10 Stranger Than Fiction Things About Victoria Woodhull’s Life

victoria-woodhullAs Madame Presidentess makes its way into the world through ARCs and giveaways (you can pre-order now, enter a giveaway to win a copy, or wait for it to come out July 25), it’s suddenly occurred to me that there are quite a few elements in it that might be taken as implausible fictions on my part, but are actually true, at least according to Victoria’s biographers (and I stand by my sources). The truth of Victoria’s life is hard to pin down, at least in part because later in life she often contradicted herself or outright denied what she’d previously said or done in order to change her reputation. I spell out what is real and what is not in the Author’s Notes at the end of the book, but I thought I’d list 10 things here so I could talk about them a bit.

WARNING: SOME OF THESE MAY BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS.

  1. The grist mill fire and its consequences – The Claflin’s grist mill did burn to the ground when Victoria was young. The cause is up for debate. Some people speculate that it was insurance fraud on Buck’s (Victoria’s father) part, as he was known to be a swindler, but her mother, Annie, maintained it was a terrible accident. Regardless of the cause, the Claflin family was run out of town, with the church taking up a collection to help speed them on their way. (Barbara Goldsmith even goes so far as to suggest the townspeople were considering tarring and feathering Buck.)
  2. Canning Woodhull’s philandering – Victoria’s first husband was well-known for his love of brothels. She told a story that she found him in one a mere three days after their wedding. Her biographers also say he received a letter from a former mistress who he shipped off to another town so he could marry Victoria asking if he married Victoria because she, too, was pregnant.
  3. Victoria’s daughter Zula almost died at birth – This is a crazy one. Canning claimed to be a doctor, but he really didn’t have much training. The story goes that he was so drunk/stoned when Zula was born that he either cut the umbilical cord too short or didn’t tie it off properly, and then left to go to the local tavern. When Victoria awoke with the baby in her arms, she was covered in blood. She was alone and didn’t know what to do, so she had to beat on the wall with a piece of broken furniture (not sure why that’s what she picked) to get the neighbors’ attention. They came running, but the doors were locked and Victoria was too weak to get up and unlock them. Finally, one of the neighbors climbed in through a grate in the basement.
  4. Annie’s antics – Victoria’s mother did some pretty outrageous things. She took her own son-in-law (Victoria’s second husband, James) to court on the grounds he stole Victoria and Tennie’s affection from him. Annie and Victoria’s sister Utica were known to raid Victoria and Tennie’s clothes and jewelry and pawn them even though Victoria paid all of their expenses. Annie also was a known serial blackmailer.
  5. Victoria’s clairvoyant and healing powers – Victoria maintained all her life that she had been in contact with the spirits since she was a child. Her mother also convinced her that she was a healer. Her father put her and her sister, Tennie (also a healer), to work at a young age using those skills to make money. This may well have been an extension of his other illegitimate activities. But accounts of the sisters’ healing and psychic sessions exist and at least some of their clients believed in their abilities. Obviously, we have no way of proving whether or not they were real, but Victoria seemed to believe they were.
  6. The strange men at Victoria and Tennie’s opening day on Wall Street – This was another detail too crazy not to include. According to a contemporary account reported in The Sun and reprinted in Gary Gabriel’s biography Notorious Victoria, Mr. Edward Van Schalck and several friends made multiple visits to the firm on its opening day for apparently no good reason. Each time they would come it would be in a different sized group from 1-4 people and the would change their clothing, and sometimes their appearance (one time Mr. Van Schalck was freshly shaved and how he wore his hair varied). They would ask a question or chat with those in the office, leave, and come back again 20 minutes to a few hours later. This went on throughout the day until they made a visit after office hours and were told the office was closed. No reason is given for this odd behavior. (I have a reason in my book, but that’s where fiction comes in.)
  7. Victoria’s meeting with President Grant – There is no written record of her meeting with the President, but biographers are pretty sure it did occur at some point when she was in Washington D.C. Victoria never told anyone what happened during the meeting, but somehow it is tradition that the President said “you will one day occupy this seat,” referring to the Presidential chair. Also, in the book when the President talks about his views on suffrage, I took that from things he is known to have said.
  8. Victoria’s conversations with Reverend Henry Beecher – Perhaps the most dramatic dialogue in the novel comes from Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Where possible, it is taken from actual accounts of Victoria’s conversations with him as written in various biographies, especially “Other Powers” by Barbara Goldsmith. If these accounts are to be believed, he was rather melodramatic in his pleading with her to be excused from the responsibility of introducing her at a speech she was planning to give on Free Love.
  9. Victoria’s love affair with Theodore Tilton – Depending on which biography you read, Victoria is rumored to have had up to four affairs while she was married to Col. James Blood. Whether or not they were actually affairs is up for debate, because Victoria and James practiced Free Love – not open promiscuity, but rather the belief that one should be able to take and leave one’s partners as the heart dictates without interference from the state. If this was like having an open marriage, then there is no guilt, no affair. Anyway, the one affair most biographers agree upon is with Theodore Tilton, who worked for Victoria’s paper and wrote her biography. The two are an unlikely couple, especially what she knew about his wife’s claims of verbal abuse, but I guess love really is blind.
  10. Victoria’s running mate – Strange as it may seem, Victoria’s running mate was Frederick Douglass. He was nominated by her Equal Rights Party (I never did find a definitive answer on whether or not she picked him or the party picked him for her.) Either way, having a ticket with a woman and a black man in 1872 was unheard of. For his part, Mr. Douglass never asked to be taken off the ballot, but he never agreed to it, either. As the 1872 election drew near, he publicly came out in favor of President Grant.

Bonus – There is a really odd story in the biography Victoria directed Theodore Tilton to write where she paints herself like a modern-day Jesus. The short version is that while Victoria had been away, her mentally retarded son, Byron became ill and died. When Victoria came home, she was determined that he was not dead. She held him to her breast and cried that he would live. After some time holding him and praying, he began to stir and recovered. I realize that he might not actually have been dead, perhaps in a coma and they didn’t know the difference, or maybe this story was made up, but either way, it was too odd for me to use, even in fiction.

What do you think is the most outrageous element of Victoria’s story? Which part are you most looking forward to reading in Madame Presidentess?

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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