The Terrible Siren: Victoria Woodhull (1836 – 1927)

Victoria Woodhull (image: Wikipedia)

A fearless maverick, Victoria (Vicky) Clafin Woodhull Blood Martin took New York City by storm.  Born into a wild and wacky family who traveled the country with a medicine show telling fortunes and selling patent medicines, Woodhull moved to New York in 1866 with her sister Tennie.  They arrived just as the women’s suffrage movement was gaining steam—that year Elizabeth Cady Stanton ran for Congress, albeit unsuccessfully.  This was an opportune time for Woodhull to champion her causes—women’s rights, worker’s rights,and sex education, as well as more radical ideas such as free love and legalized prostitution.

What’s more, the national rage for spiritualism served the Woodhull sisters well.  As children, they had performed as clairvoyants in the family’s medicine show. Their presumed spiritual powers attracted the recently widowed Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt for whom they gave business tips “from the beyond,” and Tennie became his lover.  In return, Vanderbilt backed them in their Wall Street brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Company. In fact, they became the first American women to work as bankers and own a seat on the Stock Exchange.  The sisters used their handsome profits to start a weekly radical feminist newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, as an organ for their beliefs.

By 1870, Woodhull had acquired wealth and a grand brownstone where, according to Barbara Goldsmith in Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, she “attracted powerful business, political and military figures, mostly of the freethinking kind.”  Vicky ran for president of the United States on the Equal Rights Party ticket against Horace Greeley and Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, although she was not legally qualified to run, and women could not yet vote.   African-American Frederick Douglas was on the ballot as her running mate, although he never acknowledged it.  When the Woodhull sisters published an expose of the adulterous affair between the very popular and esteemed Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, their fairy tale life came to an abrupt end.  The fearsome Anthony Comstock, who attacked anyone whom he deemed evil, succeeded in having the sisters arrested under laws forbidding the use of the postal service to distribute “obscene material.”  They were later acquitted of the charges, but Woodhull spent Election Day in prison.

By 1878, it was time to move on, and Woodhull and her family moved to England.  There, the Woodhull sisters married wealthy, distinguished men and lived out their lives in England as ladies; indeed, Tennie became a titled lady. Woodhull continued to fight for her beliefs, adding religion and agrarian reform to her many causes, and returned to the United States to run for president once more late in her life.  She died in London at age 88.

Further reading:

Burrows, Edwin and Mike Wallace.  Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.  New York: Oxford Univ. Press: 1999.

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.


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