In 2016 we’ve seen Twitter wars between the two major political candidates for president of the United States, one of whom is the first woman running for president on a major party ticket. But she’s not the first woman to ever run for president in the United States. That honor goes to Victoria Woodhull, who ran back in 1872, 48 years before women got the right to vote in the US.
Not long ago, I got bored and imagined what a similar Twitter war may have looked like if such technology existed in 1872. Though Victoria and Catharine Beecher fought over many topics, one of the most bitter recounted in contentious letters swapped between the two and in conversations recalled in biographies of Victoria, was about the Victoria’s espousal of Free Love – the idea that the government shouldn’t have the right to say when marriage begins or ends – and the hypocrisy Rev. Henry Ward Beecher in preaching against adultery while his mistresses sat in the pews.
Here’s how that early Twitter war may have played out, with a bit of a modern twist. (Many of the words in the last four tweets are from an actual fight between the two women.)
When 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.
Sources: 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
Article author Rebecca Now (center) with me and a friend at the re-enactment of the election of 1872.
My friend Rebecca Now recently wrote an article on Victoria Woodhull for a local women’s paper and then posted it on her blog. Yes, it does mention my book. I’m thrilled to be able to reproduce it here with her permission. Rebecca has a kind of connection to Victoria in that she frequently portrays Elizabeth Cady Stanton at historical/educational events. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Elizabeth and Victoria were dear friends for many years. As such, I find it highly appropriate that she and I became friends this past summer. Take it away, Rebecca!
She was the first woman to run for president of the United States.
Was your first thought about the candidate running in 2016? Wrong. The first American woman to run for President was Victoria C. Woodhull, in 1872.
This little-known figure was but a footnote in the history books, but she was certainly ahead of her time, had great courage and conviction, and changed the trajectory of the women’s suffrage movement.
Many history books on the 72 year-long movement for American women’s suffrage leave Woodhull out entirely, and yet, she was the first women to address a joint committee of congress in 1871, arguing that women, as citizens of the nation, had a right to vote based on the 14th amendment to the constitution.
Born in Ohio in a poor and abusive family of n’ere do wells that would make the Beverly Hillbillies look like aristocrats, her family was once run out of town with a collection taken up by the townsfolk.
She married at 15 to escape her family life, only to find her charming husband become a drunk who visited brothels. Woodhull was a “spiritualist” who could communicate with spirits for guidance. She advised numerous women in post Civil War society who had suffered from abuse and violence from men.
Woodhull felt the spirits were calling her to a “become a ruler of her people.”
Now, a fascinating historical fiction novel about Victoria Woodhull has been published, Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina.
Evelina credits a post on social media as inspiring her to write the book. She saw a black and white photo of a woman from the 19th century, and the caption read “Known by her detractors as “Mrs. Satan,” Victoria Claflin Woodhull, born in 1838, married at age 15 to an alcoholic and womanizer. She became the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street and played an active role in the woman’s suffrage movement. She became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872. Her name is largely lost in history. Few recognize her name and accomplishments.”
The book is a powerful good read. It opens a window into the disparity in social freedom between men and women in late 19th century America. Woodhull, as the heroine of the novel, is not really a sympathetic character, yet she is without doubt a most unique and colorful character, and clearly a ‘self-made’ woman who blazed new trails. The book has already won recognition. The 2015 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction gave the book first place in the Women’s US History category for 2015, even before the book was formally published.
The twelve pages of author notes at the end of the book are fascinating, and clearly layout what is fiction and what really happened, according to written records. After doing her research, remarked Evelina, “So much of her family’s antics and Victoria’s own actions are more grandiose than I could ever invent.”
History books, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – A Friendship that Changed the World by Penny Colman paint Victoria C. Woodhull as a scandal that tainted the woman’s suffrage movement by the association with a “Free Love” doctrine.
Susan B Anthony first learned of Woodhull when she read a newspaper announcement that Woodhull would be addressing a joint committee of congress, on the same day that the National Woman Suffrage Convention was to convene in Washington, D.C. Both Cady-Stanton and Anthony attended the session and were impressed by Woodhull. They asked her to speak at the convention that evening. As Colman relates in her book,
“Thrilled by Victoria’s fiery rhetoric, Elizabeth declared that she was ‘a grand, brave woman, radical alike in political, religious, and social principles.’ Susan, however, was becoming wary of Victoria. She suspected that Victoria had attached herself to the suffrage movement in order to advance a personal ambition that she had recently revealed – to run for president of the United States.”
Woodhull did run for president, and lost. She later was accused of sending obscene materials in the mail, and spent time in prison before being acquitted. She moved to England, and married her third husband, a wealthy banker.
While Elizabeth Cady Stanton was visiting her daughter in London in 1891, she met with Woodhull.
Victoria had endured “great suffering,” Elizabeth wrote in her diary. “May the good angels watch and guard her.”
Let’s Celebrate Our History!
My thanks to Rebecca for being my guest and for providing those interesting tidbits about Victoria’s association with these historic women. And if you ever need someone to portray Elizabeth Cady Stanton, you know who to call!
As my speaking engagements finally wind down for the year, and I look longingly forward to a much-needed rest, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be speaking TWICE at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver, June 22-24!
I’m on a panel about Victorian society with several really cool authors, including my friend Stephanie Carroll, whom I met at the 2015 HNS conference. We’ll talk about everything from fashion to mourning customs, and spiritualism to suffragists. It’s such a rich time period and we’re blessed to have authors representing both Victorian England and America.
I’m also conducting a Koffee Klatch – an informal session where people sit around and ask me questions – about being an indie author. This really is an ask-me-anything session. I’ll be candid about the good and the bad, talk money and marketing, and what really goes into being an indie (hint: a lot of hard work). So if you’re going to be there, come prepared with your questions!
Remember, you still have five chances to see me this year, as soon as tomorrow!
St. Louis Writers’ Guild
Nicole will be presenting on writing historical fiction
10 a.m. – noon
Kirkwood Community Center
St. Louis, Missouri
Indie Author Day
Nicole will be speaking and signing books at two events
St. Louis County Library, Thornhill Branch (12863 Willowyck Dr., 63146)
12:30 p.m. – Networking and light refreshments
1 p.m. – National Digital Gathering
2 p.m. – Local Panel
St. Louis Public Library, downtown location (1301 Olive St.)
4 – 6 p.m.
Q&A and book selling/signing
Missouri Romance Writers Association (MORWA) Nicole will be speaking on working with a publicity company
October 15 (rescheduled date)
St. Louis, Missouri
St. Louis County Library – Oak Bend Branch
Nicole will be presenting on Victoria Woodhull
And after that, I am crawling under a pile of blankets and resting for a few months! But you know me, my idea of resting is reading and learning. But more on that in another blog post…
As close to meeting Victoria Woodhull as I will ever get!
As some of you know, last weekend I had a the great privilege of participating in a re-enactment of the election of 1872 (the one Victoria Woodhull ran in) at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in south St. Louis County. I’ve never done re-enactment before (I’ve been to Renfaires, but only as a spectator), so this was a totally new experience for me. I was stationed at table with a few other women under the banner “Votes for Women.” We stayed in character some of the time as campaigners for Victoria, but the rest of the time was spent answering questions about her and about my book. I even got to do an impromptu Q&A session after Victoria gave her speech on Sunday.
Much to our surprise, Rebecca Rau and her camera man showed up to film part of their documentary about Victoria, The Coming Woman, at the event. Rebecca and I have become friends on Twitter and Facebook and she saw me post about it, hopped on a plane and there she was! I think she got a lot of good footage from the actors playing Victoria, Horace Greeley, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Minor and others. I particularly enjoyed Frederick Douglass – he’s a man I need to learn more about – and Virginia Minor, whose speech was so moving. And of course, they recorded the rest of us. She even interviewed me on-camera, so you may be seeing me in the film!
The park estimates we had 750-800 people come through. Yes, I may have sold some books by talking with people and handing out postcards (I wasn’t allowed to sell on-site), but more important than that is that this was a huge opportunity for me to get Victoria’s name out there and educate people about her. Only a handful of those we talked to had ever heard about her. Spreading the word about this amazing woman is the whole reason why I wrote my book in the first place, so through this event, I know I achieved my goal of helping get her name in the historical record where it belongs!
Oh, and we held a mock election. The men at the booth harassed us females good-naturedly for trying to vote (remember, this was 1872 and women didn’t get the right to vote in the US until August 1920). Although it was all in good fun, it gave me a small sense of what it must have been like for the women like Victoria, Tennie, and Susan B. Anthony who really did try to vote and were turned away due to their sex, and in Susan’s case, even arrested. In the end, Victoria came in second to Grant, beating Greeley by a long shot. While I would have LOVED to have seen her elected, I realize now that wasn’t likely when the event was being held on the grounds of Grant’s former home.
Speaking of, I also got to tour the grounds, which include Grant’s home of White Haven, a barn, a chicken house and several other buildings used by slaves and animals. As a history lover and life-long St. Louisan, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know that this place existed until about a month ago. It was very interesting to see that such amazing history is right in my own back yard. I’ve been to nearby places like historic St. Charles, old town Florissant, downtown St. Louis and even Cahokia Mounds across the river in Illinois, but this place really struck a chord with me. Maybe it was because I could tie it to a specific small group of people and that made it more personal; maybe I’m just more aware now that I’m older and more educated through my research. Who knows. But I was fascinated by some of the stories told by the staff and on plaques in the houses. There may be a future novel there. But I need to get the other 20 or so written first!
This weekend if you’re in St. Louis and looking for something to do, I encourage you to attend a free unique event: a reenactment of the election of 1872, in which Victoria Woodhull ran for President. The event takes place September 9-11 at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in south St. Louis County. Here’s the website with all the details.
I will be there in period clothing “campaigning” for Victoria from noon – 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. The event includes a mock election, so make sure to cast your vote for Victoria! It would be really cool if we could get her to win 144 years later! Victoria will be speaking several times throughout the day, as will the other candidates.
And yes, I will post a few pictures after the event, for those who can’t make it.
I wish I could explain how important this event is to me. I fell in love with Victoria through my research and so short of time travel, this is as close to doing her justice as I will ever get. I’m looking forward to sharing the knowledge I gained from my research and hopefully getting her into office, even if only symbolically. I hope you can join me for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live history!
You may have seen this article in The Huffington Post, but in case not and because I’m so proud of it, I had to republish it here.
When we think of women in politics, their inclusion in places of power seems to be a recent occurrence, but women have been raising their voices since the 1840s in support of women’s suffrage. For some, this led to running for office even before their fellow women could vote for them. In 1870, less than a decade after the Civil War ended and 50 years before women would be granted the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull announced she was running for president in the 1872 election, a move never before attempted by a female in the United States. In 2016, we have our first female running for president on a major party ticket in Hillary Clinton. Let’s take a look at what’s changed and what hasn’t in those 146 years.
1872: Women didn’t mettle in business or political affairs. It was unthinkable for a woman to vote, much less run for office. As anti-suffragist Catharine Beecher once wrote, “the Holy Scripture indicates for women a sphere higher than and apart from that of public life because as women they find a full measure of duties, care and responsibilities and are unwilling to bear additional burdens unsuited to their physical organization.”
Victoria Woodhull set out to prove this mindset was flawed. She and her sister Tennie opened the first stock brokerage on Wall Street owned and operated by women and were successful at it. Women weren’t allowed at the New York Stock Exchange, but Victoria found a way around that, relaying her business transactions through men, and making millions of dollars.
2016: Women are regularly leaders in companies and are elected to office, but not on par with men. We have a long way to go before we see equal representation. While 46.8% of the total labor force in the United States is female and women hold 51.5% of management and professional positions, women currently hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and only 19.2% of all board seats at those companies. (See Catalyst.org for more.)
According to Rutgers University, “in 2015, 104 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members; 20 women (20%) served in the United States Senate, and 84 women (19.3%) served in the United States House of Representatives. Four women delegates (3D, 1R) also represent American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands in the United States House of Representatives.” The Nation estimates that “at the current rate of progress, it will take nearly 500 years for women to reach fair representation in government.” More optimistic researchers have estimated “it will be 2121 before women reach gender parity in Congress…and [the estimate for when we’ll reach] pay equity is like 2058.”
1872: Women weren’t supposed to run for office. In the nineteenth century it was not even considered proper for a woman to speak in public because it was believed by doing so, she drew shame upon her father/husband, much less run for elected office.
That didn’t stop suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria Woodhull joined them in speaking out for that right, but she also vehemently supported workers’ rights, the humane treatment of prostitutes, and the rights of women to not be sexually subservient to their husbands within marriage. From 1871 on, Victoria was a regular fixture on the lecture circuit along with famous women like Anna Dickinson, traveling around the country to speak her controversial ideas. Victoria took the idea one step further by running for the highest one in the land in 1872. That same year, her sister Tennie ran for Congress as part of a small district in New York. Neither woman won, but they set a precedent thousands later followed.
2016: Women can run for office, but are still discriminated against. In the 21st century, the “woman card” shouldn’t even exist – all candidates for office should be evaluated by voters (and other candidates) based on their experience, platform and positions. Yet, as Mr. Trump’s now-famous quote shows, women are treated differently when they run, though not in the way he seems to have implied with his statement. The media are more likely to talk about a female candidates’ appearance, specifically her hair and clothing, than a man’s (the exception may be Mr. Trump’s hair.) While some argue that bias is all in our heads, nearly three in four of the women interviewed as part of a report recently released by Political Parity said they had felt discriminated against in politics. (See also Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in US Politics for additional reasons why women may feel discriminated against.)
According the Political Parity report, women often lack funding and support from their political parties. “Two-thirds of women say it is difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively and nine in ten women saying fundraising influences their decision to try for a national or statewide seat.” They have the confidence and ability to ask for it, but having the network to ask is a roadblock. Could this be the remnants of the “old boys club” in politics? While the report doesn’t say, it stands to reason.
1872: Women did not have the right to vote. Even though women had been campaigning for suffrage since the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 and the Nineteenth Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1878, it wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920. Even then, it took 12 states (not counting Alaska and Hawaii) anywhere from another month to 64 years to ratify it. (Mississippi was last, finally ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment on March 22, 1984). In some Southern states, African American women were harassed, attacked and in other ways prevented from voting into the 1960s. On August 6, 1965, The Voting Rights Act was signed into law, finally allowing all women, regardless of race, to vote as full citizens.
2016: Women have the right to vote. Victory! According to VoteRunLead, 53% of voters in the 2012 election were women.
1872: The media attacks female candidates by calling them names and digging into their personal lives. Newspapers analyzed every move political candidates made, including, in the case of Victoria and Tennie, their clothing, bearing, family lineage and suitability as public figures. Just as today, the candidates attacked one another in the papers and were in turn attacked by them. When Victoria’s mother, Anne, sued Victoria’s husband in 1871, the newspapers lapped up every dirty secret that came out in court, often blowing them out of proportion. In 1872, Harper’s Weekly published a cartoon dubbing Victoria as “Mrs. Satan” because she urged women to fight back against sexual slavery and mistreatment within marriage.
2016: The attacks have moved to TV and the internet. Since the 1990s, we’ve watched the media dig into Hillary Clinton’s personal life, even going so far as to attack the then-teenaged Chelsea Clinton, which prompted Hillary to ask the press not to cover her daughter. Of course, throughout her husband’s sex scandals, Mrs. Clinton’s every move and word was chronicled and her motivations and thoughts speculated on in both mainstream media and tabloids. In this most recent campaign, Donald Trump has dubbed Hillary as “Heartless Hillary” and “Crooked Hillary,” because she came out in favor of gun control and because she was attacking him in ads.
This is a long way of showing that while women made some great strides in some areas of politics and society, in others, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Perhaps that will change over time naturally as more women run for office and attain power. Perhaps if Hillary Clinton wins the November election and becomes our nation’s first female presidential candidate, it will happen more rapidly. But as a female, I find it sad that our advances haven’t been greater in a century and a half. But then again, that gives my generation something else to fight for. Maybe someday our daughters and nieces will be asking us why such issues ever existed.
What are your thoughts? How do you see things having changed or not changed? What change do think is most pressing?
Publication days are strange animals. They are exciting and weird and nerve-wracking and busy, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Today’s is especially special for a few reasons:
Madame Presidentess being available to the world is a fulfillment of part of my personal mission; as soon as I heard about Victoria, I wanted to do what I could to get her name back into the history books. By educating (and hopefully entertaining as well) through this book, I’m making a small effort in that direction.
Today will be my first television appearance! If you live in St. Louis, tune into Fox 2 for their 11 a.m. news. They will have me on at least once, perhaps twice, promoting Madame Presidentess.
Those of you who have been with me a while know this is also the last book of my four-book blitz that began in January when I released Daughter of Destiny. That means that soon I will be able to get back to a semi-normal life, and more importantly, to writing new material!
Okay, enough of that. On to the important stuff: where you can buy the book. Amazon does this odd thing where they don’t combine the print and ebooks onto one page for a few days. No idea why and it is very annoying. So you may need separate links, depending on which version you wish to purchase.
Barnes and Noble is being slow to list the paperback. I’m sorry about that. I’ve done everything I can. Now it’s up to them. 🙁
I hope all of you like the book. It has been a true labor of love and I’m so blessed to have found such an amazing historical figure with such a crazy life to be able to work with. If you do read it, please leave a review, even one sentence, on Amazon and/or Goodreads. Reviews mean the world to authors and help us with marketing. And thank you all again for all of your support! If it wasn’t for you, there would be no reason for me to write.
And one final note: today’s publication date is not an accident. Today is the first day of the Democratic National Convention, at which Hillary Clinton will become America’s first woman to be nominated for President on a major party ticket. Victoria was the first woman to run for President at all; she did so on the ticket of the Equal Rights Party, a party she founded. I chose this date so be able to tie in past female accomplishments with present (and possibly future) groundbreaking events. Regardless of your political persuasion, I hope you see the beauty in that.
As Madame Presidentess makes its way into the world through ARCs and giveaways (you can pre-order now, enter a giveaway to win a copy, or wait for it to come out July 25), it’s suddenly occurred to me that there are quite a few elements in it that might be taken as implausible fictions on my part, but are actually true, at least according to Victoria’s biographers (and I stand by my sources). The truth of Victoria’s life is hard to pin down, at least in part because later in life she often contradicted herself or outright denied what she’d previously said or done in order to change her reputation. I spell out what is real and what is not in the Author’s Notes at the end of the book, but I thought I’d list 10 things here so I could talk about them a bit.
WARNING: SOME OF THESE MAY BE CONSIDERED SPOILERS.
The grist mill fire and its consequences – The Claflin’s grist mill did burn to the ground when Victoria was young. The cause is up for debate. Some people speculate that it was insurance fraud on Buck’s (Victoria’s father) part, as he was known to be a swindler, but her mother, Annie, maintained it was a terrible accident. Regardless of the cause, the Claflin family was run out of town, with the church taking up a collection to help speed them on their way. (Barbara Goldsmith even goes so far as to suggest the townspeople were considering tarring and feathering Buck.)
Canning Woodhull’s philandering – Victoria’s first husband was well-known for his love of brothels. She told a story that she found him in one a mere three days after their wedding. Her biographers also say he received a letter from a former mistress who he shipped off to another town so he could marry Victoria asking if he married Victoria because she, too, was pregnant.
Victoria’s daughter Zula almost died at birth – This is a crazy one. Canning claimed to be a doctor, but he really didn’t have much training. The story goes that he was so drunk/stoned when Zula was born that he either cut the umbilical cord too short or didn’t tie it off properly, and then left to go to the local tavern. When Victoria awoke with the baby in her arms, she was covered in blood. She was alone and didn’t know what to do, so she had to beat on the wall with a piece of broken furniture (not sure why that’s what she picked) to get the neighbors’ attention. They came running, but the doors were locked and Victoria was too weak to get up and unlock them. Finally, one of the neighbors climbed in through a grate in the basement.
Annie’s antics – Victoria’s mother did some pretty outrageous things. She took her own son-in-law (Victoria’s second husband, James) to court on the grounds he stole Victoria and Tennie’s affection from him. Annie and Victoria’s sister Utica were known to raid Victoria and Tennie’s clothes and jewelry and pawn them even though Victoria paid all of their expenses. Annie also was a known serial blackmailer.
Victoria’s clairvoyant and healing powers – Victoria maintained all her life that she had been in contact with the spirits since she was a child. Her mother also convinced her that she was a healer. Her father put her and her sister, Tennie (also a healer), to work at a young age using those skills to make money. This may well have been an extension of his other illegitimate activities. But accounts of the sisters’ healing and psychic sessions exist and at least some of their clients believed in their abilities. Obviously, we have no way of proving whether or not they were real, but Victoria seemed to believe they were.
The strange men at Victoria and Tennie’s opening day on Wall Street – This was another detail too crazy not to include. According to a contemporary account reported in The Sun and reprinted in Gary Gabriel’s biography Notorious Victoria, Mr. Edward Van Schalck and several friends made multiple visits to the firm on its opening day for apparently no good reason. Each time they would come it would be in a different sized group from 1-4 people and the would change their clothing, and sometimes their appearance (one time Mr. Van Schalck was freshly shaved and how he wore his hair varied). They would ask a question or chat with those in the office, leave, and come back again 20 minutes to a few hours later. This went on throughout the day until they made a visit after office hours and were told the office was closed. No reason is given for this odd behavior. (I have a reason in my book, but that’s where fiction comes in.)
Victoria’s meeting with President Grant – There is no written record of her meeting with the President, but biographers are pretty sure it did occur at some point when she was in Washington D.C. Victoria never told anyone what happened during the meeting, but somehow it is tradition that the President said “you will one day occupy this seat,” referring to the Presidential chair. Also, in the book when the President talks about his views on suffrage, I took that from things he is known to have said.
Victoria’s conversations with Reverend Henry Beecher – Perhaps the most dramatic dialogue in the novel comes from Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. Where possible, it is taken from actual accounts of Victoria’s conversations with him as written in various biographies, especially “Other Powers” by Barbara Goldsmith. If these accounts are to be believed, he was rather melodramatic in his pleading with her to be excused from the responsibility of introducing her at a speech she was planning to give on Free Love.
Victoria’s love affair with Theodore Tilton – Depending on which biography you read, Victoria is rumored to have had up to four affairs while she was married to Col. James Blood. Whether or not they were actually affairs is up for debate, because Victoria and James practiced Free Love – not open promiscuity, but rather the belief that one should be able to take and leave one’s partners as the heart dictates without interference from the state. If this was like having an open marriage, then there is no guilt, no affair. Anyway, the one affair most biographers agree upon is with Theodore Tilton, who worked for Victoria’s paper and wrote her biography. The two are an unlikely couple, especially what she knew about his wife’s claims of verbal abuse, but I guess love really is blind.
Victoria’s running mate – Strange as it may seem, Victoria’s running mate was Frederick Douglass. He was nominated by her Equal Rights Party (I never did find a definitive answer on whether or not she picked him or the party picked him for her.) Either way, having a ticket with a woman and a black man in 1872 was unheard of. For his part, Mr. Douglass never asked to be taken off the ballot, but he never agreed to it, either. As the 1872 election drew near, he publicly came out in favor of President Grant.
Bonus – There is a really odd story in the biography Victoria directed Theodore Tilton to write where she paints herself like a modern-day Jesus. The short version is that while Victoria had been away, her mentally retarded son, Byron became ill and died. When Victoria came home, she was determined that he was not dead. She held him to her breast and cried that he would live. After some time holding him and praying, he began to stir and recovered. I realize that he might not actually have been dead, perhaps in a coma and they didn’t know the difference, or maybe this story was made up, but either way, it was too odd for me to use, even in fiction.
What do you think is the most outrageous element of Victoria’s story? Which part are you most looking forward to reading in Madame Presidentess?
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.
Tilton, Theodore. The Golden Age Tract No. 3 “Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch.”
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.