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Victoria Woodhull

Spiritualist, Fortune-Teller, Stockbroker

By

Victoria Woodhull

Victoria Woodhull, photography by Mathew Brady, about 1860

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Victoria Woodhull House Judiciary Committee 1871

Victoria Woodhull and other woman suffrage activists at the House Judiciary Committee, January 11, 1871. Image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper Feb 4 1871.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Dates: September 23, 1838 - June 10, 1927 (some sources give June 9)

Occupation: suffrage activist, stockbroker, businesswoman, writer, presidential candidate

Known for: candidate for U.S. President; radicalism as a woman suffrage activist; role in a sex scandal involving Henry Ward Beecher

Also known as: Victoria California Claflin, Victoria Woodhull Martin, "Wicked Woodhull," "Mrs. Satan." With her sister Tennessee, "The Queens of Finance."

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Roxanna Buckman Claflin, spiritualist and fortune-teller; claimed to be a clairvoyant
  • Father: Reuben Buchman "Buck" Claflin, grist mill operator and con man; known for his traveling medicine show and for his cancer cures as "Dr. R. B. Claflin, American King of Cancers"
  • Siblings: Victoria was fifth of seven children (some sources say there were ten children). Siblings included brothers Hebern and Maldon and sisters Tennessee Celeste Claflin and Utica Claflin.

Education:

  • self-educated, little formal schooling

Marriage, Children:

  • first husband: Canning (or Channing) Woodhull(married November 1853, divorced 1864; physician who sold patent medicines)
  • children:
    • Byron Woodhull
    • Zulu (later Zula) Maude (or Maud) Woodhull
  • second husband (?): Colonel James Harvey Blood (may have married about 1866, divorced 1876; fellow Spiritualist and free love advocate)
  • third husband: John Biddulph Martin (married October 31, 1883; wealthy British banker)

More About Victoria Woodhull:

Victoria was the fifth of seven children of Roxanna and Reuben "Buck" Claflin. Her mother often attended religious revivals and believed herself a clairvoyant. Escaping some legal troubles, the family traveled around selling patent medicines and telling fortunes, her father styling himself "Dr. R. B. Claflin, American King of Cancers." Victoria spent her childhood with this medicine show, often paired with her younger sister Tennessee in performing and telling fortunes. From the age of 10, Victoria claimed visions of the Greek orator Demosthenes.

First Marriage

Victoria met Canning Woodhull when she was 15, and they married. Canning Woodhull also styled himself a physician, at a time when licensing requirements were non-existent or loose. Canning Woodhull, like Victoria's father, also sold patent medicines. They had a son, Byron, who was born with serious mental handicaps. Victoria blamed her husband's drinking.

Victoria moved to San Francisco, working as an actress and cigar girl and likely also as a prostitute. She rejoined her husband in New York City, where the rest of the Claflin family was living, and Victoria and Tennessee began practicing as mediums. In 1864, the Woodhulls and Tennessee moved to Cincinnati, then Chicago, and then began traveling, keeping ahead of complaints and legal proceedings. At one point in Ohio, Tennessee was charged with manslaughter when her "cancer treatments" failed to cure a patient with breast cancer.

Victoria and Canning had a second child, a daughter, Zulu (later known as Zula). She grew more intolerant of his drinking and womanizing, and of his occasional beatings. Canning became less and less connected to his family, finally leaving entirely. They divorced in 1864.

Spiritualism and Free Love

Likely during her troubled first marriage, Victoria Woodhull became an advocate of free love: the idea that a person has the right to stay with a person only so long as they choose, and that they can choose another (monogamous) relationship when they choose to move on. She met Colonel James Harvey Blood, also a Spiritualist and advocate of free love; they are said to have married in 1866 though no record has been found of them actually marrying. Victoria Woodhull (she kept using her first husband's name), Captain Blood, and Victoria's sister, Tennessee, and mother moved to New York City, when Victoria reported that Demosthenes, in a vision, told her to move there.

In New York City, Victoria established a popular salon where many of the city's intellectual elite gathered. There she became acquainted with Stephen Pearl Andrews, an advocate of both free love and Spiritualism as well of women's rights, and a Congressman, Benjamin F. Butler, who was an advocate of women's rights and free love. Victoria also became more and more interested in women's rights and woman suffrage (the right to vote).

The Queens of Finance and the Weekly

In New York City, the sisters met the wealthy financier, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was widowed in 1868 at age 76. The sisters served as mediums to help him contact the spirit of his dead wife, and he also used their talents as mediums to gain financial insights from the spirit world. Tennessee turned down his proposal of marriage.

With Vanderbilt's advice, the sisters began to make money in the stock market, and soon he had backed them in creating the first woman-owned brokerage on Wall Street, Woodhull, Claflin & Company. She joined the socialist group called Pantarchy, connected with Stephen Pearl Andres and advocating free love and communal sharing of property and communal responsibility for children in the comunity. On April 2, 1870, Victoria Woodhull announced that she would run for president, in the New York Herald where she also published a series of articles promoting Pantarchy principles.

With the money from this venture, in 1870 the sisters began publishing a weekly journal, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly took on many social issues of the day, including women's rights and legalized prostitution. The journal also exposed many business frauds. It's likely that many of the articles were actually written by Stephen Pearl Andrews and Victoria's husband, Captain Blood. And the journal also took up the cause of Victoria Woodhull's run for president.

Victoria Woodhull and the Woman's Suffrage Movement

In January of 1871, the National Woman Suffrage Association was meeting in Washington, DC. On January 11, Victoria Woodhull arranged to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the topic of woman suffrage, so the NWSA convention was postponed a day so that those attending could see Woodhull testifying. The speech was written with Rep. Benjamin Butler, and made the case that women already had the right to vote based on the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

The NWSA leadership then invited Woodhull to address their gathering. The leadership of NWSA -- which included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Isabella Beecher Hooker -- were so taken with the speech that they began promoting Woodhull as an advocate and speaker for woman suffrage.

Others thought less of Woodhull. Susan B. Anthony, though not entirely rejecting Woodhull, helped defeat Woodhull's attempt to take over the NWSA. Others who were more skeptical of Woodhull included Lucy Stone, also an active woman's suffrage activist, and two sisters of Isabella Beecher Hooker, the more famous Harriet Beecher Stowe and the writer and teacher, Catherine Beecher. These two Beecher sisters were especialy horrified by Victoria Woodhull's advocacy of the doctrine of free love. So was their brother, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a famous and popular Congregationalist minister. And he spoke out against her ideas.

Victoria Woodhull made a spectacular target for scandal-hungry newspapers. Her ex-husband was living with the family. The sisters lost the support of Cornelius Vanderbilt when their mother spoofed Tennessee's name as the author of a blackmailing letter to Vanderbilt. Rumors of lovers visiting the household were common.

Theodore Tilton was a supporter and officer of the NWSA, and also a close friend of Woodhull's critic, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Victoria Woodhull confidentially that Tilton's wife, Elizabeth, had been involved in an affair with the Rev. Beecher. When Beecher refused to introduce Victoria Woodhull at a November, 1871, lecture at Steinway Halls, she visited him privately and reportedly confronted him about his affair, and he still refused to do the honors at her lecture. In her speech the next day, she referred indirectly to the affair as an example of sexual hypocrisy and the double standard, and, when taunted by her sister Utica at the speech, made a strong statement of her own advocacy of free love.

Because of the scandal this caused, Woodhull lost a significant amount of business, though her lectures were still in demand. She and her family had trouble meeting their bills, and were evicted from their home.

Victoria Woodhull for President

In May of 1872, a breakaway group from the NWSA, the National Radical Reformers, nominated Victoria Woodhull as a candidate for president of the Equal Rights Party. They nominated Frederick Douglass, a newspaper editor who was a former slave and abolitionist, as Vice President. There's no record that Douglass accepted the nomination. Susan B. Anthony opposed the nomination of Woodhull, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker supported her run for the presidency.

Also in 1872, the Weekly published the first translation into English of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.

The Beecher Scandal

Woodhull continued to have significant financial problems, even suspending their journal for a few months. Perhaps responding to continued denunciations of her moral character, on November 2, just before Election Day, Woodhull revealed specifics of the Beecher/Tilton affair in a speech at the Spiritualist's annual meeting, and then published an account of the affair in the resumed Weekly. They also published an account of a stockbroker, Luther Challis, and his seduction of young women. Her target was not the morality of the sexual affairs, but the hypocrisy that permitted powerful men to be sexually free but denied such freedom to women.

The reaction to the public revelation of the Beecher/Tilton affair was a great public outcry. The sisters were arrested under the Comstock Law for distribution of "obscene" material through the mail, and were also charged with libel. The two were jailed for several months and paid nearly $500,000 in bail and fines, before being cleared of the charges. In the meantime, the presidential election was held, and Woodhull received no official votes. (Some scattered votes for her were likely not reported.)

In 1875, Theodore Tilton sued Rev. Beecher for alienation of the affections of his wife in a well-publicized trial complete with refreshment stands set up for the crowds attending. Tilton lost the case, but it was a significant exposure of sexual hypocrisy. Woodhull stayed away from the trial.

By that time, Colonel Blood had left the Woodhull/Claflin household, and he and Victoria Woodhull divorced in 1876. At the same time, the Weekly stopped publication permanently. Victoria continued lecturing, now more about responsibility and sexuality within marriage. Victoria and Tennessee took part in a challenge to the will of Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1877, Tennessee, Victoria, and their mother moved to England, where they lived comfortably.

Victoria Woodhull in England

In England, Victoria Woodhull met the wealthy banker John Biddulph Martin, who proposed. They did not marry until 1882, apparently because of his family's opposition to the match, and she worked to distance herself from her former radical ideas on sex and love. Victoria Woodhull used her new married name, Victoria Woodhull Martin, in her writing and public appearances after her marriage. Tennessee married Lord Francis Cook in 1885. Victoria published Stirpiculture, or the Scientific Propagation of the Human Race in 1888; with Tennessee, The Human Body, the Temple of God in 1890; and in 1892, Humanitarian Money: The Unsolved Riddle. Victoria traveled to the United States occasionally, and was nominated in 1892 as the presidential candidate of the Humanitarian Party. England remained her primary residence.

In 1895, she returned to the publishing and writing field, starting a new paper, The Humanitarian, which advocated eugenics. In this venture, she worked with her daughter, Zulu (now calling herself Zula) Maude Woodhull. Victoria Woodhull Martin also founded a school and an agricultural show, and became involved in a number of humanitarian causes. John Martin died in March of 1897, and Victoria did not remarry. She became involved in the woman suffrage campaigns led by the Pankhursts. Tennessee, the younger of the two, died in 1923. Victoria lived to 1927, considered an eccentric and relic of a more radical time.

Victoria's daughter, Zula, did not marry. An 1895 scandal in New York, as told in the New York Times, had Victoria interfering in her daughter's brief engagement there.

Religion: Spiritualism; briefly, Roman Catholicism

Organizations: NWSA (National Woman Suffrage Association); Equal Rights Party

Bibliography:

  • Lois Beachy Underhill. The Woman Who Ran For President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull. 1995.
  • Mary Gabriel. Notorious Victoria. 1998.
  • Barbara Goldsmith. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. 1998.
  • Kathleen Krull. A Woman for President: The Story of Victoria Woodhull2006. Ages 7-12.
  • Amanda Frisken. Victoria Woodhull's Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America. 2011.
  • DVD: America's Victoria: Remembering Victoria Woodhull. 2007.

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