria had become disaffected with Beecher because he had reneged on his earlier offer to introduce her at her Steinway Hall speech and, as well, because she had personally come to view him as an adulterous hypocrite.
Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly had to cease publication for a four month-due period due to financial difficulties, but it resumed on November 2, 1872 with “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case” splashed across the front page of 100,000 copies of the paper. The affair between Beecher and Tilton’s wife was described in detail, some of it evidently salacious. Woodhull cited Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Paulina Wright Davis and Isabella Beecher Hooker – another of Henry Ward Beecher’s sisters – as corroborating sources. By the end of the week, reprints of the issue were selling for $40 apiece.
Beecher had a lot to lose. He was probably the highest paid minister in the land, making $100,000 a year. His reputation had support in the Protestant community, the liberal Republican establishment and the Plymouth Church. He had signed a publication contract with a big advance to write the life of Jesus. And he publisher was quite unhappy over the negative impact the scandal could have on the book’s success. Enter Anthony Comstock, United States Postal Inspector and driving force behind the morals-based legislation known as the “Comstock Act.” He saw to it that Victoria, Tennie and Colonel Blood were arrested for “publishing an obscene newspaper” and sending it through the U.S. mail. They were apprehended by U.S. Federal Marshals who chased their rapidly moving carriage through the streets to make the arrest.
They were in jail the day of the 1872 presidential election and were locked up for about a month. The printing press for the newspaper was confiscated and Victoria had to pay large sums of money for fines and bail, even more than the infamous Boss Tweed, corrupt leader of the Tammany Hall political machine, around that time. The scandal issue rocked America for two years. It became a national spectacle and its impact on the country was akin to that of the O.J. Simpson trial or the Clinton-Lewinsky impeachment proceedings in the next century. At one time, the Associated Press had thirty reporters covering the story. Victoria became known as “Wicked Woodhull” and received death threats and blackmail letters. Her supporters claimed she was the victim of censorship, government persecution and a judge who was biased against the sisters. Ultimately, they were found innocent of the charges brought against them. Several biographers say she and Tennie were actually fortunate to get off on a technicality.
Theodore Tilton sued Reverend Beecher in 1875, citing “criminal intimacy,” i.e., adultery. This was a trial equal in its scandalous sensationalism to Woodhull’s. Courtroom tickets were sold to the highest bidder and refreshment sales and souvenir booths were everywhere about the courthouse. Victoria did not testify. Only three of the nine jurors voted to find Beecher guilty, so Tilton lost his civil suit. He did become Virginia’s biographer, however, and, according to various biographical accounts, her lover.
Into the English Sunset
Woodhull and Colonel Blood divorced in 1876. Some biographers say Victoria tired of him, others that it was an amicable split. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly ceased publication. The next year, Cornelius Vanderbilt died, setting up a contest among his heirs for his 100 million dollar estate. Shortly afterward, Virginia and Tennie left for England where they would reside for the rest of their lives. By then, Victoria had lost the support of the suffragist establishment, many of whom took exception to her love of the spotlight and political aspirations. Susan B. Anthony in a letter to an English suffragette characterized Victoria and Tennie as “lewd and indecent.” Notwithstanding her previous role and contributions, Woodhull was completely left out of a major account of the women’s suffrage movement.
These events had an impact on Victoria, with some speculating that she had become depressed. She was quoted as saying that “draconian measures were needed to sanitize her image.” She became more conservative and began delving into the Bible and Catholicism. Her move to England may have been because she was burned out or because she was bought out, or both. The eldest Vanderbilt son did not want Victoria and Tennie to testify about Commodore Vanderbilt’s competency at the will contest, so rumor has it he gave them a considerable sum of money to leave America.
The sisters spent over half their lives in England, living comfortably. Victoria continued with her lectures on the Bible, spiritualism and sexuality and met retired millionaire banker John Biddulph (distantly related to Martha Washington) at one of her speeches. They married in 1882 against his family’s wishes. She actually claimed to be a relative of Alexander Hamilton to dress up her bloodline. Still, none of his family attended the wedding.
Thereafter she led a full life for the remainder of her days. She became active in humanitarian causes, traveled frequently to the U.S. and took two more weak runs at the presidency on the ticket of the small and obscure Humanitarian Party. Later, she started The Humanitarian Newspaper. She became an automotive and aviation enthusiast and was one of the first women in England to own a car. She also supported the eugenics movement but continued her opposition to abortion.
When her husband died in 1897, Victoria became an extremely wealthy widow and contributed to diverse causes. She died in 1927 at age 88, having lived long enough to see women get the vote in America but not yet in her adopted country of England.
Tennie also married well, having wed the English Baronet, Francis Cook, Viscount of Montserrat, Portugal in 1885. Thereafter, she was called (correctly) “Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat.” She resided comfortably with her husband in London. He died in 1901, she in 1923 at age seventy-eight. After his death she founded a bank in London called Lady Cook & Co., but it did not last long.
In their later years, Victoria and Tennie at a time unknown and for reasons unknown had a falling-out and never had contact with each other again.