Notorious Victoria: The Uncensored Life of Victoria Woodhull - Visionary, Suffragist, and First Woman to Run for Presidentby Mary Gabriel
She was the first woman to run for president. She was the first woman to address the U.S. Congress and to operate a brokerage firm on Wall/b>/i>
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“A remarkable biography . . . Well written and researched, this book warrants a spot on every serious American history student’s bookshelf.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
She was the first woman to run for president. She was the first woman to address the U.S. Congress and to operate a brokerage firm on Wall Street. She’s the woman Gloria Steinem called “the most controversial suffragist of them all.” So why have most people never heard of Victoria Woodhull? In this extensively researched biography, journalist Mary Gabriel offers readers a balanced portrait of a unique and complicated woman who was years ahead of her time—and perhaps ahead of our own.
“One of the most controversial American women of the late nineteenth century springs to life in this study that leaves no stone unturned.” —Publishers Weekly
“[A] deftly written biography . . . of a hell-raising visionary.” —Mirabella
“A meaty slice of feminist history peppered with Victorian drama.” —Civilization
And what had Woodhull done to suffer such wrath? Her greatest travesty was to expose -- in her popular financial-cum-political-cum-feminist newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin Weekly -- the adulterous affairs of the conservative head of the American Woman's Suffrage Association, preacher Henry Ward Beecher. And then there was the matter of Woodhull's class and her racy, rollicking rise to power: Born impoverished in Ohio in 1838, she escaped her child-bride marriage to a womanizing alcoholic by becoming a traveling clairvoyant and spiritualist. With the help of her beautiful younger sister and lifelong cohort, Tennessee, Victoria nabbed multimillionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt as a "client" and generous mentor who would later provide backing for her brokerage firm. Finally, Woodhull offended the feminist mainstream by eloquently advocating "free love" and pillorying the inequities of marriage in an era when most feminists focused on women's voting rights.
Fortunately, not one of these players is romanticized or demonized by Gabriel, a Reuters correspondent. Her no-nonsense, prime-source-heavy narrative deftly sets Woodhull's remarkable biography within the political machinations of the Victorian era's feminist matriarchy. There's not a lily-white or faint-hearted woman in the lot -- least of all Woodhull, who, far from being a victim, comes across as someone who rose fast, played hardball and went down fighting. And perhaps the unpalatable aspect of such warfare to feminists of the women-are-nurturers school has contributed to Woodhull's virtual invisibility (the only other recent biography is Lois Beachy Underhill's 1995 The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull.
What Gabriel also highlights as extraordinary about Woodhull is her unerring individualism and bravery in bucking the system, whether male- or female-dominated. As such, she was obviously way ahead of her time -- and, in some ways, ahead of ours. Salon Jan. 23, 1998
"One of the most controversial American women of the late nineteenth century springs to life in this study that leaves no stone unturned." -Publishers Weekly
"[A] deftly written biography . . . of a hell-raising visionary." -Mirabella
"A meaty slice of feminist history peppered with Victorian drama." -Civilization
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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Home to young Victoria Claflin was a wooden shack on the side of a hill in a town with one intersection in the middle of the vast state of Ohio. If there was a world beyond the endless rolling hills and fields, it wasn't apparent. On the south side of Homer's main street was the large and prosperous Williams Mound Farm with its stately two-story home and twenty-five-foot-high Indian burial mound in the yard. The north side of the street was lined with as many well-painted storefronts as a town of fewer than three hundred could support. And on the back side of the main street, clinging like a barnacle in the shadow of the shops and storefronts, was the Claflin residence.
In later years, when Victoria was in the business of reinventing her past, she would describe the Claflin home as a crisply painted white structure surrounded by lovingly tended flowers. But in reality Victoria's birthplace was a twenty-five-foot-long, one-story unpainted frame hovel so rickety that the other children in Homer liked to run along the porch to hear the boards rattle.
Victoria, born September 23, 1838, was the sixth of ten children, one of whom died before she was born. She was a gifted, lovely, and determined child, a rare jewel in a quarrelsome and indolent family that was considered the town trash. One admiring neighbor remarked that it was a shame the promising young girl had been born a Claflin.
From her father Victoria learned to bend, if not break, the law, and from her mother she learned to communicate with spirits. Reuben Buckman "Buck" Claflin was a one-eyed, one-man crime spree.The Homer shopkeeper Jacob Yoakam was known to say that Buck Claflin "could see more deviltry to do with that one eye than any two men with their four eyes." A census report from the time listed Buck's occupation as lawyer, but his career indicated that any background he may have had in the law was aimed at learning how to get around it. Among his alleged crimes were theft, counterfeiting, and arson.
Victoria's mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, was a religious zealot who gave birth every two years, on average, over a twenty-year period. Anna, as she was known, was as homely as her daughter was beautiful. Her face was a shriveled triangle punctuated by small eyes and a tiny, tight mouth. She was an abrasive personality given to ecstasies whose nightly constitutional most often included a trip to a nearby orchard where she would pray loudly and tearfully for the sins of her fellow Homerites and in the same hour curse till her lips were white with foam. She was the type of person referred to politely as eccentric but in more honest moments as just plain crazy. Still, there was a streak of brilliance behind that imploded face: Anna's memory was so good she could recite the Bible backward.
Beginning early in life, Victoria was given to ecstasies, perhaps as a way of escaping the small town's disapprobation of her family or perhaps as a means of escaping the wrath of her father, who was known to beat his children with a willow or walnut tree switch that had been soaking in water in anticipation of the character-building exercise. At various times she described her first encounter with the spirit world as having occurred at birth, at age three, and at age ten. But no matter when she said it happened, each recounting of the experience detailed an escape to the netherworld through the intercession of a spirit guide, and each ecstatic revelation reinforced Victoria's notion that she was planted on the Earth to do more than multiply: "When I first saw the light of day on this planet," she wrote about her birth, "it seemed as if I had been rudely awakened from a death-like sleep. How well I remember the conversation between the doctor and my father as they handed me over to the nurse. I remember looking back at my mother's face at that moment, the look of pain and anguish on it was burnt into my plastic brain, and often during my young babyhood I would watch as she suckled me. Somehow she was impelled to talk to me, not as a child, but as her own heart, pouring out all her woman's desires and bemoaning her failures. I remember well how the silent prayers, when her lips were moving, would stir my heart, and as I look back over the years from childhood to maturity, I realize that there was some subtle power of transmutation at work, for somehow, from the very first moment, I seemed to know all the future without being able to give any expression in words.... I know that my companions from the moment of birth were heaven's choicest souls.... I grew side by side with them, in fact all the education and inspiration came over them."
Victoria's earthly education consisted of a total of three years of elementary school, which she attended off and on between ages eight and eleven. At school she was referred topossibly mockinglyas "the little queen," in part because she shared the name Victoria with the British monarch but also because of her regal bearing, despite her squalid roots. But even if her title did derive from sneers, she appeared to take her role as a leader seriously. From a very early age Victoria believed herself destined for great things. She had nothing and wanted much.
In Homer, residents remembered her at age eleven, crowned by thick uncombed hair, narrating Bible stories from atop the Williams Farm Indian mound, which she renamed the Mount of Olives, and when the children listening grew restless, she abandoned Scripture for Indian stories, with which she held them captive. It was on that mound that the uneducated, unkempt, and dirty child first thrilled to an audience's approval.
It wouldn't be long, however, before a family crisis would force Victoria to leave her audience behind in Homer. Buck Claflin had purchased a gristmill and, as with most of his legitimate enterprises, he was having a difficult time making a go of it. What actually happened was not clear, but given Buck's reputation and the circumstantial evidence, it was generally agreed that he decided to rid himself of the burden the mill had become by burning it to the ground one stormy night in an attempt to pocket five hundred dollars in insurance money.
The mill fire was the last straw for the town, which had put up with the rogue in its midst for more than a decade. Buck heard the rumblings before he saw the stampede and managed to escape Homer, leaving his family behind. The locals were not prepared to support the Claflin clan, however, so the Presbyterian church held a fund-raiser to buy Anna and her children a horse-drawn wagon and enough supplies to get them out of town.
If any Homerites had qualms about ejecting the Claflins, they likely soon disappeared. After the family had gone, the town discovered that Buck had used his brief appointment as postmaster to his own advantage: he had left behind a pile of undelivered mail addressed to Homer residents, and the envelopes that indicated there was money inside had all been opened and the money was gone.
The Claflin clan, rejoined by Buck, rolled into Mount Gilead, Ohio, not far from Homer, where Victoria's eldest sister, Margaret Ann, known as Maggie, lived with her husband, Enos Miles, and their three children. By the time the Claflins moved on to Mount Gilead, the family's composition had changed. Two of the children, Odessa and Hester, had died, but there were two other healthy girls to take their place: Utica, named after a nearby town, was born in 1843, and Tennessee, born in 1845, was named after the home state of President James Polk as a tribute to Buck's presidential aspirations. Victoria's second eldest sister, Mary, though not listed in genealogy records as married at the time, had also added a child to the Claflin brood, giving birth in 1850 to a daughter named Zilpha. And Victoria's two brothers, despite Anna's appeals that the family remain united, would leave the noisy flock to set out on their own. Maldon married his cousin Corintha Claflin, and Hebern moved to Illinois, where he married Mary Ann Edwards. The remaining crew of Claflins moved into the American House, a hotel that Enos Miles owned. Considering the number of family members under its roof, it's questionable whether there was any room for guests.
THE MID-1800s were an age of possibilities for a man with ambition. Industrialists had penetrated the aristocracy by hard work and ingenuity rather than birth. School textbooks preached the message that, with enough effort or a bright idea, all Americans could become rich and famous. Buck Claflin was looking to sample that success. In the early 1850s, he was torn between a pair of moneymaking schemes discovered at opposite ends of the country: from California came cries of gold and from New York came a new phenomenon called spirit rappings. For a man who preferred to earn his wealth by doing as little actual work as possible, the spirit rappings held the greater promise.
In 1848, a pair of young sisters in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York, reported hearing strange noises. The rappings themselves may not have surprised anyone, since the farmhouse was said to be haunted by the ghost of a peddler who was murdered there. But what did come as a shock was that the sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, appeared to be able to communicate with the spirit, "Mr. Splitfoot," who provided responses to their questions in a series of tapping sounds.
Within a year the Fox sisters were exhibiting their powers onstage before audiences that paid seventy-five cents to see them, and in June 1850 they were set up by P. T. Barnum at his hotel in New York City, holding demonstrations three times a day at a dollar per person. The Fox sisters phenomenon sparked an epidemic of spiritual encounters and by 1851 there were said to be thousands of mediums in every state.
Two occurrences had primed the United States to accept the plausibility of messages from the beyond. The first, the invention of the telegraph in 1848, showed that thoughts could travel mysteriously from one location to another, which many viewed as scientific proof that there were unseen energies at play in the universe. In fact, the Fox sisters' ability was often referred to as spiritual telegraphy. The second occurrence, the religious revival in the first half of the nineteenth century known as the Second Great Awakening,' gave birth to the notion that a person could communicate directly with God without the intercession of a cleric, and if people could speak to God, surely they could communicate with dead relatives.
Buck had two daughters of his own who, even before the Fox sisters announced their skills, were exhibiting strange powers. Victoria believed that she could communicate with her dead infant sisters and that, through spirit intervention, she had the ability to heal the sick. And when Tennessee was just five she predicted a fire so precisely she was briefly suspected of setting the blaze. Buck took advantage of his good fortune and hung out a shingle at a Mount Gilead boardinghouse, establishing Victoria, fourteen, and Tennessee, seven, as mediums, for one dollar per visit.
Perhaps to boost Victoria's confidence in her first professional undertaking, Buck wrote his daughter a prophetic rhyme that read, "Girl your worth has never yet been known, but to the world it shall be shown." She later remembered he also gave her a piece of practical advice. He told her, "Be a good listener child."
From that time on, Victoria and Tennessee would be the primary breadwinners in the Claflin family, supporting their extended clan, which, rather than thanking them for their efforts, jealously resented their success. Victoria's friend and first biographer, Theodore Tilton, wrote, "Victoria is a green leaf, and her legion of relatives are caterpillars who devour her."
A CRIME in the Neighborhood Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
By Suzanne Berne
Copyright © 1997 Suzanne Berne. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
Mary Gabriel worked in Washington and London as a Reuters editor for nearly two decades. She is the author of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx
and the Birth of a Revolution, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as The
Art of Acquiring: A Portrait of Etta and Claribel Cone.
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