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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.
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.
But the discarded Woodhull hit the downgrade. He became a drug addict and a human derelict, incapable of taking care of himself; whereupon Victoria took him back into her household, although not as a husband. Naturally the regime caused comment, and it was undoubtedly the sting of the comment that turned her mind more and more to the invidious position to which women were relegated by the manners and customs of the times.
Victoria was a feminist not because the position of women in 1868 was unjust and disabling to half the human race but because it was unjust and disabling to a specific individual, to wit, Victoria Woodhull. But for the very reason that she was pleading her own case her attack was direct and driven home with tremendous emotional power.
It was her passionate resentment of injustices perpetrated upon her that made this woman a genuine firebrand. Blood was an able ghost writer who could supply her with smoothly turned phrases to which her emotional intensity lent a tremendous impact; and shortly after her arrival in New York she picked up another henchman, equally useful.
This was Stephen Pearl Andrews, himself an oddity worthy to be bracketed with Woodhull or any other eccentric. Andrews was of the intellectual aristocracy and had considerable intellectual capacity, but he lacked balance. He was an astounding linguist. It was said that he knew 32 languages, and he invented a thirty-third, called Alwato, a forerunner of Esperanto and other universal languages. At the age of nineteen he went to New Orleans, studied law, married a southern girl, and became a thundering abolitionist. Removing to Houston, Texas, he became a leader of the bar, but ruined his prospects by his violent opposition to slavery. In 1843 he was mobbed and driven out of the town, whereupon he went to England and tried to interest the British government in a scheme for emancipation by purchase of the slaves. He failed in that but he discovered the Pitman system of writing shorthand and introduced it into America.
In 1847 he removed to New York and imitated Sir Francis Bacon by undertaking a compendium of universal science. His social system, which he called “Pantarchy,” included odds and ends of every radical idea that was floating around. The rights of women had a prominent place in it and he included in those rights sexual freedom. This interested Victoria Woodhull and she sought out Stephen Pearl Andrews, whom she charmed as effectively as she did most men. Soon he was putting his skill at her service.
Now Victoria was equipped to go to town in a really big way. With Blood to give her utterances a smooth and flowing style, with Andrews to touch them with quite genuine learning, and with her own personal charm, she could speak and write with great effectiveness. More than that, she had an audience, for between them she and Tennessee had achieved a notoriety that forced them upon the notice of every resident of New York. Among those curious enough to look them up was Cornelius Vanderbilt, known as the Commodore, the tough and powerful founder of the Vanderbilt fortune.
In 1868 the Commodore was 74 years old and he was thinking much oftener of the other world than he had thought in his twenties. So when this new pair of occultists appeared in the city it was inevitable that he should be interested; and when he met them he was as completely charmed as other men and, to a certain extent, was conquered.
But Vanderbilt even in his old age was of much tougher fiber than the men whom the Claflins enslaved. He enjoyed their society and admitted it. He gladly loaded them with favors. Apparently there was a moment when he seriously considered marrying Tennessee, and he constantly demanded her services as a mesmeric masseuse; but the sisters never took the old boy completely into camp.
He made them rich in a spectacular way. They set up the brokerage house of Woodhull, Claflin & Company in Wall Street. Old Vanderbilt, hugely amused, probably furnished some of the capital, and certainly gave them valuable tips by which they cleaned up handsomely in the stock market.
The furor created by this crashing frontal assault on the prevailing mores is beyond description, especially as the unregenerate caste of newspaper reporters found it an inexhaustible source of amusing stories. Then Victoria seized every opportunity to inflame the stodgily conventional by increasing activity in public life. She became a popular lecturer on women’s rights.
The usual concept of a feminist at the time was that of a mannish creature with the build of a stevedore and the voice of a foghorn, a caricature of womanhood revolting to every male instinct. So when the crowds saw appear on the platform an exquisite and apparently fragile figure, feminine to the fingertips, the effect was a titillating shock. Add, then, an address couched in Blood’s suave and supple prose, and studded with arguments historical, anthropological, economic, and philosophical drawn from Andrews’ enormous store of learning, and the effect was redoubled. She was a smash hit.
Yet there was another element supplied by nobody but the woman herself, and it probably had more to do with the effect she produced than all the rest combined. This was a moral courage that did not blench before any implication of her doctrine. It was conspicuously a mealymouthed generation and Victoria Woodhull was not mealymouthed. If they charged her with advocating free love she met the charge head-on with an assertion that no infidelity could be as foul as for a woman to maintain marital relations with a husband she loathed.
About the year 1870 this was terrific, but it had an effect that the conventional did not expect and could not account for. It gave the impression of a fundamental honesty that all Victoria’s scarlet sins could not eradicate. Even the scandalized felt that, on this subject if on no other, Victoria Woodhull was telling the truth as she saw it and telling it with superb courage.
As for the enthusiasts, they went wild. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, wrote: “The nature that can pass through all phases of social degradation, vice, crime, poverty and temptation in all its forms, and yet maintain a dignity and purity of character through all, gives unmistakable proof of its high origin, its divinity.”
The platform, however, soon became an inadequate medium for Victoria. In 1870 the sisters began publication of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, one of the most curious ventures in the history of American journalism, filled though that history is with fantastic incidents. The Weekly defies classification because there is hardly an adjective in the language applicable to any newspaper that does not apply to this one.
Its primary purpose, announced in the first issue, was to support Victoria Claflin Woodhull for President of the United States. But aside from that there was hardly a measure of social amelioration that it did not advocate brilliantly, and hardly a depth of depravity that it failed to touch. Blood and Andrews did the bulk of the writing, but they had effective assistance from other contributors, some of them exceedingly able people, others as crazy as anything outside of Bedlam.
Feminism was the Weekly’s dominant interest, but it assailed entrenched injustice in many forms. There was scarcely an issue in which it did not peel the paint off some whited sepulcher, often with great journalistic and literary skill; on the other hand, there was scarcely an issue in which it did not back some charlatanry that might have made Cagliostro blush. It argued the cause of labor with eloquence and skill; it presented some astonishingly acute judgments on economic and fiscal policy; it collected an honorable array of enemies among venal and corrupt politicians. But intermixed with this excellent and socially valuable journalism it ran articles publicizing some of the most outrageous quacks in the country, especially those pretending to deal with the occult.
The Weekly had an even darker side. As Victoria’s public life became busier, so Tennessee’s private—very private—life grew more active. Naturally there are no records, so exact information on the subject is nonexistent; but that Tennessee used the Weekly to put the bite on the boy friends seems established beyond a reasonable doubt.
The fury that such activities built up against the enterprising sisters was boundless, but for a long time it was impotent. Their magnetic charm rendered them invulnerable, and their shrewdness reached higher and higher. Victoria snared one of the most eminent journalists in America, Theodore Tilton, editor of the Independent, a quasi-religious journal of opinion with immense influence, and for six months, by her own account, the affair was torrid.
He was married, but her philosophy of free love made that no obstacle. True, this philosophy was not proof against emotion; once when she caught Jim Blood with his arms around another woman she threw a pair of shears at them. Freedom didn’t extend to Jim.
But the connection with Tilton brought Victoria to the great crisis of her career and betrayed her into the error of assailing the one invulnerable citadel in America, namely, piety. It was not religion. There is only too much evidence to support the belief that in 1872 genuine religion in the United States was almost at its lowest ebb; but the country’s piety—that is, its acceptance of the forms of religion—was colossal and impregnable.
It was so great that churches had come to be profitable commercial investments, much as movie houses were fifty years later. It was nothing uncommon for a wealthy real-estate operator to sink many thousands in a church building and to spend other thousands hiring the most popular preacher available to preach there. The real-estate man would then promote the organization of a congregation that would pay rent for the building, or purchase it at a very handsome profit.
The result was the rise of a profession not exactly matched by anything in existence today. The nearest parallel, perhaps, is the radio or television commentator, whose first job is to be interesting. If he can at the same time be truthful and intelligent, so much the better, but he must be interesting, or he is quickly off the air.
The popular preacher of 1872 was under the same necessity, but he had another commitment from which the commentator is free. He had to establish some relation, however tenuous, between his discourse and religion. Frequently that relation was tenuous indeed; the preacher might devote 55 minutes out of the hour to politics, sociology, economics or whatever topic might be engaging public attention at the moment, but if he put in five minutes on religion his sermon was regarded as satisfactory.
In 1872 the most eminent member of this profession was the Reverend Dr. Henry Ward Beecher, preaching at Plymouth Church, in Brooklyn, an enormously expensive real-estate venture that was paying off handsomely. He was sturdy, full-blooded, tremendously vital. As a theologian he was not impressive, but as an exhorter he had few equals and no superior on the continent.
He was, needless to say, an immensely valuable property to the financial backers of his church. He was also a hypocrite in the eyes of some and a holy martyr in the eyes of others. In 1872 no third evaluation was deemed possible, but we have learned much about how the emotions operate and in the light of the knowledge gained since Beecher’s day a judgment less extreme is possible. The sermons of Henry Ward Beecher were intensely emotional, and if that emotion occasionally became more carnal than spiritual, it was to be expected and is no proof that the man deliberately planned any deception.
The Tiltons, warm supporters of Beecher, were also emotionally intense and presently the preacher was involved with Tilton’s wife. Mrs. Tilton made a confession to her husband and an unsavory mess developed. There was a conference among the three that resulted in the drawing up and signing of a weird document in which Tilton virtually condoned his wife’s misconduct and Beecher, without explicitly admitting that it had happened, promised that it should never happen again.
A thing like that can seldom be hushed up under any circumstances, and when the three people involved are all emotionally unstable it is flatly impossible. The facts soon came to be known to an increasing number of people, Victoria Woodhull among them. Her interest at first was perfunctory. She was on friendly terms with Beecher and he had done no more than apply her doctrine of free love. She had no interest either in exposing the affair or in covering it up.
The thing had been stewing under cover for a year or more and the lid might have been kept on longer had Beecher had no sisters. But he had, and they were strong-minded women. One sister, Catharine, was a strong anti-suffragist and a prominent advocate of education for women; the other was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who had written Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1872 they brought organized pressure to bear on one landlord after another to evict the Claflins from their premises. Eventually they even turned the heat on the keepers of public hotels, promising to make trouble, not for the Claflins but for anybody who treated them decently.
Then Victoria lost her temper and in some measure her judgment. She decided to teach the Beechers that two could play at that game, and therefore issued an ultimatum to their reverend brother. He would either call off his sisters—preferably by standing up for Victoria publicly—or she would let him have it with both barrels, and she wasn’t fooling.
It was bitterly unfair. Henry Ward Beecher may have been a power in the pulpit, but in private life he was basically an abject creature, and Harriet and Catharine were battle-axes. He had no more chance of controlling them than Mr. Caspar Milquetoast would have of taming a pair of Numidian lions, and Victoria should have known it; but rage probably blinded her to reality.
So in its issue of November 2, 1872, the Weekly broke wide open the whole story of the Beecher-Tilton connection.
The deluge was beyond belief. The first insanity was perpetrated by the supporters of Beecher, morals, and religion. They clapped the Claflins in jail on the charge of issuing an obscene publication. The Claflins were soon released, but their arrest brought into action on opposite sides two of the most fantastic figures in American history, Anthony Comstock and George Francis Train.
Comstock was anti-Claflin and his activity in this case gave him the start on his long career of harrying and harassing in the name of purity every writer or artist who presented to the American public an original idea. Train was pro-Claflin, an eccentric genius who had been growing more erratic every year, and who seems to have been completely knocked loose from his moorings by the Claflin affair.
He had made a great deal of money, first as a shipping magnate—it was his firm that commissioned Donald McKay to build the Flying Cloud, greatest of clipper ships—and later as a traction magnate, in England, in Australia, and in various states of the Union. Becoming affluent, he abandoned business and apparently set out to amuse himself; he became a Fenian to bedevil the British, and in 1870 a Communist to bedevil the French; he read Jules Verne and promptly went around the world in eighty days; he built a villa in Newport; and for the three years following 1869 continually made speeches advocating himself for President.
Naturally, the Claflin affair enthralled him. He too had a paper, called The Train Ligne, in which he defended the sisters. He published choice excerpts culled from the Bible to show the authorities that the Tilton-Beecher article was far less obscene than Holy Writ; so in their frenzy they jugged Train, too. He refused to put up bail or pay a fine, and when they released him at last he appeared on the streets of New York holding an umbrella over his head but stark naked.
Volumes would be required to record all the ravings that followed the breaking open of the scandal, for the country really was set by the ears when piety received a body blow. But piety rallied and grimly set about the business of exterminating the disturbers of its peace. This proved difficult, but it was pursued relentlessly. Beecher, well advised by hard-headed lawyers, refused to sue the Claflins, and eventually Tilton sued him. The case resulted in a hung jury. Nine of the jurors were for Beecher, or at least against Tilton, but three believed the charges, and at least one-fourth of the public joined the three. Beecher continued to preach but never again was his voice accepted as thunder from Sinai.
His friends, however, greatly assisted by other members of the Clafiin family, closed in on Victoria and Tennessee, and by 1877, two years after the Beecher trial, it appeared to be only a matter of time until they would be crushed completely. Then the old Commodore died and it is commonly believed that his death gave them their final triumph over their foes. It came about through the peculiar provisions of his will. His slight esteem for his son Cornelius was evidenced by the fact that he left him $200,000; his opinion of women in general is evidenced by the fact that he left each of his daughters $500,000; while to his son William, who had shown real business capacity, went the residue of the estate, about $90,000,000. The other children tried to break the will, and when it appeared that the case was about to come to trial, someone, probably a shrewd lawyer, had the dreadful thought that the contestants might call the Claflins as witnesses to prove the old man’s incompetence.
Even though he had withdrawn his public support the Commodore had always liked them and had continued to see them almost to the end of his days. So, although they were not mentioned in the will and were not parties to the suit, it was highly probable that the court would admit their testimony; and the very thought of what those women might say on the witness stand was enough to give any trial lawyer palpitations.
Eliminating them was the most obvious of precautions. What was done about it nobody knows, for it was done most discreetly. All that is certain is that the Claflins, who had appeared to be in dire financial straits, suddenly left for England with money in their purses and the will case was settled out of court. Gossip asserted that it took half a million to move them; and under the circumstances it was probably well worth it.
Notoriety followed them abroad, of course, but in England it was merely the notoriety attaching to radical advocates of women’s rights. This closed certain doors to them, but it opened others. The more squalid episodes in their history seem never to have been widely known in London, or if they were the Claflin charm was able to overcome them. Nothing was able to prevent Victoria’s annexing her banker, Mr. John Biddulph Martin, or Tennessee’s acquisition of her title.
Looking back on all of this, it appears that an apparently worthless woman jarred this nation right down to its heels and laid prostrate a number of swelling reputations and a larger number of swollen conventions and punctilios; and this inevitably raises the question, was she in fact worthless?
After all, Victoria Woodhull never championed adultery, swindling, and blackmail, however much she may have practiced them. Many of the causes she advocated were things that later generations have accepted as worthy ideals. The right of a woman to be accepted on her merits as a human being without reference to gender is no longer questioned.
Victoria Woodhull spoke up for all these things when it was dangerous to do so. That is to say, she spoke the truth courageously, and no man or woman has ever yet defied peril to speak truth without producing a profound and lasting effect.
Grant that her story is the most uproarious farce that the lunatic fringe has yet produced, it cannot be denied that the episode gave to the then lethargic cause of women’s rights a dynamic—or, if you prefer, a demonic —drive that it has never completely lost.