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A New York Times notable book. Best of the Year in Nonfiction—Boston Globe. Los Angeles Times Book Prize Fianlist.
May 5, 1892: As the delegates to the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention filed into the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, they found on the seats a leather-bound pamphlet titled "A Page of History." On the first page was an announcement that Victoria Woodhull would run for president of the United States against Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. The rest was a compendium of extravagant praise from such leaders of the woman's rights movement as Susan B. Anthony, who called Victoria a "bright, glorious, young and strong spirit"; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who predicted, "In the annals of emancipation the name [Victoria Woodhull] will have its own high place as a deliverer"; and Paulina Wright Davis, who said, "I believe you were raised up of God to do wonderful work and I believe you will unmask the hypocrisy of a class that none others dare touch." Isabella Beecher Hooker lent the religiosity for which her family was famous by stating that Victoria was "Heaven sent for the rescue of woman from the pit of subjection." What the pamphlet did not say was that this praise had been written a quarter of a century earlier.
The following day, about a dozen reporters waited impatiently in Parlor K of the Wellington Hotel for Victoria Woodhull's press conference to begin. It had been scheduled for ten, but by eleven she still had not appeared. In order to placate the newsmen who were threatening to leave, her husband, John Biddulph Martin, the wealthy head of a family-owned bank in London, ordered the waiters to serve whiskey and ham sandwiches. Thus they were standing about eating and drinking when Victoria swept into the room holding the arm of her sister, Tennessee, now Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat. They were dressed identically, in blue velvet gowns trimmed with Venetian lace. Victoria wore her trademark white rose at her throat, just as she had done twenty years earlier, when she had first run for the United States presidency. The sisters made a stunning pair: At fifty-four Victoria retained the fine, chiseled features and ramrod posture that reminded some of her admirers of Queen Victoria. At forty-six, Tennessee was still an ivory-skinned beauty with red hair and a delicate cleft chin.
Victoria Woodhull Martin greeted each of the reporters and then announced that her nomination was sponsored by the NAWSA. She said she had composed a letter of acceptance that would be distributed at the end of the conference and added, "If my political campaign for the Presidency is not successful, in fact, it will be educational for women."
Actually, both Martin and his wife knew that this was a costly but hopeless campaign, but they didn't care. They were interested not in American politics but in British society. John Martin was convinced, even if his British friends were skeptical, that his wife had once been the respected leader of the woman's rights movement in America. If she could recapture that position now and prove it, with scrapbooks full of praise from the American press, then Martin might be able to convince his social peers, who had long shunned and reviled his American wife, that the scandalous rumors surrounding her were merely the spiteful gossip of misinformed bigots.
Though few Americans any longer remembered who Victoria Woodhull was, her old antagonist Lucy Stone, the Boston woman's rights leader who was in Chicago for the convention, could never forget. She felt that two decades earlier, Victoria had almost wrecked the movement. The following day, when Lucy read of Victoria's press conference, she called one of her own and told the reporters, "The statement that Mrs. Biddulph Martin is our candidate for president is wholly without foundation. We have no presidential candidate, and we do not even know the persons who are said to have nominated her."
After Stone's statement, the younger members of the NAWSA ridiculed Victoria's claim. Many of them denounced her as a self-aggrandizing charlatan who had long since been abandoned by the movement. These women assumed the endorsements were bogus, and one representative, Mary Frost Ormsby, sent her copy to Susan B. Anthony and wrote, "Knowing your love of truth and justice ... I take the liberty of sending this out to you.... I was deceived by Mrs. Martin into the belief she was a philanthropist and an honest woman. My eyes are now opened, I know to the contrary." There is no record that the seventy-two-year-old Anthony replied to Mrs. Ormsby, but she carefully pasted Ormsby's letter in her scrapbook. It would have been difficult for Anthony to explain to someone of Mrs. Ormsby's generation that the praise of Victoria Woodhull, attributed to her and the others, was genuine.
In his effort to influence the NAWSA delegates, John Martin suggested contacting Isabella Beecher Hooker, the eminent Spiritualist, woman's rights advocate, and member of the prestigious Beecher family, who had written Victoria that she would be in Chicago for the convention. To her husband's surprise, Victoria said she wanted nothing to do with Mrs. Hooker. Martin protested. Hadn't she told him that Isabella was her closest American friend, the one who had supported her in what she referred to as her "Gethsemane"? Still Victoria was adamant.
Two days later, hoping to find a strong ally, John Martin, without his wife's knowledge, arranged to meet Isabella Beecher Hooker in a parlor off the main lobby of the Sherman House. He was accompanied by a male secretary who recorded the ensuing conversation in shorthand, and later typed it. At seventy, Isabella was frail, suffered from arthritis and had trouble hearing, but she was still prominent in the movement. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Martin said, "Mrs. Hooker, I am glad Mrs. Martin is not here. Some things are easier to say outside of her presence. My wife does not seem to recollect why it is that her work of twenty years ago on the suffrage movement has been forgotten while her attack on your brother Henry Ward Beecher is not forgotten."
Of course Isabella knew the answer to John Martin's question, but she would not tell him about his wife's catastrophic involvement with her brother, the great Brooklyn preacher, which had led to Victoria's imprisonment and exile. Instead she changed the subject and recalled a happier time a quarter of a century earlier when Isabella first saw Victoria Woodhull standing against a corridor wall of the Capitol building in Washington, nervously waiting to address a joint session of Congress, an honor that had been awarded to no other woman.
"Her dress was peculiar," commented Isabella.
"How so?" asked Martin.
"She wore a felt hat such as men wear. When she rose to speak I thought she would have fainted. Her face flushed in patches. I was fascinated by Mrs. Woodhull."
How could John Martin understand that fascination and all that had happened as a result? And who would have thought that what started with Victoria's assertion of equal rights for women would eventually cause them both to become reviled outcases? "You know Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher is writing recollections of my brother in a Philadelphia paper in which I am treated unkindly," she said.
"I know this is a painful subject," replied Martin, who seemed concerned only for Victoria. "But you know that my wife was attacked in Henry Ward Beecher's biography. I tell you plainly we will have it all out, come what may to any of his family."
Turning his threat aside, Isabella continued to recall the tangled past. "My brother Henry called on me to denounce Victoria. I refused. I said that I knew nothing against her and all that I knew of my own knowledge was in her favor. Then my friends began to fall away. I was estranged from my family. My daughter, now in Heaven, told me I had no right to imperil my husband's life for the sake of Mrs. Woodhull. Because I would not denounce her they tried to make me out insane. I was left alone. Quite alone. No one can tell what I suffered." The secretary's notes of the conversation are so precise that one almost hears her despairing voice.
John Martin replied, "You forget, Mrs. Hooker, what my wife suffered."
Isabella chose not to answer this accusation, but said wearily, "All this is an old story. Mrs. Martin forgets how long she has been away from America. If she wants supporters for her campaign she should spend ten thousand dollars and put out a special edition of The Arrow, the great organ of the Spiritualists. They will support her."
Abandoning his efforts to win Isabella over, Martin replied with evident annoyance, "I will tell her what you say, but after this interview it is hardly necessary that you should meet with her." With this he dismissed Isabella, the loyal friend who had once stood with Victoria on what appeared to be the brink of a new world.
Despite his failure to recruit Mrs. Hooker, John Martin persisted. He arranged to meet with Joseph R. Dunlop, the publisher of the Chicago Mail, and asked him to run an article in his newspaper about Victoria Woodhull and what she had done for women. Dunlop obliged. On May 8, 1892, an article appeared, "Tennie and Her Vickie," which began mildly enough, "The Woodhull and Claflin campaign for the presidency is being launched and delegates have arrived in Chicago to participate in the convention in which the gentle Victoria is to be nominated." But the Mail added that when Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, lived in Chicago they operated "a house in a grand and peculiar style" and practiced spurious fortune-telling and healing techniques. Their mother, Roxanna (Roxy) Claflin, was described as a bogus fortune-teller. Their father, Reuben (Buck) Claflin, was a charlatan and a thief. The article concluded, "And all America knows that Victoria Woodhull was solely responsible for the greatest scandal of the century."
Victoria told her husband that these "lies" were ruining her health and threatening her life. Would she never be free of her malicious enemies? The day after the Mail printed its story, John Martin appeared, over his wife's objections, at the Cook County Circuit Court and lodged a suit against Dunlop and the Mail for $100,000 in damages.
Undaunted, on May 10, Dunlop ran another article stating that Tennessee Celeste Claflin, though now a titled English lady, was still under indictment in Ottawa, Illinois, on a charge of manslaughter dating back to 1863. "It was so long ago. It was another world," Tennessee told John Martin by way of explanation. Evidently, all of this proved too much for the conservative banker. He dropped the case against Dunlop and the Mail and took Victoria and Tennessee back to New York, where they boarded the Persian Monarch to Southampton.
But who was Victoria Woodhull? John Martin knew her in only one of her many roles, as the adored wife who shared his life. But she was also the Spiritualist, the "high priestess" of free love, the crusading editor, the San Francisco actress and part-time prostitute, the founder of the first stock brokerage firm for women, the disciple of Karl Marx, the blackmailer, the presidential candidate, the sinner, the saint.
She had been all of these and more, for in her many aspects she combined in abundance many of the influences that shaped the women of her world. Her compassion for their suffering was the most persistent and most genuine of her feelings, and Victoria never stopped believing that the spirits had brought her into the world to lead a "social revolution." She said that from her birth, and even before, she had been marked for this fate. As a Spiritualist and a clairvoyant, she claimed to remember every event in her life, even to the moment of her conception, even to her birth when her mother clasped her to her breast and "the look of pain and anguish ... was burnt into my plastic brain as she suckled me."
A stunning combination of history and biography, Other Powers interweaves the stories of the important social, political, and religious players of America's Victorian era with the scandalous life of Victoria Woodhull--Spiritualist, woman's rights crusader, free-love advocate, stockbroker, prostitute, and presidential candidate. This is history at its most vivid, set amid the battle for woman suffrage, the Spiritualist movement that swept across the nation in the age of Radical Reconstruction following the Civil War, and the bitter fight that pitted black men against white women in the struggle for the right to vote.
The book's cast:
Victoria Woodhull, billed as a clairvoyant and magnetic healer--a devotee and priestess of those "other powers" that were gaining acceptance across America--in her father's traveling medicine show . . . spiritual and financial advisor to Commodore Vanderbilt . . . the first woman to address a joint session of Congress, where--backed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony--she presents an argument that women, as citizens, should have the right to vote . . . becoming the "high priestess" of free love in America (fiercely believing the then-heretical idea that women should have complete sexual equality with men) . . . making a run for the presidency of the United States against Horace Greeley and Ulysses S.Grant, and felled when her past career as a prostitute finally catches up with her.
Tennessee Claflin, sister of Victoria, also a clairvoyant, mistress to Commodore Vanderbilt . . . indicted for manslaughter in connection with the death of a woman in a bogus cancer clinic run by her father during the Civil War.
Henry Ward Beecher, the great preacher of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church--the most influential church in the country . . . brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe . . . caught up in the scandal of the century (first revealed in Victoria Woodhull's own newspaper): his affair with Lib Tilton, the wife of his parishioner and best friend.
Lib Tilton, angelic, obedient wife of Theodore Tilton who believed her philandering husband's insistence that she was sexless and arid--until Henry Ward Beecher fell under her thrall and their affair exploded into the shocking Tilton-Beecher Scandal Trial that dominated the headlines for two years, made radical inroads toward the idea of acceptable sexual relations between men and women, and inspired the first questioning of the sanctity of the middle-class American Victorian home.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, discontented housewife who, bolstered by the great black activist Frederick Douglass, put forth a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments to empower women at the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls. Anna Dickinson, lecturer extraordinaire, feminist heroine to thousands of women across the country, the model for Verena Tarrant in Henry James's The Bostonians.
Horace Greeley, editor of the Tribune, whose campaign for the presidency of the United States was centered on his opposition to the policies of Reconstruction . . . who helped to undermine the suffrage movement by writing editorials denouncing Victoria Woodhull.
Anthony Comstock, U.S. special postal agent, enthusiastically in charge of stamping out obscenity and pornography (he compared erotic feelings to "electrical wires connected to the inner dynamite of obscene thoughts"), who arrested Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin on charges of sending obscene material through the mail and was determined to bring his crusade against vice to the forefront of American thought, and to be hailed as a "paladin of American purity."Topics for Discussion
2. What elements of Spiritualism attracted women's rights advocates? Why might later historians of these advocates have omitted the relationship between the two movements? What is the value of bringing that relationship to light?
3. Goldsmith states in the Introduction that "in many of the books I read, particularly of the period [of Other Powers], important material that revealed the actual character of these people had been expurgated." What information does Goldsmith include that corrects that amputation of essential elements of Woodhull's character by other biographers? Who besides Woodhull does Goldsmith flesh out and in what ways?
4. The dramatic 1869 American Equal Rights Association meeting occurs approximately half-way through the book. What simmering tensions came to the surface during that meeting? Why was this event a turning point for the woman's movement? Did the end result of this meeting ease the way for Elizabeth Cady Stanton to associate herself and her cause with Woodhull? What tensions did that association cause?
5. Woodhull had a complicated relationship with her unusual, unpredictable family. Did her unorthodox upbringing help her to succeed? How did her family hinder her? What are reasons the family might have stayed so close despite the problems they caused each other?
6. Goldsmith writes that "this was an age in which men were free to treat women with the same detached cruelty as they did their slaves." In what ways can the analogy between white women and slaves, both men and women, help illuminate the state women lived in during this time? What are the limitations of this comparison? What problems did the connection between white women and black men cause in the suffrage movement?
7. Woodhull seems at times simultaneously idealistic and opportunistic. How did these two elements of her personality relate to each other? What role did each play in her decision to expose Henry Ward Beecher's affair?
8. In her introduction, Goldsmith draws a parallel between the sexual and political scandals and trials of the 1990s and those she wrote of in the nineteenth century. How does knowledge of these earlier events inform an understanding of the contemporary era and its scandals?
About the Author:
Prize-winning author and social historian Barbara Goldsmith was born in New York City, graduated from Wellesley College, and holds three doctorates. A founding editor of New York magazine, she currently contributes to the New York Times, Architectural Digest, and The New Yorker. She is the author of the acclaimed bestsellers Little Gloria . . . Happy At Last and Johnson v. Johnson. A trustee of the New York Public Library, Goldsmith also serves on the President's Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History.