Woodhull, Victoria (1838-1927)

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Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927)


Feminist, reformer

Vicky and Tennessee. Victoria was born on 23 September 1838 into a large and impoverished family in Homer, Ohio. By the time she and her sister, Tennessee Celeste, were in their early teens, their family was staging medicine shows at which one of the brothers sold cancer treatments and the parents hawked an elixir of life with a picture of the attractive Tennessee on the bottle. The two girls entered spiritualistic trances in which they offered comfort to the bereaved and the ill.

Marriage and Social Reform. When she was fifteen Victoria married a physician, Canning Woodhull, with whom she had two children. Leaving her husband, Victoria worked briefly as an actress in California, then returned to Ohio and teamed up with Tennessee to perform feats of spiritualism and mesmerism. The sisters were dogged by accusations of fraud, prostitution, and moral turpitude. When one of Tennessees cancer patients died, they had to flee Ottawa, Illinois, to avoid an indictment for manslaughter. In 1865 Victoria met an attractive Civil War veteran, Col. James Harvey Blood; prompted by Victorias inner voice, both parties quickly decided to divorce their spouses, although Victoria would always retain Woodhulls last name. She claimed to have married Colonel Blood, but no record of the marriage exists. By this time Victoria and Tennessee were becoming famous for their exploits. They cut their curly hair short, appeared in mens clothing, and continued to support their parents, their siblings, and Victorias children through spiritualistic feats. Americans were shocked, titillated, and endlessly fascinated by the beautiful and daring sisters.

Demosthenes, Finance, and Politics. In 1868, Victoria claimed, the spirit of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes appeared to her in one of her trances and told her to go to New York City. There she and Tennessee gained an appointment with the ailing and recently widowed railroad promoter Cornelius Vanderbilt. The Commodore, who had long been a devotee of mysticism, was charmed by the sisters beauty and liveliness and soon became a silent partner in their surprising new career. Setting themselves up as stockbrokers on Wall Street, the sisters soon became known as the Queens of Finance. The brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin and Company quickly prospered, no doubt supported by insider tipsas well as capitalsupplied by Vanderbilt. Also in 1868 Victoria met the eccentric Stephen Pearl Andrews, a disciple of various European radical social reformers and a proponent of a philosophy he called pantarchy. According to pantarchy, marriage was unnatural and should be replaced by free love. Andrews advocated equal rights for women and the communal ownership of property. He and Victoria wrote a treatise on free love and shared property, Origin, Tendencies and Principles of Government, which was published in 1871. Around this time Victoria decided to run for president of the United States. On 14 May 1870, partly to publicize her candidacy, she and Tennessee brought out the first issue of Woodhull and Claflin s Weekly, edited by Andrews and Blood. The journal quickly gained a reputation for muckraking and for propounding outrageous beliefs. It was in its pages that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engelss Communist Manifesto (1848) was first published in America. The magazine also advocated legalized prostitution, short skirts, and free love. The Weekly lasted for about six years.

Womens Rights and Scandals. Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, a former Civil War general, helped draft Woodhulls first important speech, an 1871 appearance before the United States House Judiciary Committee in which she argued that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which granted black men the right to vote, also enfranchised women. Leaders of the National Woman Suffrage Association were present in the galleries, and her modest, attractive demeanor charmed even the most rigid moralists among them. Her revolutionary words, however, were at variance with her manner. She declaimed boldly that we mean treason; we mean secession we are plotting revolution we will overthrow this bogus Republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead. Woodhulls attempt to become the leader of the National Woman Suffrage Association was defeated by Susan B. Anthony. Undaunted, Woodhull ran for president in 1872 under the auspices of the Equal Rights Party. But on 2 November 1872, a few days before the election, the Weekly ran a story claiming that the preacher and reformer Henry Ward Beecher had carried on an affair with one of his parishioners, the beautiful wife of Woodhull and Claf-lins friend Theodore Tilton, and another story alleging that a stockbroker, Luther C. Challis, had seduced two young girls. Woodhull and Claflin were arrested on obscenity charges, and Woodhull received no votes in the election. The sisters were later acquitted.

England and High Society. Vanderbilt died in 1877, leaving the sisters without his support. They left for England, where they caused their usual sensation. An enamored English fan, John Biddulph Martin, to the dismay of his wealthy banking family, asked Woodhull to marry him; they were finally wed in 1883. Two years later Claflin married Francis Cook, a wealthy aristocrat. The sisters became noted for charity work and in their later years were finally accepted into English society. In July 1892 Woodhull launched a new periodical, the Humanitarian, which she coedited with her daughter, Zula Maud. Both sisters traveled back to America on several occasions, raising excitement with each visit. Tennessee died in 1923; Victoria on 10 June 1927.


M. M. Marberry, Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull (New York: Funk ôtWagnalls, 1967);

Emanie Sachs, The Terrible Siren: Victoria Woodhull, 1838-1927 (New York: Harper, 1928).

Victoria C. Woodhull

views updated May 29 2018

Victoria C. Woodhull

Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) was a promoter of women's rights. An 1872 candidate for president, she founded the first women's owned stock brokerage.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was one of the most controversial figures of her time. Though she did much to promote the cause of women's rights—even announcing herself as a candidate for president in 1872—her espousal of free love (which rejected sexual monogamy) and her involvement in a number of highly publicized scandals gained her as many enemies as she had supporters. Along with her sister, Tennessee Claflin, Woodhull founded the first female-owned stock brokerage in the United States and published an influential newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. In the biography Mrs. Satan, Woodhull was quoted on the philosophy that led to her many accomplishments: "All this talk about women's rights is moonshine. Women have every right. They have only to exercise them. That's what we're doing."

Woodhull's unusual upbringing contributed to the deep convictions and free spirit she evidenced later in life. She was born in Homer, Ohio, on September 23, 1838, the seventh of ten children born to Reuben Buckman Claflin and Roxanna Hummel Claflin. Her mother was a fervently religious woman who enjoyed taking the family to evangelical revival meetings, while her father was a jack-of-all-trades who would try anything if it seemed to hold the potential for financial reward. Victoria and Tennessee, the youngest Claflin child, followed their mother's lead and proclaimed themselves clairvoyant at an early age. Their father soon created a traveling spiritualist show, featuring folk medicine and fortune-telling, in an attempt to profit from his daughters' talents.

Victoria left the family's show before she turned sixteen to marry Dr. Canning Woodhull, partly at her father's urging. During their marriage she worked at a number of odd jobs to help support her husband, who was an alcoholic, and their two children. Though the couple divorced in 1864, they continued to live together for some time afterward. Woodhull would remarry twice, but she practiced free love for most of her life. In 1868 Woodhull and her sister traveled to New York City, where they met wealthy industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. Although Tennessee refused the elderly man's marriage proposal, he maintained an interest in the sisters and gave them financial advice. Eventually Woodhull and her sister became proficient enough in the financial markets to establish the first female-owned stock brokerage, Woodhull, Claflin and Company. Their company opened amidst a huge wave of publicity and became quite successful.

Woodhull and her sister used some of the profits from this venture to found a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, in 1870. By this time their home had become a sort of literary salon that attracted many well-known radical intellectuals. Many friends from this circle contributed to the paper, which articulately supported such controversial goals as equal rights for women, free love, and socialism. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly even published the first English translation of Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto in 1872. Woodhull used her newfound stature to speak out on the issue of women's suffrage. Many of the women who had taken up this cause before her, however, resented her views on free love and deemed her an unworthy spokesperson.

In April 1870 Woodhull shocked the nation with a sensational letter to the editor of the New York Herald entitled "First Pronunciamento." In it, as quoted in Mrs. Satan, she proclaimed: "While others argued the equality of women with men, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why women should be treated, socially and politically, as being inferior to men, I boldly entered the arena….I now announce myself candidate for the Presidency." Thus Woodhull became the first woman candidate for president, headlining the ticket of the National Radical Reform Party (also known as the Equal Rights Party). Her running mate was abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass—though he declined to take part in the unlikely campaign—and her rallying call was "Victory for Victoria in 1872!" Woodhull presented her views on women's rights in a passionate speech to the House Judiciary Committee in 1871, which marked the first personal appearance before such a high congressional committee by a woman. Besides impressing legislators, the speech also helped Woodhull win over many of her detractors in the women's suffrage movement, who began to recognize that Woodhull's visibility might be valuable enough to outweigh their reservations about her morality.

Following her failed bid for the presidency, however, Woodhull continued to be the subject of rumors and gossip. Two of her most prominent detractors were novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Catherine Beecher. Partly to get back at her critics and partly to expose what she saw as blatant hypocrisy, Woodhull used her paper to accuse Henry Ward Beecher—one of the most prominent clergymen of the day and brother of her detractors—of having adulterous affairs with several of his parishioners. After the scandalous story was printed, Beecher was put on trial for adultery, and he responded by charging Woodhull and her sister with libel. Though Woodhull was acquitted in 1873, many of her former supporters found that they could no longer stand by her.

In 1877 Woodhull moved to England, where she continued to lecture and publish books and pamphlets. Her writings include Stirpiculture, or the Scientific Propagation of the Human Race, 1888; The Human Body the Temple of God (written with her sister), 1890; and Humanitarian Money, 1892. From 1892 to 1910, Woodhull published Humanitarian magazine with her daughter, Zulu Maud Woodhull. Woodhull married a wealthy English banker, John B. Martin, in 1882. In her efforts to obtain the blessing of his respectable family, she made several trips to the United States, where she faced her critics and disavowed her previous stance on free love. She died at their English country estate on June 10, 1927. □

Woodhull, Victoria (Claflin)

views updated Jun 08 2018

WOODHULL, Victoria (Claflin)

Born 23 September 1838, Homer, Ohio; died 10 June 1927, Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England

Daughter of Reuben B. and Roxanna Hummel Claflin; married Canning Woodhull, 1853; James Blood, 1866; John B. Martin, 1883

Victoria Woodhull was the seventh child of an itinerant worker who married a tavernkeeper's daughter in Pennsylvania and moved with her to Ohio. Woodhull and Tennessee Celeste, a younger sister, both demonstrated psychic powers in early childhood. These were exploited as the family, leaving Ohio hurriedly after a suspicious fire in Claflin's grist mill, set up a traveling medicine show promising psychic cures for a variety of physical ailments. Although Woodhull had little schooling, she was clearly an ambitious, intelligent child with extraordinary physical beauty and a strong sense of destiny. Her first marriage was a failure, although she had two children.

In 1868 obeying Woodhull's vision that fame and fortune awaited her in a city crowded with ships, she and Tennessee moved to New York City. For almost a decade, Woodhull was a notorious figure in New York, famous for her brilliance as an orator; her vigorous espousal of free love, spiritualism, woman suffrage, and the rights of workers; her establishment of a brokerage business in male-dominated Wall Street; and her publishing venture, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. Cornelius Vanderbilt provided help in her financial venture, but it was Woodhull's intensity, courage, and beauty that won not only public support for her causes but also the interest of public men such as the editor Theodore Tilton, the philosopher Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, an advocate of woman suffrage.

Woodhull earned the enmity of Henry Ward Beecher when she accused him of secretly practicing the free love doctrines she openly espoused. After publishing details of an alleged liaison between Beecher and Tilton's wife in her weekly magazine, Woodhull was attacked by the moralist Anthony Comstock and imprisoned for sending obscene matter through the mails. The suit was dismissed, but Woodhull, who at the height of her fame had been named the Equal Rights Party's candidate for president (black leader Frederick Douglass was nominated for vice president), had lost money, prestige, and health in the struggle. Shortly after Vanderbilt's death, Woodhull and Tennessee left for England amid rumors that money for the trip had been provided by Vanderbilt's son and heir, who did not wish the sisters to testify in a lawsuit contesting his father's will.

In England, Woodhull gave lectures such as "The Human Body, the Temple of God" and attracted the interest of her third husband, a banker. The prosperous comfort of her last years in England was a surprising end to her sensational career as lecturer, propagandist, and free thinker. Yet she continued to write and to publicize herself, attempting to refute through the press and by legal action those whom she accused of persecuting her. Woodhull's new causes—eugenics, a single moral standard, and educational reform—were pursued as vociferously as her earlier ones.

Although Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly—which was the first U.S. magazine to publish Marx's Communist Manifesto— reflected Woodhull's ideas, as did her lectures, there is a question as to how much of what was published under her name she actually wrote. Colonel Blood, her second husband, was an experienced writer and propagandist, and the commonly held notion that he wrote much of what she signed may be correct. On the other hand, Woodhull herself wrote extensively after their divorce.

Despite her lack of formal education, Woodhull had un-doubted originality and intelligence, and a driving force that helped her rise from a childhood of poverty and social ostracism to become an internationally known spokeswoman for human freedom.

Other Works:

Origins, Tendencies, and Principles of Government (1871). Speech on Labor and Capital before the Labor Reform League (1871). Speech on the Principles of Finance (1871). The Elixir of Life (1873). Tried by Fire (1874). Breaking the Seals (1875). A Fragmentary Record of Public Work (1887). Stirpiculture; or, The Scientific Propagation of the Human Race (1888). The Garden of Eden (1890). The Human Body, the Temple of God (1890). The Rapid Multiplication of the Unfit (1891). Humanitarian Money (1892).


Anker, C., and I. Rosenberg, Onward Victoria: A Musical (1979). Johnston, J., Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull (1967). Marberry, M., Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull (1967). Sachs, E., "The Terrible Siren": Victoria Woodhull, 1838-1927 (1928).

Reference works:

AA. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

London Times (11 June 1927). NYT (11 June 1927).


Woodhull, Victoria Claflin (1838-1927)

views updated May 14 2018

Woodhull, Victoria Claflin (1838-1927)

American Spiritualist, social reformer, and feminist. Born September 23, 1838, in Homer, Licking County, Ohio, she traveled with a medicine show when only a child, giving demonstrations of fortune-telling and Spiritualist séances together with her younger sister Tennessee (1846-1923). Victoria married Canning Woodhull, a physician, before she was 16, was divorced in 1864, and later remarried twice.

In 1868 the sisters moved to New York City where they met Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was interested in Spiritualism. Vanderbilt installed them in a stock-brokerage office as Woodhull, Claflin & Company, where the "Lady Brokers" made considerable profits. From this enterprise they founded the journal Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly in 1870. This publication advocated equal rights for women, free love, and other feminist issues.

In 1871, Victoria Woodhull spoke on women's rights before the House Judiciary Committee and became a prominent leader in the cause of women's suffrage. In 1872 she was the first woman to be nominated for the presidency, sponsored by the Equal Rights Party. Although she did not expect to be elected, she and her sister publicized their cause and attracted much attention by attempting to vote.

The February 2, 1872, issue of their Weekly contained a sensational story alleging intimacy between Henry Ward Beecher and the wife of Theodore Tilton. This scandal was reported largely to discredit Beecher's sisters, who had attacked the Weekly 's stand on free love. In the event, Beecher went on a trial for adultery, but was exonerated. Interestingly enough the Weekly was the first periodical in the United States to publish the Communist Manifesto.

In 1877, the sisters moved to England, where they continued to publicize women's rights. Victoria Woodhull married a wealthy London banker and became well known for charitable work. With her daughter, Zula Maud Woodhull, Woodhull published Humanitarian magazine from 1892 to 1910. She died in England June 10, 1927.


Brough, James. The Vixens. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Melton, J. Gordon. Religious Leaders of America. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Woodhull, Victoria. Garden of Eden: Allegorical Meaning Revealed. London: The author, 1889.

. Humanitarian Government. London: The author, 1892.

. Stirpiculture; or, the Scientific Propagation of the Human Race. London: The author, 1888.

Woodhull, Victoria, and Tennessee Claflin. The Human Body the Temple of God. London, 1890.

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