Claflin, Tennessee (1846–1923)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Claflin, Tennessee (1846–1923)

Sister of Victoria Claflin Woodhull (the first woman candidate for the presidency), who was important in her own right, as a securities broker, spiritualist, and crusader for social reform. Name variations: Tennessee Cook, Lady Cook. Born in Homer, Ohio, on October 26, 1846 (some sources cite 1845); died on January 18, 1923; one of seven children of Roxanna (Hummel) Claflin and Reuben Buckman ("Buck") Claflin; sister of Victoria Woodhull (1838–1927) and Utica Claflin Brooker (d. 1873); married John Bartels; married Francis Cook (a wealthy, elderly widower, who held the title of Visconde de Montserrate bestowed by the king of Portugal), in October 1885.

In a period during which spiritualism (the belief that the spirits of the dead can and do communicate with the living) enjoyed a great vogue, the Claflin sisters were major attractions, touring the countryside and offering performances in which they claimed to have contacted the spirits of the deceased, who through them would speak to large, enthralled audiences. In time, Victoria Woodhull would become a national figure, overshadowing her sister Tennessee. But, in their youth, it was Tennessee who was better known.

Tennessee Claflin was born in 1846 to Reuben (Buck) Claflin and Roxanna Claflin in Homer, Ohio. Buck made a living running a mill and trading whatever he came upon, while "Roxy" stayed home and gave birth to seven children, of whom Tennessee was the last. Roxy was a spiritualist, given to speaking in tongues at revival meetings in Homer. Victoria followed in her path, preaching to her fellow students, exhorting them to repent. But it was Tennessee who attracted the most attention. When only five or six years old, she showed signs of having second sight. She read the minds of her playmates, told a farmer where he could find a lost calf, and predicted a fire in a nearby seminary. For the sisters, this led to invitations to speak and demonstrate their powers outside the area. By 1852, they had traveled throughout the region and had displayed their abilities as far east as New York.

Their father Buck exploited the sisters' gifts. Acting as their agent, he booked the girls into shows, advertising them as child fortunetellers. They expanded into spiritualism, tipping tables, commanding spirits to speak through them at well-advertised seances. Buck discovered Tennessee had the gift of magnetic healing and advertised her as "The Wonder Child." When Victoria married Canning Woodhull and had a child, she semi-retired, so Buck, now proclaiming himself "The American King of Cancer," took to the road as a healer with Tennessee. Declaring her the "prophetess" who "astonished people through her wondrous cures and mysterious revelations during her travels in the United States," Buck opened a cancer clinic and advertised Tennessee's powers along with fraudulent testimonials. This plan, however, backfired. A former patient repudiated the claims, there was an investigation of the clinic, and Ten nessee, barely 18 years old, was indicted for man slaughter. With this, the Claflins fled to Cincinnati, where they were joined by Woodhull and her family. Above the door of their new home was a sign: "Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull, Clairvoyants." They were plagued by problems; neighbors claimed their home was a house of prostitution, and Tennessee was charged with adultery and figured in a blackmail case. The family moved to Chicago.

There, Tennessee married John Bartels, but since her name was so well-known she did not take his name, and instead signed herself, "Tennie C. Claflin." The sisters continued to tour, but Bartels soon departed the scene. Then, Victoria Woodhull met James Blood, with whom she fell in love. According to some accounts, they married in 1866, only to divorce two years later though they continued to live together. Through Blood, the sisters became involved with other movements of the time—free love, women's rights, and politics. Claflin, who had been wilder than Woodhull, settled down, largely because of Blood's influence.

The family moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh where they stayed until 1868 when Woodhull had a visitation from the spirit of Demosthenes. He told her to go to New York, and they did, to a new home at 17 Great Jones Street. It was there that Buck arranged for Claflin, and later Woodhull, to have an audience with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of America's wealthiest men, who at age 74 had become quite interested in spiritualism. While attracted to both women, Vanderbilt was drawn more closely to Claflin, whose "magnetic healing" seemed to alleviate all his physical distress. Vanderbilt reciprocated with gifts and tips on stock, which were dispatched to Blood, who made purchases or sales as the information dictated. Soon Vanderbilt's interest turned to infatuation. He proposed marriage to Claflin, who rejected him. But the friendship continued.

In 1869, Vanderbilt helped the sisters open a brokerage house, making them the nation's first female brokers. Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opened on January 19, 1870, in the Hoffman House, a hotel near Wall Street. They soon moved to 44 Broad Street, across from the New York Stock Exchange. All the city's newspapers took note of the occasion. In one account, Claflin was described as: "to all appearances the photograph of a business woman—keen, shrewd, whole-souled." Another wrote of "The Queens of Finance," and a third described their offices as: "the Palace of Female Sovereigns of Wall Street."

Were I to notice what is said by what we call society, I could not leave my apartment except in fantastic walking-dress and ball-room costume. But I despise what squeamy, crying girls or powdered, counter-jumping dandies say of me.

—Tennessee Claflin, 1871

The sisters were a huge success. Fueled by tips from Vanderbilt and his associates, they prospered. As far as the public was concerned, however, most of their information came from the spirits they daily contacted for that purpose. They hired additional brokers and soon became known as the hottest house on the Street. Not content with this, in May the sisters came out with Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which was not a business newspaper but rather a journal of opinion. The motto seemed to say it all: "Upward and Onward." It was considered a liberal publication, the first American periodical to publish Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto.

In 1872, Woodhull announced her intention to run for the presidency, "subject to ratification of the national convention" of the National Women's Suffrage Association. Soon after, Claflin announced she would be a candidate for a seat in the New York legislature. Since the district in which she ran was populated largely by German immigrants, Claflin learned the language and stumped the district delivering speeches in translation. She inveighed against the corruption of the Boss Tweed organization and accepted support of labor unions, but her race was overshadowed by Woodhull's presidential bid.

On November 2, shortly before the election, the Weekly broke its most sensational story, that of an affair between popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Mrs. Theodore (Elizabeth) Tilton . That Woodhull had an affair with Theodore Tilton only complicated matters. Woodhull and Claflin were jailed on the trumped-up charge of having published an obscene newspaper. In the interim, the election was held, and Woodhull received no votes. Though Woodhull and Claflin were found not guilty, the struggle with Beecher continued.

Vanderbilt died in 1877, leaving a fortune of over $90 million and a messy fight over his will. Fearing they might be embroiled in the struggle, Woodhull, Claflin, and their families journeyed to England, where they lectured on political and religious subjects. Woodhull soon married John Biddulph Martin, a banker. Claflin met Francis Cook, a wealthy, elderly widower interested in spiritualism, who held the title of Visconde de Montserrate bestowed by the king of Portugal. Claflin informed Cook that she had a message from his departed wife, urging him to marry Claflin. So he did, in October 1885. Soon after, Cook was rewarded for his contributions to the arts by being made a baronet, which meant that Claflin now became Lady Cook.

Lady Cook became known in London society for her lavish parties. She dispensed the Cook fortune by making contributions to schools and charities. Her husband died in 1901, leaving her well taken care of. John Martin had died earlier, and Woodhull was also in good financial shape. At this point, the sisters grew apart. Lady Cook became involved with women's suffrage concerns in England. For a while, she hoped to found a bank, and on another occasion she wanted to erect a home for unwed mothers, but nothing came of these plans. Gradually, she faded from sight. She died while visiting with the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham (who had married her grandniece, Lady Utica Welles Beecham ), on January 18, 1923, at the age of 77.


Johnson, Johanna. Mrs. Satan: The Incredible Saga of Victoria C. Woodhull. NY: Putnam, 1967.

Marberry, M.M. Vicky: A Biography of Victoria C. Woodhull. NY: Funk and Wagnalls, 1967.

suggested reading:

Sachs, Emanie. The Terrible Siren: Victoria Woodhull. NY: Harper, 1928.

Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1941.

Robert Sobel , Lawrence Stessin Professor of Business History, New College of Hoftra University, Hempstead, New York