Victoria Woodhull’s  First Husband: Canning Woodhull

Canning Woodhull and family; wife Victoria, daughter Zula and son Byron (Portrait, probably 1856)

Canning Woodhull and family; wife Victoria, daughter Zula and son Byron (Portrait, probably 1856)

When we last left Victoria, she was 14, gravely ill, but in the hands of a handsome young doctor who was twice her age. His name was Canning Woodhull. Victoria had been ill for nearly two years with chills, fever and rheumatism and was exhausted.

But eventually, she recovered and he began to court her, calling her “my little puss” and “my little chick.” Her family was all for the match because he had convinced them (untruthfully) that his father was a well respected judge and his uncle was major of New York. (Some sources question his validity as a doctor as well, and given how he lived his life, I tend to agree, though medical care was not well organized or professional at the time anyway.) Not long after he began courting Victoria, he asked her to marry him. She gladly accepted, seeing marriage as an escape from her family.

The Real Canning: All Around Arse
But she couldn’t have been more wrong. The real Canning was an alcoholic and a womanizer, who was found in a brothel only three days after their wedding. Six weeks into their marriage, she found a letter from his mistress asking, “did you marry that child because she, too, was en famille?” As Victoria later discovered, on the day of their marriage Canning had sent his mistress to the country, where she later gave birth.

If Victoria was a modern woman, she might have given him the old heave-ho, but she was still young and in love, a woman of her time, who was far from the social revolutionary she would become. She prayed and tried to reform her husband, but to no avail.

A little over a year after their marriage while living in Chicago, Victoria gave birth to a son, Byron, who proved to be brain damaged. (Some sources say from birth, others that he was dropped on his head at some early point.) At first, Victoria blamed herself for her son’s defect, but slowly she shifted the blame to her drunkard of a husband. Sources vary as to why, but most agree he physically abused her, even while she was pregnant.

She visited her parents after the birth and when she got home, she found Canning in bed with his mistress. He left her for a month, with no money and little food. A particularly dramatic (and questionable) story says she heard that he was staying with a woman he called his wife at a fashionable boarding house, so she went there to retrieve him, forcing the mistress to pack up and leave.

Moving to San Francisco
Victoria and Canning then moved to San Francisco, where she supported him. Some sources tell stories of Victoria becoming a “cigar girl” at a place called the Californian. (Cigar girls were really low-level prostitutes who sold favors instead of cigars.) Other sources say her income came from her work as a seamstress to actress Anna Cogswell. When this wasn’t enough to sustain them, Victoria took to the stage herself. She is known to have held the role of “the country cousin” in New York by Gaslight for six weeks. That was when she met actress Josie Mansfield, who would later play an important role in Victoria’s life as a stockbroker.

One night, while on stage, she had a vision of Tennie standing with her mother, calling to her to come home. She left the theater immediately, still in costume. The next day, she and her family took a steamer to New York, where her parents were living. In 1863, while in New York, Victoria gave birth to a second child, their daughter, Zulu (or Zula) Maude. The story goes that the poor babe nearly bled to death after birth because her drunk father either cut the cord too short or failed to tie it off properly, leaving her and her mother, who was passed out with exhaustion, in favor of the local pub.

Victoria left Canning shortly thereafter, plying her trade as a healer and medium in Chicago and Terre Haute, Indiana. She continued to support Canning, even though they were no longer together (I haven’t found any sources that say where he went when she left him, but it’s obvious he kept track of her movements). In her job, women came to Victoria to unburden themselves with tales of sexual abuse, maltreatment, neglect, sickness, poverty and oppression – all of which she had suffered in her young life. She tried to help them with her gifts as best she could. But she never forgot them; they were her inspiration to fight for women throughout her later work with the Suffrage Movement and her candidacy for President.

Canning Reappears
Canning just couldn’t leave Victoria alone. About a year and a half after she remarried (which will be the subject of next week’s post), Canning was delirious with illness (likely caused by his alcohol and morphine addictions) and called for her. Victoria and James brought him back to their house and took care of him for six weeks. He paid them and they said he was welcome any time. From that day on, when he needed her, he came. After a while, he became a permanent resident in her home until he died. Victoria knew others were scandalized by it – in fact the revelation that she was living simultaneously with her former and current husband was front page news after in came out in an 1871 court trial – but she considered it her Christian duty to take care of him, and defended her decision for the rest of her life.

Have you heard of Canning Woodhull? What do you think of his story? Any questions?


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.







2 thoughts on “Victoria Woodhull’s  First Husband: Canning Woodhull

  1. Just now catching up with Victoria’s story as conveyed in your blog posts. Yes, these are “the facts,” but I can’t wait to see what you do with them in your novel!

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