- 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
Things came to a head when Buck, having somehow acquired title to a local gristmill, insured it heavily, whereupon the mill promptly burned. A citizens’ committee called on Buck; and while he might have had an alibi, it was certain that the committee men had plenty of determination and plenty of rope. Under the circumstances, Buck, chose not to argue the point: he disappeared.
That left the family stranded, and Roxy and her brood were not exactly God’s gift to any community. Yet the town of Homer, while it could be heavy-handed, was not devoid of social conscience. After various expedients had been tried the people held what was called a “benefit” to which everybody contributed, and through it they raised money to get the Claflins out of town.
Exactly where they went is still unknown, but they met Buck somewhere and presently they began to appear in various Ohio towns, operating as spiritualists and mesmerists, Victoria and Tennessee being the star performers. In this setup Tennessee, ever the hard-boiled opportunist, was probably completely cynical, but there is evidence that Victoria was not. As a child—she said from the age of three—she had been subject to fits of a kind of self-hypnosis, during which she claimed to be subject to a spirit control. After some years she identified this control as Demosthenes, the Greek orator, and there is little doubt that at some times, in some circumstances, she half believed in the reality of this power. It is significant that her control was a man of eloquence.
For some years the Claflins did well. Buck took over the business management. Hebern, the son, dispensed his cancer cures. Victoria and Tennessee went into trances and communicated with the dead; they also practiced healing by mesmerism and the laying on of hands. Roxy was responsible for cooking up vast quantities of a nostrum called an elixir and sold in bottles with Tennessee’s picture on the label.
But the organization had a fatal defect: nobody was satisfied with his share of the take. Everybody wanted to boss the show. Two of the girls married and dropped out. Before she was sixteen Victoria was also married, to a young doctor named Canning Woodhull, but instead of dropping out she attached her husband to the gang. Tennessee married too, but not seriously. She changed her name indeed, but not to Bartels, that of her husband; she merely began to sign it “Tennie C. Claflin” and Bartels remained a shadowy figure soon to fade out completely. Victoria, however, not only called herself Woodhull, but bore two children to the doctor.
Victoria’s dissatisfaction with the Claflin circus was based on something more than avarice. She resented being exploited by her family, but beyond that she disliked the medicine show itself; she burned to do something more important than swindling country bumpkins. Eventually she persuaded Tennessee to drop the nostrum-peddling and to join her in setting up as spiritualists on their own. This thrust Buck, Roxy, and Hebern into the background, which they did not like, and they showed their resentment by creating all the trouble they could. Nevertheless it was a sagacious move, for the sisters were superbly equipped for a career in the shadowy realm that lies between complete probity and outright crime.
Tennessee was the simpler and more obvious character. Bewitchingly pretty, she could convince even a man of intelligence that he had been singled out by a charming woman for favors that ordinary brutes could not attain, nor appreciate if they had attained them. So, repeatedly, persons who were most certainly men of sense testified fervently to the grace, dignity, and obvious good breeding of this lady. Not until they were hopelessly involved and she began to turn the screw to bleed them financially did they change their opinion and not always even then.
But Victoria was a far more remarkable phenomenon than her sister. To begin with, she had everything that Tennessee had, physically. To her physical perfection she added a quickness of apprehension that was a workable substitute for intelligence. Men who had ideas found it delightful to talk with her and usually rated her intellectual ability well above its actual value.
Victoria’s success was not confined to men. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the suffrage leaders, delighted in Victoria. True, Julia Ward Howe and Mary Rice Livermore, leaders of the more conservative feminists, would have none of her, but they were always more interested in morals than in women’s rights.
It was in 1868 that the sisters moved upon New York and began the ten years that were to emblazon them indelibly upon American history. In the meantime their domestic arrangements had reached an unbelievable degree of complication. Tennessee’s husband had faded out of the picture, but Victoria’s had not. Later, one of his successors in Victoria’s affections was to describe Canning Woodhull as a monster, but apparently he was only a dismal sort of weakling, incapable of managing or even holding the human dynamo he had married. Somewhere along the line Victoria simply dismissed him and transferred her affections to one James Blood, a man of some intellectual power. Eventually Victoria divorced Woodhull and is supposed to have married Blood in 1866.