The Woman Who Ran For President – The Scandalous Life of Victoria Woodhull

"If my political campaign for the Presidency is not successful, it will be educational!"
Victoria Woodhull

The election was one of the nastiest political campaigns in years. The incumbent President was hated and reviled by members of his own party. The opposing candidate was running as a maverick, and third political candidate was a woman. The year was 1872 and the candidates for the highest political office in the land were Ulysses S. Grant, war hero who was seeking his second term, Horace Greeley the most famous editor in the United States, and Victoria Woodhull. Yes, over fifty years before women finally gained the vote in the United States, a woman stepped forward to fight for the highest office in the land. Now 170 years after her birth, Victoria Woodhull is all but forgotten, but for a period of ten years in US history, she was one of the most famous women in the country.

To show just how improbable and daring this was, let’s remember that women were considered little more than property in the 19th century. And Victoria Woodhull was an unlikely candidate for many reasons. Talk about having baggage! By the time she declared her candidacy in 1870, she had been worked as a fortune teller and medium on the revivalist circuit, actress, stockbroker, and newspaper publisher. Like Sarah Palin, she was the mother of a special needs child, her son Byron was brain damaged, whether from birth or through an accident was never clear. She was a proponent of free love, talked openly about her spirit guides, and expressed sympathy with communist principles.

There was nothing in her background to suggest the heights she would achieve. Victoria California Claflin was born on September 23, 1838, number seven of what would eventually be ten children. Her father Reuben ‘Buck’ Claflin was a drifter, con man, and swindler. Her mother Roxana ‘Annie’ Claflin was the illiterate daughter of German immigrants. From birth, Annie believed that Victoria was destined to be something special. After all, she had named her favorite child after Queen Victoria. Buck had studied a little bit of law, and worked in the logging industry until he managed to save enough money to open a tavern and a grist mill. He was also abusive when he was drinking and possibly sexually abusive to Victoria and her younger sister Tennie. Once he realized Victoria and Tennie’s gifts, he forced them out on the road while he sold spurious bottles of an elixir that he claimed cured cancer.

Roxana believed fervently in spirits and she encouraged this belief in Victoria. From early childhood, Victoria believed that she could communicate with spirits, and that they guided her. One of her spirit guides she identified as the Greek orator, Demosthenes. And there is little doubt from the fiery speeches that she gave throughout her career that she believed that she owed her eloquence to his influence. She had only three years of formal education, but her teachers were impressed by her innate intelligence.

At the age of 14, she married Canning Woodhull, a doctor fourteen years her senior, primarily to escape her home life. She soon found out that she had made a terrible mistake, exchanging one miserable existence for another. Woodhull was an alcoholic and a womanizer, who spent more time drinking than he did doctoring. Woodhull eventually went on the road with her father and younger sister Tennessee Celeste, working the revivalist movement as a medium and magnetic healer. She eventually moved her young family, which now included a daughter Zulu Maude to San Francisco, where she worked briefly as an actress.

She encountered her second husband, Colonel James Blood, a Civil War veteran, while working in St. Louis as a fortune teller. Apparently she told him from their first meeting that they would be married, despite the fact that he had a wife and two daughters at the time. Like Victoria, Blood also had an intense interest in spiritualism; he claimed that he was in contact with his fellow soldiers who had died during the Civil War. Within months of their meeting, Blood and Victoria ran off together, only returning to St. Louis long enough for Blood to divorce his wife and pay off his debts.

In 1869, Victoria had a vision that she was to live in a city surrounded by ships. Soon after she and her sister Tennessee, along with Colonel Blood moved to New York, to a house on Great Jones Street. Soon after their arrival, the two sisters made the acquaintance of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A spry 74 years old at the time, the Commodore held open house hours at his office, where he was willing to listen to anyone who might have a good idea he could steal, I mean use. When the two beautiful sisters showed up, the Commodore perked right up. Both an inveterate womanizer, and a believer in the spirit world, he eagerly welcomed them into his world.

While Victoria administered to the Commodore’s spiritual needs, holding séances to contact his late mother on the other side, Tennessee, in her role as a magnetic healer, worked on his physical needs. The Commodore was so entranced with Tennie in particular that he soon asked her to marry him. She refused primarily because she was still married. Not that any of his children would have allowed a backwoods grifter to take their mother’s place.

Soon, the sisters were set up in their own brokerage firm, backed by the Commodore, making them the first women stockbrokers on Wall Street. The move garnered a huge amount of press. While Victoria was tall and striking with dark hair and vivid blue eyes, her sister Tennie was the picture of Victorian womanhood with her curls and round figure. The women were called the ‘Queens of Finance,’ and the ‘Bewitching Brokers,’ in the newspapers.
Both Victoria and Tennie reveled in the publicity. They moved into a huge house on East 38th Street in the Murray Hill district of New York. Soon a host of relatives moved in with them including Victoria’s ex-husband Canning Woodhull who was now addicted to morphine as well as alcohol.

The sisters held salons, where they surrounded themselves with the crème de la crème of intellectual and radical thinkers of the time. One of their most frequent guests was Stephen Pearl Andrews, who became Victoria’s intellectual mentor for a time. A lawyer by trade, Andrews was an ardent abolitionist, who devised a popular system of phonographic reporting. A linguist who spoke 30 languages, he created a new one called ‘Alwato’ as well as being the first one to use the word ‘scientology.’

In 1869, Victoria attended her first suffragette’s convention in New York. She listened and learned, all the while formulating her own opinions. At the time she believed that “a woman’s ability to earn money is better protection against the tyranny and brutality of men than her ability to vote.” She made the acquaintance of several of the leaders of the movement including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Victoria began to spend time in Washington working as a lobbyist to further the women’s right’s movement. She cultivated a relationship with Senator Benjamin Butler, a Civil War General who was a supporter of women’s rights, who encouraged her to focus her efforts on the House Judiciary Committee.

The suffrage movement was in a crisis when Victoria came onto the scene. During the war, they had supported the abolition platform over the move to gain women the vote, but now that the Civil War was over, and the 13th and 14th Amendments had been ratified, many felt the time had come for women to finally achieve the vote. The biggest difference was how that would be achieved. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton favored a constitutional amendment, while others like Lucretia Mott favored working for suffrage state by state. The movement finally split apart into two separate groups, the National Women’s Suffrage Association headed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the American Women’s Suffrage Association headed by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. The two groups wouldn’t merge for another seventy years.

On May 14, 1870, Victoria and her sister had established Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, a newspaper that stayed in publication for the next six years. Originally founded to be an organ for her political campaign, the paper quickly established itself as a reputable weekly. The two sisters were now ‘Queens of the Quill.’ At its height the newspaper had 40,000 subscribers. The paper not only published such authors as George Sand, but it also printed the first English version of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The paper advocated not only women’s suffrage, spiritualism, but also vegetarianism and the legalization of prostitution. Whatever issues interested women, the Weekly published an article on it. They also published book reviews, and a series of hard hitting articles on corruption in business.

In January of 1871, when the NWSA met in Washington, to their surprise they discovered that Woodhull was about to speak to the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of women’s rights. The convention was suspended for the day so that members could listen to Victoria’s speech. In what became known as the ‘Woodhull Memorial,’ Victoria argued that not only did the constitution give women citizenship but that if women were citizens than they were given the right to vote by the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. “All persons are citizens. Are women not persons?” It was only custom that barred women from voting. The committee agreed to deliberate on Victoria’s argument.

Woodhull invigorated the cause of women’s suffrage. Her lecture on constitutional equality attracted thousands across the country. Newspapers claimed that she was “the ablest advocate on woman suffrage, a woman of remarkable originality and power.” When the Judiciary Committee issued a minority report supporting her position, thousands of copies were distributed across the country.

Not every suffragette was enamored of Victoria. While Woodhull was applauded and celebrated for her appearance before committee, there were women in the movement who were envious that Victoria had managed in a short amount of time to achieve something that no other member of the suffrage movement had achieved. Although Isabella Beecher Hooker became a good friend of Victoria’s due to their mutual interest in spiritualism, her sisters Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were not so taken in. Harriet even wrote a novel called My Wife and I that featured a character called Audacia Dangyreyes that was clearly based on Victoria. Other suffragettes were appalled by her advocacy of free love, which came out after her unorthodox living arrangements were revealed to the public due to her mother suing Colonel Blood for abuse. The idea of ‘free love’ was not a new notion. It was coined by John Humphrey Noyes, the founder of the Oneida community. Victoria was one of the first women to openly espouse the notion and to tie it into women’s rights.

In Victoria’s view, marriage without love was immoral. She believed that the government should have no say in what went on between a man and a woman. “I have an inalienable right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that lover every day if I please.’ Victoria wasn’t advocating promiscuity; she herself believed in monogamy, but she believed that others had the right to their own lifestyles. Ironically, Victoria was also against abortion. She felt that there would be no unwanted pregnancies; if a woman were in healthy relationships. Victoria’s views on marriage were no doubt honed by her experience with Canning Woodhull and the marriage of her parents.

Victoria tried to recruit Henry Ward Beecher to her free love movement. She had learned from both Susan B. Anthony among others that Beecher had been involved both romantically and sexually with several members of his parish. And she had evidence of her own, one of his parishioners Elizabeth Tilton had confessed to Victoria about her relationship with Beecher. There is also evidence that Victoria had her own affair with Beecher as well as with a colleague of his Theodore Tilton, husband of Elizabeth. Victoria hoped that he would publicly proclaim what he practiced privately but her hopes were in vain.

Victoria launched a lecture tour across America over the next year taking her message to the people. The lecture tour was necessary because Victoria was almost out of money. She was spending less time at the brokerage firm, and while the newspaper was successful it wasn’t enough to support the lavish lifestyle and her relatives that she was supporting. She also reveled in the attention that she was receiving at every stop on her lecture tour. One of the reasons she was a sensation was that she didn’t fit the image of a suffragette, she wasn’t a Quaker like many members of the suffragette movement, nor was she upper or middle class. Victoria had come from nothing and made something of life. She was also feminine, even with the short hair that she had come to favor. But more important than her physical charms, Victoria was courageous in her convictions. She was fulfilling her vision of being a ‘representative woman,’ a woman of importance.

Not forgetting her roots, she also courted the spiritualists, a move that also alienated a certain members of the suffrage movement. But to Victoria, these were her people, she understood them. For her efforts, she was voted as president of the movement. She also courted radical reformers and members of the labor unions. In May of 1872, Victoria was nominated for President by members of the Equal Rights Party.

The convention stands as the largest, most representative third party gathering. Fifteen hundred men and women attended to witness Woodhull’s historic nomination. Her supporters included suffragettes, land and labor reformers, spiritualists, and peace and temperance people. The party’s platform supported women’s suffrage, free love, naturalization of land, elimination of high interest rates, and a fairer division of wages. Woodhull was certainly not lacking in chutzpah when she chose as her running mate, distinguished abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. When he was told, he stated that he was unaware of her intentions, and he planned on supporting President Grant. However, he never asked to be removed from the ballot.

From the beginning Victoria’s campaign floundered. She was out of money. The cost of renting Apollo Hall and staging the convention had made a dent in her finances. The country was also in the midst of a recession. Banks were closing right and left, and the Woodhull, Claflin brokerage was one of many that went under. The Commodore was no longer supporting them. He had remarried, he’d also been unhappy when his name came up during a court case between Woodhull’s mother and her husband. Nor was he happy about Victoria’s socialist views or the muckraking articles the newspaper had printed about the railroads. Susan B. Anthony was also campaigning for President Grant. The newspapers had turned against her, not because of her views on free love, but because of her socialist and communist sympathies. Calling Jesus a communist wasn’t going to win friends in conservative Victorian America.

"Mrs. Satan" Cartoon by Thomas Nast in Harpers Weekly

Woodhull and her family eventually had to move out of their house in Murray Hill. For the next few months they led a nomadic life. No other landlord would rent them a house, and several hotels turned them away. When Woodhull forced the issue with one hotel, she found herself escorted out by the police. Eventually she and her family were forced to bed down in the office at 49 Broad Street at night. Woodhull’s daughter Zulu Maude was forced to assume an alias to attend school. Even the newspaper was forced to suspend operations for four months.

Victoria reached out to Henry Ward Beecher of all people for support. When he declined, Victoria decided to get revenge against what she saw as his hypocrisy. She wrote an expose for the next issue of The Woodhull & Claflin weekly, along with another expose on Luther Challis, a womanizing stockbroker, with a penchant for young girls. The issue was a sensation, and had to be rushed back to press several times. Copies were so scarce it was reported they were selling for $40 on the street.

In a twist of fate, Victoria spent Election Day sitting in jail. Beecher’s supporters had frantically tried to buy up as many newspapers as possible to destroy. When that failed, they got that pious prig Anthony Comstock involved to do their dirty work for them. Comstock had set himself as a moral crusader against vice, and had managed to get a law passed that made it illegal to use the U.S. mail to pass “obscene publications.” Comstock suggested that they mail him the issue of the Weekly containing the articles on Beecher and Challis.

On Sunday, November 2, 1872, Victoria, Colonel Blood and her sister Tennessee were arrested with 3,000 copies of the Weekly hot off the press. They were hauled into Ludlow Street jail where they were held. Although their bail had been paid, they were rearrested and thrown back in jail. This was a pattern that continued for the next six months. Victoria’s lawyer’s argued that the Comstock law didn’t apply to newspapers. Victoria described her ordeal as an attempt by the government to “establish a precedent for the suppression of recalcitrant Journals.” In the meantime, Ulysses S. Grant took the election by a landslide. His opponent, Horace Greeley, died before the electoral votes were calculated but he received few. Victoria received a negligible percentage of the vote and no electoral votes.
"To be perfectly frank, I hardly expected to be elected. The truth is I am too many years ahead of this age, and the unelightened mind of the average man."

Although the case was eventually dismissed the legal wrangling took its toll on Victoria and Tennessee. Theodore Tilton then sued Beecher for alienating his wife’s affections. The trial made Victoria notorious and not in a good way. Although she continued to lecture for a time on women’s health issues, the notoriety from the Beecher/Tilton trial followed her around like a bad smell. Spiritualism which had reached its peak during the Civil War was waning; it would revive with another war. The robber barons were settling into respectability, creating their own society apart from the old Knickerbocker one. When the Commodore died in 1877, William Vanderbilt allegedly paid Tennessee and Victoria to leave the country to avoid them being called as witnesses by his siblings to state that Vanderbilt was not mentally fit when he made his final will.

In England, Victoria tried to reinvent herself, disavowing her earlier stance on free love. She married John Biddulph Martin, the son of a prominent banking family but the doors to society were closed to her once the truth about her past came out. Even the British suffragettes wanted nothing to do with her. She made two more attempts to run for President but they were both merely for show. After her husband’s death in 1897, Victoria lived quietly with her children at her country estate, Bredon Norton, until her death at 89 in 1927.

Although historians agree that she was the first woman to run for President, the question remains about the legality of her run. She was a year short of the constitutionally prescribed minimum age required to run for President which is 35. And no ballots for the Equal Rights Party survive. What is true is that Victoria rattled cages, and promoted changes that frightened, embarrassed and scandalized her contemporaries. She attempted to change people’s views about women’s sexuality, and the need for a new way to look at marriage. She believed that it was possible to use the political system to affect change, and she paved the way for other women to make their own attempt to run for President, like Hillary Clinton.
She also lives on in the fiction of Henry James who based his character of Verena Tarrant in The Bostonians on Victoria.


Other Powers: the age of suffrage, spiritualism, and the scandalous Victoria Woodhull – Barbara Goldsmith
Notorious Victoria: the life of Victoria Woodhull, uncensored – Mary Gabriel
The woman who ran for president: the many lives of Victoria Woodhull – Lois Beachy Underhill
A Woman for President: the story of Victoria Woodhull – Kathleen Krull


Jeremy said…
The face of Victoria Woodhull, in the two photos you show, reveals her strength of character and extraordinary beauty.

She was surely a woman way, way ahead of her time. Her views on free love alone, and her free-spiritedness, would shock many today, particularly Republicans!!
Oh no! Another one that begs for a link.
Victoria deserved to be better known. Thanks for bringing her back to life.
Thanks Catherine. If anyone deserved a six hour HBO miniseries, it is Victoria Woodhull. Nicole Kidman's name at one point was bandied about, but nothing came of it. Again, a role that Kate Winslet should play.
Heather Carroll said…
Ok it took me about 3 days but I am finally able to leave you a comment about how much I enjoyed this entry!
(I've had such bad luck with leaving comments lately, the internet gods seem to forbid it!)
Thanks you guys. I love Victoria Woodhull and I wish that everyone, not just women, knew about her.
Bearded Lady said…
From fortune telling to running for president. Pretty impressive. Wonderful post!
Thanks Bearded Lady. Victoria Woodhull is one of my favorite women in history. She led such an amazing life when you consider the limits that were placed on women back in the 19th Century.
Anonymous said…

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