Victoria Woodhull 1838-1927

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 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?
Victoria's was a sensational life.  She was born in Ohio in 1838 and during her early years was part of the family's 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.

Buck Claflin in old age

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’. She later claimed that her father had sexually abused her when he was drunk, even trying to sell her as a whore. But then, during her convalescence, she was wooed by another shameless fraud: the apparently well-to-do doctor who was known as Canning Woodhull.
Canning, who was then twenty-eight, asked for Victoria’s hand in marriage, which 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 sister, Tennessee. So, with husband and brain-damaged son in tow she made her way to San Francisco ... where she hoped 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 was destined to hold in a city of water, and ships, and gold. 

San Francisco seemed to fit the bill, being the scene of the gold rush and also a sea port town. But dreams of success were soon to be crushed. While Canning spent every cent he owned in opium dens and on prostitutes Victoria was left with little 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 since come to suspect that the sisters also provided a somewhat more physical sustenance. 

Colonel James Harvey Blood 

While in such trade Victoria met a certain Colonel James Harvey Blood; a glamorous civil war hero who shared her belief in ‘other realms’ and who also supported her ‘destiny’ as a 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 very hard and the sisters' spiritualist business was bolstered by the selling of contraceptive devices to the prostitutes. Meanwhile, Blood was often absent, spending time with his brother’s newspaper business and learning the tricks of that trade – with the publishing of 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.

Cornelius Vandervilt

Before that, the bad penny Buck Claflin turned up. Having heard that the widowed Cornelius Vanderbilt – then the richest man in America – was seeking the services of mediums, he contrived a means of introducing his daughters to the gentleman. 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 going on to set 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. 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 one with a massive following, and it also offered a 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, usually under the popular banner of universal suffrage and equal rights. She even travelled to Washington where she was to petition the House at a Judiciary Committee in 1871.

It was all going rather well until the plans started to fall apart. With Buck’s criminal antics raked up by the press along with tales of her dubious past, ‘The Woodhull’ was soon 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. And her outspoken thoughts regarding 'free love' went on to cause yet more offence when it was revealed that she'd had an affair with the press man, Theodore Tilton.

Theodore Tilton

It was a complicated liaison. Tilton's wife had been sexually involved with a popular married clergyman whose name was Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher in turn had sworn to support Victoria's political campaign, but when the man had second thoughts Victoria then sought revenge by exposing his adultery, only to find herself immersed in the ‘Trial of the Century’.  

Beecher was to emerge unscathed, but 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 immoral 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 then reinvented themselves. Leaving their lovers and scandals behind, along with all dreams of the presidency, they still attained some degree of success. 

Victoria and John Biddulph Martin - happy and 'respectable' at last

Tenessee married a viscount and was afterwards known as Lady Cook. Victoria married John Biddulph Martin, a bachelor merchant banker and a man of considerable personal wealth. When widowed she was heartbroken, withdrawing to the Martin's country estate. But she  didn't  exactly give up on life! She became a passionate motorist, and founded an agricultural college dedicated to training women. She also funded a village school, and a famous country club – at which even Edward, the Prince of Wales, was said to be a visitor.

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'd caused a national sensation, after which she was known as the wife of the devil, and all but in exile when she died. 

For herself, she left these poignant 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 those 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 if her ultimate hope will come true, when a woman will stand in the White House as the President of America.

For a related post: THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY

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. 



From the V & A Archives

This engraving is a reminder of the inspiration for the VV's first Victorian novel, The Somnambulist, which opens with the imaginary setting of a pantomime performance at Wilton's Music Hall in London

In the nineteenth century, a visit to a panto was a traditional Christmas pleasure. Shows were elaborate affairs with music, song and dance, lashings of wit and topical satire, rhyming couplets and double entendres.

From the V & A Archives

The word 'pantomime' stems back to Ancient Greece, when an actor, or 'pantomimus' told stories to an audience through the means of mime or dance. Music would be played. A chorus line would chant and sing.

In the middle ages, the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (for which we also owe our thanks for the creation of Punchinello, or Mr Punch) was a type of entertainment where performers travelled around market shows or local fairgrounds. Story lines were improvised around the character, Harlequin, who wore a diamond-patterned costume and who carried a magic wand. Later on, this part was played by the famous clown, Grimaldi, who died in 1837 ~ the year Queen Victoria came to the throne.

Joseph Grimaldi as Harlequin

In England during Victoria’s reign, the stories that they told became entwined with the antics of rural English Mummers. Eventually, these shows evolved into grand pantomimes, with many of them still being based around the part of Harlequin. 

From the V & A Archives

The proof of this is found in the titles of the shows. There was Harlequin and the Forty Thieves ~ or  Jack and the Beanstalk; or, Harlequin Leap-Year, and the Merry Pranks of the Good Little People (children and dwarves would be employed). And in 1863, W S Gilbert wrote: Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Waters of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Wooed a Little Maid. 

Augustus Harris

For whatever reason, as time went by the Harlequin character was included  less and less. Augustus Harris, the manager at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane based his shows on traditional fairy tales, such as Jack and the Beanstalk, or Cinderella. These were still extravagant stagings, featuring ballets and acrobatics, not to mention enormous processions of specially recruited children. There would also be magicians, and clowns performing slapstick, with a great deal of cross-dressing and sexual innuendo. Just like today, audience participation was a thing to be encouraged, with familiar refrains such as: 'Oh no, he isn’t…Oh yes, he is'. There were also the popular ‘skins’, when actors would dress as animals; sometimes even as insects as seen in this illustration for the show of Cinderella. But more usually, the skins would play the back or front end of a horse or cow (a role once undertaken in a later era at the Stockport Hippodrome by the young actor, Charlie Chaplin).

From the V & A Archives

Shows could go on for hours. In 1881, Augustus' Harris’ The Forty Thieves began at 7.30pm and ended at 1am next morning. One of the scenes lasted for forty minutes, while the thieves (each with his own enormous band of followers) processed in lines across the stage. 

The cost of that production was £65,000, the equivalent of several millions today. But then, with popular music hall acts such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno taking on the the starring roles, the shows became a great success – artistically and financially.  

Wouldn't it be wonderful to travel back in time and see those pantomimes today.



Halloween is a tradition made popular in America, where pumpkin lanterns in front of doors invite children to 'Trick-or-Treat 'while dressed in spooky fancy dress, as skeletons, witches, or ghosts – and sometimes even Dracula.

The supernatural or ‘Undead’ have some historical relevance regarding Halloween. Once known as Samain or ‘Sow in’, this ancient Celtic festival signified the new year, when the harvest had been gathered and the winter lay ahead. On its eve, October 31st, the divisions between the living and dead were said to part, almost like an open curtain, allowing supernatural folk and the souls of all the dead to walk about the world again. Bonfires were often lit to drive the risen dead away. If not, they were placated with the bowls of food and drink left on the steps of locked house doors.

The advent of Christianity appropriated many customs, with ‘All-Hallowmas’ or ‘All Saint’s Day’ revering saints and martyrs instead of ghouls and witches. The gifts of food became ‘soul cakes’ left  for the homeless and the hungry, in return for which they prayed for the souls of all the dead. 

Many old superstitions have persisted through the years. American Irish émigrés replaced the smaller turnip heads with larger pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns – Jack being the folklore rogue who was known to have offended  God and the Devil equally, for which he was excluded both from Heaven and from Hell, walking the earth till Judgment Day. 


Other Celtic customs were described in Rabbie Burns’ famous poem, Halloween – where fairies dance one moonlit night while youths roam through the countryside, singing songs and telling tales, or joining fortune-telling games ~ such as eating apples while also looking into mirrors, that way creating magic spells to see a future lover's face.

Whether Queen Victoria ever peered in such a mirror, she certainly entered the spirit of the Halloween tradition when she joined the annual fire-lit procession that took place in the grounds of Balmoral. However, back in England, the rise of the Protestant Church made these rituals less popular – perhaps explaining why Charles Dickens’ had a shock when he had gone to tour around America. What really piqued his interest, rather than the games (such a Pin the Tail on the Donkey, or Blind Man’s Buff, or Bobbing for Apples) was the morbid fascination that most people had with ghosts.

It was no coincidence that, after coming back to England, Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, in which spirits and prophecies about the future are the basis of the story he created. 

Other established authors also peeled back age-old layers of tradition and myth to recreate ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ – the genre that was popular in literature and art; with tales of children being stolen away by fairy folk, or mirrors showing future fates, or women wailing next to graves – all rendered yet more sinister when read by flickering candlelight to give an eerie atmosphere.

The Victorians really revelled in such ghoulish scary tales. They whole-heartedly embraced the culture of death, visiting spirit mediums, or else photographers who duped many clients to believe that double negative exposures revealed true visions of the dead. The images shown here may be somewhat tongue in cheek, but many others were believed to be entirely genuine. 

This article was also published in The Independent newspaper.



Feeling very Undancy by Arthur Rackham

During the VV's teenage years, instead of pinning posters of pop stars on her walls she had some lovely printed cards, each one with softly rounded corners, and all depicting illustrations designed by Arthur Rackham.

Arthur Rackham 1867 - 1939.  A self portrait

How serious and respectable the artist looks in this self portrait. More like a stern accountant than the man whose stunning art reflected fairytales and myths. But then perhaps the image fits, for Rackham was employed to be an office clerk at the Westminster Fire Office before enrolling on a part-time course at the Lambeth School of Art.

Fairy on a Spider's Web

At the age of twenty-five, Arthur left his office job to work at illustrating books. He devised his own technique, sketching out a pencil outline and then blocking in some colour, before adding india ink to create the finer details. Sometimes this 'sepia' theme would be enhanced with watercolours, gradually building up the layers in almost transparent tints. 

He also worked with silhouettes, inspired by Japanese woodblocks.

A Japanese influence in this illustration from Das Rhiengold

The film director, Guillermo Del Toro, says that Rackham had inspired some of his finest visual work, most notably the faun in the film Pan's Labyrinth. There is also the tree seen growing through an altar in the film of Hellboy which Del Toro has referred to as being his 'Rackham Tree'.

The faun in Pan's Labryinth

The Rhinemaidens from The Ring

There is a wealth of Rackham's work for anyone to view online. His classic illustrations are reproduced in many books – such the fairy tale collections compiled by the Brother's Grimm - Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland - the Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table - the book of English Fairy Tales - or Peter Pan - and then The Ring - which is to touch on but a few. Do you have a favourite book?




 Alice Pleasance Liddell (1852-1934)

In 1864, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - a young clergyman and mathematics don at Oxford university - presented a little girl with the unique Christmas gift. A 15,000 word hand-written manuscript.

Lovingly adorned with his own illustrations, Alice's Adventures Underground had been conceived during the summer of1862, when Lewis Carroll (as he was soon to be known) had been out on a boating trip with Edith, Lorina, and Alice - the three daughters of Henry George Liddell, the dean of Christ Church college.

 The Liddell sisters, with Alice on the right. Photograph by Lewis Carroll

Alice was Dodgson's favourite. He first met her in the deanery gardens in the April of 1856. The day was later marked in his diary as one of great significance. Carroll was 24 years old - twenty years older than Alice.

In later years he was to claim that the character of the girl in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was not based on a real-life child. Even so, there are many references that allude to Alice Liddell. 

Alice's birthday was May 4th, and during the scene of the Mad Hatter's tea party we read the following words -

'The Hatter was the first to break the silence. “What day of the month is it?” he said, turning to Alice: he had taken his watch out of his pocket and was looking at it uneasily ... Alice considered a little, and then said, “The Fourth”.'

The epilogue for Through the Looking Glass is in the form of a poem, in which the first letter of every line combines to form the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell -

A boat beneath a sunny sky
Lingering onward dreamily
In an evening of July --

Children three that nestle near,
Eager eye and willing ear
Pleased a simple tale to hear --

Long has paled that sunny sky:
Echoes fade and memories die:
Autumn frosts have slain July.

Still she haunts me, phantomwise
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes.

Children yet, the tale to hear,
Eager eye and willing ear,
Lovingly shall nestle near.

In a Wonderland they lie,
Dreaming as the days go by,
Dreaming as the summers die:

Ever drifting down the stream --
Lingering in the golden gleam --
Life what is it but a dream?

'Still she haunts me' - the poem possesses a yearning and dreamlike quality. It is filled with poignant memories of that balmy summer's day when he rowed along the river with Alice and her sisters. 

It is a sensitive subject, but Dodgson's interest in young girls is also to be found in many photographs he took; some of which he went on to destroy before his death. Surviving images are held at the National Media Museum and can still be viewed today, though you may need to telephone to make a prior appointment.

Lorina and Alice Liddell, posing as Orientals

Dodgson also destroyed a page from his diary from 1863, soon after which his close relationship with the entire Liddell family came a sudden end. In later years, his own family explained that Alice's mother had been increasingly unhappy at the young clergyman's keen interest in courting a Miss Pricket, who was her children's governess. Indeed, it is thought by some that the character of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass was based upon Miss Pricket, who was described in the following way - 

"The Red Queen I pictured as a Fury, but of another type; her passion must be cold and calm; she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the tenth degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!" 

So, she was firm and not unkindly, and perhaps he did find her attractive. But when it came to Alice Liddell, he wrote only of disappointment when they met again years later and he felt that she had "changed a great deal and hardly for the better."

Whatever Dodgson felt about his childhood heroine, Alice Liddell had grown up to be assured and beautiful - so much so that she was courted by Queen Victoria's youngest son when he was studying at Oxford.

The match was not to be. Queen Victoria insisted that Prince Leopold should marry a woman of royal blood. This he did, but it's significant that when he and his wife had a daughter, he called the child Alice. Similarly, when Alice married Richard Hargreaves, another Oxford student - her son was christened Leopold. The prince was his godfather.

Prince Leopold and his wife, doting on their daughter, Alice.

Despite the loss of her royal love, Alice still went on to become a happy society wife. Only after her husband's death, when she found herself in need, did she resort to selling her original copy of Alice's Adventures Underground

In 1928 the manuscript was auctioned at Sotheby's and sold for £15,400, which was four times the reserve price. 

In 1948 the book changed hands again, purchased by some American businessmen who donated the precious manuscript to the British Museum in Bloomsbury.

In 1932, to mark the centenary of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Mrs Hargreaves was invited to New York where she received an honorary doctorate from Columbia University. The trip proved to be exciting but also very tiring. She was deluged with letters from 'Alice' fans, and interest from the media.

Alice's death in 1934 was marked by an obituary in The Times. Her ashes were interred in the family tomb in Lyndhurst, in Hampshire, where the following words were inscribed: The grave of Mrs Reginald Hargreaves, the Alice in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

The poignant last page of Alice's Adventures Underground

Dreamchild  (1985) is a film scripted by Dennis Potter with Carroll's imaginary characters realised by the puppeteer, Jim Henson. It tells the story of Alice's journey to a Depression era New York with flashbacks to her privileged Victorian youth when she spent time with Dodgson, who is played by Ian Holm. The part of the older Alice is taken by Coral Browne, who received a London Evening Standard Film Award for Best Actress. 

The film is available from the Cult Movie selection at Amazon UK, and it is currently available in a Youtube version. It is enchanting, dark, and heartbreaking. Well worth searching out, and fully deserving to be more widely available for streaming.

Amelia Shankley as the young Alice Liddell, and Coral Browne as the older Alice Hargreaves in Dennis Potter's scripted film, Dreamchild



On 19th August 2021 Thames and Hudson will be publishing Christopher Valkoinen's 
Railways ~ A History in Drawings.

Magnificent engineering drawings spanning two centuries give unique design and social perspectives on the development of railway transport. There are plans of locomotives, of carriages, and wagons, along with the stations, bridges and tunnels that were first built in the nineteenth century.  Around a million drawings have survived and are currently held in the National Railway Museum in York, which is where Christopher Valkoinen  ~ who is a qualified steam locomotive fireman ~ works in the library and archives.

The book also includes drawings from railways around the world, including the USA, Russia, Japan, India, Australia and Egypt, and therefore has international appeal. A treat for the railway enthusiasts, and indeed all who share an interest in the remarkable social and economic changes of the Victorian industrial era.

All images are copyright of Thames & Hudson, and Christopher Valkoinen



It may not be winter, but the VV has been thinking about the beautiful photographs of snowflakes made by Wilson Alwyn Bentley.

Born in 1865, 'Snowflake Bentley' (as he came to be called) was raised on his family farm in Jericho, in the American state of Vermont where the annual depth of snowfall could be as much as 120 inches.

From childhood he was said to be fascinated by the natural world around him; so much so that at the age of fifteen his mother decided to give him the present of a microscope. Using this magnifying tool, Bentley was captivated by close-up views of snow crystals, which he placed on a black velvet base so as to see them yet more clearly. But to preserve these wondrous sights, each of which was quite unique, and with the ice flakes often melting before he could try to sketch them, the young Bentley set his mind on finding a method of attaching a camera to the lens of the microscope. Using this technique of photomicrography he was able to compile a vast collection of remarkable images.

Describing his snowflakes as "ice flowers", he eventually produced over 5,000 photographs of these stunning ephemeral crystals. Little wonder they were sought out by the Harvard Mineralogical Museum and the University of Vermont. Indeed, examples of his work are held by academic institutions all over the world. This includes the Smithsonian, where Bentley sent 500 prints in 1903, expressing the hope that they would be preserved for future posterity. 

What an irony it is that Bentley died from a case of pneumonia, having been stranded and lost one day in a blizzard of ice and snow. However, before his death he did have the satisfaction of seeing his snowflake prints produced in a collection by McGraw Hill. That book has since been produced in various different editions and is still available today.

There are many sources online where more can be discovered about the man. For now, here is a short film uploaded to Youtube by Chuck Smith which is called The Snowflake Man ...