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?

Sources:

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.

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