The Scandalous and Pioneering Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull speaks as the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives receives a group of female suffragists, January 11, 1871. (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper/Library of Congress)
The first woman to run for president was infamous in her day.

She was the first woman to run for president, the first to address a congressional committee, and the first to own a brokerage on Wall Street. She was also a con artist, a gold digger, and a scandal magnet. When she ran for president in 1872, she sat out Election Day in a Manhattan jail, arrested on charges of obscenity. Victoria Woodhull was unquestionably a pioneer in women’s rights, yet her legacy is so messy and complicated that she remains an outlier in feminist history.

She was born Victoria Claflin in 1838, into a squalidly poor family in Homer, Ohio, a tiny frontier hamlet. Her sister Tennessee (called Tennie C or just Tennie) came along seven years later, and a third sister, Utica, after her. In all there were ten Claflin kids, seven of whom survived into adulthood.

Their father, Buck Claflin, was a con man who sold patent medicine as “the King of Cancers.” Their mother, Roxana, was an Evangelical Christian who spoke in tongues and ranted fire and brimstone at the neighbors. Victoria and Tennessee were still children when Buck had them out performing as spirit mediums and faith healers. Victoria was a dark, ethereal beauty, and almost spookily serious. She would claim to have visions of Jesus and Satan, and to receive advice from spirit guides who included Demosthenes, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Juliet. Utica and Tennie were simpler types. Utica became an alcoholic and drug addict. Tennie was blonde, bubbly, and carnal. All three would use sex to get what they needed from men. But with Victoria everything had to be taken to a higher level. She didn’t just want men to desire her and give her money; she wanted them to admire, respect, and even adore her. She’d say or do almost anything to get that from them, and she was good at it. Men didn’t just fall in love with her, they fell in worship of her.

The neighbors in Homer took up a collection to pay the Claflins to go away. That was the start of a long period during which the family roamed the frontier like a tribe of gypsies, selling snake oil, staging seances, telling fortunes, and effecting miracle cures. At 15, Victoria eloped with Canning Woodhull, a drunk twice her age who sold his own “elixir of life.” After having two children with him, she divorced Woodhull but kept his name and could not shake him, even when she married the dashing Colonel James Harvey Blood, a Civil War hero, believer in spiritualism, and devout progressive.

In 1868 Demosthenes advised Victoria to move to New York. He even gave her an exact address, 17 Great Jones Street, near the Bowery. Apparently the ancient Greek orator knew that New York in 1868 was stuffed with cash and war-profiteer millionaires looking for ways to spend it. Soon Buck and Tennie and the whole clan piled into the house with Victoria. Buck sent his daughters to bewitch Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore for his vast empire of steamships and railroads. They easily charmed him. Victoria gave him market forecasts that proved to be uncannily accurate. That’s because many of her tips came from a network of female friends she and Tennie cultivated in the city’s brothels favored by men of finance. Tennie C cheered up “the old goat,” as she called him, in other ways.

Marriage to a useless drunk had gotten Victoria interested in women’s liberation. But she had no patience for the women’s movement of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which had been around for a quarter of a century and accomplished little except to fall into two camps: a liberal group based in New York, and a conservative, Boston-based one. Following custom, each group had chosen a male figurehead. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, the famous pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, represented the Boston group. Theodore Tilton, a Plymouth Church member, fronted the New York group. Tilton was completely smitten with Victoria, as her men usually were, and despite having a wife in Brooklyn Heights, became her lover.

Victoria decided that women needed not only the right to vote, but complete personal and financial emancipation. To that end — with the Commodore’s generous backing — she, Tennie, and Colonel Blood opened Woodhull, Claflin & Co., the first woman-run brokerage firm in Wall Street history. It was a gigantic sensation. Men thronged to the opulent offices on Broad Street, most just to gawk, while a separate entrance admitted women investors.

That year Victoria announced that she intended to run for president against the incumbent, Ulysses S. Grant, in 1872. Women wouldn’t even have the vote for almost 50 years. When the city’s newspapers treated her candidacy as an amusing novelty, she, Tennie, and Blood started their own newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Under the motto “Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!” it mixed financial news with a hodgepodge of radical politics and fringe social theorizing. In 1871, she addressed the House Judiciary Committee, speaking out for women’s right to the vote.

The platform of Victoria’s Cosmo-Political Party included anarchism, Communism, spiritualism, and, most controversially, “free love,” one of the hottest issues of the Victorian era. When many heard free love they thought it just meant free lust. Mainstream feminists said it meant that a woman should be free to choose whom she loved, and not be shackled in loveless and “indissoluble marriage” to a man simply for financial support. For her part, Victoria seems to have taken to free love because it was a respectable-sounding rationale for the way she and her sisters had always lived anyway.

It was her undoing. Victoria’s public speaking engagements now became free-for-alls, mobbed to the rafters with raucous crowds that mixed her enraptured fans with her booing, hooting enemies. As her fame and infamy soared, gossip alleging Victoria and Tennie’s freely lustful ways spread. Victoria didn’t help her case when she let a heckler at one of her speeches goad her into crying out in exasperation, “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.” The heckler was her sister Utica, who was drunk and apparently jealous of her famous sibling.

Victoria was attacked from all sides as an adulteress, bigamist, heathen, whore. In Harper’s, the cartoonist Thomas Nast drew her as Mrs. Satan. On the Bowery, George B. Bunnell’s New American Museum put her effigy in its Dante’s Inferno display. Investors left the brokerage. Advertisers fled the newspaper. The Commodore withdrew his support.

Battered and going broke, in May 1872 Victoria accepted the presidential nomination of the Equal Rights Party, a loose coalition of feminists, spiritualists, and Communists. The party nominated Frederick Douglass as her running mate. He never publicly acknowledged the honor, and she barely had time to enjoy hers. By June her landlords had turned her family out of their home and her brokerage out of its office. She asked Henry Ward Beecher to speak out for her. A word from the great man might still have saved her, but he refused.

That was too much. She thought she knew something about Reverend Beecher that few outside the Plymouth Church leadership did: He had allegedly been doing some free loving of his own with some of his adoring female parishioners. One of them, Theodore Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth, had become mysteriously pregnant while her husband was lying near death from a prolonged illness. Then she miscarried a child, and she confessed. Tilton had been having his own affairs, not just with Victoria, so he couldn’t play the aggrieved husband well. Plymouth church elders convinced all parties to keep the story a secret for the sake of the ministry.

Victoria kept her powder dry until a few days before the election. Then, in the November 2 issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, she told what she had heard about Reverend Beecher in great detail and ignited the biggest sex scandal of the century. Buyers clamoring for the news drove the price of a single copy from ten cents to $40 by the end of the first day. Anthony Comstock, who was just starting his career as New York’s moral watchdog, had Victoria and Tennie arrested on obscenity charges.

They were still in the Ludlow Street Jail on Election Day. Victoria was only on the ballot in a handful of states, and evidently got too few votes to be listed in the official count. They were finally released at the end of November and were eventually acquitted.

Meanwhile a committee of Plymouth elders investigated Victoria’s charges against Beecher and found the reverend blameless. They expelled Tilton from the church. Tilton filed a suit against Beecher for alienation of affection. The trial, held in the Brooklyn City Courthouse from January into July 1875, was a giant media circus. Neither side dared to put Woodhull on the stand, but it was universally understood that she was the provocateur who’d dragged the whole unfortunate business before the public. For all the hoopla, the trial ended in a hung jury. Beecher’s reputation was permanently but not seriously dented. Tilton’s life and reputation, however, were in ruins. He fled the country for Paris, where he died in 1907.

It all made Victoria so ill from exhaustion and stress that at one point her death was publicly announced. She was nothing, though, if not a survivor. She rose and dragged herself to speaking engagements around the country in 1875 and ’76. But the Victoria Woodhull who emerged like the phoenix from the ashes of her demolished life was a new and chastened person. She claimed, outrageously, that she had never advocated free love, which she now damned as “abominable lust,” and spoke out for the sanctity and purity of marriage.

In 1876 she divorced Colonel Blood. The following year she and Tennessee moved to London. She did more speaking and writing there, always the new message about the sanctity of marriage and motherhood. London society never warmed to her. The more she denied her past, the more the newspapers kept digging it all up again. But a London banker named John Biddolph Martin attended one of her talks and, like so many men before him, was helplessly enraptured. Martin was everything Victoria wanted in a man now: steady, respectable, wealthy, and worshipful. Because his family strongly objected to the romance, it took him six years to marry her. When he died in 1893 he left her a handsome country manor in Worchestershire. Here she finally seems to have found the security she needed and a measure of the respect she always craved. She played the stereotyped English country lady for the rest of her life, involving herself in local flower shows and charities.

She lived on past the turn of the century and through the Great War, by which time her scandalous past had finally faded from memory. Tennessee died before her, in 1923. Victoria died at the age of 88 in June 1927. It was two weeks after Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight, and seven years after American women finally won the right to vote.

John Strausbaugh — Mr. Strausbaugh is the author of City of Sedition: The History of New York City During the Civil War and Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II.

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