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Wicked Woman Wednesday: Victoria Claflin Woodhull

Wicked woman Victoria Claflin Woodhull worked on Wall Street and campaigned as a presidential candidate.

February 24, 2016

Ohio native Victoria Claflin Woodhull was one of the most controversial outlaws in the Midwest.  Her arrest in early November 1872 on federal obscenity charges attracted the attention of political pundits and social reformers from Washington, D.C., to the Wyoming Territory.  Labeled by the press as “a most immoral woman,” hundreds of newspaper reporters were on hand the day Victoria was arrested hoping to capture a sensationalized statement from the outspoken outlaw.

Thirty-four-year-old Victoria and her thirty-two-year-old sister Tennessee Claflin were escorted to court by New York marshals on Saturday, November 2, 1872.  Word that the attractive, suffragettes were going to appear before a judge spread quickly.  By the time the two women arrived, a hoard of excited journalists were flitting around them like water bugs.  The accused sisters were each dressed in black taffeta.  Victoria wore a dead serious expression.  Tennessee’s look was less somber – her manner even softened a bit, and she gave the reporters and on-lookers at the scene an approving smile.

The Claflin sisters had dared to publish their own newspaper called the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly and print scandalous ideas advocating “free love.”   According to a letter Victoria sent to the New York Times in 1871 she claimed that free love was the “highest, purest sense as the only cure for immorality, the deep damnation by which men corrupt and disfigure God’s most holy institution of sexual relations.”  “It is not marriage,” she wrote, “but sexual intercourse, then, that is God’s most holy institution.”  Victoria and Tennessee’s progressive views on sex and the brazen printing of those ideals appalled countries like Germany and, according to the opinions voiced through the November 23, 1871 edition of the New York Times, “threaten to destroy the morals a nation so desperately needed to cling to.”

Victoria and her sister Tennessee were not strangers to confrontation with the law.  Their father, Reuben Buckman “Buck” Claflin, was a scoundrel who excelled at breaking the rules of conventional society and spent time behind bars for his actions.  Buck and his wife Roxanna Hummel lived in a broken down house in Homer, Ohio.  The couple had ten children.  Born on September 23, 1838, Victoria was the Claflin’s sixth child.  Although Victoria’s father claimed to be a lawyer with his own profitable practice, he really was a skilled thief with no law degree at all.  He supported his family with funds he made as the owner-operator of a gristmill and a postmaster.  He stole from merchants and business owners and was a counterfeiter and an arsonist.  Victoria’s mother was a religious fanatic who dismissed Buck’s illegal activities and concentrated on chastising her neighbors for what she claimed was hedonism.  Her public prayers were loud, judgmental and dramatic.  She preached to her children and insisted they memorize long passages of the Old Testament.  By the time Victoria was eight she was able to recite the Bible from cover to cover.  According to Victoria’s autobiography entitled Autobiography of Victoria Clafin, her mother’s spiritual zeal so influenced her childhood she believed she could see into the future and predict what was to become of those who sought her out to preach.

Victoria’s sister, Tennessee, was reported to be the true clairvoyant of the family.  She was the last child Roxanne and Buck had and she was born in 1845.  Roxanna claimed Tennessee had the power to perceive things not present to the senses.

Victoria and Tennessee had very little formal training.  Although Victoria only attended school a total of four years, she was bright, precocious, and well read.  She was uninhibited and at the age of eleven was delivering sermons from a well-traveled location in Homer.  When she wasn’t regaling an audience with Biblical tales, she spoke about her ability to remember what had occurred in her life back to the womb.  “When I first saw the light of day on this planet,” she shared about her birth, “it seemed I had been rudely awakened from a death-like sleep.  How well I remember the conversation between the doctor and my father as they handed me over to the nurse.  I remember looking back at my mother’s face at that moment, the look of pain and anguish burnt into my plastic brain, and often during my young babyhood I would watch as she suckled me.”

In 1849 the Claflins left Homer, Ohio, under a cloud of controversy.  The gristmill Buck owned burned to the ground and the circumstance surrounding the blaze was suspicious.  The mill was losing money and Buck frequently mentioned to townspeople that he was desperate to get rid of it.  Residents believed that Buck set fire to the business in order to collect the $500 insurance money on the property.  Rather than wait for anyone to investigate and determine he was the cause of the blaze, Buck hurried out of town.  Roxanna and the children followed after him and together they all moved to eastern Ohio.

Not long after they arrived in Mount Gilead, Buck learned about a scheme that involved making money off the superstitious.  Gullible people eager to connect with individuals beyond the grave paid high ticket prices to watch self-proclaimed mediums talk to the dead.  Buck decided to capitalize on Tennessee’s gift for second sight and Victoria’s talent for channeling spirits.  After announcing his daughters’ skills to the public, Buck rented a theatre and charged patrons $.75 to watch the two girls communicate with Claflin family members who had passed away and predict events to come.  “My spiritual vision,” Victoria shared with reporters at the Anglo-American newspaper in 1871 that she told to ticket buyers, “dates back as early as my third year.  In my hometown of Homer, Ohio, a young woman named Rachel Scribner, who had been my nurse and was about twenty-five years of age, suddenly died.  On the day of her death I was picked up by her departing spirit and borne off into the spirit-world.  I felt myself gliding through the air like St. Catharine winged away by angels.  My mother tells me that while this scene was enacting to my inner consciousness, my body lay as if dead for three hours.  “My chief guardian in the spirit world,” she continued, “is a matured man of stately figure, clad in a Greek tunic, solemn and graceful, strong in influence and altogether dominant over my life.  He will not tell me his name – he only promises that in due time I will know his identity.  Meanwhile he prophesied to me that I would rise to great distinction; that I would emerge from poverty and live in a stately house; that I would win great wealth in a city which he pictured as crowded; that I would publish and conduct a journal; and that finally, to crown my career, become the ruler of my people.”  Victoria and Tennessee’s talent attracted a large following, and in a short time they became the sole source of support for their family.

At the age of fifteen, Victoria married a twenty-eight-year-old doctor named Canning Woodhull.  Woodhull had moved to Mount Gilead from Rochester, New York, to set up a practice.  The pair met when Woodhull was asked to attend to Victoria when she was suffering with the rheumatism and a fever.  Five months after nursing his patient back to health the two were married.  They exchanged vows on November 20, 1853.  Woodhull was possessive and demanding and Victoria grew to dislike being under the rule of a husband.  He had also misrepresented himself.  Woodhull told Victoria his father was a judge and that he had a close friendship with the mayor of the city.  Not only did the teenage bride eventually learn her father-in-law was not a judge, but also that the family had no political connection at all.  In addition to those revelations, Victoria found out that Woodhull was an alcoholic with no medical training at all.  He wasn’t able to provide for Victoria and she was forced to return to the stage to perform her séances and interpret dreams.

In December 1854 she gave birth to her first child, a son she named Byron.  The baby was born with Down’s syndrome, and Victoria was heartbroken.  She blamed her husband’s drinking for the boy’s disability.  She believed alcohol had a debilitating effect on health and that those issues were passed on to Byron.  Woodhull’s alcoholism and womanizing combined with the strain of raising a child with special needs caused even more problems between Victoria and her husband.  In hope a change of scenery might improve their marital condition, Victoria made arrangements to move her family to California.  By the fall of 1855, the Woodhulls were living in the bustling Gold Rush city of San Francisco.

The new setting did not change Victoria’s situation.  Her husband continued to drink and refused to find steady employment.  With her baby in tow, Victoria found odd jobs including selling cigars and being a seamstress.  Three years after the Woodhulls had moved to San Francisco, Victoria claimed to have received a vision of her sister Tennessee calling for her to return home.  According to Theodore Tilton, editor of the newspaper The Independent and Claflin family biographer, Victoria wasted no time packing her family’s things, boarding a steamer, and traveling back to Ohio.

Buck Claflin had made arrangements for his daughters to perform their supernatural gifts at a theatre in Columbus, Ohio.  He encouraged the women to listen closely to individual audience member’s requests and con them into giving the three large sums of money to heal serious diseases or minor ailments or to predict the outcome of a specific event.  Victoria let her father know that their natural gifts would be enough to sustain the family financially but did not refuse to defraud many ticket holders.  In 1859, the sister act of Woodhull and Claflin earned more than $100 thousand.

Victoria and Tennessee toured most of the Midwest’s big cities and their traveling medicine show attracted the attention of not only the frail and desperate but also law enforcement as well.  Authorities were concerned that the sisters were charlatans and would have to be stopped.  “The sisters were superbly equipped for a career in the shadowy realm that lies between complete [integrity] and outright crime,” a report in the March 9, 1964, edition of the Oakland Tribune noted.  “They peddled a magic elixir…with Tennessee’s picture on the bottle.  They were making a nice living.”

The Woodhull’s marriage continued to be mired in infidelity and mistrust.  Victoria prayed for another child in hope a baby free from any physical problems might make things better between her and her husband.  In the spring of 1861, Zula Maude was born.  Much to Victoria’s relief the infant was healthy.  According to Zula Woodhull’s memoirs, her mother “brought all her faculties to bear on men while carrying me that I should not be like Byron.”  Victoria and Canning doted on their daughter but the baby could not repair the damage already done.  Victoria had spent six years blaming and berating her husband for their son’s condition.  Canning tried to drown his guilt in alcohol and multiple affairs.  Historian Herb Michelson noted in an article in the March 9, 1964 edition of the Oakland Tribune that “Victoria brought Woodhull untold misery for the role she believed he played in their child’s handicap and he became a human derelict as a result.”  The Woodhull’s separated in 1864.

The demise of Victoria’s marriage did not distract her from her work.  She continued to mesmerize audiences with her so- called powers of mystical observation.  While her divorce was being finalized Victoria appeared on stage without Tennessee.  Buck decided the family income could be doubled if the act was separated.  He booked the women in different theatres, and, as predicted their earnings were twice as large.  A run-in with the law in June 1864 threatened to bring an end to performances by Woodhull and Claflin and bankrupt the family.  At a show in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Tennessee laid hands on an audience member suffering from cancer and told the woman she had healed her.  The ailing woman died a few weeks after the program however, and authorities planned to charge Tennessee with manslaughter. Buck and the rest of the family fled the scene before an arrest could be made.  Victoria and Tennessee then traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio.  While there Victoria persuaded her sister to let her manage their careers instead of their father.  Tennessee agreed.

The attractive sister act took to the stage again showing off their clairvoyant talent and promoting a tonic that promised to cure any ailment and lift the spirits.  Law enforcement officers responded to complaints that the tonic the women were selling was more alcohol than medicine.  Accusations were also made that Victoria and Tennessee were running a brothel, adulteresses and blackmailers – claims Victoria vehemently denied.  According to the September 30, 1871, edition of the Anglo-American Times Victoria reported that the allegations were made by “skeptical women whose husbands frequented Woodhull and Claflin performances.”  Hoping to shake the rumors that plagued them in Cincinnati, Victoria and her sister made their way to Chicago.  Within a month of arriving in Illinois, Victoria was in trouble with the law again, this time for fraudulent fortunetelling.

Victoria fled to Tennessee with her sister, and, in late 1864, the pair joined a medicine show her father had organized that was touring the area.  The freight wagon carrying Victoria and her children, parents, and siblings stopped at small towns that had been ravaged by the Civil War.  Woodhull and Claflin preyed on families dealing with the devastating loss of loved ones.  Promising to rid communities of diseases such as cancer, cholera and diphtheria, Victoria and Tennessee laid their hands on the sick and frail, recited a mysterious incantation and sent them on their way.  The sisters made the ailing believe their illnesses would be gone in twenty-four hours.

In April 1865, the medicine show rolled into St. Louis, Missouri.  Tired of living and working out of a wagon, Victoria rented a hotel suite for herself and her two children.  Many people seeking to speak with their sons, brothers, and husbands who had been killed in the Civil War called on Victoria for help.  Colonel James H. Blood, commander of the 6th Army and St. Louis’ newly elected city auditor, was one of many people who visited Victoria at her suite.  He needed Victoria’s spiritual counsel on a matter regarding his future.  Colonel Blood was in an unhappy marriage and wanted to know if he should leave his wife.

Victoria and Colonel Blood were instantly drawn to each other.  She said nothing about the attraction she felt for him but concentrated on the job he hired her to do.  She passed into a trance, during which she announced unconsciously to herself that his future destiny was to be linked with hers in marriage.  When Victoria came out of the trance she told Blood what she saw.  As both took such visions seriously they pledged themselves to one another.  “We were married by the powers in the air at that moment,” Blood wrote in his memoirs.

Victoria and Blood began having an affair almost immediately after they met.  Victoria believed a sexual relationship connected individuals not only physically but also spiritually.  Much to the dismay of those who held to conventional standards that sex should be regulated only within the confines of marriage, Victoria openly expressed the joy derived from sexual encounters outside the institution.  Her progressive opinion brought criticism from so-called polite society and speculation that she engaged in prostitution.  Colonel Blood was captivated by Victoria’s unorthodox views.  She abandoned her family and children and ran off with Blood to Dayton, Ohio.  Blood divorced his wife and married Victoria on July 15, 1866.

After the wedding ceremony, the Bloods went to New York.  Victoria held public healings and séances in New York City and Blood joined her in her work.  He took copious notes documenting the various spirits she channeled and the instruction they offered during midnight sessions his wife had with paid audience members.  “Victoria and I regarded all the other portions of our lives as almost valueless compared to these times,” Blood was quoted as saying in an article printed in the Anglo-American Times on September 30, 1871.

When Victoria wasn’t on stage she was discussing her “free-love” theory with like-minded people who felt women should not only be able to voice their thoughts about who they have sex with but also who should represent them in public office. Victoria’s parents, brothers and sisters and her children followed her to New York.  The Claflins were energized by the business opportunities available in New York.  In December 1867 Victoria’s guardian came to her in a dream and shared a prediction that promised to be beneficial to her and her family’s future.  According to the September 30, 1871, edition of the Anglo-American Times the guardian wrote the message he wanted her to have on scroll.  The document, which came to be known as “The Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull,” was a petition addressed to Congress.  The document claimed under the Fourteenth Amendment the right of women as of other “citizens of the United States” to vote in “the States wherein they reside.”  It noted that “the State of New York, of which she was a citizen, should be restrained by Federal authority from preventing her exercise of this constitutional right.”  When Victoria came out of her trance she took the scroll to her sister Tennessee and her father and told them what happened.

Buck believed the idea revealed to his daughter was controversial and given that it was delivered by a “spiritual guardian,” he felt that taking the message to a curious audience would make money.  Victoria and Tennessee were in favor of the venture but they lacked capital to launch a new show and take the message of women’s right to vote to the masses.  Buck quickly found a financial supporter in Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, a seventy-three-year-old multi-millionaire, frequently consulted spiritualist to communicate with his deceased parents and wife.  In exchange for the funds to invest in the Woodhull and Claflin venture, Buck promised that his daughters would be his personal on-call spiritualists.  Vanderbilt enthusiastically agreed.

Victoria’s time with the wealthy man was spent predicting stock market trends.  As one who claimed to see the future she used her gift to advise him on what to buy and sell.  Tennessee concentrated on laying hands on Vanderbilt to heal him of his arthritis and rheumatism.

Vanderbilt found the women bewitching.  He grew quite fond of them and trusted them implicitly.  He helped the sisters grow their own stock portfolio, and, with the financial freedom she realized from Vanderbilt’s tutelage, Victoria began pursuing her goal to secure women’s right to vote.  Other women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher had the same objective in mind, but Victoria’s preoccupation with spiritualism and following the directive of a guardian in the hereafter distracted from the importance of the message.  As a result the most influential leaders in the movement kept their distance from her.

The stock market crash in 1869 did not adversely affect Victoria.  Tennessee, Victoria, and Vanderbilt were some of the few that survived the ordeal.  Not only did they arrive on the other side of the disaster with their fortunes intact, but they also made money in the process.  Vanderbilt helped Victoria and Tennessee establish a brokerage firm in 1870.  On February 5, 1870, the sisters became the first, female Wall Street brokers.  Wall Street veterans were shocked at the sight of women peddling stocks and were more than a little skeptical that they would be successful.  According to an article in the March 9, 1964 edition of the Oakland Tribune, when word leaked to the market that Victoria and her sister’s firm was backed by Vanderbilt numerous investors entered their establishment.  In three weeks the ladies reportedly coined $700 thousand.

The ladies popularity grew as a result of their financial accomplishment.  It also attracted the attention of law enforcement from jurisdictions where the women had prior trouble.  When confronted by the police about the charges pending against them in Chicago and Pennsylvania, Tennessee claimed she wasn’t the woman they wanted.  The authorities didn’t believe her.  She was charged and bound over for trial.  Both women lost their cases in court and were made to pay substantial fines.

Victoria worked hard to repair the damage the negative publicity caused their firm and her political ambitions.  She persuaded civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony to write an article about the stockbrokerage firm operated by her and her sister, both now known as “the Queens of Finance.” The article complimented the sisters’ gifts for making money but was not as generous in referring to their practice of spiritualism.  Victoria wanted to be accepted by Anthony and her followers fighting to gain women’s right to vote but doubted she’d ever be able to fully secure their approval.  She believed she had something to offer the cause and was compelled to make a difference.

In April 1870, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Blood declared herself a candidate for President of the United States.  While mapping out her platform she and her sister decided to branch out into another area of business.  Using additional supported provided by Vanderbilt, Victoria started a newspaper.  It was called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly.  It began as a somewhat tame women’s right publication but wound up a tabloid style periodical filled with sex and vice.  The first issue of the paper was published on May 14, 1870.  The front page listed the reason for its existence.  “This journal will be primarily devoted to the vital interests of people and will treat all matters freely and without reservation.  It will support Victoria C. Woodhull for President, with its whole strength.  With one Victoria on the throne of England and another as president of the U.S. there will be a sisterhood of Victorias,” the confident, outspoken spiritualist wrote in one of the first editions of the newspaper.

While Victoria divided her time between campaigning for the highest office in the land and writing for Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, Tennessee was working on other ways the paper could benefit her and her sister.  The sisters had schemed themselves into the upper strata of political leaders and law-makers, and they learned quickly they could blackmail those individuals by promising to keep their private lives out of the paper.  Some believe it was because of such tactics that Victoria was granted the opportunity to speak before the House Judiciary Committee on women’s suffrage at the National Women Suffrage Association convention in January 1871.

According to the June 11, 1927 edition of the Fairbanks, Alaska newspaper the Daily News-Miner, if Victoria had limited her speech to making a case for women’s constitutional freedoms listed in the Fourteenth Amendment, giving voting rights to all citizens, leaders such as Elizabeth Stanton, Isabella Beecher Hooker, and Susan B. Anthony would have supported her political aspirations.  Instead she talked about the benefits of free love, and many convention organizers and attendees felt the concept was too radical and potentially dangerous.  Traditional suffragettes believed free love was a threat to the sanctity of marriage and families.  They argued that if women had the freedom to have sex with anyone other than their spouse who would take care of the children that might be conceived.  The idea that sexually transmitted diseases would spread rapidly with such promiscuity was also an issue.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine made their displeasure with Victoria’s view evident in the books they wrote.  In Harriet’s book entitled My Wife and I, she referred to Victoria as “a brainless free lover who spoke of women’s rights without knowing what they were.”  Catherine Beecher warned Victoria that she would make life difficult for her if she continued speaking about free-love.  Victoria could not be intimidated.

The articles that appeared in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly were just as contentious as Victoria’s public addresses.  The newspapers contained reports about corruption in local and national government, general gossip about some of the country’s most elite, how-to divorce tips, directions on how to perform an abortion, prostitution, how to operate a brothel, and women’s rights. Critics spoke out against the topics covered in the paper and rumor spread that Victoria was “not only amoral but a repeat criminal offender with nothing but legal woes on the horizon.”  Victoria and Tennessee were referred to as “Jezebels” and accused of being “disreputable business women who were addicted to drugs and slept with other women’s husbands.”   A series of past lawsuits proved that piece of gossip to be true.

In February 1871, the sisters were sued for misappropriating money from their stockbroker clients.  A court found the women guilty of embezzlement.  Within a few weeks of the court’s decision, Henry Beecher Stowe, minister and publisher of the newspaper the Christian Union, alleged that Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly were printing libels.  Stowe offered no specifics however.  The court case and libel allegation devastated Victoria’s personal life as well as her professional.  Zula Maude, her daughter, who was now twelve years old had to change schools and adopt a different name to keep from being harassed.  Colonel Blood and Victoria argued over the continuation of her political involvement.  The family struggled financially, and, in early 1872, Victoria and Tennessee were forced to suspend publishing the newspaper for a short period of time.

Victoria tried to rise above the various setbacks and pressed forward with her run for the presidency.  On May 10, 1872 she was the keynote speaker at the convention for her political party, the Equal Rights Party.  She was officially nominated for President of the United States, and Frederick Douglas was listed as her running mate. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly was up and running again after the nomination was made.

In retaliation for the negative attention she had received, (primarily from the Beecher family) Victoria ran a story in September 1872 about an affair Henry Beecher Stowe was having with a member of his congregation.  In addition to the expose about Stowe, the Weekly featured an article about a corrupt stockbroker named Luther Challis.  According to information Tennessee offered to the paper, Challis frequently boasted about seducing young girls.  He bragged that he would “ply them with alcohol first then have sex with them.”  The Weekly noted that Challis claimed “the bloody proof of the loss of one girl’s virginity on his fingers.”  The scandalous issue of the newspaper was sent to many of the five thousand subscribers via the U.S. Postal Service.

On November 2, 1872, an agent of the Society for the Suppression of Obscene Literature appeared before the United States Commissioner and asked for the arrest of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin.  According to the November 7, 1872, edition of the Monticello, Iowa, newspaper the Monticello Express, the agent’s request was promptly granted.  “The sisters were arrested at their brokerage firm and driven to the United States Marshal’s office,” the article noted.  Victoria and Tennessee were subsequently charged with circulating obscene and indecent publications through the mail, the penalty for which as prescribed by the statute, was imprisonment for one year and a fine of $500.  Three thousand copies of the newspaper containing the alleged obscene matter were confiscated from the sisters’ business.

The bail set for the “Obscene Outlaws,” as the press referred to them, was $3,000 each.  The Monticello Express also reported that Colonel Blood was arrested for complicity in the alleged slanderous publication.  He persisted in declaring that he knew nothing about the matter, but a grand jury did not believe him.  His bail was set at $1,500.  Victoria and Tennessee’s trial began on November 7, 1872, and continued through the beginning of December.  According to the November 23, 1872, edition of the Anglo-American Times, the women denied that they did anything wrong.  The Times’ report pointed out that few people agreed with them and many felt their behavior set the women’s right movement back.  “It is shown that the rise of these two wretched creatures into notoriety grows out of the new doctrine of women’s right, that it makes no difference for the purpose of a movement what a woman’s character is, provided she is sound and the main question,” the article noted.  “When the well-established canons of human experience as to the value of female modesty have been cast to the winds, this dismal result follows.”

The initial case against the sisters was eventually dismissed.  From November 1872 to June 1873, Victoria and Tennessee were arrested seven additional times on similar obscenity and libel charges.  They were acquitted each time they went to court.  Paying for various attorneys to represent them led to bankruptcy and the collapse of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly.  Victoria’s political party collapsed as well.  Colonel Blood and Victoria divorced in 1878, and she remarried British banker John Biddulph Martin in 1883.  The Martins moved to England shortly after they wed.  Victoria died at her home in North Park, England on June 9, 1927.  She was eighty-eight-years old.

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.

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