The Robber Baronesses

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Vanderbilt began giving the Claflin sisters advice on what stocks to buy and sell. Getting stock tips from the Commodore in the 1860s was rather like getting them from Warren Buffett today, only with no insider-trading laws to worry about, and the sisters made out very handsomely indeed, although probably not as well as the $750,000 Woodhull reported.

Early in 1870 Woodhull and her sister decided to open a brokerage firm of their own, quite undeterred by the fact that, as Susan B. Anthony complained, Wall Street men stared at every woman on the pavement except the apple sellers. They told Vanderbilt of their plans. He was no feminist, to put it mildly, but he was no great admirer of the ways of Wall Street either, and he possessed a keen sense of humor. He gave them a check for seven thousand dollars as backing, and Woodhull, Claflin and Co. was in business.

They deposited Vanderbilt’s check with Henry Clews, a major Wall Street broker (and the Street’s greatest gossip), ensuring that everyone would know that Vanderbilt was behind the two sisters, soon labeled by the press the “Queens of Finance” and the “Bewitching Brokers.” The New York Herald , like all the other newspapers, reported the story thoroughly and soon ran an editorial congratulating “the brokers that their labors are to be shared by the fair sex. How refreshing the time when the halls of the Stock Exchange shall exhibit a variety of costume as diverse as the floor of a ballroom.” Male condescension, however, was not far below the surface. “ Vive la frou frou ,” the editorial concluded.

They first set up shop in the Hoffman House Hotel, on fashionable Madison Square, but soon opened a proper office at 44 Broad Street, just down the street from the Exchange itself. The office was soon jammed with sightseers and customers alike. Vanderbilt came regularly, and his rivals in the recent Erie War, Daniel Drew and Jay Gould, also put in appearances. So did Walt Whitman, at least according to Woodhull. The sisters were soon forced to put up a sign stating ALL GENTLEMEN WILL STATE THEIR BUSINESS AND THEN RETIRE AT ONCE .

The Claflin sisters got rich, but they weren’t really interested in being brokers. It was only a means to an end.

At first business was brisk. Vanderbilt used the firm frequently. Others used it too, for their own purposes. Jay Gould explained that he could operate through the firm with Vanderbilt stocks, and everyone would assume it was the Commodore at work. “When the Stock Exchange was surest we were squeezing Vanderbilt... I was supplying them with all the stock their unkind suspicions would bid for ... [and] paid Victoria and sister Tennie $1,000 a day commission.” All this translated into fat profits for the “lady brokers,” who earned perhaps as much as five hundred thousand dollars the first year, enough to make them indisputably rich by the standards of the day.

The Claflin sisters, however, were not really interested in being brokers. It was only a means to an end. Soon they were increasingly caught up in suffragist politics. They started (again with Vanderbilt’s help) Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly , for a time an influential newspaper. Woodhull even ran for President in 1872, despite the fact that had she, by some miracle, been elected, she would not have been old enough to take office.

But by the time of the election, things were going badly once again. Woodhull had publicly embraced the idea of “free love,” which to most Victorians was the moral equivalent of approving of child molesting. The more conventional suffragists backed away from her quickly. And she flirted with communism (the Weekly had published the first American edition of The Communist Manifesto ), which hardly helped her on Wall Street or with the Commodore.

Vanderbilt, increasingly under the influence of his straight-laced second wife, withdrew his backing. The Weekly would live on for a few more years, but the brokerage house collapsed, as did many others, in the Panic of 1873. The Claflin sisters were broke once again.

In 1877 Vanderbilt died and the sisters moved to England. It is widely assumed that William H. Vanderbilt, who inherited $90 million of his father’s $105 million fortune, bribed them to do so. The Commodore’s will was being contested in the courts—it was the O. J. Simpson trial of the 1870s, at least with respect to public interest—and the younger Vanderbilt could only have viewed with horror the possibility of their being called as witnesses.

In England the Claflin sisters quickly attained wealth once again. But this time they did it in a less entrepreneurial way. They married rich men.