Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927
On this International Women's Day 2014, the VV has been musing on the life of Victoria Woodhull – who was (although few have heard of her now) the very first woman who made a bid to stand for the American presidency, as far back as 1872.
Not that her attempt met with any success. At that time women had no legal vote and, on the day of Grant’s re-election his female rival was safely imprisoned on charges of libel and pornography. But, what had preceded such ignominy?
Buck Claflin in old age
Victoria had a sensation life. She was born in Ohio in 1838 to a family of shameless rogues. During her early years she was part of their travelling medicine show. Always having a talent to draw a crowd, the little girl would preach and tell fortunes, even claiming the power to cure all ills while her father – the one-eyed Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin – stood at the back of his wagon and sold bottles of his opium-based Life Elixir.
At the age of fourteen Victoria fell ill, driven to the point of exhaustion after being deliberately starved by Buck as a means of enhancing her spiritual ‘visions’. Victoria later claimed that her father sexually abused her when drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, she would be seduced soon enough when, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another fraud - the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand and offered the girl a means of escape from her father’s tyrannical, grasping ways. But, once again she was misused. Her ‘Doc’ was no more than a worthless quack, an opium addict and womaniser. Unable to support his child bride, he was so drunk at the birth of their son that Victoria very nearly died, and blamed her husband evermore for the boy’s severe mental impairments.
When contemplating returning to Buck, Victoria came to realise that her place in the family ‘enterprise’ had been usurped by her younger sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and idiot son in tow she made her way to San Francisco, there hoping to realise a dream. As a small child, Victoria claimed to have had a vision in which the spirit of the Greek orator, Demosthenes, foretold of a glorious destiny in which she would grow up to lead the American people – a position that she would hold in a city of water and ships and gold. Well, San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But any dreams of success were soon crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with no choice but to support her family, working as a cigar girl in a bar, as an actress, and probably a whore.
Returning at last to Ohio, rather than joining Buck’s latest venture (running a dubious hospital from which he advertised himself as ‘America’s King of Cancers), along with her sister, Tennessee, Victoria worked as a spiritual healer – though many have come to suspect that the sisters offered a somewhat more physical sustenance.
Colonel James Harvey Blood
While in such trade, Victoria met the married Colonel James Harvey Blood. Blood was a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and fervently supported her ‘destiny’ as future ruler of America. Leaving his respectable life behind, as well as his wife and daughters, he joined Victoria and Tennessee when they set out to make their mark in New York – another city of gold and ships.
At first, times were hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the sale of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes they befriended. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – publishing pamphlets and magazines deemed to be a vital means of spreading the word of Victoria’s aims when she set her cap at the presidency.
Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the aging, widowed businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters. Matters rapidly progressed. Victoria became Vanderbilt’s personal medium with ’the ‘spirits’ offering financial tips which, in reality, were gleaned from gossiping bankers in brothels. Tennessee became Vanderbilt’s mistress – a natural progression of events after performing her ‘magnetic healing’ and curing the 'old goat's' niggling complaints.
A contemporary newspaper cartoon of Victoria and Tennie as Wall Street traders
Generously rewarded, the sisters caused a public sensation by setting themselves up as Wall Street’s very first female brokers - an enterprise that brought further wealth. With the aid of Colonel Blood, they then founded a spiritualist newspaper and Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became their political voice – a voice that reached a great many ears, for the religion of Spiritualism was at that time widely followed, offering a rare platform from which women could express their views.
Victoria Woodhull addressing the House Judiciary Committee
Holding spectacular salons, Victoria was soon courted by the Women’s Movement who supported her bid for the presidency. She lectured to enormous crowds and under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights, Victoria travelled to Washington to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.
But, things soon began to deteriorate. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up in the press alongside stories of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was being demonised as no less than ‘Mrs Satan’. A crippling series of court cases followed which led to her being sued and imprisoned time and time again. Her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' caused even more offence when combined with an ill-advised liaison with the press man, Theodore Tilton.
It was a complicated affair. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in return had sworn to offer Victoria's campaign support before having second thoughts. Victoria then sought revenge by exposing Beecher's adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’. Beecher was to come out unscathed. The Tiltons were socially disgraced, and Victoria had been portrayed as a promiscuous pornographer. Her life and ambitions were ruined – politically, personally and financially.
It was Vanderbilt who brought some salvation. When the old man died his heirs were keen to hush up the millionaire's less than salubrious past. Victoria and Tennessee were given a generous settlement and with this they travelled to England, settling in London; another city of gold and ships in which they reinvented themselves, leaving their lovers and scandal behind - along with all dreams of the presidency. Nevertheless, they attained some degree of success. Tennessee married a viscount and became known as Lady Cook.
Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last
The VV wonders how Victoria felt when, at the age of eighty, universal suffrage was finally won – when the 'modern' world had all but forgotten the woman who once caused a national sensation and was known as the wife of the devil. All but in exile at the time of her death she asked for no more than to be remembered with the following brief words:
‘You cannot understand a man’s work by what he has accomplished, but by what he has overcome in accomplishing it.’
In her own way, and by her own means, Victoria Woodhull achieved a great deal. She was one of the many brave Victorians who lived in a time when a woman was seen as no more than a man's possession. She paved the way for equality – though who knows when her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as president of America.
The VV has hardly scratched the surface of Victoria Woodhull's amazing life. Should any readers wish to investigate further there is a wealth of information on the web. As far as books are concerned, Other Powers by Barabara Goldsmith is an excellent resource which gives a full and well-researched view of relevant historical events at the time. Mary Gabriel's Notorious Victoria is another fine investigation. And, for younger historians, Kathleen Krull's A Woman for President is a good starting point which has the added bonus of being brought to vibrant life by Jane Dyer's watercolour illustrations.