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The Robber Baronesses

June 2024
6min read

How two bold sisters set up a business in the very citadel of masculine prerogative: 1870s Wall Street

Today there are few areas of human activity where women are still absent. The nation’s most populous state has sent two to the United States Senate, where they sit with six others. The Supreme Court has two female justices. All four branches of the armed services now have female combat pilots. And a woman not only managed to climb to the top of the greasy pole of British politics in recent decades, she utterly dominated it for eleven years.


But the next time there is a busy day on Wall Street, take a close look at the inevitable television pictures of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Except for the electronics it might still be the 1920s, for the floor remains a masculine preserve.

And while women are increasingly present behind the scenes on Wall Street these days, the Street was probably the last major area of the American economy to have women move into positions of real power. It was only in 1967, after all, that a woman first held a seat on the Exchange.

Imagine, then, the public reaction when two women decided to open a Wall Street brokerage house of their own not in 1967 but in 1870, a full half-century before women were even guaranteed the right to vote. As you might expect, these were no ordinary women; they were Victoria Woodhull and her younger sister, Tennessee Claflin, two only-in-America originals. An interesting biography of Victoria Woodhull, The Woman Who Ran for President , by Lois Beachy Underbill, appeared earlier this year.

Victoria Woodhull was born in 1838 and was named for the queen who had ascended the British throne the previous year. Her father, Buck Claflin, was a jack-of-all-trades, always looking for the main chance and the fast buck and never finding it. A devoted entrepreneur, he lacked the ability, and the honesty, to make a success of anything for very long. He would spend much of his life one jump ahead of the sheriff.

Victoria’s mother, from Pennsylvania German stock, could not read but had memorized long passages of the Bible from having heard them recited. She was deeply religious and was caught up in the great religious revival that began about the time of Victoria’s birth.

Mrs. Claflin often took Victoria to religious meetings where the girl witnessed many, including her own mother, in the throes of religious ecstasy. But the woman was a sloppy housekeeper at best and an erratic mother to her nine, quarrelsome children. Indeed, the Claflin family was a good example of what the French ethologist Jean-Jacques Petter called a “noyau,” a social community held together by internal antagonism.

Victoria Woodhull would take the family traits of humbug, spirituality, and argumentativeness and—with a touch of genius and a generous helping of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s money—turn them into immortality.

Victoria married Canning Woodhull when she was only fifteen. He had seemed like a catch, a doctor who came from a good family. But he was also a drunk and was soon dependent on her. Mrs. Woodhull made her living as an actress until spiritualism swept the country in the 1850s, when she switched to being a clairvoyant, a profession calling for quite as much thespian talent. Her sister Tennessee, five years younger, soon became a “magnetic healer.”

The Claflin family moved from one Midwestern town to another in these years, setting up health clinics where the younger sister employed her healing powers while Woodhull practiced spiritualism and predicted the future for paying customers. In Ottawa, Illinois, the family opened a cancer clinic. But when one patient died, Tennessee was indicted for manslaughter and the whole family had to decamp in haste.

In Cincinnati the neighbors complained about the number of nighttime male callers at the Claflin house, and Tennessee was named in an adultery case and blackmail suit, requiring another quick exit. In 1868 the family moved to New York, where their fortune took a dramatic turn for the better when the sisters paid a call on Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Commodore was rapidly becoming the richest man in the country in the years after the Civil War as he assembled a series of local railroads into a splendidly managed—and immensely profitable—trunk line running from New York to Chicago. But getting in to see him was not hard to do, as Vanderbilt maintained an open-door policy. (To be sure, that was possible only because it was accompanied by a no-nonsense, state-your-business-andget-out attitude.)

The Commodore was greatly interested in spiritualism; many highly intelligent people were in its early years. He also had a well-known weakness for good-looking women, and both the Claflin sisters were extraordinarily goodlooking. Woodhull was soon giving the Commodore regular spiritual advice while her sister was giving him comfort of a rather more earthly nature, often spending the night at Vanderbilt’s house on Washington Place. Just widowed, the following year Vanderbilt would ask her to marry him. This was golddigger heaven, but Claflin turned him down, and later that summer he married his distant and much younger cousin Frank Crawford.

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.

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