Victoria Woodhull’s Bold/Stupid Move Before Election Day

3-31-11_wideAs Americans watch the end of the craziest political season to date, it seems like a good time to look back at the bold/stupid (depending on how you look at it) move that led to Victoria Woodhull’s campaign downfall.

The summer of 1872 was very hard for Victoria. She was ill with a mysterious aliment that couldn’t be diagnosed and that recurred several times over three months. Her beloved newspaper shut down due to lack of funds. She had already been forced to sell her Murray Hill mansion, and then was kicked out of several hotels, while others wouldn’t rent a room to her (no one wanted to be associated with her or the controversy that surrounded her). She and her family (husband, kids, parents, brothers and sisters) lived for while in the Woodhull & Claflin brokerage offices, but when the landlord found out, he raised her rent so high they were forced to abandon even that location, so that they were homeless for a few days. In desperation, she sent a note to Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, asking for his help to get one of the hotels to let them stay there. He curtly refused.

Her sister, Maggie, eventually managed to rent a place for them to stay under an assumed name. Victoria was tired and still ill, worn out from the whirlwind of her year, which had started off so promising. In September, at a meeting of the National Convention of American Spiritualists in Boston, she decided to finally spill the beans on Rev. Henry Ward Beecher – revealing her long-kept secret that the married preacher was having an affair with Lib Tilton, wife of Theodore Tilton, Victoria’s former lover.

Not satisfied by this small audience – and perhaps in revenge for Rev. Beecher’s refusal to come to her aid in her hour of need – Victoria began plotting on a larger scale. She and Tennie would resurrect Woodhul & Claflin’s Weekly for one more explosive issue (though this didn’t turn out to be its last, only its most famous) that would right two long-hidden wrongs. While Victoria told every detail of the Beecher-Tilton scandal she could recall in a fake interview format, Tennie penned a story about the night a businessman named Luther Challis relieved a young girl of her virginity, likely against her will. Her lead in to the story included this passage:

“We propose to take leading personages from each of the several pursuits of life and lay before the world a record of their private careers so that it may no longer appear that their victims are the only frightful examples of immorality. To that end, I give you the story of Mr. L. C. Challis.”

From Victoria:

“I propose aggressive moral warfare on the social question, to begin in this article with ventilating one of the most stupendous scandals which has ever occurred in any community. I refer to the conduct of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in his relations with the family of Theodore Tilton. I intend that this article shall burst like a bombshell into the ranks of the moralistic social camp…he has, in a word, consented and still consents to be a hypocrite. The fault with which I therefore charge him is not infidelity to the old ideas but unfaithfulness to the new.”

Victoria’s “bombshell” was hidden within a seemingly ordinary issue of the newspaper, but that did not stop people from lapping up the scandal inside. According to my sources, the paper sold for 10 cents but by evening 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. More than 250,000 copies sold in three days. The distributor, American News Company, refused to replace it on the stands after the first 100,000 copies were sold so newsboys came to their offices to get them in person. Some copies were bought and destroyed by Beecher’s supporters, for the article called in to question the idea of marriage as a bedrock of society.

But in the end, it wasn’t Victoria’s story that landed both sisters in jail on Election Day; it was Tennie’s. In telling her tale of  Luther Challis’ lewd behavior, Tennie used a line that, although also quoted in the Bible (Deuteronomy), was considered obscene. “To prove he had seduced a maiden, he carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity.” Then, when they were tricked into mailing a copy of the paper to Anthony Comstock, the country’s self-appointed moral guardian, they were arrested for sending obscene material through the mail.

One might logically ask what she was thinking, loosing stories like this right before the election? I know I wanted to shake Victoria for her stupidity when I was researching this part of her life. No one knows for certain why she did it – but signs point to a woman who was at her wits end and no longer cared what happened to her. She had to know that Rev. Beecher was the most beloved, popular preacher in the country and that his followers would be upset, and possibly seek revenge. She had to know releasing these stories would do nothing for her reputation. I honestly don’t think this was a strategic “October surprise” like we’re used to seeing now. I think it was an act of revenge by a woman who was beyond her breaking point and no longer had anything to lose. Only, I’m positive neither she nor Tennie or James or anyone else expected Comstock to react to Tennie’s article the way he did. They likely anticipated libel charges by Beecher (which never happened) and Chalis (which took several days and were ultimately dismissed). I certainly don’t think anyone thought Victoria and Tennie would spend Election Day in jail.

Was it a case of ego gone wild? A thirst for justice that backfired? Or was she so blinded by revenge that she couldn’t see the possible outcomes? Or maybe another factor altogether that history has missed. I wish I knew because the line of events breaks my heart. I wish I could go back and say “don’t you see what you’re doing to yourself?” But I can’t. At least I can tell her story.

Why do you think Victoria took such a risk so close to the election? What could possibly have been going on in her mind? 

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2 thoughts on “Victoria Woodhull’s Bold/Stupid Move Before Election Day

  1. I found this a relevant and interesting story, especially given the similarities to the issues dominating our electoral campaign season now.

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