As I mentioned last week, I couldn’t make up the story of Victoria Woodhull. She’s one of those people whose life was so storied you would think it outlandish if I did. And part of the reason was the crazy (sometimes literally) cast of characters in her life. So, before I delve into her life in future weeks, I thought I’d introduce you to them so you know who I’m referring to. This is a long list, so I’m going to run it in two installments. Today’s is Victoria and her family.
Victoria Woodhull – From an early age she showed gifts of magnetic healing and being a spiritual medium. She worked for her father that capacity until she was 15, when she married her first husband, Canning Woodhull. She had two children with him, a son, Bryon, who was born brain damaged, and a daughter Zula (or Zulu). When they moved to San Francisco, she worked as an actress and possibly as a prostitute. She left her husband and moved to St. Louis, where she met her second husband, Colonel James Blood. In 1868, her spirit guide, Demosthenes, instructed her to go to New York. She and Tennie went and it wasn’t long before they met Cornelius Vanderbilt, who needed their services as healers and mediums. Eventually, they became involved in the stock market, opening the first brokerage run my women on Wall Street and becoming self-made millionaires. Victoria then set her sights on the White House and the suffrage movement, becoming the first woman to speak before Congress. She and Tennie began their own newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, to get their suffrage and worker’s rights messages out. Her fortunes waxed and waned during the campaign and she ended up in jail for Election Day. Years of trials on trumped up charges followed, of which she and Tennie were found not guilty on all counts. By this time they were tired and nearly bankrupt, so they accepted William Vanderbilt’s (son of Cornelius) offer of money in exchange for moving to England. There, Victoria reinvented herself, distancing herself from earlier radical beliefs. She married a wealthy banker and ran for President of the United States two more times. She lived to see women get the vote in 1920, passing away in her sleep in 1927.
Victoria is described as having light brown hair, which she cut short, gray-blue eyes and high cheekbones. She was of medium stature and build, thin and had ramrod straight posture.
Tennesse (Tennie C.) Claflin – Victoria’s younger sister. She spent many years working for her father as a healer, medium, and likely prostitute. She was rescued from that life in the late 1860s by Victoria and Colonel James Blood. Once in New York, she became Cornelius Vanderbilt’s lover. She was Victoria’s partner in the stock brokerage and did the majority of the work there while Victoria focused on her campaign. She also wrote for their paper. Jealous of her sister’s political success, Tennie ran for Congress in 1872, supported by a contingent of German New Yorkers, but had less success than her sister. She also made waves by being named the commander of the Spencer Grays, a unit of black military men in New York.
When the sisters moved to England, Tennie blossomed, becoming an advocate for women’s rights both there and in the US. She did far more than her sister to advance the movement during this time. She eventually married Viscount Francis Cook, becoming a viscountess. She died in 1923.
Tennie was an incorrigible flirt who was linked not only to Vanderbilt, but Tribune editor Whitelaw Reid and journalist Johnny Greene. She was described as plump with a large bosom, full mouth and golden brown or reddish curls, blue eyes and a cleft chin.
Buck Claflin – Reuben Buckman (Buck) Claflin was Victoria’s father. He may have been affluent early on (some say he worked in law or finance, others that he worked in towns and transported lumber), but he lost their land when Victoria was three, leaving the family with only a dilapidated house and a grist mill. Buck, ever enterprising, turned to crime. He stole horses and ran scams, including insurance theft when the mill mysteriously burned down in 1853. And he beat his children, one of whom ran away and was never heard from again. He put Victoria and Tennie to work as healers and mediums from a young age. He had plenty of nefarious ways of getting information about local families to feed to his daughters if the spirits weren’t particularly talkative. He also claimed to have an elixir that could cure cancer, which he administered at so-called “clinics” throughout the Midwest. Between law suits from disgruntled or injured patients and charges of running houses of prostitution, he was always on the run from the law. He and the family followed Victoria and Tennie to New York, where he may have introduced them to Cornelius Vanderbilt. When the firm was opened, he was given a token job, but never really contributed anything to the firm. He was said to steal checks from them and make a general nuisance of himself.
Anne Claflin – Anna Roxanna (Anne/Annie) Hummel Claflin was Victoria’s mother and an insane Spiritualist. She sometimes assisted with her husband’s beatings of their children, yelling, laughing hysterically and clapping as they cried. Other times she would weep with joy over them. Anne claimed to see visions and speak in the tongue of angels, both of which appeared like fits where she babbled and foamed at the mouth. Anne was a confirmed blackmailer, which is how she made money, even going after Victoria’s friends and supporters during her Presidential campaign. She hated Colonel Blood, whom she blamed for taking Tennie and Victoria away from her. She accused him of being a thief and even brought legal charges against him in 1871. This ended up being a sensational trial that brought many of Victoria’s well-guarded secrets to light and seriously harmed her campaign.
Utica Claflin Booker – Sister of Victoria and one of Anne’s favorites. She was addicted to alcohol and morphine and frequently disrupted Victoria’s public speeches. The most famous incident was during Victoria’s highly controversial speech on Free Love. Utica, who was sitting on the audience, stood up and challenged Victoria in front of the whole crowd. She was also friends with Canning Woodhull (they shared vices) and after his death, she went to the coroner and said he died under suspicious circumstances, blaming the doctor. This was later proved false.
Canning Woodhull and family; wife Victoria, daughter Zula and son Byron (Portrait, probably 1856)
Canning Woodhull – Canning was Victoria’s first husband. They met when he was 28 and she was 14. He was Victoria’s doctor during a period she was so ill she nearly died. The two fell in love quickly, and her mom and dad were all for the match, believing (thanks to Canning’s lies) that he his father was a well respected judge and his uncle was major of New York. As it turned out, Canning wasn’t much better than Victoria’s father. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer, who was found in a brothel only three days after their wedding. Victoria blamed him and his abuse for their son, Byron, being born brain damaged. When she had their daughter, Zula, the baby nearly bled to death because her drunk father either cut the cord too short or failed to tie it off properly, leaving her and her mother, who was passed out with exhaustion, in favor of the local pub. Victoria finally left him in 1863, divorcing him three years later after meeting Colonel James Harvey Blood.
One would think that was the end of him, but it wasn’t. About a year and a half after Victoria married James, Canning was delirious with illness and called for her. She and James brought him back and took care of him for six weeks. He paid them and they said he was welcome any time. From that day on, when he needed her, he came. After a while, he ended up living with James and Victoria, as he was too ill with drink and morphine to do otherwise. Victoria considered it her Christian duty to take care of him, even though their living arrangements scandalized others when they came out in the trial of 1871. Canning died on April 7, 1872. Though Utica claimed it was a suspicious death, it was later proven to be a lung ailment, likely pneumonia.
Colonel James Harvey Blood
Colonel James Harvey Blood – Victoria’s second husband. He was a Civil War veteran (shot six times, and once removed the bullets himself), commander of the 6th Missouri Regiment and City Auditor of St. Louis. He met Victoria when he came to visit her as a spiritual physician for his wife for female complaints. According to Victoria, when he walked into the room, she went into a trance, announcing “I see our futures linked. Our destinies are bound together,” whereupon they were betrothed “by the powers of the air.” Soon he frequented her office and the two engaged in a torrid affair. To help pay off his debts in St. Louis so he could divorce his wife and abandon his family, they traveled throughout the Midwest as healers in a brightly colored fringed surrey under the names Dr. J. H. Harvey and “Madame Harvey.” They were married on July 12, 1866 in Dayton, Ohio, but the marriage application was incomplete and never filed by the minister, so there was some lingering question as to whether or not they were legally married.
James was the silent partner in the brokerage firm, using his skills as an accountant and knowledge of the law to keep the business going. He also served as Victoria’s secretary, as her handwriting was said to be terrible. He was also a contributor to Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly and helped Victoria write her speeches. James was very supportive of Victoria’s suffrage and political interests; if fact, he may have introduced her to the ideas of women’s rights and Free Love. (He is said to possibly have had a few affairs during their marriage.) He supported Victoria to the bitter end, when she divorced him in 1876.
He was described as having dark eyes, a trim beard and a soldier’s stance. He was spiritual and reflective, a self-chosen recluse, who was very liberal in his views.
These are only a few of Victoria’s family members. She was the seventh of ten children. In order of oldest to youngest, the Claflin children were Margaret Ann, Mary (or Polly), Maldon, Hebern (or Hebren), Victoria California, Utica Vantitia, Tennessee Celeste (or Tennie C.), and Odessa Maldiva who died as a baby. It’s unknown in what order daughters Delia and Hester Ann were born as they, like Odessa, died young.
Next week I’ll profile several of Victoria’s closest friends.
What do you think of her family? Can you see where they would make a good story? Thoughts/questions about them?
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.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.
This post was updated on July 31, 21015, to correct confusion about Colonel Blood’s children. My sources vary in their answers. Some day two daughters, some say one. Some simply say “children” or “family.”