10 Stranger Than Fiction Things About Victoria Woodhull’s Life

victoria-woodhullAs 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.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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?

Sources:

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.

July 4, 1871 – The Victoria League Goes Public

VictoriaWoodhullIn June 1871, Victoria Woodhull was anxious to re-launch her campaign for presidency, which had stalled since her shocking announcement of candidacy more than a year before. She began hosting parties in her home, which she called “at homes,” intimate affairs where the rich and powerful could get to know her as person in her private space, rather than just as a political figure. She invited bankers, lawyers, editors, clergymen, Congressmen, and even members of President Grant’s family (including his brother and father, Jesse Grant).

It is said that at one of these meetings “Congress was in session,” a congress of the people, that is, as it was a meeting of trade union workers, suffragists and other reformers, in addition to usual politicians and businessmen. Someone remarked that this was really the forming of a new political party, as they were people of like mind, supporting their candidate, Victoria. Together, they decided that instead of using the original name of Victoria’s party – The Cosmopolitical Party, which had too much of Stephen Pearl Andrew’s philosophy in it for the public’s taste – they would instead nominate her under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, a name with a storied past that would immediately call to mind unity and suffrage.

On July 4, 1871, the following letter was sent to Victoria, and later appeared in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly:

Madame – A number of your fellow citizens, both men and women, have formed themselves into a working committee, borrowing its title from your name, calling itself THE VICTORIA LEAGUE.

Our object is to form a new national political organization, composed of the progressive elements in the existing Republican and Democratic parties, together with the Women of the Republic, who have been hitherto disenfranchised, but whom the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, properly interpreted, guarantee, equally with men, the right of suffrage.

This new political organization will be called THE EQUAL RIGHTS PARTY, and its platform will consist solely and only of a declaration of the equal civil and political rights of all American citizens, without distinction of sex.

We shall ask Congress at its next session to pass an act, founded on this interpretation of the Constitution, protecting women in the immediate exercise of the elective franchise in all parts of the United States, subject only to the same restrictions and regulations which are imposed by local laws on other classes of citizens.

We shall urge all women who possess the political qualifications of other citizens, in the respective states in which they reside, to assume and exercise the right of suffrage without hesitation or delay.

We ask you to become the standard-bearer of this idea before the people, and for this purpose nominate you as our candidate for President of the United States to be voted for in 1872 by the combined suffrages of both sexes.

If our plans merit your approval, and our nomination meet your acceptance, we trust that you will take occasion, in your reply to this letter, to express your views in full concerning the political rights of women under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

Offering to you, Madam, the assurance of our great esteem, and harboring in our minds the cheerful presence of victory which your name inspires, we remain,

Cordially yours,

The Victoria League

The letter did not bear any member names. In her biography of Victoria, Lois Beachy Underhill argues that Victoria penned that letter herself, and it’s entirely possible. Victoria was a master of public relations, thanks in part to the skills her learned at her father’s knee and the influence of Stephen Pearl Andrews. Victoria and Theodore Tilton both strongly hinted that the Victoria League was supported and possibly even led by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a charge the railroad tycoon neither confirmed nor denied.

On July 20, 1871, Victoria wrote a lengthy response (too long to reproduce here, but carried in full in The Victoria Woodhull Reader) to the Victoria League letter in which she accepted their nomination and expounded upon her views. It contains one of my favorite lines of hers, “Little as the public think it, a woman who is now nominated may be elected next year” and this gem of pure grandeur and hubris so typical of Victoria’s attitude:

“Perhaps I ought not to pass unnoticed your courteous and graceful allusion to what you deem the favoring omen of my name. It is true that a Victoria rules the great rival nation opposite to us on the other shore of the Atlantic, and it grace the amity just sealed between our two nations, and be a new security of peace, if a twin sisterhood of Victoras were to preside over the two nations. It is true also that its mere etymology the name signifies Victory! and the victory for the right is what we are bent on securing…I have sometimes thought myself that there is perhaps something providential and prophetic in the fact that my parents were prompted to confer on me a name which forbids the very thought of failure.”

Have you heard of the Victoria League? Nowadays it’s better known as the name of a charitable organization for people of the Commonwealth countries. But it started as a reference to dear ol’ Vickie.

Sources:
Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.
Stern, Madeleine B. The Victoria Woodhull Reader.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, the blog of Victoria Woodhull’s Day

W&C2If Victoria Woodhull lived now, she would totally have a blog. I say that because she ran her own newspaper (along with her sister Tennie) and newspapers were the blogs of the mid-to-late nineteenth century in America. People had flame wars in the papers just like they do on social media and in the comments today. (Oh, how little things change!)

Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was Victoria and Tennie’s paper. They started it in 1870 as a way to get Victoria’s message out to the public as a presidential candidate. (Much the same way I use this blog to get my message as an author out to you.) Victoria was able to gain far more media and public attention by producing her own paper than she would have if she relied on the mainstream media of the day, which was fickle at best, especially toward women. She is rumored to have said something like “I have a mouthpiece [in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly] and I intend to use it.”

There is no doubt that Victoria’s friend former journalist Stephen Pearl Andrews and her second husband, Col. James Blood were instrumental in making the paper run. Stephen had a regular column and James acted as Victoria’s silent secretary, in addition to contributing articles of his own. Tennie was also a regular contributor.

Ad page, August 5, 1871

Ad page, August 5, 1871

As it started as a women’s rights and suffrage publication, Victoria often ran copies of her speeches in the paper, and even published the memorial (petition) she read before Congress so that everyone could read it. She frequently asked readers to petition Congress and their local leaders. But she also wrote about other topics that were important to her, such as marriage reform (aka Free Love), fraud by the government and police (such as police involvement in prostitution bribes so the women could avoid arrest) and corruption in business (she called out all the big names of her day including Astor and her friend Vanderbilt). Notably, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was the first paper to print an English translation of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. (Victoria and her group were leaders in Section 12 of the International Workingmen’s Association, which Marx led for a time.)

Victoria wanted Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly to be about everything that touches women’s lives. This included women’s education; female doctors being recognized by The Medical Gazette and attending the Pinter’s convention in Cincinnati; and alcoholism treated at a nursing home in Brooklyn as a disease rather than a moral failing. Victoria also reported on the careers of famous female lecturers such as Anna Dickinson, Kate Field and Laura C. Holloway, as well as on her friends’ political and business activities.

Unsold copies were mailed to daily newspapers and influential people for free. Positive feedback was printed as part of Victoria’s PR campaign. With two years, women were writing Victoria and Tennie in droves with comments, topic suggestions and even submitting articles. At one point Victoria had so many suggestions, she had to close the women’s section.

All was well for the paper until Victoria’s life fell into turmoil during the summer of 1872. Due to her increasing radicalism and an unfortunate series of events, Victoria lost her fortune and her home and was forced to stop printing her beloved paper on June 15.

But the presses were silent for only a short time. On October 28 of that year, Victoria burst back on the scene with her most explosive issue ever, one that would become known as “The Scandal Issue” and land her in jail for her own election day. In it, she printed an article exposing the extramarital affair of beloved preacher Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. In the same issue, Tennie wrote a scathing account of broker Luther Challis seducing two young virgins at a public ball years before.

W&CThe paper normally sold for 10 cents but by evening of the first day that issue was available, 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.

Three days later, Tennie and Victoria were charged with sending obscene material through the mail. Anthony Comstock set them up by requesting that a copy of the issue be mailed to him. Comstock then tipped off authorities, seeing himself as a guardian of public morals. (As the sponsor of the anti-obscenity law that bore his name, he also got half the fines paid by people arrested on obscenity charges. Some sources say that members of Rev. Beecher’s church may have put Comstock up to his actions.)

While they were in jail, police searched the offices, seizing and destroying the presses. But once Victoria and Tennie were finally released from jail months later (found innocent of all charges), the Weekly started up again and ran until June 10, 1876, when Victoria decided she was finally tired of it.

I have yet to be able to see Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly in person, though high-quality images to do exist online and Arlene Kisner’s book reproduces some of its articles. According to at least one web site, Washington University here in St. Louis has copies of it, but I haven’t been able to get anyone to respond to my requests about it.

Had you ever heard of this revolutionary paper? What more do you want to know 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.
Kisner, Arlene. The Lives and Writings of Notorious Victoria Woodhull and Her Sister Tennessee Claflin.
MacPherson, Myra. The Scarlet Sisters.
Underhill, Lois Beachey. The Woman Who Ran for President.

 

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?

Madame Presidentess Cover Reveal & Pre-order Info

Today is the day I get to show you what my next baby is going to look like. Here’s the cover for Madame Presidentess, which comes out July 25.

Madame Presidentess eBook Cover No Quote Large

Here’s the back cover copy:

Forty-eight years before women were granted the right to vote, one woman dared to run for President of the United States, yet her name has been virtually written out of the history books.

Rising from the shame of an abusive childhood, Victoria Woodhull, the daughter of a con-man and a religious zealot, vows to follow her destiny, one the spirits say will lead her out of poverty to “become ruler of her people.”

But the road to glory is far from easy. A nightmarish marriage teaches Victoria that women are stronger and deserve far more credit than society gives. Eschewing the conventions of her day, she strikes out on her own to improve herself and the lot of American women.

Over the next several years, she sets into motion plans that shatter the old boys club of Wall Street and defile even the sanctity of the halls of Congress. But it’s not just her ambition that threatens men of wealth and privilege; when she announces her candidacy for President in the 1872 election, they realize she may well usurp the power they’ve so long fought to protect.

Those who support her laud “Notorious Victoria” as a gifted spiritualist medium and healer, a talented financial mind, a fresh voice in the suffrage movement, and the radical idealist needed to move the nation forward. But those who dislike her see a dangerous force who is too willing to speak out when women are expected to be quiet. Ultimately, “Mrs. Satan’s” radical views on women’s rights, equality of the sexes, free love and the role of politics in private affairs collide with her tumultuous personal life to endanger all she has built and change how she is viewed by future generations.

This is the story of one woman who was ahead of her time – a woman who would make waves even in the 21st century – but who dared to speak out and challenge the conventions of post-Civil War America, setting a precedent that is still followed by female politicians today.

You can pre-order the ebook here:

amazon-logo-icon book-button-smashwords-icon  goodreads

Paperback will be out on July 25, 2016, along with all other ebook formats. I’m not sure about audio yet.

What do you think about this book? Are you excited to read it? What do you think of the cover?

PS – If you want a good short summary of Victoria’s life I recommend The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency by Ellen Fitzpatrick. There is so much it leaves out, but it’s a nice primer. If you want a longer biography, my favorites are Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored by Mary Gabriel, The Woman Who Ran for President by Lois Beechy Underhill and Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith (this book is LONG but fabulous)!

Top 5 Biographies of Victoria Woodhull

If you’re looking to learn more about the fascinating first female Presidential candidate in United States history (1872), there are a surprising number of biographies of Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) – especially given that she’s not generally taught in school history textbooks.

The ones written near or within her lifetime – Victoria C. Woodhull, a Biographical Sketch by Theodore Tilton and The Terrible Siren by Emanie Sachs – are considered unreliable by modern historians for a number of reasons, so you’re better off consulting a modern biography. I’ve read most of them and here are my top 5 picks (images link to the Amazon page for the book):

Other Powers1) Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
By Barbara Goldsmith

This is my favorite biography because it is so rich in detail, especially in regards to Victoria as a spiritualist and medium, an area many other biographies skim over, dismiss as ludicrous, or choose to omit entirely. But to understand Victoria as a person, you have to understand her belief in the spirit world and how it drove/guided her decisions. Regardless of what you believe now, Victoria and many of her peers took Spiritualism very seriously and it was an important part of their world view.

This book is also rich in other history, especially in regard to the major players of 19th century American suffrage and politics. It covers Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Catharine, Isabella and Harriett (Stowe) Beecher, Anna Dickinson and many others in detail.  I had to skip over much of that to focus on the areas concerning Victoria, but this is a book I will definitely someday give a second read so I can absorb the rest of the history.

Be forewarned that this is a large, complex book, so unless you have some knowledge of the period, it may not be the best place to start. It was one of my later sources in my research for that reason. But it is certainly worth your time.

The Woman who Ran for President2) The Woman Who Ran for President
By Lois Beachy Underhill

This is the place I recommend people new to Victoria’s life start out. It’s a well-written, easy to read, and concise biography. Honestly, it’s my go-to for fact checking because I find it to be the most reliable and easy to navigate.

There are a few things I don’t agree with the author on, such as her assertion that Victoria had an affair with Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (I don’t think that likely), and her relatively rosy portrayal of Victoria’s childhood (which is at odds with many other sources, both modern and contemporary to Victoria). But to each their own. I’m a fiction writer and she’s a biographer, so I trust she has her sources and her reasons. Still, it’s a wonderfully detailed overview that no one interested in Victoria should pass up.

If you search for this title on Amazon, it appears under two authors, Lois Beachy Underhill and Gloria Steinem. Don’t be fooled into thinking they are separate books with the same title, as I was, even though they show two different covers. Steinem wrote the introduction for the book Underhill wrote. Because of this confusion, I have an extra copy that I’m willing to give away for free. If you’re interested, let me know in the comments, leave your email address, and I’ll contact you about mailing (US only, please). First come, first served.

Scarlet Sisters3) The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
By Myra MacPherson

This is the most fun (and by that I am in no way lessening the scholarship) biography that I read. One of the most recent contributions to the Victoria cannon, it’s written in a more novel-like format that sucks you into life as Victoria would have known it. It also provides detail that other biographies lack.

Also, as the title implies, this book gives more attention to Tennie than any other to date. This is important not only because Tennie has an important story in her own right that deserves to be told, but because knowing her better illuminates Victoria and the relationship between the sisters. Because they were close and often lived and worked together, this relationship is paramount to understanding why Victoria did the things she did.

I’ve been in touch with the author several times to ask questions and verify facts, and I have to say that she is very accessible and kind, which is always a plus. I’m actually hoping to have her as a guest on this blog in the future.

 

Nortorius Victoria4) Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored
By Mary Gabriel

If you want to hear Victoria’s voice and read newspaper accounts about her, this is the source to use. Gabriel liberally quotes from Victoria’s speeches, writings and letters, as well as contemporary newspaper articles to provide color and depth unparalleled in other sources.

As someone attempting to bring Victoria to life, I found this book invaluable, both in terms of understanding her personality, but also in understanding how the political and social/cultural world around her reacted to her sometimes outrageous words and actions.

Sexual Revolution5) Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution: Political Theater and the Popular Press in Nineteenth-Century America
By Amanda Frisken

Less biography and more discourse on how the press treated women and the idea of sex in 19th century America, this is a valuable source for anyone wishing to get to know Victoria, especially in context of her often volatile relationship with the press.

One of the most interesting parts for me was to learn how she was treated in the so-called “sporting press” of gentleman’s papers. These papers, frequently read by young men, often satirized women in cartoons, depictions we would today find high offensive, but which were par for the course for the time. The images alone, many of which cannot be found online, are worth the cost of the book, but more important is the context in which Frisken places them, showing the sexist attitudes that prevailed at the time in a way most other books don’t.

There is also a section that is more biographical, so please don’t think she left that out. I just found the other parts more interesting.

Of course, these are just my personal opinions. You may have a different experience. There are a number of other good biographies and books referencing Victoria, so this is by no means a complete list. Check out my research page for more. I’m currently reading the latest, Crossing Swords: Mary Baker Eddy vs. Victoria Claflin Woodhull and the Battle for the Soul of Marriage by Cindy Peyser Safronoff. I’m not far enough into it yet to render an opinion, but will be one of my sources for my fictional account.

Victoria’s daughter, Zulu/Zula also attempted to write a biography of her mother, but was never successful. Bits of her writing can be found with Victoria’s letters in the Boston public library’s archives. I did not have a chance to see that information before writing the book, but I’m hoping to get to see it when I visit Boston next June.

 

And of course, the best way to get to know someone is through their own writings. There are many collections of Victoria’s books and speeches available online, as well as in book form. You can even find digitized versions of her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, online.

What are some of your favorite biographies of famous people? Have you ever read a book about Victoria or seen reference to her? If so, where? Do you have questions about any of these books?

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.

Reform Movements of 19th Century America

As you read this, I’m freshly back (and brain dead, in a good way) from the Historical Novel Society conference. Will post about that once my brain has downloaded all the new knowledge. Until then, we’ll explore some of the reform movements that influenced the culture and society of mid-to-late 19th century America.

Abolition/Post-War Role of Former Slaves

Abolition of Slavery by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Umpehent, J. W. (Bibliothèque numérique mondiale) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abolition of Slavery by Thomas Nast (1840-1902), Umpehent, J. W. (Bibliothèque numérique mondiale) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When my book begins (August 1868), the Civil War was only five years in the past, and its hot button issues of slavery, race and the meaning of freedom and citizenship were still very much in the public sphere.  In fact, the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves, had just passed a month before.

It was a conflict that dated back to the time of Thomas Jefferson and  in many ways, still continues today. Many of Victoria’s friends and contemporaries began their forays into reform through the abolitionist movement, including Theodore Tilton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass.

When Victoria attended her first suffrage meeting in January 1869, she witnessed a very contentious debate between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Fredrick Douglas, who had differing opinions on the 15th Amendment which was being debated in Congress and would give former slaves the right to vote.  Mr. Douglass said, “The right of women to vote is as sacred in my judgment as that of man, and I am quite willing to hold up both hands in favor of this right. But I am now devoting myself to a cause not more sacred, but certainly more urgent, because it is one of life and death to the long enslaved people of this country, and this is Negro suffrage. As you very well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation. She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended, I think, that her cause is as urgent as ours.”

Women’s Suffrage

Tennie Claflin (Victoria's sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tennie Claflin (Victoria’s sister, seated in center) with suffragists, circa 1920. Photo by Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Closely related was the issue of women’s suffrage, which many suffragists believed was as important, if not more important, than suffrage for former slaves. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued at that 1869 convention, “At this very moment, Congress is debating the Fifteenth Amendment. If it is passed, it would give black men the right to vote. But I ask you, how are we, as women, any less important? How are we to be left out of such legislation? Shall American statesmen make their wives and mothers the political inferiors of unlettered and unwashed ditch-diggers fresh from the slave plantations of the South?”

(As you can see, bigotry against former slaves and immigrants was very common at the time. Both she and Susan B. Anthony were known to refer to them as “Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung,” something we would never condone today.)

The Suffrage movement dates back to 1846, when the first debate on women’s rights was held at Oberlin College. It is thought by some historians that if not for the Civil War, women would have gained the right to vote in the mid-1800s. But as it stood in 1868, women were still fighting, having suffered a setback in 1866 with the passage of the 14th Amendment, which introduced the word “male” into the Constitution as a qualification for voting. The debate as to whether women were citizens according to the Constitution – and therefore legally allowed to vote – would continue for the next decade, promoted by Victoria herself as well as Virginia Minor, but eventually defeated. As we know from history, women would not get the right to vote until August 1920 under the 19th Amendment.

Sex Radicals

An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century

An example of one style of reform dress from the mid-19th century

One of the lesser known reform movement of the period was led by the so-called “Sex Radicals” who believed in Free Love, usually in conjunction with utopian communities, in protest of the sexual slavery experienced by women. This sounds a lot like the hippies of the 1960’s, but the big difference is that in the 19th century, it meant the end of legal interference in marriage, in its binding or dissolving of ties between husband and wife. This idea allowed for divorce, as well as freedom for both husband and wife to take other partners as life presented them, but did not endorse promiscuity. (There’s a great article on Free Love on the American Experience site.)

Victoria and her sister Tennie, as well as Victoria’s second husband, James, and her lover, Theodore Tilton, were all a part of this movement. Victoria and Tennie wore their hair short and adopted a more masculine form of dress (without the bustles and corsets common at the time) in protest of the sexual inequality between men and women. For example, at the time, it was considered commonplace, even accepted, that young men would frequent prostitutes, but their wives could do no such thing or raise a complaint. Furthermore, while their male patrons were sometimes from the highest levels of society, the prostitutes were considered the lowest, too vile even for a Christian burial.

Worker’s Rights
180px-FRE-AIT.svgIn France, the Communards were revolting, installing their own form of government that called for the economic, social and political equality of women with men; gender and wage equality; the right of divorce; the abolition of the distinction between married women and concubines; an end to labeling children legitimate or illegitimate; the closing of legal brothels and an end to prostitution. What made this movement so frightening was that it was workers rising up against those in aristocratic positions, thus threatening the “normal” balance of power.

American businessmen were scared to death of this movement, seeing how it inflamed groups like the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which used the situation to demand an eight hour work day. Victoria’s friend and mentor, Stephen Pearl Andrews, was part of the IWA, and her husband was part of the American Labor Reform League. It is likely they were responsible for Victoria’s interest in the worker’s movement, which she eventually held on even ground with women’s suffrage.

The IWA was closely linked to Karl Marx, so Victoria felt it was important that the American people understand what they were fighting for. In July 1871, Victoria and Tennie became co-presidents of the IWA. In December 1871, she published the first English translation of his Manifesto in her paper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. That same month, she, Tennie and Stephen led a highly controversial parade in New York, protesting the murder of five Communards in France. She may have become a major player in the movement, had her philosophy of individual rights meshed more closely with Marx’s communal vision. In 1872, Marx himself disbanded Victoria’s section of the IWA, effectively ending her association with the group.

What is your understanding or familiarity with these groups? Had you heard of the sex radicals or IWA before? If so, how? What questions do you have about any of them?

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Sources:

Brody, Miriam. Victoria Woodhull, Free Spirit for Women’s Rights

Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria.

Gilfoyle, Timothy J. City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920.

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.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.