The Melodrama of History (or Yes, They Really Said That)

quoteWhen question of history or research arises that I am aware of I will break my rule of not responding to criticism because I want to present the facts. A few people have been mentioned that some of the dialogue in Madame Presidentess is melodramatic or over the top. While I don’t know for certain which parts they are talking about, I can think of three areas that may be the culprit and the reason is the same for all: they are actual historical quotes. There certainly could be places where I, as the author, am guilty of being too dramatic, but I have a feeling these are the areas in question. The links in the story below will take you to documents that show the conversations in question.

1) Rev. Henry Ward Beecher/Steinway Hall Meltdown
Drama must run in the Beecher blood because not only was Harriet Beecher Stowe (Henry and Catharine’s sister) a famous novelist, but Henry was very much an over-the-top performer. As a preacher, that makes sense because it would help him get his message across. But his flair for the dramatic also appears to have carried over into his every day conversations. “He was unabashedly theatrical, using his whole body to communicate the full range of human emotion, with dramatic gestures and subtle facial expressions (Applegate 211).” He was also known for his “blunt, colorful language” (Applegate 194) and had a propensity to cry and be overly emotional (Macpherson 121).

In a documented interview with a reporter in the November 2, 1872 issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and later reproduced in several biographies of Victoria, she recalled one of their most dramatic conversations, one which took place when she asked him to introduce her before her speech at Steinway Hall and which I have reproduced with only minor alterations in my novel. The context is that Victoria and  Theodore told Rev. Beecher that it would be best if he publicly espoused the Free Love he practiced in his private life by endorsing Victoria; otherwise it would come to light in some other way.  The historical conversation is as follows:

Theodore Tilton: “Someday you have got to fall; go and introduce this woman and win the radicals of this country and it will break your fall.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “Do you think that this thing will come out to the world?”

Theodore Tilton: “Nothing is more in earth or heaven, Mr. Beecher, and this may be your last chance to save yourself from complete ruin.”

Henry Ward Beecher: “I can never endure such a terror. Oh! If it must come, let me know of it twenty-four hours in advance, that I may take my own life. I cannot, cannot face this thing!’

I couldn’t make this stuff up, folks.

2) Catharine Beecher/The Carriage Ride

Whereas Henry was dramatic, his sister Catharine had a mean streak. Victoria and Catharine Beecher fought often through letters and articles. But there is one particularly dramatic event that is documented by Victoria herself. Isabella Beecher, Catharine’s sister and Victoria’s dear friend, thought the two might be able to get along if they just met in person. (A noble, but misguided notion.) Catharine and Victoria ended up taking a carriage ride through Central Park, in which they discussed several of their philosophical differences in thinking about the proper role of women. Toward the end of the conversation, Catharine freaked out and Victoria told her where to shove it. As recounted by Victoria in the May 17, 1873, issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly and reproduced in Marion Meade’s biography of Victoria, as well as those written by Barbara Goldsmith, Mary Gabriel and many other biographers, here is the actual conversation:

Catharine Beecher: “Evil! I know my brother is unhappy, but he is a true husband. I will vouch for my brother’s faithfulness to his marriage vows as though he were myself.”

Victoria: “But you have no positive knowledge that would justify your doing so.”

Catherine: “No…No positive… I know he is unhappy. Mrs. Beecher is a virago, a constitutional liar, and a terrible woman altogether, so terrible my brother’s friends and family seldom visit. But unfaithful—no. I will hear no more of it.”

Victoria: “You will hear. In concubinage with his parishioner’s wife—it is common knowledge. And if you were a proper person to judge, which I grant you are not, you should see that the facts are fatal to your theories.”

Catharine: “Victoria Woodhull, I will strike you for this. I will strike you dead.”

Victoria: “Strike as much and as hard as you please. Only don’t do it in the dark so I cannot know who is my enemy.”

This is when Catharine yelled for the driver to stop and let her out. Myra MacPherson continues the conversation with Catharine adding, “I will strike at you in every way; I can and will kill you, if possible” (117).

The rest of their conversation in my novel is pulled from letters between the two. A historical cat fight is better than a fictional one any day!

3) Tennie’s Courtroom Testimony

When Anne Claflin (Victoria’s mother) sued Col. Blood (Victoria’s second husband) for alienation of her daughters’ affection, all of Victoria’s dirty laundry came out in open court, a misfortune that dogged her all the way through the end of her candidacy. Despite her mother’s overwrought testimony, the oddest testimony comes from Victoria’s sister, Tennie. She was supposed to be supporting Col. Blood’s side of the case, and she did at first, but through a series of bizarre ramblings, ended up defending her mother.

The following comes from actual court testimony, originally reported in the New York Herald and reproduced in The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull by Lois Beachy Underhill p. 140 and Mary Gabriel’s Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull p. 104:

“I have humbugged people, I know. But if I did, it was to make money to keep these deadheads. I believe in Spiritualism myself. It has set my mother crazy because she commenced to believe when she was too old.” She turned to the judge. “But, Judge, I want my mother. I am willing to take my mother home with me now or pay two hundred a month for her in any safe place. I am afraid she will die under this excitement. I am single myself, and I don’t want anybody with me but my mother.”

Tennie then collasped in sobs and made such a scene that the judge called both lawyers to the bench.

There is no reason given in any of my sources Tennie’s odd behavior, so as a novelist, I chalked it up to her using some of the drugs her sister was addicted to (her sister was an addict, that part is true) to calm her nerves before testifying.

Applegate, Debby. The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher
Doyle, John E. P. “Plymouth church and its pastor,: or, Henry Ward Beecher and his accusers” 
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull
Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage and Scandal in the Gilded Age
Meade, Marion Free Woman: The Life and Times of Victoria Woodhull
Underhill, Lois Beachy The Woman who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull

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? 

Meet Victoria Woodhull’s Friends and Enemies

Last week I gave you a peek inside Victoria’s family. This week, let’s delve into her friends and enemies. That way when I refer to people in subsequent weeks you’ll know who I’m talking about.


Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt – He was one of the country’s first tycoons and the richest man in America in the mid-to-late 1800s. (If you want a good bio, check out The First Tycoon: the Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T. J. Stiles, though the author is not at all favorable in his portrayal of Victoria and Tennie, nor does he believe they had much of a relationship.) Made his money in shipping, railroads and the stock market. Vanderbilt is said to have been quarrelsome and tyrannical, bullied his sons, and had guilt over a wife he abused and betrayed. Sources say he also believed heartily in the spirits and would support any hack, medium or fortune teller to come his way and had an insatiable sexual appetite, hence his interest in Victoria and Tennie, respectively. Some sources say he was not accepted in society because he acted low class, spitting tobacco onto the carpet and was nearly illiterate, while others claim the exact opposite. It’s possible that he was introduced to the sisters by their father.

Vanderbilt liked Victoria and Tennie’s boldness and intelligence. Victoria transmitted messages to him from his mother, Phoebe Hand Van der Bilt, who died 15 year earlier. Tennie’s magnetic healing, upbeat attitude and sexual prowess attracted him and she liked that he swore and played whist, drank gin and smoked cigars. He was smitten with Tennie, whom he called his “little sparrow.”  She called him “old boy” and “old goat.” After only a few months, he asked her to marry him. Her 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, whom she married in 1865. It’s possible she and Vanderbilt had an affair after he remarried, but that is the subject of debate.

He is described as having a Roman nose, blue or black eyes, and white hair. He always wore black with a while cravat tied at the throat. He swore a lot, couldn’t spell, had bad grammar and used spittoons, but he was an honest man, though not above occasional exploits.


Stephen Pearl Andrews

Stephen Pearl Andrews – He was a friend of Victoria’s whom she met through Horace Greeley at one of the parties she and Tennie hosted at Vanderbilt’s hotel suite. He was twice her age, but Victoria was dazzled by his intellect. He taught social theory and reform, reading, writing and individual rights, Free Love, and equitable commerce. He was a big proponent of the idea of utopian society, and by the time he met her, had already established and disbanded two utopian colonies. Victoria backed him financially and allowed her rooms to be used my his utopian group, Pantarchy. He was the Pantarch. She became good friends with his second wife, Ester Andrews, a herbalist and magnetic healer. Ester participated in séances with the two.

Stephen also helped Victoria be precise in her calls for prison reform, relief for the poor and improvement of management of foreign policy. He may have been the one to poison her against Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, as the two men had a personal feud. He also was a member of the International Workingman’s Association, Section 12, and a contributor to her paper.

He is described as 6’2”, with bright blue eyes, disorderly hair and a full beard he wore in two points.

Theodore Tilton

Theodore Tilton

Theodore Tilton – He was a well known reformer, friends with President Lincoln – whom Tilton didn’t think was progressive enough on slavery – well known for his support of abolition and led the impeachment of President Andrew Jackson. He was also friends with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Fredrick Douglass. In his off time, he wrote poetry and lectured. He was a big proponent of the women’s suffrage movement.

His wife, Elizabeth (Lib) Tilton, had an affair with well-known preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Tilton was said to not be kind to her, asking her to stay away from him at suffrage conventions.

He may have met Victoria at one of the suffrage conventions, but it is certain they met after she ran an article in her newspaper speaking of Beecher’s affair with Lib in veiled terms. Of all her possible lovers, he is the most likely. He wrote her biography, which even contemporaries said was grossly exaggerated, and was panned by critics in all circles except for Spiritualists, at which it was aimed.

He stood by Victoria for a long time, even introducing her infamous Free Love speech, but eventually he turned against her in favor of Horace Greeley, whom he campaigned for in the election of 1872, hoping to replace him as editor of the New York Tribune, when Greeley became President.

Theodore Tilton went on to sue Henry Ward Beecher for willful alienation of his wife’s affections on January 11, 1875. That trial, which was the O.J. Simpson case of its time, lasted six months, riveting the nation with its tale of sex and scandal. The trial ended in a hung jury and Beecher was never convicted.

Tilton is described as a handsome blond who shaved, which was unusual for the time and usually associated with the Free Love set. He was tall, at 6′ 3″, and known for his good looks, sparkling conversation and many extramarital affairs.

Henry Ward Beecher. Does anyone else see a resemblance between him and Jon Stewart?

Henry Ward Beecher. Does anyone else see a resemblance between him and Jon Stewart?

Henry Ward Beecher – Rev. Beecher was one of the most famous and highly regarded preachers of the late 19th century in America. Despite this, he was widely rumored to “preach to as many as 20 of his mistresses on any given Sunday.” Though he never spoke publicly about Victoria’s accusation of his affair with Lib Tilton, he never sued her for libel, either. As mentioned above, Beecher was never convicted in Titon’s trial against him. In fact, he came out of the matter more popular and richer than ever, with his church members paying for the cost of the trial.

His sister, Isabella, was a great friend of Victoria’s, but his other sisters, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (yes, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) hated Victoria and did everything they could to discredit her.

He is described as melodramatic and is known to have cried a lot. He was around 60 when he met Victoria. He had stringy, graying hair, pensive eyes and flaccid jowls. He weighed over 200 pounds. He loved precious stones, especially opals, which he carried in his pocket and jingled in his hand like most men did with change.

Benjamin Butler -I think he looks like Dennis Franz.

Benjamin Butler -I think he looks like Dennis Franz.

Representative Benjamin Butler – The most powerful man in the House of Representatives – he even had the ear of President Grant – this Republican from Massachusetts was a dear friend of Victoria’s and the reason she was able to become the first woman to testify before Congress about suffrage. He was a strong proponent of the women’s suffrage movement and encouraged the idea that the Constitution already provided women the right to vote, and idea begun by Virginia Minor and carried on by Victoria.

He was a strong advocate of Victoria’s from the beginning. Due to the long hours the two spent together, rumor circulated that the two were having an affair. Supposedly he offered to help her get in front of Congress in exchange “for the opportunity to feast his eyes on her naked person.” When rumors to this effect were brought to his attention, he responded with the enigmatic, “Half truths kill.”

I personally don’t think they had an affair. Benjamin Butler is described as toad-like, short and plump with an overly large head and sunken eyes engulfed in flesh. One of his eyelids drooped and he wattled when he walked. Yet, his vitality and power is said to have attracted many women.

Josie Mansfield

Josie Mansfield

Josie Mansfield – Josie is an interesting person. She and Victoria met when they were both actresses in San Francisco. Later, they reunited in New York, when Josie was a prostitute at a brothel at which Victoria worked as a healer. The story goes that Josie married an actor and moved East. They divorced and she tried to make it in the theatre, but failed, turning to prostitution.

That was how she met Vanderbilt’s business rival, Jim Frisk. Josie began to entertain him in November 1867, withholding her affections for three months. He paid her overdue rent at a room on Lexington and installed her at the American Club hotel in a suite. He bought her a room full of dresses, gave her $50,000 in cash and five times that in emeralds. A year later her bought her a house in her own name at 359 West 23rd and supplied her with servants. Despite this apparent infatuation, he once said she was more temperamental than an opera diva.

He sent messengers to Josie several times a day outlining his plans, so she knew all his business ventures. Eventually, she became Victoria’s informant, giving Victoria the stock tips she got from “the spirits” and fed to Vanderbilt. This continued until early 1872, when Jim Fisk was murdered and Josie fled to Paris under a cloud of suspicion.

Josie is described as buxom and photographs show a woman who would be considered curvy by today’s standards, with long, curly dark hair.

This is by no means a complete list. Victoria was also friends/enemies with suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Paulina Wright Davis and Laura Cuppy Smith. Other supporters included Jesse Grant and his son, President Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass.

Among her enemies: Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Horace Greeley and Anthony Comstock (of the Comstock anti-obscenity laws).

What do you think about Victoria’s friends and enemies? Did you know about any of them before? What else do you want to know?


Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights.
Fox, Richard Wightman. Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal .
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.
“Hand and Vanderbilt: A Sketch of Grandmother Vanderbilt’s Early Life”
Havelin, Kate. Victoria Woodhull.
Krull, Kathleen. A Woman for President – The Story of Victoria Woodhull.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Stiles, T.J. The First Tycoon : the Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Tilton, Theodore. The Golden Age Tract No. 3 “Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch.”
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.