The Bewitching Brokers Shatter Wall Street’s Male-Only Tradition

Bewitching BrokersCombine a Kardashian store opening with a Justin Beiber concert and throw in a visiting foreign dignitary, and you may begin to get the idea of how much chaos the opening of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin’s stock brokerage on February 5, 1870, created.

Contemporary accounts place the crowds at as many as 4,000, with people (mostly men) pushing and shoving to catch sight of the audacious women.  A hundred policemen were called out to keep the peace. That didn’t stop the yelling and jeers of protesters who were ready to physically carry the women back home where they belonged. Men peered in the windows all day long, lifting one another up and calling out if they caught sight of Victoria or Tennie.

030570mWhen it opened for business that morning, Woodhull, Claflin and Co., became the first female-owned American company that bought and sold stocks. The press quickly crowned its owners “The Queens of Finance,” the “Sensation of New York,” and “The Bewitching Brokers.”

The office, located on Broad Street (at Wall Street), was just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange and only four doors up from rival broker, Jim Fisk. The interior was described in the papers as more like an elegant parlor than a business office, with oil paintings on the wall, statues in the corners, a piano, and ample upholstered sofas and chairs. A small framed cross-stitch on one wall declared “simply to the cross I cling,” next to a photo of Mr. Vanderbilt. The sisters did business at solid wood desks inlaid with gold (left by the previous owners, who were criminals and had to flee in a hurry – seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up) and had a ticker-tape machine at the ready.

A unique aspect of the building was that it had a back entrance for women who might not feel comfortable doing business with men. It was separated from the rest of the office by a walnut partition decorated with glass. In the women’s-only area, Victoria and Tennie served champagne and chocolate covered strawberries to their clients, who passed on business gossip as well as bought and sold stocks. Unsurprisingly, given the sisters’ previous healing and medium work at brothels, many of their early female clients were madams and their girls. But eventually independently wealthy women, suffragists, and the wives of businessmen became clients as well.

TennieTheir clients that first day were a combination of well known business figures such as Peter Cooper, Jay Cooke, and Daniel Drew – even poet Walt Whitman paid them a visit – and curiosity seekers. Among the questionably sane who dropped by were two men, Edward Van Schalck and Hugh Hastings, who returned several times throughout the day, dressed differently each time, though no one knows why. Sometimes it was one or both of them, other times they returned with a group of friends to heckle Victoria and Tennie. After one of their disruptions, a sign was affixed to the front door, stating, “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.”

The firm did brisk business, with some sources citing an unverified claim supposedly made by Victoria that they made $700,000 in two years. It appears the business began to falter in 1871, a time when Victoria was focused on the paper and her political campaign, leaving her husband, James – the firm’s silent partner – and Tennie to deal with clients who were disgruntled over the sisters’ misguided speculation in gold. Over the next two years, as Victoria became more outspoken and brazen in airing her views on women and worker’s rights as part of her Presidential campaign, the firm slowly lost clients. By summer 1873, Victoria and Tennie were out of money and the firm existed in name only.

It would be another 94 years before there was another woman on Wall Street. (Muriel Siebert was the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, on December 28, 1967)

How much did you know about Victoria and Tennie’s role on Wall Street? What do you think of them? What questions do you have?

Sources:

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.

MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.

Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

An Unlikely Partnership: Victoria Woodhull and Cornelius Vanderbilt

Victoria and Tennie with a client, possibly Vanderbilt

Victoria and Tennie with a client, possibly Vanderbilt

In 1868 when Victoria Woodhull moved to New York at the urging of her spirit guide, she had no idea that within a short time, she’d end up being friends with the wealthiest man in the country. That man was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad and shipping tycoon.

No one knows exactly how Victoria and Vanderbilt met. Some biographies skim over it, while others speculate it may have been through her father or even simply general social mingling. It was well known that 73 year old Vanderbilt had a penchant for psychics and mediums, so he may have sought them out or vice versa.

One way or another, Victoria and Tennie called on him as clairvoyants who could make stock market predictions. Or if he preferred, they were also healers who could restore his health and happiness.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Vanderbilt was immediately taken with beautiful, charming Tennie, whom he called his “little sparrow.” He asked her to marry him in 1868, not long after his wife died. Tennie’s 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, with whom she had no contact. It’s widely believed Tennie and Vanderbilt had an affair that lasted at least five years, and continued when he married again.

Tennie’s affair may have influenced Vanderbilt’s admiration for the sisters, but he was equally impressed with Victoria. While in a trance, she would relay messages from his deceased mother and children and also tell him what stocks would go up.  While she may have had extraordinary powers (who can prove she didn’t?), her stock tips really came from her friend Josie Mansfield, a former actress turned prostitute whom she met while acting in San Francisco. Josie was mistress to Vanderbilt’s business rival, Jim Fisk.

This relationship set Victoria up to become a very rich woman, as Vanderbilt split the profits with her if her tips were right. Then on September 24, 1869, the stock market crashed, the very first Black Friday.  Women were not allowed on the trading floor, so Victoria sat outside in her carriage, sending men in with orders to buy. Both she and Vanderbilt came out on top, thanks to a warning from Josie, and avoided the calamity that drove many to poverty and suicide. When asked how he was so successful, Vanderbilt reportedly said, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”

This one historic day of trading enabled Victoria and Tennie to afford to open their own firm (more on this next week), becoming the first female stock brokers ever on Wall Street. How they were qualified to trade stocks is up to debate. Their father may have taught them a little about finance and law, or they may have learned from Vanderbilt. One thing is certain, they weren’t afraid to enter a man’s world.

Their firm, Woodhull, Claflin and Co., opened on February 5, 1870. Tennie told reporters that day that Vanderbilt “inspired the new undertaking.” He never publicly admitted to financially backing their business, but he likely did. At the very least it was his connections that enabled them to open the firm in the first place. Victoria and Tennie encouraged public association of their names with his by keeping his picture on their office wall. He was also likely the silent backer of their newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.

It appears Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennie maintained a strong relationship until 1872, when an increasingly bold and erratic Victoria began calling out the rich and powerful who depend on the labor of the poor, including Vanderbilt, in her paper and in her speeches.  In February 1872, she gave a speech entitled “The Impending Revolution,” in New York, in which she called Vanderbilt out by name, saying,

“A Vanderbilt may sit in his office and manipulate stocks or make dividends, by which in a few years, he amasses fifty million dollars from the industries of the country, and he is one of the remarkable men of the age. But if a poor, half-starved child were to take a loaf of bread from his cupboard to prevent starvation, she would be sent first to the Tombs, and thence to Blackwell’s Island.”

Needless to say, having his name used in such a negative way in public angered Vanderbilt. He withdrew his support from the brokerage and the paper. The official story was that his wife caught him canoodling with Tennie, but both sisters knew the real reason why he severed ties with them.

In 1877, Vanderbilt passed away. His son, William, feared Tennie would go after her lover’s money. He was also afraid she and Victoria would be called to testify to his father’s belief in spiritualism – and thus give credence to the idea his father was not of sound mind and the will should be invalidated. To avoid both disasters, William paid the sisters a large sum to relocate to England.

What questions do you have about Victoria and Vanderbilt? Did you know of their association before? If so, where did you hear about it?

Sources:

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.

MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.

Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

The First Black Friday, 1869 – Stocks, Not Shopping

525px-Black_Friday_1869

Photograph of the black board in the New York Gold Room, September 24, 1869, showing the collapse of the price of gold. Handwritten caption by James A. Garfield indicates it was used as evidence before the Committee of Banking & Currency during hearings in 1870. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today we think of Black Friday as all about the shopping, but it hasn’t been that way for long. There are rumors that the origin of the term had to do with slave trading but that has been disproven. What we know of as Black Friday didn’t originate until 1961 when a Philadelphia PR firm attached it to the Christmas shopping season, which begins on the day after Thanksgiving. Or possibly, the same year Philadelphia police began using it as a derisive term because of the extra patrolling they had to do that day because of the shoppers. Take your pick.

However, the historical origin of the term dates from September 24, 1869, one of the greatest stock market crashes in American history. The whole situation began with greed, as such things often do. In the months leading up to September, two Wall Street speculators, Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, use their connections to the Grant White House (Gould was close friends with President Grant’s brother-in-law) to try to corner the gold market. They spread malicious rumors that the government refused to sell its gold, which lead to great demand, driving up the price. (At the time, gold was the currency standard in America. “Greenbacks,” the bills we know as money today, had been issued during the Civil War, but they were not backed dollar for dollar by gold, and thus, were less valuable.)

Scene in the New York Gold Room During the Great Excitement of September 24.

Scene in the New York Gold Room During the Great Excitement of September 24.

On September 23, 1869, Fisk and Gould met and decided to drive up the cost of gold to $150 an ounce ($130 was normal) and then sell their shares while others were still eager to buy. By the time trading opened the next day at 10 a.m., gold was already at $150 and growing steadily higher. Crowds were gathering outside the gold room at the New York Stock exchange and the National Guard had to be called in to keep order. As the price entered the $160s, inside brokers were running around like madmen, purchasing gold on credit. Rumor had it things were so crazy inside that men were dunking their heads in the water of the golden fountain in the center of the room just to say cool.

By 1 p.m., gold was at $164. The President finally agreed to prevent national collapse by selling gold (which his advisers had been telling him to do for four days). When Treasury Secretary George Boutwell announced the government would sell gold the following day, prices plummeted to $132 causing mass bankruptcy (due in part to the buying on credit). The stock market crashed as people sold stock like mad. With 30 minutes, gold was back down to the $130 it traded at before Fisk and Gould began monkeying with it months before. Hundreds of brokerages on Wall Street and around the country were ruined. By midnight 25 stock brokers committed suicide. The newspapers were quick to dub the day Black Friday.

fisk_gouldYou’ll see this take place in my next book. And despite the devastation, many people came out on top. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had been warned of the scheme by my book’s main character, made $1.3 million. My main character made $100,000 (which is about $1 million today). And Gould? He made $11 million.

Sources
My source for the first paragraph is Snopes.com. The others come from three biographies of the main character of my next novel. As I’m not yet ready to reveal who that is, I am refraining from listing the titles. But please know the information in this post was well researched. I will list the sources when I reveal who my book is about.

Did you know about the origins of Black Friday? What rumors have you heard about Black Friday?