- Historic Sites
Dynamic Victoria Woodhull
Her past was shady but her conscience was excellent, and all in all she played a big part in the emancipation of women
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
Mrs. John Biddulph Martin, widow of a rich English banker and sister of the Viscountess of Montserrat, lived to the ripe old age of 89 and, in 1927 died in the odor of sanctity, much esteemed for her charitable works. Which was a scandal in the eyes of those who esteemed themselves as right-thinkers.
It was then belief, which they had done their best to translate into action, that she should have been dressed in a yellow robe and incinerated in an auto-da-fé. It was not merely that her infidelities had been numerous and notorious, that she was a blackmailer, or that she was a spectacularly successful swindler. Her crime was more heinous than any of these, or than all of them put together. She had attacked and seriously damaged several of our most pompous and venerated hands, including the double moral standard, the legal ascendancy of the male, and Pecksniffian religion.
In doing this she made monkeys out of senators, bankers, editors, and eloquent divines: and whoso makes monkeys out of our popular idols inevitably makes the idolaters look simian. This woman made vast numbers of the self-righteous appear silly in their own eyes; she was unspeakable.
And yet there was in her career a certain adherence to basic truth that commands the admiration of realists, accompanied by a flouting of all the laws of probability that delights artists. More than that, she was a social force of some importance because she galvanized a then comatose movement, feminism, into an activity that has never ceased. In the rout of odd characters that composes the lunatic fringe of American reform movements she is the one that charms the unregenerate most of all, partly because of her incredibility, but largely because of her complete humanity.
Old Duck was a bum and so was Roxy, his wife. By all rules of eugenics this unappetizing pair should have produced offspring revolting in appearance and deplorable in their moral and mental traits: instead of which they engendered ten children, the six who survived to maturity all endowed with physical beauty and two of them touched with genius. So from the very beginning the story is all wrong. “Everything’s got a moral,” said the Duchess, “if only you can find it.” But this story, having no moral, flatly contradicts the Duchess.
This story starts with Buck—Reuben Buckman Claflin—for the sufficient reason that we know nothing of his ancestry. Buck married Roxanna Hummel and she, too, is definitelv the beginning of her line. Whence she came is lost in the mists of oblivion, which is perhaps just as well, since there is nothing in her history to suggest that her genealogy would be edifying.
Buck was worthless, and Roxy was worthless in spades. But out of the litter of juvenile delinquents produced by this disagreeable pair only three became anything like social menaces.
The one male in the group, named Hebern, had the physical beauty and apparently something of the charm of his sisters. He posed as a cancer doctor, and while he was obviously a charlatan his activities had no perceptible effect upon history. He contributed nothing to our knowledge of cancer, but neither did he subtract anything. He was a nullity and may be dismissed from consideration.
The marvels of the age were the seventh and ninth children named, respectively, Victoria and Tennessee; and of the pair Victoria was the really dynamic force, although for a long time Tennessee overshadowed her in notoriety. Between them they constituted a social force of immense potency and unquestionably affected the history of the United States appreciably.
Time favored them. Victoria was born in 1838, Tennessee in 1846, so at the end of the Civil War they were 27 and 19 years old respectively. The ten years following that war were what Claude C. Bowers called “The Tragic Era,” on account of the blatancy of its chicanery and fraud. The prevalence of rascals may have been no greater, statistically, than that at other periods, but they were more prominent and very much gaudier than ever before or since.
It was an environment singularly favorable to the flourishing of such a group as the Claflin tribe. Their first clear appearance in history was in the country village of Homer, some thirty miles northeast of Columbus, Ohio, where they were the scandal of the community. Buck was a crafty trader, but he prospered more by skinning the other party to a deal than by an honest exchange of values and, as usually happens to shifty characters, he gradually went downhill because fewer and fewer people would risk doing business with him.
Roxy was a slatternly housewife and her method of discipline consisted of alternately screaming at the children and slobbering over them. Naturally they were wild, unkempt, and. as they grew older, neighborhood terrors. Eventually they were completely ostracized; self-respecting mothers forbade their children to set foot on the Claflin premises and would not allow the Claflins to come on their own property.