The Bewitching Brokers Shatter Wall Street’s Male-Only Tradition

Bewitching BrokersCombine a Kardashian store opening with a Justin Beiber concert and throw in a visiting foreign dignitary, and you may begin to get the idea of how much chaos the opening of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin’s stock brokerage on February 5, 1870, created.

Contemporary accounts place the crowds at as many as 4,000, with people (mostly men) pushing and shoving to catch sight of the audacious women.  A hundred policemen were called out to keep the peace. That didn’t stop the yelling and jeers of protesters who were ready to physically carry the women back home where they belonged. Men peered in the windows all day long, lifting one another up and calling out if they caught sight of Victoria or Tennie.

030570mWhen it opened for business that morning, Woodhull, Claflin and Co., became the first female-owned American company that bought and sold stocks. The press quickly crowned its owners “The Queens of Finance,” the “Sensation of New York,” and “The Bewitching Brokers.”

The office, located on Broad Street (at Wall Street), was just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange and only four doors up from rival broker, Jim Fisk. The interior was described in the papers as more like an elegant parlor than a business office, with oil paintings on the wall, statues in the corners, a piano, and ample upholstered sofas and chairs. A small framed cross-stitch on one wall declared “simply to the cross I cling,” next to a photo of Mr. Vanderbilt. The sisters did business at solid wood desks inlaid with gold (left by the previous owners, who were criminals and had to flee in a hurry – seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up) and had a ticker-tape machine at the ready.

A unique aspect of the building was that it had a back entrance for women who might not feel comfortable doing business with men. It was separated from the rest of the office by a walnut partition decorated with glass. In the women’s-only area, Victoria and Tennie served champagne and chocolate covered strawberries to their clients, who passed on business gossip as well as bought and sold stocks. Unsurprisingly, given the sisters’ previous healing and medium work at brothels, many of their early female clients were madams and their girls. But eventually independently wealthy women, suffragists, and the wives of businessmen became clients as well.

TennieTheir clients that first day were a combination of well known business figures such as Peter Cooper, Jay Cooke, and Daniel Drew – even poet Walt Whitman paid them a visit – and curiosity seekers. Among the questionably sane who dropped by were two men, Edward Van Schalck and Hugh Hastings, who returned several times throughout the day, dressed differently each time, though no one knows why. Sometimes it was one or both of them, other times they returned with a group of friends to heckle Victoria and Tennie. After one of their disruptions, a sign was affixed to the front door, stating, “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.”

The firm did brisk business, with some sources citing an unverified claim supposedly made by Victoria that they made $700,000 in two years. It appears the business began to falter in 1871, a time when Victoria was focused on the paper and her political campaign, leaving her husband, James – the firm’s silent partner – and Tennie to deal with clients who were disgruntled over the sisters’ misguided speculation in gold. Over the next two years, as Victoria became more outspoken and brazen in airing her views on women and worker’s rights as part of her Presidential campaign, the firm slowly lost clients. By summer 1873, Victoria and Tennie were out of money and the firm existed in name only.

It would be another 94 years before there was another woman on Wall Street. (Muriel Siebert was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, on December 28, 1967)

How much did you know about Victoria and Tennie’s role on Wall Street? What do you think of them? What questions do you have?


Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.

MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.

Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

An Unlikely Partnership: Victoria Woodhull and Cornelius Vanderbilt

Victoria and Tennie with a client, possibly Vanderbilt

Victoria and Tennie with a client, possibly Vanderbilt

In 1868 when Victoria Woodhull moved to New York at the urging of her spirit guide, she had no idea that within a short time, she’d end up being friends with the wealthiest man in the country. That man was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping tycoon.

No one knows exactly how Victoria and Vanderbilt met. Some biographies skim over it, while others speculate it may have been through her father or even simply general social mingling. It was well known that 73 year old Vanderbilt had a penchant for psychics and mediums, so he may have sought them out or vice versa.

One way or another, Victoria and Tennie called on him as clairvoyants who could make stock market predictions. Or if he preferred, they were also healers who could restore his health and happiness.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Vanderbilt was immediately taken with beautiful, charming Tennie, whom he called his “little sparrow.” He asked her to marry him in 1868, not long after his wife died. Tennie’s reasons for declining are debated, as is if he was serious. Some say she couldn’t have married him either way because she never divorced her first husband, gambler John Bartels, with whom she had no contact. It’s widely believed Tennie and Vanderbilt had an affair that lasted at least five years, and continued when he married again.

Tennie’s affair may have influenced Vanderbilt’s admiration for the sisters, but he was equally impressed with Victoria. While in a trance, she would relay messages from his deceased mother and children and also tell him what stocks would go up.  While she may have had extraordinary powers (who can prove she didn’t?), her stock tips really came from her friend Josie Mansfield, a former actress turned prostitute whom she met while acting in San Francisco. Josie was mistress to Vanderbilt’s business rival, Jim Fisk.

This relationship set Victoria up to become a very rich woman, as Vanderbilt split the profits with her if her tips were right. Then on September 24, 1869, the stock market crashed, the very first Black Friday.  Women were not allowed on the trading floor, so Victoria sat outside in her carriage, sending men in with orders to buy. Both she and Vanderbilt came out on top, thanks to a warning from Josie, and avoided the calamity that drove many to poverty and suicide. When asked how he was so successful, Vanderbilt reportedly said, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”

This one historic day of trading enabled Victoria and Tennie to afford to open their own firm (more on this next week), becoming the first female stock brokers ever on Wall Street. How they were qualified to trade stocks is up to debate. Their father may have taught them a little about finance and law, or they may have learned from Vanderbilt. One thing is certain, they weren’t afraid to enter a man’s world.

Their firm, Woodhull, Claflin and Co., opened on February 5, 1870. Tennie told reporters that day that Vanderbilt “inspired the new undertaking.” He never publicly admitted to financially backing their business, but he likely did. At the very least it was his connections that enabled them to open the firm in the first place. Victoria and Tennie encouraged public association of their names with his by keeping his picture on their office wall. He was also likely the silent backer of their newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.

It appears Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennie maintained a strong relationship until 1872, when an increasingly bold and erratic Victoria began calling out the rich and powerful who depend on the labor of the poor, including Vanderbilt, in her paper and in her speeches.  In February 1872, she gave a speech entitled “The Impending Revolution,” in New York, in which she called Vanderbilt out by name, saying,

“A Vanderbilt may sit in his office and manipulate stocks or make dividends, by which in a few years, he amasses fifty million dollars from the industries of the country, and he is one of the remarkable men of the age. But if a poor, half-starved child were to take a loaf of bread from his cupboard to prevent starvation, she would be sent first to the Tombs, and thence to Blackwell’s Island.”

Needless to say, having his name used in such a negative way in public angered Vanderbilt. He withdrew his support from the brokerage and the paper. The official story was that his wife caught him canoodling with Tennie, but both sisters knew the real reason why he severed ties with them.

In 1877, Vanderbilt passed away. His son, William, feared Tennie would go after her lover’s money. He was also afraid she and Victoria would be called to testify to his father’s belief in spiritualism – and thus give credence to the idea his father was not of sound mind and the will should be invalidated. To avoid both disasters, William paid the sisters a large sum to relocate to England.

What questions do you have about Victoria and Vanderbilt? Did you know of their association before? If so, where did you hear about it?


Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.

MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.

Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

Quick Newsletter Update

Following the example of my new author friend Stephanie Carroll, i’ve decided to publish my newsletter quarterly, unless there is big news to share. 

Given that I’m a Celtic geek, I’ve decided to publish on August 1 (Lughnasa), October 31/November 1 (Samhain), February 1 (Candlemas) and May 1 (Beltane). These are the high holy days of the Celtic calendar.

Right now I expect each issue to contain:

  • New – a reflection on that Celtic holiday, updates on what’s been going on
  • Now – what I’m working on at the moment/progress since last issue
  • Next – what’s coming up
  • DIY MFA Update – A glimpse into how my continuing education is going & what i’ve learned. 
  • You May Have Missed – links to popular blog posts and/or articles I’ve written
  • Recommendations – books i’ve enjoyed that you may want to check out

Look for the first issue to be out August 1. If you haven’t signed up yet, you can do so here.

Guest Post: Begona Echeverria on The Hammer of Witches

HammerCoverI’m thrilled to have as my guest today author Begona Echeverria, whose book, The Hammer of Witches, is one of my favorites I’ve reviewed this year. To give you some context, here is my review, which originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Historical Novels Review

The Hammer of Witches is the story of two very different, but connected characters in a small Basque town during the witch hunt of 1610: Maria, a young girl grieving the death of her mother and struggling to assume the role of woman of the house while secretly learning to read, and Father Salvador Zabaleta, who was once in love with Maria’s mother before becoming a priest and who is now charged with guarding her safety amid an increasingly suspicious environment. As the hysteria over witches grips the village, both fall under the shadow of suspicion of the Inquisition and find their faith tested in very different ways.

This book is a gripping, pager turner of horrific historical events. While the beginning and end may seem slow in comparison to the lightning -paced middle, the entire novel is a strong portrayal of a time period in which superstition and blind faith in the edicts of the Catholic Church reigned over logic, reason and humanity. This is the first book I’ve ever read that made me feel what it must have been like to be a victim of unfounded suspicion, forced to rely on personal faith or recant all one holds true. It also shows the other side of the story, what it is like to be faced with judging guilt or innocence when the expectation of superiors and neighbors is clear.

In addition to being a riveting story, this book is important as a cultural resource in that it preserves many of the traditional stories of the Basque people about witches. It also serves as a reminder that such blind hatred is possible even today if we allow ourselves to be swayed to anger without deep thought and consideration for the humanity of all involved. Highly recommended.

Begonia is here with us today to talk about the historical and familial ties that led her to write this harrowing tale:

I am an NPR junkie. One of my favorite shows is Ira Glass’ “This American Life,” which (to quote its website) has a theme each week and tells “a variety of stories on that theme.”  Many years ago, the theme was “Reenactments,” one of which focused on the Underground Railroad: people paid to pretend to be escaped slaves who encountered actors pretending to be either slave-catchers or engineers on the Underground Railroad. The trick for the “escaped slaves” was to figure out whom to trust and from whom to flee. When interviewed before the re-enactment, participants were all bluster and bravado—they would brook no ill treatment, fight recapture, lead a “slave rebellion.” But when the “slave-catchers” ordered them to drop and give them ten push-ups to punish them for escaping (as they could not inflict any real harm) they dropped and gave them ten.

Yet, afterwards, they insisted that had the situation been real, they would have been brave: they would have brooked no ill treatment, fought recapture, led a slave rebellion.

This episode made me ponder questions that eventually led to my historical novel, The Hammer of Witches, based loosely on the persecution of Basque “witches” in 1610. That is the event in my family history most likely to have called for my bravery.  On November 8, eleven Basque “witches” were burned at the stake  — six alive, five in effigy – in front of 30,000 people.  Another eighteen were  “reconciled” with the Church after confessing to being witches but showing penitence and receiving their penance. But the confessions they made were false, as were the charges against those who burned; they included “crimes” such as concocting poisons against their enemies, participating in cannibalistic feasts and engaging in sexual escapades with the devil. While the burning itself took place in Logroño, Spain, the “witches” came from the Valley of Baztan, five miles from the French border, from which my family hails. The farmhouse where my mother grew up is within walking distance from the cave where the witches allegedly held their satanic rituals.

Yet somehow I knew almost nothing about these events. Chances are that my ancestors were involved one way or another, as victims or accomplices – or both. For my surnames are eerily similar to those on the Inquisitors’ ledgers. One infamous “witch family” was named “Arburu” – add an “a” at the end and that’s my grandmother’s surname. A priest and a monk from that family only escaped the stake at Logroño because they denied charges of witchcraft even under torture – the only proof the Spanish Inquisition would accept of innocence.  After the trial was over, vigilantes forced suspected witches who had escaped the Inquisition’s clutches to “walk the ladder” in the dead of night: they were tied between the rungs of a long ladder and forced to drag it behind them; the trailing end would be lifted up and slammed down, hurling the accused on their faces. Holding torches aloft, a crowd would parade their victims through the town, calling those they awakened to their windows to throw things on their heads.

Two of the women tortured this way were named Echeverria.

I have no way of knowing for certain if these Arburus and Echeverrias were my own ancestors; I have not been able to trace my genealogy back that far. And both surnames are quite common—Arburu means “top part of a rock or stone” and Echeverria means “new house.” But the possibility makes me wonder: what would I have done had I been among the accused? I would like to believe that I would have been brave, that I would have been able to stand up to the Inquisition and prevail. At the very least, I would like to believe that my ancestors were on the right side of this history, if they were indeed involved.

FOTOBut the converse is equally possible — that “my” people were the accusers, the cowards, the torturers. Or merely the falsely accused unable to keep up the fight. For it was almost impossible to win.  The “witches” were never told the names of their accusers so they did not know whom to trust. Their choices were to risk the stake by speaking the truth that they were not witches, or to make false confessions and “only” have their property confiscated and hope to be left alone. In the historical case, some of the “witches” walked over a hundred miles from the Baztan Valley to Logroño to recant their false confessions, explaining that they were procured through violence and threats. But the Inquisitors took this as a sign that the devil was at work and threw them into prison for months. The eleven who maintained their innocence were burned that day in Logroño, either alive or in effigy.

A high price to pay for telling the truth. Who among us is willing to pay it?

You may purchase Begonia’s book on Amazon.

If you have any questions or comments for Begonia, please leave them below. She’ll be popping by to check in from time to time.

Contest Updates

Romancing the URLI was saving this information for my first newsletter, but then I figured out that it would get wider visibility if I blogged about it. (HINT, HINT: please sign up for my newsletter here.)

Thank you to everyone who voted for this site in the Romancing the URL contest. I’m the Viewers Choice winner in the aspiring author category, as well as a finalist in the same category. I’ll find out my final placement in August.

Updates on the contests my books are in:

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not
I can’t remember for sure what I’ve announced and what I haven’t, so here’s the latest:

  • 2nd place in the Fool for Love contest
  • 3rd place Cleveland Rocks contest
  • Honorable mention in the Fab Five contest
  • Finalist in the Linda Howard Award of Excellence contest, (placement announced in July)
  • Finalist in the Golden Rose contest (placement announced in August)

Madame Presidentess
In addition to being with several agents, I’ve made it into the first round of #PitchtoPublication. This means that any time between July 6 – 16, I may get requests from the five freelance editors who have my entry. If that happens, we’ll edit it and then agents will see it. Cross your fingers.

Wish me luck!

HNS 2015 Conference Wrap Up

Originally posted on Spellbound Scribes:

HNS2015-logo_nd-300x102Hard to believe that the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference (in Denver) started a week ago today. Talk about a jam-packed four days! I learned so much and met so many wonderful authors. This was my first one and I will forever treasure it.

Here’s a rough idea of how the conference went and my personal highlights:

Thursday – Travel day and dinner at the fabulous Oceanaire restaurant (foie gras, stuffed sole and Prosecco). Went to see the one-man play Defending the Caveman. So hilarious! I recommend it to anyone!

CW Gortner giving the opening speech CC Humphreys giving the opening speech

Friday – Eight hours of pre-conference workshops with Larry Brooks on story structure. It didn’t occur to me until the workshop started that he’s one of the authors whose books I’m reading as part of my DIY MFA program. This man is amazing. His theories, along with those of Michael Hauge

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Reform Movements of 19th Century America

As you read this, I’m freshly back (and brain dead, in a good way) from the Historical Novel Society conference. Will post about that once my brain has downloaded all the new knowledge. Until then, we’ll explore some of the reform movements that influenced the culture and society of mid-to-late 19th century America.

Abolition/Post-War Role of Former Slaves

Abolition of Slavery by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Umpehent, J. W. (Bibliothèque numérique mondiale) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abolition of Slavery by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Umpehent, J. W. (Bibliothèque numérique mondiale) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When my book begins (August 1868), the Civil War was only five years in the past, and its hot button issues of slavery, race and the meaning of freedom and citizenship were still very much in the public sphere.  In fact, the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, had just passed a month before.

It was a conflict that dated back to the time of Thomas Jefferson and  in many ways, still continues today. Many of Victoria’s friends and contemporaries began their forays into reform through the abolitionist movement, including Theodore Tilton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass.

When Victoria attended her first suffrage meeting in January 1869, she witnessed a very contentious debate between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fredrick Douglas, who had differing opinions on the 15th Amendment which was being debated in Congress and would give former slaves the right to vote.  Mr. Douglass said, “The right of women to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing to hold up both hands in favor of this right. But I am now devoting myself to a cause not more sacred, but certainly more urgent, because it is one of life and death to the long enslaved people of this country, and this is Negro suffrage. As you very well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation. She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended, I think, that her cause is as urgent as ours.”

Women’s Suffrage

Tennie Claflin (Victoria's sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tennie Claflin (Victoria’s sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Closely related was the issue of women’s suffrage, which many suffragists believed was as important, if not more important, than suffrage for former slaves. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued at that 1869 convention, “At this very moment, Congress is debating the Fifteenth Amendment. If it is passed, it would give black men the right to vote. But I ask you, how are we, as women, any less important? How are we to be left out of such legislation? Shall American statesmen make their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers fresh from the slave plantations of the South?”

(As you can see, bigotry against former slaves and immigrants was very common at the time. Both she and Susan B. Anthony were known to refer to them as “Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,” something we would never condone today.)

The Suffrage movement dates back to 1846, when the first debate on women’s rights was held at Oberlin College. It is thought by some historians that if not for the Civil War, women would have gained the right to vote in the mid-1800s. But as it stood in 1868, women were still fighting, having suffered a setback in 1866 with the passage of the 14th Amendment, which introduced the word “male” into the Constitution as a qualification for voting. The debate as to whether women were citizens according to the Constitution – and therefore legally allowed to vote – would continue for the next decade, promoted by Victoria herself as well as Virginia Minor, but eventually defeated. As we know from history, women would not get the right to vote until August 1920 under the 19th Amendment.

Sex Radicals

An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century

An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century

One of the lesser known reform movement of the period was led by the so-called “Sex Radicals” who believed in Free Love, usually in conjunction with utopian communities, in protest of the sexual slavery experienced by women. This sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960’s, but the big difference is that in the 19th century, it meant the end of legal interference in marriage, in its binding or dissolving of ties between husband and wife. This idea allowed for divorce, as well as freedom for both husband and wife to take other partners as life presented them, but did not endorse promiscuity. (There’s a great article on Free Love on the American Experience site.)

Victoria and her sister Tennie, as well as Victoria’s second husband, James, and her lover, Theodore Tilton, were all a part of this movement. Victoria and Tennie wore their hair short and adopted a more masculine form of dress (without the bustles and corsets common at the time) in protest of the sexual inequality between men and women. For example, at the time, it was considered commonplace, even accepted, that young men would frequent prostitutes, but their wives could do no such thing or raise a complaint. Furthermore, while their male patrons were sometimes from the highest levels of society, the prostitutes were considered the lowest, too vile even for a Christian burial.

Worker’s Rights
180px-FRE-AIT.svgIn France, the Communards were revolting, installing their own form of government that called for the economic, social and political equality of women with men; gender and wage equality; the right of divorce; the abolition of the distinction between married women and concubines; an end to labeling children legitimate or illegitimate; the closing of legal brothels and an end to prostitution. What made this movement so frightening was that it was workers rising up against those in aristocratic positions, thus threatening the “normal” balance of power.

American businessmen were scared to death of this movement, seeing how it inflamed groups like the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which used the situation to demand an eight hour work day. Victoria’s friend and mentor, Stephen Pearl Andrews, was part of the IWA, and her husband was part of the American Labor Reform League. It is likely they were responsible for Victoria’s interest in the worker’s movement, which she eventually held on even ground with women’s suffrage.

The IWA was closely linked to Karl Marx, so Victoria felt it was important that the American people understand what they were fighting for. In July 1871, Victoria and Tennie became co-presidents of the IWA. In December 1871, she published the first English translation of his Manifesto in her paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. That same month, she, Tennie and Stephen led a highly controversial parade in New York, protesting the murder of five Communards in France. She may have become a major player in the movement, had her philosophy of individual rights meshed more closely with Marx’s communal vision. In 1872, Marx himself disbanded Victoria’s section of the IWA, effectively ending her association with the group.

What is your understanding or familiarity with these groups? Had you heard of the sex radicals or IWA before? If so, how? What questions do you have about any of them?


Please don’t forget: you can sign up for my newsletter on the right. I’ll be putting out the first issue in a few weeks. It’ll have news I haven’t shared here, so if you don’t want to miss anything, please sign up here.



Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.

Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.

MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.

Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.