If Victoria Woodhull lived now, she would totally have a blog. I say that because she ran her own newspaper (along with her sister Tennie) and newspapers were the blogs of the mid-to-late nineteenth century in America. People had flame wars in the papers just like they do on social media and in the comments today. (Oh, how little things change!)
Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was Victoria and Tennie’s paper. They started it in 1870 as a way to get Victoria’s message out to the public as a presidential candidate. (Much the same way I use this blog to get my message as an author out to you.) Victoria was able to gain far more media and public attention by producing her own paper than she would have if she relied on the mainstream media of the day, which was fickle at best, especially toward women. She is rumored to have said something like “I have a mouthpiece [in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly] and I intend to use it.”
There is no doubt that Victoria’s friend former journalist Stephen Pearl Andrews and her second husband, Col. James Blood were instrumental in making the paper run. Stephen had a regular column and James acted as Victoria’s silent secretary, in addition to contributing articles of his own. Tennie was also a regular contributor.
As it started as a women’s rights and suffrage publication, Victoria often ran copies of her speeches in the paper, and even published the memorial (petition) she read before Congress so that everyone could read it. She frequently asked readers to petition Congress and their local leaders. But she also wrote about other topics that were important to her, such as marriage reform (aka Free Love), fraud by the government and police (such as police involvement in prostitution bribes so the women could avoid arrest) and corruption in business (she called out all the big names of her day including Astor and her friend Vanderbilt). Notably, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was the first paper to print an English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. (Victoria and her group were leaders in Section 12 of the International Workingmen’s Association, which Marx led for a time.)
Victoria wanted Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to be about everything that touches women’s lives. This included women’s education; female doctors being recognized by The Medical Gazette and attending the Pinter’s convention in Cincinnati; and alcoholism treated at a nursing home in Brooklyn as a disease rather than a moral failing. Victoria also reported on the careers of famous female lecturers such as Anna Dickinson, Kate Field and Laura C. Holloway, as well as on her friends’ political and business activities.
Unsold copies were mailed to daily newspapers and influential people for free. Positive feedback was printed as part of Victoria’s PR campaign. With two years, women were writing Victoria and Tennie in droves with comments, topic suggestions and even submitting articles. At one point Victoria had so many suggestions, she had to close the women’s section.
All was well for the paper until Victoria’s life fell into turmoil during the summer of 1872. Due to her increasing radicalism and an unfortunate series of events, Victoria lost her fortune and her home and was forced to stop printing her beloved paper on June 15.
But the presses were silent for only a short time. On October 28 of that year, Victoria burst back on the scene with her most explosive issue ever, one that would become known as “The Scandal Issue” and land her in jail for her own election day. In it, she printed an article exposing the extramarital affair of beloved preacher Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. In the same issue, Tennie wrote a scathing account of broker Luther Challis seducing two young virgins at a public ball years before.
The paper normally sold for 10 cents but by evening of the first day that issue was available, people were paying $2.50. The first run of 10,000 copies sold quickly. Some people rented theirs to read for $1.00 a day. One copy even sold for $40.
Three days later, Tennie and Victoria were charged with sending obscene material through the mail. Anthony Comstock set them up by requesting that a copy of the issue be mailed to him. Comstock then tipped off authorities, seeing himself as a guardian of public morals. (As the sponsor of the anti-obscenity law that bore his name, he also got half the fines paid by people arrested on obscenity charges. Some sources say that members of Rev. Beecher’s church may have put Comstock up to his actions.)
While they were in jail, police searched the offices, seizing and destroying the presses. But once Victoria and Tennie were finally released from jail months later (found innocent of all charges), the Weekly started up again and ran until June 10, 1876, when Victoria decided she was finally tired of it.
I have yet to be able to see Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly in person, though high-quality images to do exist online and Arlene Kisner’s book reproduces some of its articles. According to at least one web site, Washington University here in St. Louis has copies of it, but I haven’t been able to get anyone to respond to my requests about it.
Had you ever heard of this revolutionary paper? What more do you want to know 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.
Kisner, Arlene. The Lives and Writings of Notorious Victoria Woodhull and Her Sister Tennessee Claflin.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.