Victoria Woodhull – Spiritualist

My favorite picture of Victoria (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite picture of Victoria (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I promised I’d get back to the historical posts and today I’m making good on that. Spiritualism is something I hadn’t paid much attention to before I started researching Victoria’s life. I actually had no idea it dated back to before the Civil War; I associated it more with the seances and Ouija boards of the WWI time period. But, not for the first time, I was wrong.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, here’s a brief definition of Spiritualism from Encyclopedia Britannica. It’s “a movement based on the belief that departed souls can interact with the living. Spiritualists sought to make contact with the dead, usually through the assistance of a medium, a person believed to have the ability to contact spirits directly. Some mediums worked while in a trance-like state, and some claimed to be the catalyst for various paranormal physical phenomena (including the materializing or moving of objects) through which the spirits announced their presence.”

A Brief History of Spiritualism
Spiritualism was popular from about the 1840s – 1920s, peaking during times of crisis like the Civil War and WWI when widows and families left behind attempted to contact their departed relatives.

The Fox sisters

The Fox sisters (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Although it has connections to the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, most Spiritualists date the founding of their movement (at least in America) to March 1848 when two of the Fox sisters from Upstate New York claimed they made contact with a spirit through a series of raps or knocks. They became famous almost immediately and many people sought to emulate their fame, including Buck Claflin. (The Fox sisters later admitted to the whole thing being a hoax affected by cracking their toes.)

Mediums used a variety of techniques to contact the spirits including going into trances, conducting seances, channeling automatic writing, using planchettes (but not Ouija boards until 1890), table turning/vibrating/levitating, and more.

It is interesting to note that during the 19th century, women were discouraged from speaking in public forums. Doing so was thought to bring shame upon their father/husband and family. However, women were taken seriously when they acted as mediums, for it was not them speaking, but the spirits through them. It’s possible that many female Spiritualists, Victoria included, used their “gifts” as a way of being able to subvert the gender expectations of their time.

Spiritualism is still practiced today, largely through Spiritualist Churches and as part of the New Age movement.

350px-Spirit_rappings_coverpage_to_sheet_music_1853

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Victoria Woodhull, Spiritualist from Childhood
Victoria’s mother, Annie Claflin, was a Spiritualist who passed her beliefs on to her daughters, especially Victoria and Tennie. From a young age, they both showed signs of clairvoyance. (For the sake of argument, let’s pretend the gifts were real; I think she believed they were and no one knows if they were real or were just imagination or a coping method for two abused girls.) Victoria mentions in her biography (dictated to Theodore Tilton) that from the time she was five, she could commune with two of her sisters who died as babies (Odessa and Delia) and her childhood caretaker, Rachel Scribner. (There are stranger tales of the spirits in her biography, but we’ll let those go for now.)

Victoria believed her personal spirit guide was the Greek orator Demosthenes, whom she saw and conversed with from an early age. But she was 30 before he revealed his name to her. According to Victoria, he prophesied that she would rise to greatness in a city filled with ships, speak before large crowds, and become ruler of her people.

Victoria’s father, Buck, took advantage of his daughters’ gifts and put them to work as clairvoyants and magnetic healers (another gift passed down from Annie) when they were young teenagers. He worked them for 13 hours a day, charging $1 per person.

It is said Victoria followed the advice of the spirits as she moved around the country with her first husband and children, letting them direct where they went. Later on, Demosthenes directed her to St. Louis, where she met her second husband Col. James Blood (who happened to be President of the St. Louis Society of Spiritualists) and they were”betrothed by the powers of the air.” Demosthenes later directed her to New York, where she, Tennie and their family would find success in the stock market and in politics.

I haven’t been able to find a solid account of how exactly Victoria contacted the spirits (I chose the most common methods, seance and trance, for my novel). But we know she continued practicing throughout her career and likely throughout her life. She said that the spirits directed her speeches (they were the ones who inspired her to reveal what she knew about Henry Ward Beecher and his affair with Lib Tilton). Cornelius Vanderbilt employed Victoria as a medium. When asked how he became so rich in the stock market,  reportedly said, “do as I do, consult the spirits.” (It’s much more likely Victoria got her stock tips through human connections than from the spirit world.) According to Tilton, “every night, around 11 p.m. or midnight, two or three times a week, [Victoria and James] held court with the spirits. When she entered into a trance, her husband dictated what she said and saw. When she woke, she often had no memory of what transpired.” Victoria was so prominent in the Spiritualist community that she served as President of the American Association of Spiritualists.

Recommended Sources
If you want to read a great book on Spiritualism during Victoria’s lifetime, check out Barbara Goldsmith’s Other Powers, The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. It’s a long book, but the most in-depth on the subject I’ve found.

Most biographies of Victoria mention her Spiritualism. I also recommend the following articles:

Spiritualism in Encyclopedia Britannica http://www.britannica.com/topic/spiritualism-religion

Hix, Lisa. “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead.” Collector’s Weekly. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/ghosts-in-the-machines-the-devices-and-defiant-mediums-that-spoke-for-the-spirits/

“The annual convention of the American Association of Spiritualists in Boston, Massachusetts, 1872.”  The Banner of Light, The Boston Investigator, The New-York Times, The Brooklyn Eaglehttp://spirithistory.iapsop.com/1872_american_association_of_spiritualists.html

What had you heard about Spiritualism before this post? Did you know Victoria practiced? What do more would you like to know about it?

A Primer on Women’s Life in 19th Century America

19th century womanI’m getting closer to being able to tell all of you exactly who my next historical fiction book is about. I sent it off to the freelance editor whom I worked with on the first Guinevere book yesterday, as well as the first reader. I should get edits back in 4-6 weeks, then I’ll put it out for a quick beta read and be able to finally reveal her identity.

Until then, I thought I’d give you a brief taste of what life was like for a woman during the period of my novel (mid-late 1800s in America). As with my previous post about the new book, I’m not listing my sources yet because their titles would give away who my main character is. I’ll come back and add them as soon as I can.

The early 19th century had seen mostly traditional female roles centered around hearth, home and babies. But as war always seems to do, the Civil War gave some women an additional measure of independence, mostly out of necessity while her husband/father/brothers/sons were off fighting. However, after the cannon fire stopped echoing through the valleys and the guns went silent, she was expected to resume her traditional role.

Behavior
Personal ambition in a woman was considered evil. She was expected to obey her father or her husband without complaint. The less she showed intelligence, the better off she was. In fact, the quieter and more sickly looking a woman was – frail, thin, pale, prone to fainting – the more attractive she was. (Ironically, she had little recourse if she actually was sickly. Many male doctors believed all women were inherently diseased and refused to treat them.)

There were social taboos against women speaking in public. To call attention to oneself in public was unladylike and considered a form of treachery to one’s husband because when she strayed from her proper place in the home, a woman caused him shame. An interesting exception to this rule was made for mediums, who were exempt because they were instruments of God’s will. (More on the Spiritualism craze of the day in a future post.)

Laws
Unsurprisingly, the law was not on a woman’s side, especially if she was unmarried, divorced, or widowed. Women couldn’t vote, serve on juries or testify in court.

Beating a woman was not illegal, but some laws stipulated how large of an object could be used. (Thanks for that, lawmakers.)  A married woman had no recourse if she was beaten and she couldn’t deny sex to her husband. As a result, families were large. Unwanted infants were wrapped in rags and abandoned on doorsteps or tossed in the river.

Women were considered property of their husbands. Divorce was legal, but the laws by which it was enforced or allowed varied by state. In many, adultery was the only reason a woman could ask for a divorce. And if she did, she faced steep consequences: she could lose her property, children and reputation.

Work
Some women did work, usually out of necessity, and many made barely enough to keep themselves alive. Acceptable occupations included teaching (there were even some schools for girls by the second half of the century), factory work and domestic service. Wages paid to married women went straight to their husbands.

Prostitution was very common and in many ways, much accepted, at least for men. It was expected that young, unmarried men would frequent brothels. It was also acceptable for married men to go there. After all, sex within marriage wasn’t about pleasure; it was about procreation. In many areas of the country, guidebooks to the local brothels were created and disseminated among the male population, rating the establishments, profiling certain women and giving a summary of ambiance and services offered.

Sex
In polite society, parts of the body normally covered by clothing were referred to only in whispers. Words related to sex – even pregnancy, rape and abortion – weren’t used in among anyone with class.

While a man could do as he pleased within or outside of marriage, a woman adultery was highly shamed, as was a woman who wasn’t a virgin on her wedding night.

Despite the acceptance of prostitution, the prostitutes themselves were considered the lowest class of woman. They were forbidden a Christian burial and could not get proper medical care. (Another ironic medical assumption of the day: women could carry sexually transmitted diseases, but could not become infected with them. Some doctors believed that all sexually transmitted diseases originated with women. The condom was originally developed to shield a man from diseases a woman might be carrying, not as contraception.)

Suffrage Movement
I’ll do a detailed post on the early years of the suffrage movement soon, but for now, let’s just say it was a haven for women who didn’t believe in the status quo. Most the exceptions to societies norms were involved in the suffrage movement. Women who were the first to receive degrees of higher education (especially in the areas of law and medicine) were involved. These women were not only campaigning for the right to vote; they were voices for change for women on all fronts.

Spiritualism
If a woman was clairvoyant, she could find a degree of power because she was allowed to speak and people listened. Spiritualists also sought temperance laws to protect women from abuse by drunken husbands and favored vegetarianism because they saw the killing of animals as a form of male violence. Many were involved in creating Utopian communities were women and men were considered equal and Free Love was the norm. (More on that to come as well.)

What questions do you have about women in the 19th century? What did you already know? What surprises you?