NAME: Victoria Claflin Woodhull Blood Martin
DATE OF BIRTH: September 23, 1838
PLACE OF BIRTH: Homer, Licking County, Ohio
FAMILY BACKGROUND: Victoria was born fifth among seven children to Reuben Buckman ("Buck") Claflin and Roxanna (Hummel) Claflin. Buck was a gristmill operator, but had a get-rich-quick streak that led him to gambling, scheming and lawsuits. Roxanna was fiery tempered, quick-witted and inclined toward clairvoyance. She brought her children often to camp revivals in the woods by traveling preachers, especially Rev. Lyman Beecher (father of Victoria's later adversary), and would get caught up in religious ecstasy, whirling and speaking in tongues.
EDUCATION: Victoria was mostly self-taught.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Victoria inherited much of her mother's fiery personality, and was imitating preachers at a young age. She also showed signs of clairvoyance. At the age of 10, Victoria had visions in which Demosthenes (a prominent Greek statesman and orator of 4th century Athens) appeared as her patron saint. Her sister Tennessee ("Tennie") also shared the gift of "second sight." Their father saw his opportunity, changing his name to "Dr. R.B. Claflin, American King of Cancers," and taking his daughters on the road as psychic healers, and holding seances, complete with rapping sounds and moving furniture. She spent most of her youth traveling with her family's medicine show, telling fortunes, selling patent medicines, and performing a spiritualist act with her sister Tennessee.
At 15 years old, Victoria married Dr. Canning Woodhull, a Cincinnati doctor and patent medicine salesman, but also an alcoholic and womanizer. They had two children, Byron and Zulu (Zula?) Maude. For a short time, they lived in San Francisco, where Victoria worked as a cigar girl and actress (and most likely did a little prostitution for extra income). In 1860, they moved to New York City, where Tennie and their father had moved previously, and the sisters set up practice as "magnetic healers" and spiritualists. In 1864, in search of new clients, they moved to Cincinnati, then later to Chicago, and at times took the show on the road. By this time, Canning had essentially deserted Victoria and the children, coming home only for money. After 11 years of marriage, Victoria divorced Canning and, two years later, married Colonel James Harvey Blood; a courteous, educated and respected man who believed in Spiritualism and the doctrine of free love.
In that time, divorce was extremely rare and difficult for women to obtain in most states, and the double standard reigned. Men could have extramarital affairs without social repurcussions, or the fear or responsibility of pregnancy. Men could divorce an adulterous wife much easier than a wife could divorce an adulterous husband. Respectable women never admitted publicly to having even a hint of sexual desire. Prostitution was legal, and profitable for men who owned such buildings that housed them -- yet the women were shunned by society. The free love movement viewed marriage as an institution that could trap people into unhappy lives. The movement's advocates felt marriage should be viewed as a social partnership and, if some element were missing, the spouses should each be allowed to find that element through loving more than one individual.
Of course, the free love movement was denounced as radical and dangerous -- a threat to the sanctity of marriage and families. If people could have sex with anyone, who would take care of the children? Venereal disease would become rampant; it already was in the prostitution community and there were no cures at the time. There also were no reliable birth control methods. Free love advocates felt sexuality should be openly discussed and people not forced to deny their desires; thus eliminating the need for prositution and the spread of disease. They encouraged not licentiousness, but choosing partners based on mutual feelings, rather than the dictates of church and state. If people acted responsibly, they felt, marriage laws would not be needed.
Also, as a spiritualist (another popular movement at the time), Victoria felt the free love movement was compatible with the belief that the soul transcended the boundaries of the material world (marriage laws). Her views resembled anarchy, which was also considered a real threat to the country at the time. Politically, Victoria's views were closer to early communism, and she later was a member of the Marxist International Workingmen's Association for a time.
In 1866, Victoria and Colonel Blood settled in New York City with her sister and other family members. She opened a salon where the brightest and most articulate radicals of the day would meet to spar intellectually and she gained fame as a gifted conversationalist. In particular, Stephen Pearl Andrews and Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, both sympathizers of free love and women's right to vote, became close friends and schooled her in women's limitations in legal and political rights. The salon discussions focused largely on societal and political hypocrisies, with Victoria, Tennie and James pointing out whenever possible situations of individual rights being denied. In one example, the sisters arrived to dine at Delmonico's near Wall Street, but were denied service -- the unwritten rule being ladies were not welcome after 6 p.m. without a male escort. Tennie called in their carriage driver, who was seated with them for soup -- breaking conventional gender and rank codes as Delmonico's was forced to serve two independent women and an embarassed working-class man.
They also soon met financier and railroad magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was 76 years old, and his wife had just died in 1868. Tennie used her "magnetic powers" for arousal this time, becoming his lover, and using her clairvoyance to gain financial advice from the spirits. The sisters in turn later asked him for financial advice, making quite a lot of money in the stock market, and, with his silent backing, became the first women to establish a banking and brokerage firm on Wall Street: Woodhull, Claflin & Company. Newspapers hailed them as "The Queens of Finance" and "The Bewitching Brokers." Susan B. Anthony applauded it as "a new phase of the woman's rights question." Victoria's feeling was that:
The sisters were so successful that, in 1870, they began publishing Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The journal addressed all the controversial topics -- women's suffrage, labor relations and personal and social freedoms -- with the masthead stating "The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World!" They also published exposes on stock swindles, insurance frauds and corrupt Congressional land deals. The 16-page weekly claimed 20,000 subscribers and ran for six years. Through both ventures, Victoria demonstrated her ability as a woman (a married mother of two) to "successfully engage in business."
On April 2, 1870, Victoria announced in the New York Herald her plans to run for president of the United States -- the first woman to do so. It would be 50 years before women could vote, but there was no law preventing women from running for office. In addition, men of color had seats in Congress and several State legislatures. Sexual equality seemed very likely. Her plan was to run independently and use the journal to publicize her campaign. Her platform was of social and political reform. She was most dedicated to free love but, as she learned more about how few rights women had, she also made voting rights her mission as well.
On January 11, 1871, Victoria appeared before the House Judiciary Committee -- the first women ever -- to deliver a memorial (a speech personally presented by a citizen before Congress, to persuade it to enact a law) on women suffrage. This caused quite a stir. By now a brilliant orator, Victoria stated that women already had the right to vote, since the 14th and 15th amendments granted the right to all citizens. She argued that all women had to do was use their right. It was no surprise when the congressional majority report was not favorable, but the minority report (signed by Benjamin Butler) gave the strongest official argument to date in favor.
Victoria's speech was so impressive, the suffragists invited her to speak at their National Women Suffrage Association convention the next day. (Actually, her speech pre-empted their convention; they moved it a day later to hear what Victoria had to say.) Its leaders, Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Beecher Hooker (sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe), Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, admired Victoria, defending her beliefs and welcoming the publicity she brought to their issue. Her speech also catapulted her into leadership with the suffrage movement. Victoria's many speeches were not subtle and genteel; they were ablaze with passion and condemnation for Victorian hypocrisies and political inequities. Newspapers cited her as "the ablest advocate on Woman Suffrage, a woman of remarkable originality and power."
But her enemies grew. And of course she was judged by different standards than male politicians and reformers. Harriet Beecher Stowe parodied Victoria in a comic novel ("My Wife and I") as a brainless free lover who spoke of women's rights without knowing what they were. Another sister, Catherine Beecher, who wrote about women's role within family, lectured Victoria on morality and threatened to bring her down if she continued promoting free love. Unfortunately, family conflicts also created bad publicity when her mother sued her husband James for improperly spending money. (Actually, her mother abhorred the fact that Victorica and her sister Tennessee were no longer under their parents' control; in particular, that they were not touring and fortune-telling any more.)
Newspapers revelled in publicizing life in the Claflin house, including lovers visiting and that Victoria's first husband was living in the same house with her and her current husband. (Doctor Woodhull had shown up, destitute, ill and addicted to morphine years earlier, and Victoria had taken him in to care for him.) The public was apalled. At one point, too, her mother had sent a blackmailing letter to Cornelius Vanderbilt, under the guise of it coming from Tennessee. His advice and financial backing naturally was withdrawn. Other people began accusing their brokerage firm of swindling money from them. Victoria was incensed that she should have to defend her character when others lived similarly in private but were held in public as pillars of morality.
Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of the Beecher sisters (of whom two were publicly against Victoria and one was defending her) was such a pillar. A fiery evangelical minister, the reverend often railed at the pulpit denouncing sexual activity outside marriage, although he was rumored to have had numerous affairs with women in his parish, and some illegitimate children. At some point that year, Victoria found out that he had had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton (a former member of Beecher's New York parish and his best friend, as well as a well-known editor of religious and liberal newspapers, author, and titular head of the NWSA). Victoria was hesitant to reveal the affair, knowing it would harm the spouses and children. So she sent vague letters to the newspapers, and wrote editorials in her newspaper, about a love scandal involving "teachers of eminence." Through these, she met Theodore, who became an admirer of hers and later published a biography of Victoria.
On November 20, 1871, Victoria appeared at Steinway Hall to speak on "The Principles of Social Freedom." For days beforehand, she had been urging the reverend to introduce her -- not only to stave off the public airing of his affair with Lib Tilton, but also to provide validation and respectability to herself and her political goals. In addition, she hoped it would help end the written attacks from the reverend's two sisters. He did not answer her written appeals, so she insisted on a personal interview, the afternoon of the speech. In her book, Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (an exceptionally well-researched work), Barbara Goldsmith wrote:
After she left, Theodore and another friend tried persuading the reverend to introduce Victoria at the speech. He finally said he would, but by ten minutes after eight o'clock, he had not shown up. Without planning on it, Theodore escorted Victoria onstage and gave her a grand introduction, saying he would not "deny this woman the sacred right of free speech." Victoria read the speech, written as inoffensively as possible by Stephen Pearl Andrews on the changing attitudes toward social freedom from the sixteenth century to the present day. But when she reached the part about women's rights in the present day, Victoria began to veer from the prepared speech. The rapt, overflowing audience of 3,000 eagerly awaited her every word. As Goldmith wrote, "Victoria could feel the spirits all about her. It was these spirits for whom she spoke, all those suffering souls whose burden she carried on her frail shoulders." She declared:
The crowd burst into wild applause and cries of "Hurrah!" But Victoria's envious sister Utica, sitting in a box seat that jutted partially onto the stage, was determined to bring down her sister. She began hissing. Fueled by laudanum and alcohol, Utica at 30 years old had been drinking half her life. She never garnered the attention or success from fortune-telling that Victoria or Tennesse had had, so she'd been forced by her father to help her mother make the intoxicating "medicine" her father sold. Both Utica and the mother were always inebriated to some degree by this time. Still pretty, however, Utica beamed a beatific smile and called out to her sister on stage, "How would you like to come into this world without knowing who your father was?" Victoria was thrown off guard, the audience began to hiss. She struggled and began to regain command, saying, in part:
Again, Utica stood, waving her white handkerchief to draw attention. Shouts went back and forth, a policeman appeared to escort Utica out, but an audience members cried, "Leave her alone." Finally, a voice called out, "Mrs. Woodhull, are you a free lover?" Victoria tried to skirt around it, but Utica interrupted, saying she did not answer the question. Finally, enraged, Victoria tore the signature white rose from the neck of her dress, flung the prepared speech to the floor, and exclaimed:
Utica got what she wanted. The crowd went wild and no one could hear any more of what Victoria had to say. The most inflammatory parts of her speech were printed in the newspapers, and people railed against her. The family was evicted from their mansion, closing the salon. Yet she received more speaking engagements than ever and was still supported by the leaders of the NWSA. She also published a 250-page collection of essays, spelling out her campaign position on the problems facing the nation. In January 1872, the NWSA held its annual convention and nominated Victoria to run for president -- 1500 men and women applauded their assent. Frederick Douglass (a famous orator, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, and former slave) was nominated as her vice presidential running mate.
Her opponents were Horace Greeley, editor of the Tribune, and Ulysses S. Grant. Susan B. Anthony pulled away from her support of Victoria, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker remained ardent supporters. The campaign platform supported women's right to vote, work and love freely; nationalization of land; cost-based pricing to minimize excessive profits; more equal division of earnings between labor and capital; eradicatation of exorbitant interest rates; and free speech and free press. (For more on her platform, visit The Woodhull Platform.)
But more than the speeches and publications, Victoria learned, the convention alarmed "cowardly hearts." More unforeseen reprisals hit her personal life, business and reform activities. Unable to secure housing after the eviction, the family slept for weeks on the newspaper office floor. Her 12-year-old daughter took on an alias to attend school without harassment. They even had to suspend publishing the journal for four months, due to financial difficulties.
When they did resume publication, they acerbically revealed their personal and financial difficulties and printed two explicit exposes -- one on the Beecher-Tilton affair (which Victoria had recently revealed at last during a speech before the National Association of Spiritualists) and another on a licentious stockbroker, Luther Challis, who boasted his conquests of innocent young girls. The "scandal issue" shocked the nation. Victoria and Tennie were sued for criminal libel and for sending obscene literature through the mail (largely the Challis article). They endured weeks in more than one jail, a judge prejudiced against them, and hours of testimony on their private lives, and were found not guilty. -- Ironically, Victoria was in jail on Election Day 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant won.
Victoria and Tennie faced multiple charges relating to the "scandal issue" for almost two years, ultimately being found innocent of all charges. They ultimately paid about half a million dollars in fines and bail -- including $60,000 for an alleged misdemeanor. The government confiscated their printing press, personal papers and brokerage accounts. They received death threats and blackmail letters. And Victoria become known as "Wicked Woodhull." As much as they could, the sisters kept the public informed of their difficulties through their journal and Victoria's lectures.
Her sister Utica died in the summer of 1873 (an autopsy showed her addicted to "narcotics and stimulants" and that she died of Bright's Disease). Areporter found Victoria weeping near the coffin of the sister who had tried to ruin her. She reportedly said:
In 1875, Theodore sued Rev. Beecher for willfully alienating himself from the affections of his wife, sparking a sensational trial of the century. Courtroom tickets were scalped to the highest bidders. Refreshment stands and souvenir booths popped up outside the courthouse. Although Theodore lost the case, Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked that ultimately society was pulled "toward making the standard of tolerated behavior of men and women equal."
Victoria did not testify in that trial, and actually was retreating from the limelight by then. She and her mother had begun turning to the Bible and Catholicism. Colonel Blood no longer had a place in her life. In 1876, they divorced and the journal ceased publication. The next year, barely making a living through speaking and spiritual healing, Cornelius Vanderbilt died. He left the bulk of his millions to his eldest son; the others planned to contest and call Victoria and Tennie to testify to the Commodore's incompetency. Shortly afterward, she, Tennie and their mother left for England, living comfortably for years. It was assumed the elder Vanderbilt had safeguarded his inheritance.
In England, Victoria continued lecturing -- except now about the Bible, spiritualism and sexuality, with emphasis on the human body within the context of marriage and responsibility. At a lecture, she met retired conservative banker and millionaire John Biddulph Martin. They married in 1882. She also embraced humanitarian causes and took frequent trips back to the U.S. On one trip, she joined the small Humanitarian Party, which later nominated her as its presidential candidate in 1892. Her opponents were Grover Cleveland, of New York, and incumbent President Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland won. In 1895, she started The Humanitarian newspaper.
In England, on her new husband's estate in Worcestershire, she became interested in new methods of agriculture. After John died, she divided up one of the estate farms and rented small shares to women where they could learn farming techniques. She also established a school that experimented with the latest educational methods, and an annual agricultural show. She entertained the Prince of Wales, worked fervently during the first World War, and owned one of the first automobiles in England. She always had her chauffeur drive fast through the countryside. In trying to cheat death, Victoria took to sleeping upright in a chair during her last years. She died on June 9, 1927, at 88 years of age.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of the scandals, Victoria Woodhull has been effectively obscured by historians and even feminist organizations. Those who have written of her in history books emphasize her notoriety, while ignoring her serious abilities, notable achievements, remarkable courage, and worthy dreams -- many of which still have yet to be realized. More than 130 years later, no woman has made it to the White House. No person of color has made it to the Vice Presidency. Women are still largely accountable to a different standard than men. Money is still a major obstacle for candidates. The private lives of public figures are still an issue. And, while women have made it to various public offices, they are still judged more on personal issues and looks than men.
DATE OF DEATH: June 9, 1927
PLACE OF DEATH: Worcestershire, England
Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull: Free Spirit for Women's Rights. Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Commire, Anne, editor. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Waterford, Conn.: Yorkin Publications, 1999-2000.
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored. Algonquin, 1997.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: Victoria Woodhull and the Age of Suffrage, Scandal and Spiritualism. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1998.
Johnston, Johanna. Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull. NY: Putman, 1967.
Sachs, Emanie. The Terrible Siren. NY: Harper & Bros., 1928.
Sears, Hal D. The Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America. Lawrence, KS: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977.
Tilton, Theodore. The Life of Victoria Claflin Woodhull. NY: Golden Age, 1871.
Underhill, Lois Beachy. The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull. Bridgehampton, N.Y.: Bridge Works Pub.; Lanham, MD: Distributed by National Book Network, 1995.
"The truth is that I am too many years ahead of this age and the exalted views and objects of humanitarianism can scarcely be grasped as yet by the unenlightened mind of the average man."
-- Victoria Woodhull, to a reporter after losing the 1892 election.
Presented by Lakewood Public Library