Victoria Woodhull’s Early Life

Historical marker in Victoria's home town of Homer, Ohio.

Historical marker in Victoria’s home town of Homer, Ohio.

Victoria is one of these people with such a storied life you could easily devote an entire book to its three phases: early, mid (which is when my book is set, 1868-1873) and later life. But since I’ve chosen to only write about the high point of her public life, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about the other areas of her life as well.

I’ve found out through comments to my Huffington Post article that descendants of Victoria’s family do not believe the bad things circulated about Victoria’s early life. Certainly, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and to their own research. All I can say is that my sources, which include many recent biographies (listed at the end of this post; full sources for the book are listed here), include this information and in turn cite their own sources.

Victoria’s Youth and Family Life
Victoria C. Woodhull (nee Claflin) was born the seventh of ten children on September 23, 1838, in Homer, Ohio, to Reuben Buckman (Buck) Claflin and Anna Roxanna (Anne/Annie) Hummel Claflin. Being born in the year Queen Victoria was crowned, the baby was named for her.

Her father may have been affluent early on (some say he worked in law or finance, others that he worked in towns and transported lumber), but he lost the land when she was three, leaving the family with only a dilapidated house and a grist mill. Buck, ever enterprising, turned to crime. He stole horses and ran scams, including insurance theft when the mill mysteriously burned down in 1853. There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened. Some say the townspeople suspected insurance fraud, especially since Buck was not in town at the time of the incident. They held a fundraiser for the family and gave them a horse-drawn carriage and supplies and asked them to leave. Some sources say the residents talked of tarring and feathering Buck and that’s why he left.

The other side of the story was that a gas lamp overturned, setting the dry grain on fire. A bucket brigade couldn’t stop the flames. Because Buck was out of town, Annie was helpless. The family was then forced to move because of economic disappointment when the Erie Canal didn’t bring in the riches to the area it had promised. Either way, the family suffered from ill fortune.

Victoria’s mother wasn’t very stable. She was erratic, sometimes yelling and assisting he husband in the beating their children, laughing hysterically and clapping as they cried. Other times she would weep with joy over them. Anne was a devout Spiritualist who claimed to see visions and speak in the tongue of angels.

Victoria had very little schooling, only about three years, and was known for her terrible handwriting. But she had one gift her parents could exploit: they believed she was a healer and medium. From an early age (sources differ between age 8 – 14), her father set her to work in these roles, along with her younger sister, Tennessee (Tennie). They worked from 8 a.m. – 9 p.m., charging $1 per séance.

Whether or not their gifts were genuine is up for debate. Her father had plenty of nefarious ways of getting information about local families to feed to his daughters if the spirits weren’t particularly talkative. He knew all about the locals because when he got into town, he would visit cemeteries to get to know the family names, who died, and when. He had a blue book with information about families, so they could appear ready to clients. Other methods of cheating included:

  • Asking the client to think of a letter, then have them recite the alphabet, watching for a reaction at the true letter
  • Watching them write six names on a slip of paper, one of which was a dead relative. They wouldn’t hesitate on the dead person’s name.

Buck also claimed to have an elixir that could cure cancer, which he administered at so-called “clinics” throughout the Midwest. Her dad sold “Miss Tennessee’s Magnito Life Elixir for Beautifying the Complexion and Cleansing the Blood.” It was snake oil, likely composed mainly of alcohol, vegetable oil and possibly laudanum. Eventually, the family was charged with several crimes, forcing them to run from state to state. (The worst came when Tennie was charged with manslaughter after the death of a client in their Chicago clinic. The family was never brought to court on the charges).

Eventually, this life and hard work wore Victoria down and she became extremely ill during the time she was 12-14.  The upside to this was she was treated by a very handsome doctor…but more on him and how he would change her life next week.

Thoughts? Questions? I love hearing from you.

Sources:

Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights.
Frisken, Amanda. Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution.
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull.
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
Krull, Kathleen. A Woman for President – The Story of Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Tilton, Theodore. The Golden Age Tract No. 3 “Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch.” 
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

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3 thoughts on “Victoria Woodhull’s Early Life

  1. Pingback: Victoria Woodhull’s  First Husband: Canning Woodhull | Through the Mists of Time

  2. I just realized that Victoria Woodhull was born a stone’s throw from where I was born in Ohio — one county away, and Ohio has tiny counties. I barely heard of her during high school or college. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But you are going to fix that, right Niki?

    • Yes, I am. Getting Victoria back into the historical record is one of the reasons why I wanted to tell her story. She’s far from a perfect role model, but neither are any of the men we put up on pedestals. Time for the women of history to have their place!

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