They Went-That-A-Way: Victoria Claflin Woodhull


When Victoria Claflin Woodhull died on June 9, 1927, news of her passing was announced on two continents. The press referred to the controversial writer, stockbroker, and politician as a “most immoral woman.”  Not only was Victoria the first woman to be officially nominated for president of the United States, but she was also one of the first individuals to have been jailed on federal obscenity charges. Both events occurred in 1872. 

Before her involvement with the women’s rights movement in the mid-1860s, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, were the owners and publishers of a newspaper called the Woodhull and Claflin Weekly. They printed scandalous articles promoting the idea of “free love.”  In a letter Victoria sent to the New York Times in 1871, she claimed that free love was the “only cure for immorality, the deep damnation by which men corrupt and disfigure God’s most holy institution of sexual relations.”  She goes on, “It is not marriage but sexual intercourse, then, that is God’s most holy institution.”  Victoria and Tennessee’s progressive views on sex and the brazen printing of those ideals appalled citizens not only in the United States but also in other countries like Germany and Russia as well. They “threaten to destroy the morals nations so desperately needed to cling to,” was the opinion voiced in the New York Times on November 23, 1871.

Victoria and Tennessee were not strangers to confrontation with the law. Their father, Rueben Buckman “Buck” Claflin, was a scoundrel who excelled at breaking the rules of conventional society and spent time behind bars for his actions. Buck and his wife, Roxanna Hummel, lived in a rundown house in Homer, Ohio. The couple had ten children. Born on September 23, 1838, Victoria was the Claflins’ sixth child. Although Victoria’s father claimed to be a lawyer with his own profitable practice, he was actually a skilled thief with no law degree at all. He owned and operated a gristmill and also worked as a postmaster. Buck supplemented his income by stealing from merchants and business owners, and he was a counterfeiter and a suspected arsonist.

Victoria’s mother was a religious fanatic who dismissed Buck’s illegal activities in favor of chastising her neighbors for what she claimed was hedonism. Her public prayers were loud, judgmental, and dramatic. She preached to her children and insisted they memorize long passages of the Old Testament. By the time Victoria was eight, she was able to recite the Bible from cover to cover. Reflecting on her life, Victoria wrote in Autobiography of Victoria Claflin that her mother’s spiritual zeal so influenced her childhood that young Victoria believed she could see into the future and predict what was to come of those who sought her out to preach.

Tennessee was reported to be the true clairvoyant of the family. Born in 1845, she was the last child born to Roxanna and Buck. Roxanna claimed Tennessee had the power to perceive things that do not present to the senses. She would slip into trances and speak with spirits, answering voices no one else could hear.

Victoria and Tennessee had little formal education. Although Victoria attended school for only four years, she was bright, precocious, and well read. She was uninhibited and at the age of eleven delivered sermons from a busy location in Homer, Ohio. 

In 1849, the Claflins left Homer and moved to Mount Gilead, Ohio. Victoria’s father had abandoned gristmill work and decided to venture into the field of psychic phenomenon with his daughters in tow. He introduced Victoria and Tennessee to the public and announced the girls’ talent for “second sight” or “extrasensory perception, the ability to receive information in the form of a vision by channeling spirits. Buck rented a theatre and charged patrons seventy-five cents to watch the four-year-old and eleven-year-old communicate with deceased Claflin family members and predict the future. One such specific prediction was that one day a woman would be president of the United States.

Victoria and Tennessee’s shows, in which they would conduct séances and interpret dreams for audience members, attracted a large following, and in a short time the two young girls became the sole source of income for their family.

At the age of fifteen, Victoria married a twenty-eight-year-old doctor named Canning Woodhull. The doctor had moved to Mount Gilead from Rochester, New York, to set up a practice. The pair met when Victoria’s parents asked Canning to treat Victoria when she was suffering from rheumatism and a fever. Five months after nursing his patient back to health, the two were married. They exchanged vows on November 20, 1853. The Woodhull’s marriage was a troubled one, the doctor was an alcoholic and had numerous affairs.

The Woodhulls moved to San Francisco, California, in 1855, in hopes the change of scenery would improve their marital condition. It did not. Victoria’s husband refused to find steady employment. With her baby in tow, she found odd jobs including selling cigars and working as a seamstress. Three years after the Woodhulls moved to San Francisco, Victoria claimed to have received a vision of her sister Tennessee calling for her to return home. She wasted no time packing her family’s things, boarding a steamship, and traveling back to Ohio.

Buck Claflin had made arrangements for his daughters to perform their supernatural gifts at a theatre in Columbus, Ohio. He encouraged the women to listen closely to individual audience members’ requests and con them into giving them three large sums of money to heal serious diseases or minor ailments or to predict the outcome of a specific event. Victoria let her father know that their natural gifts would be enough to sustain the family financially but did not refuse to defraud many ticket holders. In 1859, the sister act of Woodhull and Claflin earned more than $100 thousand. 

Victoria and Tennessee toured most of the Midwest’s big cities and their traveling medicine show attracted the attention of not only the frail and desperate but also law enforcement as well. Authorities were concerned that the sisters were charlatans and would have to be stopped. “The sisters were superbly equipped for a career in the shadowy realm that lies between complete [integrity] and outright crime,” a report in the March 9, 1864, edition of the Oakland Tribune noted. “They peddled a magic elixir…with Tennessee’s picture on the bottle. They were making a nice living.”  

The Woodhull’s marriage continued to be mired in infidelity and mistrust. Victoria prayed for another child in hope a baby free from any physical problems might make things better between her and her husband. In the spring of 1861, Zula Maude was born. Victoria and Canning doted on their daughter, but the baby could not repair the damage already done. Victoria had spent six years blaming and berating her husband for their son’s condition. Historian Herb Michelson noted in an article in the March 9, 1964, edition of the Oakland Tribune that “Victoria brought Woodhull untold misery for the role she believed he played in their child’s handicap, and he became a human derelict as a result.”  The Woodhull’s separated in 1864. 

The demise of Victoria’s marriage did not distract her from her work. She continued to mesmerize audiences with her so-called powers of mystical observation. While her divorce was being finalized, Victoria appeared on stage without Tennessee. Buck decided the family income could be doubled if the act was separated. He booked the women in different theatres, and, as predicted, their earnings were twice as large. A run-in with the law in June 1864 threatened to bring an end to performances by Woodhull and Claflin and bankrupt the family. At a show in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Tennessee laid hands on an audience member suffering from cancer and told the woman she had healed her. The ailing woman died a few weeks after the program, however, and authorities planned to charge Tennessee with manslaughter. Buck and the rest of the family fled the scene before an arrest could be made. Victoria and Tennessee then traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio. While there Victoria persuaded her sister to let her manage their careers instead of their father. Tennessee agreed.

The attractive sister act took to the stage again showing off their clairvoyant talent and promoting a tonic that promised to cure any ailment and lift the spirits. Law enforcement officers responded to complaints that the tonic the women were selling was more alcohol than medicine. Accusations were also made that Victoria and Tennessee were running a brothel and were adulteresses and blackmailers – claims Victoria vehemently denied. According to the September 30, 1871, edition of the Anglo-American Times, Victoria reported that the allegations were made by “skeptical women whose husbands frequented Woodhull and Claflin performances.”  Hoping to shake the rumors that plagued them in Cincinnati, Victoria and her sister made their way to Chicago. Within a month of arriving in Illinois, Victoria was in trouble with the law again, this time for fraudulent fortunetelling. 

Victoria fled to Tennessee with her sister, and, in late 1864, the pair joined a medicine show her father had organized that was touring the area. The freight wagon carrying Victoria and her children, parents, and siblings stopped at small towns that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Woodhull and Claflin preyed on families dealing with the devastating loss of loved ones. Promising to rid communities of diseases such as cancer, cholera, and diphtheria, Victoria and Tennessee laid their hands on the sick and frail, recited a mysterious incantation, and sent them on their way. The sisters made the ailing believe their illnesses would be gone in twenty-four hours. 

In April 1865, the medicine show rolled into St. Louis, Missouri. Tired of living and working out of a wagon, Victoria rented a hotel suite for herself and her two children. Many people seeking to speak with their sons, brothers, and husbands who had been killed in the Civil War called on Victoria for help. Colonel James H. Blood, commander of the 6th Army and St. Louis’s newly elected city auditor, was one of many people who visited Victoria at her suite. He needed Victoria’s spiritual counsel on a matter regarding his future. Colonel Blood was in an unhappy marriage and wanted to know if he should leave his wife. 

Victoria and Colonel Blood were instantly drawn to each other. She said nothing about the attraction she felt for him but concentrated on the job he hired her to do. She passed into a trance, during which she announced unconsciously to herself that his future destiny was to be linked with hers in marriage. When Victoria came out of the trance, she told Blood what she saw. As both took such visions seriously, they pledged themselves to one another. “We were married by the powers in the air at that moment,” Blood wrote in his memoirs. 

Victoria and Blood began having an affair almost immediately after they met. Victoria believed a sexual relationship connected individuals not only physically but also spiritually. Much to the dismay of those who held to conventional standards that sex should be regulated only within the confines of marriage, Victoria openly expressed the joy derived from sexual encounters outside the institution. Her progressive opinion brought criticism from so-called polite society and speculation that she engaged in prostitution. Colonel Blood was captivated by Victoria’s unorthodox views. She abandoned her family and children and ran off with Blood to Dayton, Ohio. Blood divorced his wife and married Victoria on July 15, 1866. 

After the wedding ceremony, the Bloods went to New York. Victoria held public healings and séances in New York City, and Blood joined her in her work. 

When Victoria wasn’t on stage, she was discussing her “free-love” theory with like-minded people who felt women should not only be able to voice their thoughts about whom they had sex with but also who should represent them in public office. Victoria’s parents, brothers and sisters, and children followed her to New York. The Claflins were energized by the business opportunities available in New York. In December 1867 Victoria’s guardian came to her in a dream and shared a prediction that promised to be beneficial to her and her family’s future. According to the September 30, 1871, edition of the Anglo-American Times, the guardian wrote the message he wanted her to have on scroll. The document, which came to be known as “The Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull,” was a petition addressed to Congress. The document claimed under the Fourteenth Amendment the right of women as other “citizens of the United States” to vote in “the States wherein they reside.”  It noted that “the State of New York, of which she was a citizen, should be restrained by Federal authority from preventing her exercise of this constitutional right.”  When Victoria came out of her trance, she took the scroll to her sister Tennessee and her father and told them what happened.

      Buck believed the idea revealed to his daughter was controversial, and, given that it was delivered by a “spiritual guardian,” he felt that taking the message to a curious audience would make money. Victoria and Tennessee were in favor of the venture, but they lacked capital to launch a new show and take the message of women’s right to vote to the masses. Buck quickly found a financial supporter in Cornelius Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, a seventy-three-year-old multi-millionaire, frequently consulted spiritualists to communicate with his deceased parents and wife. In exchange for the funds to invest in the Woodhull and Claflin venture, Buck promised that his daughters would be his personal on-call spiritualists. Vanderbilt enthusiastically agreed. 

Victoria’s time with the wealthy man was spent predicting stock market trends. As one who claimed to see the future, she used her gift to advise him on what to buy and sell. Tennessee concentrated on laying hands on Vanderbilt to heal him of his arthritis and rheumatism. 

Vanderbilt found the women bewitching. He grew quite fond of them and trusted them implicitly. He helped the sisters grow their own stock portfolio, and, with the financial freedom she realized from Vanderbilt’s tutelage, Victoria began pursuing her goal to secure women’s right to vote. Other women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher had the same objective in mind, but Victoria’s preoccupation with spiritualism and following the directive of a guardian in the hereafter distracted from the importance of the message. As a result, the most influential leaders in the movement kept their distance from her. 

The stock market crash in 1869 did not adversely affect Victoria. Tennessee, Victoria, and Vanderbilt were some of the few that survived the ordeal. Not only did they arrive on the other side of the disaster with their fortunes intact, but they also made money in the process. Vanderbilt helped Victoria and Tennessee establish a brokerage firm in 1870. On February 5, 1870, the sisters became the first female, Wall Street brokers. Wall Street veterans were shocked at the sight of women peddling stocks and were more than a little skeptical that they would be successful. According to an article in the March 9, 1964, edition of the Oakland Tribune, when word leaked to the market that Victoria and her sister’s firm was backed by Vanderbilt, numerous investors entered their establishment. In three weeks, the ladies reportedly coined $700 thousand. 

The ladies’ popularity grew because of their financial accomplishment. It also attracted the attention of law enforcement from jurisdictions where the women had prior trouble. When confronted by the police about the charges pending against them in Chicago and Pennsylvania, Tennessee claimed she wasn’t the woman they wanted. The authorities didn’t believe her. She was charged and bound over for trial. Both women lost their cases in court and were made to pay substantial fines. 

Victoria worked hard to repair the damage the negative publicity caused their firm and her political ambitions. She persuaded civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony to write an article about the stockbrokerage firm operated by her and her sister, both now known as “the Queens of Finance.” The article complimented the sisters’ gift for making money but was not as generous in referring to their practice of spiritualism. Victoria wanted to be accepted by Anthony and her followers fighting to gain women’s right to vote but doubted she’d ever be able to fully secure their approval. She believed she had something to offer the cause and was compelled to make a difference. 

In April 1870, Victoria Claflin Woodhull Blood declared herself a candidate for president of the United States. While mapping out her platform, she and her sister decided to branch out into another area of business. Using additional support provided by Vanderbilt, Victoria started a newspaper. It was called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. It began as a somewhat tame women’s rights publication but wound up a tabloid style periodical filled with sex and vice. The first issue of the paper was published on May 14, 1870. The front page listed the reason for its existence. “This journal will be primarily devoted to the vital interests of people and will treat all matters freely and without reservation. It will support Victoria C. Woodhull for president with its whole strength. With one Victoria on the throne of England and another as president of the U.S. there will be a sisterhood of Victorias,” the confident, outspoken spiritualist wrote in one of the first editions of the newspaper.

While Victoria divided her time between campaigning for the highest office in the land and writing for Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, Tennessee was working on other ways the paper could benefit her and her sister. The sisters had schemed themselves into the upper strata of political leaders and lawmakers, and they had learned quickly they could blackmail those individuals by promising to keep their private lives out of the paper. Some believe it was because of such tactics that Victoria was granted the opportunity to speak before the House Judiciary Committee on women’s suffrage at the National Women’s Suffrage Association convention in January 1871. 

The articles that appeared in Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly were just as contentious as Victoria’s public addresses. The newspapers contained reports about corruption in local and national government, general gossip about some of the country’s most elite, how-to divorce tips, directions on how to perform an abortion, how to operate a brothel, prostitution, and women’s rights. 

In February 1871, the sisters were sued for misappropriating money from their stockbroker clients. A court found the women guilty of embezzlement. Within a few weeks of the court’s decision, Henry Beecher Stowe, minister, and publisher of the newspaper the Christian Union, alleged that Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly were printing libels. Stowe offered no specifics, however. The court case and libel allegation devastated Victoria’s personal life as well as her professional. In early 1872, Victoria and Tennessee were forced to suspend publishing the newspaper for a brief period. 

Victoria tried to rise above the various setbacks and pressed forward with her run for the presidency. On May 10, 1872, she was the keynote speaker at the convention for her political party, the Equal Rights Party. She was officially nominated for president of the United States, and Frederick Douglas was listed as her running mate. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly was up and running again after the nomination was made. 

In retaliation for the negative attention, she had received (primarily from the Beecher family) Victoria ran a story in September 1872 about an affair Henry Beecher Stowe was having with a member of his congregation. In addition to the expose about Stowe, the Weekly featured an article about a corrupt stockbroker named Luther Challis. According to information Tennessee offered to the paper, Challis frequently boasted about seducing young girls. He bragged that he would “ply them with alcohol first then have sex with them.”  The Weekly noted that Challis claimed, “the bloody proof of the loss of one girl’s virginity on his fingers.”  The scandalous issue of the newspaper was sent to many of the five thousand subscribers via the U.S. Postal Service. 

On November 2, 1872, an agent of the Society for the Suppression of Obscene Literature appeared before the United States Commissioner and asked for the arrest of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. According to the November 7, 1872, edition of the Monticello, Iowa newspaper the Monticello Express, the agent’s request was promptly granted. “The sisters were arrested at their brokerage firm and driven to the United States Marshal’s office,” the article noted. Victoria and Tennessee were subsequently charged with circulating obscene and indecent publications through the mail, the penalty for which as prescribed by the statute was imprisonment for one year and a fine of $500. Three thousand copies of the newspaper containing the alleged obscene matter were confiscated from the sisters’ business. 

The initial case against the sisters was eventually dismissed. From November 1872 to June 1873, Victoria and Tennessee were arrested seven additional times on similar obscenity and libel charges. They were acquitted each time they went to court. Paying for various attorneys to represent them led to bankruptcy and the collapse of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly. Victoria’s political party collapsed as well. Colonel Blood and Victoria divorced in 1878, and she remarried British banker John Biddulph Martin in 1883. The Martins moved to England shortly after they wed. Victoria died of old age at her home in North Park, England on June 9, 1927. She was eighty-eight years old. 

Victoria’s body was cremated, and her remains were scattered at sea.

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