For Love Or Profit
by ALEX CARNEVALE
Victoria Woodhull had every reason to hate the world, but did not.
She was born to an eccentric named Roxanna who people called Annie. Her mother had a strong jaw, a prominent nose, a fondness for hoop earrings. Annie had ten children, of which Victoria was the seventh.
That her mother called Victoria “my little queen” did not save her from regular beatings from both her parents. In church her mother regularly created a scene by launching into a trance of ecclesiastical ecstasy. The only positive lesson young Victoria was able to take was that even pain had within it the possibility of pleasure. To protect herself from the disturbing reality of life, Victoria summoned two imaginary sisters, Delia and Odessa Maldiva, to reassure her.
By the age of eight, it was obvious Victoria was the smartest person in the town of Homer, Ohio. She used a photographic memory and massive IQ to outwit both her cruel parents and whatever teachers the Methodist Church would infrequently wrangle to instruct children. Her father lost his savings and drifted from job to job, eventually taking up as a fraud hawking spiritual treatment to medical woes. His daughters Victoria and Tennessee, called “Tennie,” were quickly caught up in it.
Victoria was only 14 when she was forced to accept a marriage proposal from the family’s doctor, the 28 year old Canning Woodhull. She “accepted the change,” and was wed to the man on November 23rd, 1853. Victoria soon found her husband’s medical degree was something of a joke; to earn his title only required eight months of training and a short apprenticeship. Her new husband drank to excess on a daily basis, visited prostitutes whenever he could, and gave her a son with severe developmental disabilities.
The young family moved to San Francisco, where friends tried to convince Victoria to become an actress. This inclination soon gave way to making money as a travelling spiritualist healer. After giving birth to a daughter, she divorced Canning and returned to Chicago. Her next husband was a Union officer named James Blood. She reported that a spirit guide told her to move into a house at 17 Great Jones Street in New York City.
The moment she was first exposed to the women’s suffrage movement, she saw her future. She wrote, “visions of the offices I might one day hold danced before my imagination.” She gave up medical clairvoyance and debuted her new career in September of 1869 when she became a stockbroker during the gold panic. With the assistance of her friend and confidant, the ancient Cornelius Vanderbilt, she turned her savings of $100,000 into seven times that amount through capitalizing on what would become known as the first Black Friday.
Vanderbilt’s son prevented Tennie Claflin from marrying his father, but with the financier’s backing, the two sisters incepted their new career as Wall Street stockbrokers; their offices were parlor 25 and 26 at the Hoffman House Hotel on Madison Square. Soon the publicity and interest surrounding the all-female agency allowed them to open a larger office at 44 Broad Street, where they were alternately known as the “Queens of Finance” and the “Female Sovereigns of Wall Street.” The media fetishized the two beautiful sisters, and as a result they attracted early admirers like Walt Whitman and Susan B. Anthony. “Look at this office,” Tennie observed, “isn’t this better than sewing drawers at ten cents a pair? Or teaching music at ten dollars a quarter?”
In a sense, Woodhull, Chaflin and Company succeeded based on its own momentum. Massive parties and high living increased the sisters’ profiles and kept the firm in the news. Tennie took up with the new managing editor of The New York Tribune, Whitelaw Reid, and they used Victoria’s husband as their secretary – he even ghostwrote Tennie’s romantic notes to Reid. As her sister devoted herself to the fledgling firm, Victoria planned a greater challenge. She moved to a Murray Hill brownstone and sent a letter to The New York Herald announcing herself as an eventual candidate for a president of the United States:
While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of women with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why women should be treated, socially and politically, as being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed.
The suffrage movement had been splintered into factions both regional and political in nature, and Victoria picked an ideal time to assert prominence. To support her candidacy she used every media connection at her disposal, and eventually began publishing a weekly newspaper of her own to get the message out. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, as it was called, addressed the issues of the day with the proto-feminist perspective you might imagine, but it also abandoned a moralistic tone, arguing that “ambition, love of power and love of fame are not necessarily evidence of insincerity.” It was a bold and true declaration, but it was also as good as a bullseye.
There is a fascination with tearing down both men and women in the public sphere once they assert any kind of moral superiority over their fellow man. In the case of Victoria Woodhull, her ideals and opinions were actually superior: reading them today is like looking into her future, our present. The pages of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly also contained poetry and fiction, stock listings and sports news. There was no field of human activity which did not apply to Victoria’s essential mission. Lasting for six years, the paper hemorrhaged money every time it opened in the morning, but the Weekly did the important work of refining the political and social philosophies of its publishers.
In 1870, Victoria moved to Washington, taking up residence at the Willard Hotel. She began an affair with a powerful member of Congress, a House representative named Benjamin Butler, a former Union general. Her one woman campaign for suffrage oriented around her contention, often posited in the pages of her newspaper, that the Constitution already permitted women the vote. Her crusade made remarkable progress until the president killed the bill before it got off the ground in the House Judiciary Committee.
Her next step was to form her own political party, which she called the Cosmo-Political Party. She booked the largest auditorium in Washington to jump start her public campaign for the presidency in 1872. Butler’s advice for public speaking – “Put that glass of water down. Never touch it while you are speaking” – worked in spades and the resulting oratory was such a success it turned Victoria into a sensation. For her audiences, she was often the first woman they had ever seen addressing a large crowd.
Even those who had previously been skeptical of Victoria’s celebrity threw their support behind her resources and popularity. She was still an easy target for faux-moral critics like Harriet Beecher Stowe (who termed her “Darcia Darkeyes”) and Anna Dickinson, whose prudishness born of a religious background limited their ability to embrace the considerable value in Victoria’s ideas and public appeal. Once she became president, Victoria planned to wear dark blue pants over light blue tights, sporting a short haircut complementing a man’s collar and cravate. When a reporter jokingly suggested she would be arrested in that garb, she replied, “When I am ready to make my appearance in this dress, no police would dare touch me.”
Just as her political capital reached its apex, wild fluctuations in the price of gold torpedoed her brokerage. The behind-the-scenes operations were run by Victoria’s husband James Blood in tandem with her sister, and as the financial side collapsed, the Weekly suddenly inveighed against corporate fraud. Having witnessed the rampant corruption in that world firsthand, they knew exactly where to look for the dirty laundry. The main targets of Blood’s editorials were the railroads, but all were fair game. The love affair with Wall Street was decidedly over.
A legal complaint, filed by Victoria’s insane mother Annie against her husband, exacerbated her daughter’s troubles by bringing Victoria’s domestic life into the open. The supposed scandal that came out of it was the fact that Victoria allowed her diseased alcoholic first husband Canning to reside in her home and help care for their disabled son. In order to justify the arrangement, she invoked the principle of free love, which would end up consuming her public identity.
Her ideas about sex turned some of the most powerful forces in the media against her, including Horace Greeley who insisted “my conviction of the proper dissolubility of marriage is the mainspring of my hostility to women’s suffrage… My conception of the nature and scope of the marriage relation renders my conversion to women’s suffrage a moral impossibility.” It is the exact same doggerel offered today. The nastiest and most hurtful bit of anti-Woodhull propaganda appeared in the pages of Harper’s, where the subject of the Thomas Nast cartoon would be labeled as “Mrs. Satan.”
She took up with the writer Theodore Tilton, who would become her lover as well as her biographer until he turned on her later. Their mutual infidelity came out of his worship of her – among others, he compared her to Joan of Arc. With his help she created a new political party: The Equal Rights Party. To promote the new organization, Tilton penned his biography of her, one of the first in a long tradition of “campaign biographies.” Victoria’s new platform was designed to appeal to the masses, and it repudiated many of her earlier, more pro-capitalist ideas.
Looking back at that platform today it seems neither completely socialist nor especially radical. Her relationship with Cornelius Vanderbilt convinced her that when someone of extreme wealth dies, it was dangerous to allow them to keep everything they possessed within their own relations. The idea of a death tax scared the very rich and powerful at the time; today we only argue over the size of the fine. Even in her newest and strangest ideas, she anticipated the future of the national conversation more than her detractors could have imagined.
Her own finances improved as long as she was able to stay on the road. An intense lecture schedule restored her empty coffers. However, her bizarre plan to nominate Frederick Douglass in the role of vice president without his consent was not only politically impractical, it diminished the impact of her rhetoric. More importantly, her turn against the devout capitalists who had supported her earlier efforts marked the end to their contributions, and she quickly found herself the enemy of then-conservative New York Times.
Susan B. Anthony’s public turn against her came as a result of the gossip from her mother’s trial, and it amounted to the beginning of the end. She began sleeping in her new office, and fell deeply in debt. To resurrect the fortunes of her newspaper, she decided to publish a story she had gotten from Elizabeth Cady Stanton about a popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher committing adultery with Theodore Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. The story was completely true, and it sold more copies than any other edition of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly by a large margin. (Some of the editions of the paper were leased for $1 a day.)
Shortly thereafter, United States marshals locked Victoria Woodhull in jail for the crime of obscenity. After her supporters bailed her out, Harriet Beecher Stowe appealed to her own political connections on behalf of her brother and got Victoria banned from speaking in several auditoriums. Beecher himself refused to sue for libel since he knew the story was true, but Stowe believed her brother innocent. In the summer of 1873, Victoria was finally declared not guilty of all charges, with former lover Benjamin Butler offering the key point in her defense.
Yet all was not well. During the trial, Victoria had suffered a mild heart attack, and she was never the same after her illness. Her ideas were fresh as ever, but in the public eye she had been pigeonholed by the critical media as guilty of something. Her oratory focused on the considerable pleasures of sex, a century before such musings would actually become popular to espouse, noting that “to kill out the sexual instinct by repression is to emasculate character.” She herself experimented sexually with her young acolytes as well as with men in power; her husband was pleased to accomodate her wishes if it made her happy.
When the Weekly died, so did Victoria’s marriage with Blood. Their divorce came about as a result of a doctor who had fawned over her and then written a series of vicious letters after she rejected his advances. Blood had originally introduced the two, and the resulting scandal ended her political career. He reported that “the grandest woman in the world went back on me.”
She tried to escape that life in 1883 with a move to London and a third marriage, this time to a monied Englishman named John Martin. High society, including her new husband’s family, strenously objected to her, and Henry James found the material of two novels in her life. She would never talk about The Bostonians, but she noted in her autobiography that James was “one of your greatest intellectual snobs.” In Rome she finally got a real audience with Frederick Douglass, who barely recognized her.
The next year, she entered menopause and discovered that she suffered from benign uterine tumors. Her desire to restore her undeserved reputation enabled her to find the strength to survive. She wrote, “God helping me, I will not rest until I am known for what I am, not what others have made me out to be.” Her daughter Zula managed Humanitarian, a new publication. She threw herself into her writing, into enjoying the company of her wealthy husband. At the age of 57, he taught Victoria how to ride a bike. But then, in March of 1897, John Martin pedalled up a mountain in the rain, caught pneumonia and died. Victoria inherited a vast sum (over $10m by today’s standards) and plunged it into the paper for four more years, until she conveyed the estate to her daughter. She occupied her remaining years as a generous philanthropist. When the first World War arrived, she promoted U.S. involvement and organized sewing sessions in her community. She endured until the age of 90, asking her daughter and friends to scatter her ashes over the Atlantic Ocean.
Victoria Woodhull never viewed her sufferings as injustice: it was simply the place and time in which she lived. These were not obstacles, trials or tribulations. There was no need for anger or disappointment that things were not as they ought to have been. It feels inadequate to write about her; it is preferable to simply be as she was. In Rae Armantrout’s phrase, Victoria so impotently loved the world.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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