Victoria Woodhull was an advocate of free love, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, a Spiritualist medium, a stockbroker, maybe a sex worker, an all-around force of nature. She might be one of the most controversial women in American history, which means she is one of our favorites. For this episode of our series on “Womyn,” we’re talking about the life of the groundbreaking, rule breaking Victoria Woodhull.

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Transcript of Victoria Woodhull: Free Love Feminism & Finance

Researched and written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD

Sarah: Once upon a time, a woman ran for president. She had a long history of women’s rights activism, and was known for being active in politics. She had a history of being embroiled in sex scandals. Her presidential campaign received intense backlash, and the media depicted her alternately as weak and hysterical, and conniving and evil. In the end, the campaign was unsuccessful, and her male opponent won the election.

Averill: If you think we’re talking about Hillary Clinton and the election of 2016 …. you’re wrong. We’re actually talking about Victoria Woodhull, another woman presidential candidate who ran for the highest office in the nation in 1872 – well before women even had the right to vote.

Sarah: Victoria Woodhull was an advocate of free love, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, a Spiritualist medium, a stockbroker, maybe a sex worker, an all-around force of nature. She might be one of the most controversial women in American history, which means she is one of our favorites. For this episode of our series on Women, we’re talking about the life of the groundbreaking, rule breaking Victoria Woodhull.

I’m Sarah
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of DIG

Averill: From the moment she was born, Victoria Woodhull knew she was different. She was born into a large family in the tiny farming town of Homer, Ohio. The family had a bad reputation – one author referred to them as the town’s trash. Part of the reason for this bad reputation was the family’s constant problem with money. Another reason was Victoria’s father one-eyed, Reuben Buckman Claflin, known as Buck, who was a notorious con-man and criminal. According to a neighbor in Homer, Buck “could see more deviltry to do with that one eye than any two men with their four eyes.” Buck loved nothing more than to drink and gamble and swindle. Yet another reason was Victoria’s mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, known as Anna. Anna was a religious zealot who was known to stand outside of public buildings in Homer, praying fervently for her neighbors, sometimes crying and screaming about sin and salvation.

Sarah: I find Victoria Woodhull, then Victoria Claflin’s, family origins so fascinating because it seems as though her parents – one a common criminal and the other an emotional religious zealot – deeply influenced two major components of her character, as we’ll see as we go through this episode. Buck often capitalized on his wife’s spiritual nature. Starting early in their marriage, Buck trotted Anna – or Roxy, as she sometimes was called when she was young – into taverns to tell fortunes. Anna put on a good show. She would take money from women in these taverns, go into a dramatic trance, speak with the Virgin Mary, and then offer her clients a message. And I want to be careful here not to be dismissive of what Anna was doing. From everything I’ve read, Anna truly believed in at least an element of what she was doing – again, a theme we’ll see again later with her daughter, Victoria. But whether she believed it or not, her husband Buck helped turn that belief into a business.

Averill: Ecstatic religion played a role in Victoria Woodhull’s very conception – at least according to her. In 1837 – in the height of the Second Great Awakening – Buck and Anna Claflin attended a Methodist tent revival. On a cold night, people had packed into a tent to hear an itinerant preacher speak the Gospel. Like most traveling preachers, he had crafted the sermon to elicit a powerful emotional response. He started with a reminder that the people in attendance were disgusting sinners, facing eternity burning in agony. Then he reminded them that they could be saved, if only they begged for God’s mercy. In the end, the goal was the conversion experience – to bring the listener to the point of accepting God’s grace. Anna Claflin was swept up in the intensity of the preaching. First, she started to sweat; then, she stood up and threw off her hat; finally, she started shouting and speaking in tongues. She was screaming things like “Clasp me to you!” “I am coming to you!” and “I am born again in the Lamb’s blood!” At this point, her husband Buck grabbed her, pulled her to the floor behind the bench, pulled up her skirts, and had sex with her right then and there. Thus, according to Victoria herself, is how she came to be.

J. Maze Burbank, A watercolor painting of a camp meeting circa 1839 | Public Domain / Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Beford Whaling Museum

Sarah: Victoria was born in 1838, named after the queen that was crowned the same year as her birth. The Claflins were not particularly good parents. They lived in filth and squalor. They had no outhouse, so the entire family used hastily dug holes in the ground around their farm. Pigs wandered around aimlessly. All of the children slept on the floor, some in the kitchen, some in the cellar. Neighbors could children crying and arguing all day, and often had hungry little Claflins begging at their back door for food. The family was always in the midst of emotional, financial, and spiritual chaos. Anna regularly tortured the children with terrifying religious lectures about the devil, and Buck beat them and required them to work incredibly hard. Buck and Anna continued to sell Anna’s spiritual powers, although her product morphed eventually in to forms of spirit healing inspired by the trend in ‘mesmerism,’ the quack medical practice of healing with electricity and magnets. Anna believed that she had the power to heal through electric energy, and often treated her children, sometimes for physical ill-health and sometimes for spiritual ill-health – by laying her hands on them.

Averill: Young Victoria, the seventh of ten children, often fled to neighbors to escape the chaos of the Claflin home. Rachel Scribner, the 21-year-old daughter of the Claflin’s closest neighbors, became a kind of sister figure for Victoria, often bringing her back to her clean and organized home for meals. Rachel even helped Victoria learn to read and write. But suddenly, Rachel contracted cholera and died within a matter of hours. It was then that Victoria had her first true introduction to the spirit world. Heartbroken over losing her mentor, she was walking in an apple orchard when the spirit of Rachel Scribner came to her and escorted her into a realm of spirits. She met the spirits of famous people, like Napoleon and Josephine , who told her that they were going to serve as her spirit guides, helping her to create peace on earth. In her memoirs, Woodhull describes knowing somehow that she was connected to the spirit world since before she was born – yes, you heard that correctly, she believed that she had memory of her soul before it entered her body – but this was her first real contact with the guides that would aide her for the rest of her life. Victoria told her mother about her experience, who encouraged her daughter’s interaction with the spirit.

Sarah: Not only had Victoria inherited her mother’s tendency to all things spiritual, she had also inherited her ability to sell that connection. By the time she was ten, Victoria had had experiences of spirit healing. For example, when her two-year old sister, Tennessee (who would become her closest companion later in life), was extremely sick with pneumonia, Victoria fell into a trance, and saw two angels approach the baby. They touched Tennie with their hands and breathed upon her. When Anna came back into the room, Victoria was in a daze and Tennie was suddenly healthy. That same year – 1848 – just outside of Rochester, NY, the Fox sisters began the movement that would become known as spiritualism when they learned how to communicate with a spirit by asking it to making knocking noises. Buck was in a particularly difficult financial place in 1848, having skipped town after committing both insurance fraud and mail fraud. His crimes led to the rest of the family being driven out of Homer, Ohio. When the family rejoined Buck, he started to capitalize on his daughters’ Vickie and Tennie’s spiritual powers. Little Tennessee had long been seen by friends and neighbors as having powers of premonition and mind-reading. She had awoken from a nightmare screaming about a building on fire – just weeks later, a nearby school burned to the ground. She was known for finding things or knowing other people’s thoughts. Buck seized on these skills, and along with Victoria’s mediumship and healing abilities, began to sell his daughters as an attraction.

Averill: Essentially, Buck exploited them. He beat the girls, and kept them on the edge of starvation, believing that it sharpened their spiritual abilities. Victoria later insinuated that her father also sexually abused at least her. When she was fourteen, Victoria became dangerously sick. Her parents went to a local doctor named Canning – maybe Channing – Woodhull. Not only did Woodhull help get Victoria on her feet again, but he fell in love with her. He begged her to ask her parents to allow them to marry, even though she was only a teenager and he was nearly 15 years older than her. Probably because it seemed like a way to escape from abuse and exploitation, Victoria eloped with Canning Woodhull in 1853.

A carte de visite photograph of a woman in her thirties with medium brown hair pulled up from her face

Sarah: Woodhull did help pull Victoria out of her abusive and chaotic family, but his alternative wasn’t much better. The doctor was a philandering, alcoholic, morphine addict. After only a few days of marriage, Woodhull left home and started living full-time in a brothel, spending all the couple’s money on alcohol. Soon, Victoria learned that Woodhull was also sending money to a woman in Terre Haute, Indiana who had given birth to Woodhull’s son. Soon, however, Victoria was pregnant. In 1854, she gave birth to a son, Byron. Byron was what we would call today developmentally disabled, and Victoria gave different explanations of why that was over the course of her life – sometimes she said that Canning Woodhull had kicked her in the stomach while he was in the womb; other times she said that Byron had fallen as a baby and hurt his head; and still other times she blamed herself.

Averill: After Byron’s birth, Victoria gave up on waiting at home for Woodhull to change his ways. One night, she burst into the brothel where he was staying and chewed him out. She was enraged that she hungry, cold, and lonely while he was lounging around being petted by sex workers. Apparently this did the trick, because he humiliated husband stood up and walked out with Victoria, determined to change his ways. Soon after, the couple and Byron moved to San Francisco. But even though the young city was full of opportunity, they struggled to make ends meet. Victoria tried her hand at a number of jobs before becoming an actress, although acting is not really what she was doing. Victoria, and the girls she worked with, dressed up in revealing costumes and danced. When the show ended, the real money-making began, as dancers joined male patrons for drinking, flirting, and yes, sex.

Sarah: Victoria didn’t last long in this profession. According to her memoir, one night while she was on stage, Victoria was overcome with a vision of her little sister Tennessee and her mother, Anna, calling her home. She left the stage immediately, and within hours, she, her husband, and son were on their way to join Tennie and Anna in New York City. By the time they were reunited, the Claflins were suddenly prosperous. Buck was effectively pimping Tennessee out. He had the girl working 13 hour days, reading fortunes and shilling his bogus patent medicines. Whatever raw power Tennie had wasn’t good enough for her father. He required that she use shiesty methods to get inside information about clients before reading them – in some cases, Buck visited local cemeteries to read gravestones and do research before sending Tennie into a hotel or tavern to perform readings. This disgusted Victoria, who believed that hers and her sister’s powers were real.

Averill: Within a few months with her family, Victoria was gone again, committed to using her powers to make a living but unwilling to cooperate with her father’s unethical practices. Victoria sold her services as a spirit healer, performing something like what we would call reiki. But it didn’t pay the bills, and soon, Victoria was pregnant again, struggling to support herself, Byron, and her no-good husband. When her second child was born, her doctor-husband delivered the baby, but as soon as the child was born, Woodhull took off. Victoria awoke hours later to find that Channing Woodhull had only cut partially through the baby girl’s umbilical cord, and hadn’t tied it off, meaning that the baby was slowly bleeding to death. Desperate and herself weak, Victoria rescued the baby, and used a piece of a broken chair to bang on the wall for help. She had had enough of Channing Woodhull, left, and sought a divorce.

By the way she named her baby Zulu Maude.

Sarah: Before long, Victoria had rejoined the family, and was roped again into Buck’s money making schemes. Buck at this point was passing himself off as a doctor and selling quack cures for cancer. He traveled through towns shilling his fake medicines, accompanied by Victoria and sisters Tennessee and Utica. The girls were very beautiful, and accusations cropped up in many of these towns that Buck was pimping his daughters out. He of course still exploited the girls’ spiritual powers, which were in higher demand than ever during the Civil War, which helped to make Tennesee a bit of a celebrity. But Buck took things up a notch. He used Tennie’s reputation as a psychic and spirit healer to sell a cancer cure that would be administered to live-in patients in an infirmary, with the lovely daughters as nurse and spirit healers. Tennie, the most famous daughter, would be the one who applied the cure – a concoction that was painted onto the skin over the affected area. It was an incredibly caustic substance. Patients screamed and suffered – Victoria later recalled looking under the sheets at the patients’ bodies and seeing open, festering wounds and exposed cartilage.

Averill: Buck, as he was wont to do, took things too far. He took out an ad in a newspaper, purportedly from a cured patient. It read: “Mrs. Rebecca Howe, recovering from a dangerous situation after treatment by MISS TENNESSEE CLAFLIN wishes to thank this remarkable child and recommends she be consulted for cancer treatment.” Rebecca Howe had been a real patient, treated for breast cancer – Buck relied on the fact that women typically didn’t talk openly about breast cancer. But Howe was not having it. She went to the local newspaper and testified that the “cure” had not only not cured her cancer, but had caused so much suffering that she prayed for death. And she blamed not Buck, but Tennessee, who was the one publicly associated with the treatment. Concerned that something bad might be happening at the Claflin infirmary, the local police raided it, and discovered patients dying, in pain, bleeding and laying in their own filth, utterly neglected. The same day, Rebecca Howe died. The local authorities issued charges against the Claflins for manslaughter. Someone tipped off the Claflin clan, and they skipped town to escape the charges.

Sarah: They didn’t give up the business, though – they moved from town to town, shilling patent medicines and selling sex. In 1865, Victoria again ventured out on her own once again, led by the spirits to St. Louis. This is where Victoria met a Union veteran named Col. James Harvey Blood. Blood was shot five times, including twice in the thigh, but survived the war, albeit with serious pain and impairment. He accompanied his wife to visit a “Madame Holland,” who was offering spirit healings for “female complaints.” Madame Holland was, in actuality, Victoria Claflin Woodhull. Victoria did not cure his wife; instead, she and Blood fell madly in love. Before long, Blood divorced his poor suffering wife and skipped town with Vickie. Not long after, the Claflin clan finally pissed off the wrong tavern keeper when the local residents lost their patience with their informal house of prostitution. At this point, Buck was making Tennessee entertain up to 10 men a night and she was exhausted and fed up. This time, when they were kicked out, Tennessee packed her things and escaped to Victoria and Col. Blood.

Averill: The trio traveled from town to town, earning their living with a combination of selling sex and spiritual services. Victoria and Colonel Blood made their relationship official … sort of … in 1866. They actually did not marry because they had developed a belief in free love, which at the time was a growing component of utopian and new religious thought. Blood was a spiritualist, and made it his mission to refine and educate what he saw as raw talent in Victoria. Victoria devoured information about the new religious movements like Fourierism. In 1871, Victoria summed up her thoughts about free love thus: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right, neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
(Also note: Read competing reports of whether she and Blood were ever actually married)

Sarah: To me, Victoria’s quick acceptance of free love makes complete sense. After all, she and Tennie had often made a living selling sex, so she already saw it as something disconnected from marriage and ideas of purity and morality. She had dissatisfying monogamous relationships. Her husbands had never had traditional ideas about sex or marriage, and indeed, enjoyed sharing her. Plus, she grew up in a family that paid no respect to the law and disregarded the way “things were done.” This is one of many times when researching Victoria Woodhull that I just find myself awestruck by her – I mean, that quote is something that you could hear today. For instance, I listen to the sex advice podcast hosted by Dan Savage, and he says essentially this very thing, and it’s still revolutionary.

a marble bust of a bearded man

The actual Demosthenes | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: In 1868, Victoria experienced a vision, where a man appeared before her. He said his name was Demosthenes, and told her that he was to be her spirit guide. He also said in no uncertain terms that she was to move to New York City, where a home would be waiting for her to conduct business. The entire Claflin clan moved, and it wasn’t long before they found a new venture, organized by Buck Claflin. Buck arranged a meeting with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the 70-something year old shipping magnate and Gilded Age millionaire. Vanderbilt had lost a son during the Civil War, and his wife had just recently died, so he was rumored to be dabbling in spiritualism. Buck offered up Vickie and Tennie to him on a silver platter. Vanderbilt was easily won over, especially by charming, 22-year-old Tennessee, who eased his aches and pains with her spirit healing. Victoria became a kind of confidant, helping the businessman deal with his troublesome family members and business dealings. Wealthy Vanderbilt also started paying the sisters, not only in wages but in stock tips. Victoria took the inside information and shared it with Colonel Blood, who made the investments or sales. Soon, the Woodhull-Claflin trio were raking in cash.

Sarah: The influx of cash gave Victoria the freedom to get involved in her next big passion: the women’s rights movement. By the time she entered the scene, the women’s rights movement in the United States was around 20 years old, dominated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott, the same reformers who spearheaded the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. But the movement had fractured after the Civil War, when the formerly close group differed bitterly over the issue of black men’s suffrage as proposed in the 15th Amendment. There were also major disagreements over what the movement should focus on. Most of the activists wanted to focus specifically on the vote, but a few wanted to expand their efforts to fight for increased economic and civil rights for women. Victoria was frustrated by the movement initially – it was too polite, too restrained, and too focused on the vote. She wanted a revolution, not a single right.

Averill: While she was working her way into the ranks of the women’s suffrage movement, Victoria, Tennessee, and Col. Blood were also moving into their next business venture. In 1870, they opened Woodhull, Claflin, & Co., the first female-led brokerage firm in American history, with Victoria and Tennessee the first female stockbrokers. They worked the fortune they made advising Vanderbilt to buy and sell stocks, all with the careful advice of Cornelius Vanderbilt. They were a sensation. Men’s business magazines were enthralled with the pair, who they described as alternately fascinating and disgusting, both sort of genius engenues and mannish whores.

Sarah: Never satisfied, in 1870, Victoria took another radical step: she announced she was running for president. Now, much has been made of her age- she was only 32 – but most historians agree that she was the first woman to run for the highest office in the land. I mean, the whole venture was ludicrous. No woman had ever been elected to any federal office, let alone to President. But this was the kind of bold step Victoria believed the women’s rights movement needed, and of course, it was also good for business. She certainly got press, but the media was most interested in patronizingly, almost jokingly, covering her campaign – almost in the same way the press covered Donald Trump. There’s no way she can win! But Victoria wasn’t joking: she wanted to be seen as a real, viable candidate, and the media was failing her.

front page of a newspaper declaring Woodhull's campaign for president

Detail from April 22, 1871 Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly | New York Historical Society

Averill: So, what’s a girl to do, right? Well, launch your own newspaper, for one thing. In 1870, the trio launched Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. Newspapers were incredibly prolific in the 19th century, and every niche market had its own publication. But Victoria was just as radical in her publishing as she was in her politics. Rather than market the newspaper, as people expected, just to women, she made the newspaper fit all of her many interests and businesses, insisting that women had varied interests and that all those interests should also be interesting to men. The newspaper advertised the sisters: it advertised their campaign, their business, but mostly of all, Victoria and Tennie’s very existence. It was brilliant. Soon, the best and brightest of NY society knew the name of Woodhull & Claflin. The sisters were masters of keeping the public’s attention. They began to dress in ways that were flirtatiously masculine – instead of the fashionable open necked dresses, the two often wore neckties inspired by menswear – and cut their hair scandalously short.

a black and white photograph of Benjamin Butler

Benjamin Butler | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: Victoria was now richer and more well-known, but she was still lacking respectability in the political arena. What she needed was an ally inside the political establishment. She found that ally in Benjamin Butler. Now, I need to take just one second to describe this guy. Butler was an attorney from New Hampshire initially, but became involved in Democratic politics and the state militia before the Civil War. When the war broke out, although he had sympathized with the South, his loyalty was to New England, and so finagled a commission in the Union Army. He became quite famous during war, particularly for his role in the occupation of New Orleans, here he waged a war within a war against the women of New Orleans, who were causing a problem disrespecting Union Troops. After the war, Butler read the political winds and became a Republican, the party that would have more or less complete governmental control for the next 30-40 years. In 1870, Butler was a member of Congress representing Massachusetts. Somehow – and I’ll be honest, I struggled to find how they met, and couldn’t find it – Victoria and Ben Butler became close friends. Butler served not only as Victoria’s political mentor, but also her male chaperone into American establishment politics. Victoria saw this relationship as a tremendous opportunity. What she wanted was to speak about women’s suffrage before Congress. Butler didn’t think this was a great idea initially, and told her that he would happily read an address, written by her, before Congress on her behalf. She changed his mind somehow. She wrote in her diary only that: “I went at night and asked him to open the committee to me.” Hmmm …. I wonder what changed his mind.

Averill: The speech was a success, and helped to cement Victoria’s place in suffragist circles, although the old guard was a little unsure of what to make of these two beautiful, sensual women suddenly thrust into their ranks. But Victoria’s beauty and flashy background – as newspaperwoman and stockbroker and spiritualist and healer – helped draw attention to the movement. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were enamored with her. Increased attention also meant increased criticism. Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was regularly attacked in the establishment newspapers, including Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. In May 1871, Victoria was the keynote speaker the National Woman Suffrage Association’s annual convention in Washington, DC. She spoke about the need for women’s rights and for suffrage, but also talked about her campaign for president, taking her previous speeches on the subject one step further. This time, she laid out a platform for a new political party, called the Cosmopolitical Party. It would advocate for extreme reform to politics and government (things like term limits, etc) as well as an 8 hour work day, economic reform, huge welfare programs, the abolition of the death penalty, national public education, plus international law and peace keeping forces. (Side note: This is wild. These are things that are still topics of debate, and some of these are things we ended up eventually getting – like international law and peace keeping forces!)
Sarah: But the press’s take away from her speech was really only one thing: her advocacy for free love. This was radical for a number of reasons, but one was that Victoria made this not just about divorce or sex, but about freedom. She argued not only for the right to with her body what she wanted, but that marriage was inherently repressive, and should be abolished. This caused some controversy within the suffrage movement. Most suffragists were not nearly this radical, but if they disavowed Victoria’s positions, it would undermine the momentum they had garnered with her popularity.

Averill: There were more problems. In 1871, Victoria and Tennie’s mother, Anna/Roxy, charged Col. Blood with assault, claiming that he told her he was going to kill her. The resulting trial was a gold mine for the media, who knew that the public ate up news about the wacky Claflin/Woodhull crew. The trial brought much of the family’s dirty laundry out to air. For the first time, the public discovered that Victoria was divorced, and that Blood had been divorced, but that they had been married and divorced and them remarried, and that at times, her former husband, the heel Channing Woodhull, had lived with them. (He was old and sick and needed care, which they provided.) Proper society was scandalized and frankly, disgusted, by Victoria’s drama. Victoria wrote a long letter to the editors of the New York Times defending her belief in free love and her divorces, but it only served to tie her closer to her scandalous past.

Sarah: In 1870, the beloved, genteel, Christian author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote a short story around this time called “My Wife and I,” in which a character – named Audacia Dangyreyes – is an outspoken, brash feminist who drinks and smokes and bosses men around, insisting on taking the more “masculine” role in relationships. It was very transparently about Woodhull. It also was pointed in its suggestion that women like this were an affront to proper, Christian society, and a threat to order. This story was interesting for another reason. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was America’s leading preacher, the Billy Graham or Joel Osteen of his day. The Beechers were a clan that was, in most respects, the opposite of the Claflin/Woodhull: a family of Christian authors, speakers, and pastors with a national reputation for piety and reform work.

Black and white photograph of Henry Ward Beecher

Henry Ward Beecher | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: The problem was that Henry, the scion of the family, was a philandering bastard. Henry Ward Beecher had been having an ongoing affair with his friend Theodore Tilton’s wife, Elizabeth (Lib). (This was only ONE of Beecher’s many affairs.) Lib Tilton confessed the affair to her husband, who went to his friends in the women’s rights movement, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Eventually, the story got back to Victoria Woodhull. Victoria was PISSED. After all, the Beecher clan had pilloried her in the press for the sins of divorce and free love. And Victoria had a very powerful weapon she could use to seek revenge: her newspaper. The Beechers knew this, and began a campaign to either shame or bully Victoria into keeping the information to herself. Specifically, Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, the now elderly writer Catharine Beecher, who convinced Victoria to accompany her on a carriage ride to discuss the issue. It didn’t end well. Before they parted, Catharine said: “Remember, Victoria Woodhull, that I shall strike you dead.” Victoria coolly responded: “Strike as much and as hard as you please, only don’t do it in the dark, so I cannot know who is my enemy.” DAMN, girl.

Sarah: And because this is Victoria Woodhull we’re talking about, things just got more complicated from there. At the same time, Victoria was introduced to Theodore Tilton, the cuckhold at the center of the scandal that the Beechers were desperately trying to control. Tilton had been Henry Ward Beecher’s long-time assistant and devotee. A passionate Christian, Tilton was an abolitionist and reformer, and after the war, became a journalist. But as his marriage crumbled, he wrote an article for one of the newspapers he worked for declaring that marriage without love was a sin – which sounded an awful lot like free love, and for which he was promptly fired. Tilton was romantic, passionate, and handsome man. It should come as no real surprise, then, that the two quickly became lovers and allies. Victoria became even more forceful in the press calling out the double standard that she saw: women like her were raked over the coals, while men could act as they pleased when it came to sex and marriage with no consequences. When she was attacked in return, Tilton came in like a white knight, using his respectable reputation to defend her in the papers.

Tennessee Claflin | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Now, in the midst of this, the Victoria Woodhull and sister Tennessee weren’t so distracted as to neglect their political ventures. In 1871, Tennessee declared that she was running for Congress in New York City’s 8th district. In that year’s elections, Victoria and Tennie tried to vote, but were turned away by polling officials. But the Beecher-Tilton affair remained their central problem – and their central power. Never one to let a moment pass, Victoria asked Beecher to come directly to her for a chat. What she wanted was for Beecher to agree to introduce her when she gave a speech, scheduled for just a few days in the future, where she would talk about free love. Essentially, she said, do this (you also believe in free love or you wouldn’t be fucking all these ladies who aren’t your wife, so own it, you asshole) or I’ll use this platform to out your relationship with Lib Tilton. Later, she wrote, “He got up on the sofa on his knees beside me, and taking my face between his hands while the tears were streaming down his cheeks, begged me to let him off. Becoming thoroughly disgusted with what seemed to me his pusillanimity, I left the room under the control of a feeling of contempt for the man, and reported to my friends what he had said.” Victoria was even more disgusted by the gall of Beecher and men like him to destroyed the lives of women who challenged social norms, while expecting to be exonerated themselves. In the end, Beecher agreed to show up, and also footed the bill for renting the hall for her speech. KWEEEEEN

Sarah: When the day came, though, Henry Ward Beecher was a no-show. Instead, Tilton introduced her, and Victoria railed against the hyposcrisies and abuses of marriage. For instance, she said this: “I would not be understood to say that there are no good conditions in the present marriage state. By no means do I say this; on the contrary, a very large proportion of present social relations are commendable – are as good as the present status of society makes possible. But what I do assert, and that most positively, is that all which is good and commendable, now existing, would continue to exist if all marriage laws were repealed tomorrow. Do you not perceive that the law has nothing to do in continuing the relations which are based on continuous love?” I mean, that sounds so much like some of the arguments people were making, just a few years ago, when marriage equality was under such fierce debate. In total, Victoria Woodhull talked for two hours, arguing for non-monogamy and sexual freedom and women’s equality. It’s really stunning to think of, even now. This would still be considered radical, over 100 years later.

Averill: The result was good for Victoria and bad for Tilton. Tilton suddenly became the 19th century version of a cuck. Newspapers referred to him as “Theodore Woodhull,” a man emasculated by a woman who was not even his wife. (And they didn’t even know that he was actually being cuckholded!) The speech raised Victoria’s profile even further and she entered the lecture circuit, repeating the lecture, not so much because people loved it, but because they wanted to hear it for themselves.

a black and white photograph of theodore tilton

Theodore Tilton ca 1870 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Side note, because there’s not enough going on here, Victoria and Tennessee discovered a little German publication in 1871 and decided to publish it in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. It was Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Increasingly, they were adding labor and the rights of workers to their political platform, which served to drive a wedge between themselves and the old guard of the women’s rights movement, which believed that the vote had to be the single issue of their action. By 1872, the queens of the movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had disavowed Victoria.

Sarah: Cut off from the National Women’s Suffrage Association, Victoria officially ran for president for the Equal Rights Party. Remember, she announced she was running back in 1870, but in May 1871, she was officially nominated by a party. Frederick Douglass was nominated for vice president, but they didn’t tell him right away, and he never officially accepted his nomination. Things were not going well for Victoria. Her bold speeches about free love might have garnered publicity, but it was all bad. Further, she and Tilton had grown distant because he didn’t help her campaign. Instead, he was trying to get Democrat Horace Greeley, her old enemy and editor of the NY Tribute, elected. Her daughter, Zulu Maude, was kicked out of her private school because of Victoria’s politics. At the same time, Tennessee decided she wanted to become the new colonel of the New York Guard, and decided to run to command the 85th Regiment, an all-black unit. After a stirring speech, where she promised to lead them into battle if necessary, and her commitment to black civil rights, she was actually voted in by the men. The press went bonkers. With Victoria running for president, supported by a black male vice president (at least ostensibly), and Tennie the colonel of a unit of black guardsmen, they shredded the sisters both gender and racial slurs. Then, with their landlord finally feed up with the controversies, the family was evicted.

Averill: Desperate, Victoria used, again, the major weapon in her arsenal: Henry Ward Beecher. He later wrote that Victoria had come to him, “whining,” and that he “replied very briefly, saying I regretted when anybody suffered persecution for the advocacy of their sincere views, but that I must decline interference.” That was it for Victoria. Her family eventually found new, less nice lodging, but she decided she’d had enough with the hypocritical Beechers. On September 11, 1872, she gave a campaign speech in Boston (Beecher’s hometown) where she unleashed the entire story of the Beecher-Tilton affair. Stunned, the audience didn’t know what to do. Unsatisfied with this reaction, Woodhull decided to take it up a notch. A few weeks later, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly published a mock interview with Victoria, where she detailed the entire salacious story.

black and white photograph of Anthony Comstock

Anthony Comstock | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: But it didn’t work out the way that Victoria envisioned. Rather than vindicating her, or bringing about some kind of righteous justice, the whole thing blew back on Victoria. First of all, no one really believed the charges against Beecher. He just had too much power and respect. his followers didn’t want to believe it could be true. Within days, a certain individual got wind of the story – an individual we’ve talked about on this show before. His name was … dun dun dun … Anthony Comstock. This whole saga took place in 1872, just before his namesake law was passed, but at the time, Comstock was a crusader for the YMCA, or Young Men’s Christian Association, which was dedicated to ridding society of vice. Comstock made it a personal mission to root out dens of iniquity and violations of obscenity laws. When he saw something, such as a storefront selling pornography, he tipped off the police and then would personally accompany them as they made their raids. He had been trying to shut Victoria and Tennessee down since they launched, because they often printed ads for birth control methods. When he saw the issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly with the story of Henry Ward Beecher and Lib Tilton’s affair, it set off all his obscenity alarm bells. On November 2, just days after the story hit newsstands, police officers showed up at newspaper’s offices and arrested Victoria Woodhull, Tennessee Claflin, Colonel Blood, and several of their printers. They were held on $8000 bail and held in the Ludlow Street Jail. No one – not Theodore Tilton or the suffragists or Ben Butler or Cornelius Vanderbilt – came to their defense. Their printing presses were dismantled and destroyed. When the nation cast their ballots just three days later on November 5 in the presidential election, voters wrote her name in as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party ticket – while she was in jail.

Averill: From her jail cell, Victoria penned a fiery message to the public, published in the NY Herald, arguing that the reason she was behind bars was essentially, as we might call it today, sexism and slut shaming. She ended it this way: “The great public danger then is not in my exposure of the immoralities that are constantly being committed, but in the fear that their enactors will be shown up to those who are distilling poisons and digging pitfalls for it are in danger, and will remain in danger so long as I live; and since this is known the danger must be removed, at whatever cost of public justice or private right. To the public I would say let me warn them and you that from the ashes of my body a thousand Victorias will spring to avenge my death by seizing the work laid down by me and carrying it forward to victory.” A month after they were arrested, Victoria and Tennie were released after each paying $16,000 in fines.

Sarah: The saga wasn’t over, however. Comstock wasn’t satisfied. In January, using a pseudonym, wrote a letter to the newspaper asking for a copy of the issue about the Beecher-Tilton affair. They obliged, mailing several copies of the newspaper to him. Just like that, he had entrapped them again, and showed up at the offices with police officers ready to arrest them. They arrested Colonel Blood, but Victoria and Tennie weren’t there. The Colonel managed to send word to Victoria that an arrest was imminent, but she was scheduled to give a speech at the Cooper Institute. Determined to still speak, Victoria was aided by women’s rights activists and spiritualists who helped her sneak into the hall in disguise, then blocked the aisles so the police couldn’t get to the stage to arrest her. When she was done speaking, she allowed herself to be arrested. She was taken back to the Ludlow Street Jail and joined Colonel Blood. Tennie evaded capture until the following week.

Averill: The trio bailed themselves out – spending another several thousand dollars – only to be arrested again, on entirely different libel charges, days later. This process continued for months. The sisters and Blood would bail themselves out only to be arrested again on slightly different charges. In June, they went to trial on obscenity charges, where they were acquitted when their lawyer pointed out that the obscenity law Comstock had initially arrested them under did not actually apply to newspapers – although his brand new, 1873 Comstock Law did. Whoops. A year later, in 1874, they were also acquitted on the libel charges.

Sarah: The continued arrests, fines, and bail payments strained the Woodhull-Claflin coffers to their limit, and in 1873, the stock market crashed, resulting in the Panic of 1873. Victoria had tried to re-enter the world of spiritualism, but the spiritualist organizations were deeply divided over whether or not she was an appropriate spokeswoman – many spiritualists resented Victoria’s political ambitions and radical beliefs. In 1874, they were dragged back into the drama of the Beecher-Tilton affair, which had been simmering under the radar for years, suddenly boiled over. Tilton was kicked out of the church that Beecher led, and another pastor gave a public sermon about how terrible Tilton was. Fed up, Theodore Tilton himself published the story, but this time he brought the receipts, including a very incriminating note from Beecher that amounted to a confession. The church held its own investigation into the matter, but with a committee hand chosen by Beecher, it unsurprisingly exonerated its pastor. Beyond over this nonsense, Tilton took things up a notch, and sued Beecher for alienation of affection, demanding $100,000 damages.

Averill: At the same time, a former Woodhull & Claflin Weekly employee published a tell-all expose on Victoria, accusing her of being a fraud who didn’t write any of her pioneering editorials or speeches. It suggested that she was little more than an enterprising prostitute – which confirmed everything that the scandalized public wanted to hear about Victoria and Tennie. It was not the PR that Victoria needed when she was so desperately trying to get back on top after her years of court cases, jail visits, scandals and controversies. She tried to escape the Beecher-Tilton affair, but in 1875 she was subpoenaed as a witness in Tilton’s suit. But despite everything they knew about the affair, and all their conversations and dealings with Beecher, Tilton’s case really boiled down to hearsay. The case resulted in a hung jury, Tilton was bankrupted and ruined, and Beecher – whose congregation paid his legal fees – more or less got off scot-free.

Sarah: Victoria’s career was hanging by a thread. For the next few years, she wrote and lectured, but largely on religious issues, but even the spiritualists didn’t want to hear from her any more. In 1875, she finally resigned her leadership position with the spiritualists organization, and in 1876, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly was forced to shut down for a lack of cash. Also in 1876, Victoria and Colonel Blood finally divorced (again) for good. In 1877, when Cornelius Vanderbilt died, his son paid Victoria and Tennie $100,000, probably to keep them quiet about his proclivities and spiritualist leanings. This was the windfall they needed, and they left the United States for a fresh start in Europe. Victoria continued to lecture. At one talk, she met a successful, Oxford educated man named John Biddulph Martin and fell deeply in love.

Averill: But during their courtship, the never-ending saga of the Beecher-Tilton affair flared again, when Lib Tilton FINALLY admitted that it was all true. Terrified that she would get dragged back through the mud and that it would destroy her chance at a marriage to Martin, she published a lengthy newspaper (yes, she created a newspaper for ONE edition) in which she framed the entire story so that she herself was utterly blameless, even, amazingly, denying that she had ever embraced the ideal of free love. Either Martin was convinced or he didn’t care, because they married in 1883.

Sarah: In the end, the sisters lived out the rest of their lives in privilege and with far less drama. Tennessee met and married Francis Cook, who was the Viscount of Montserrat, Portugal. Soon after their marriage, he was created 1st Baronet Cook, making Tennie, born in squalor in Ohio, Lady Cook. Victoria began a second (third?) newspaper in 1895 called The Humanitarian, aided by her daughter Zulu Maude. The newspaper dealt with issues of health and reform, particularly picking up the cause of children, pointing out hypocrisy (which was Victoria’s favorite pastime) such as the huge budget of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Toward Animals and the tiny one of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In 1901, when Martin died, Victoria and Zulu Maude moved to a small British village to live a quieter life. They tried their hand at establishing a school to teach women to be farmers, but it failed. The two helped to bring about reform in the British country schools and sometimes gave interviews, but mostly lived in quiet obscurity. Zulu was her mother’s companion, helping to care for Victoria’s disabled son Byron. In June, 1927, Victoria Woodhull died quietly in her sleep. She left a small fortune for Zulu and Byron, and her ashes were sprinkled in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between England and America.


Gabriel, Mary. Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull (New York: Algonquin Books, 1998)

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999)

Victoria Woodhull was an advocate of free love, an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and suffrage, a Spiritualist medium, a stockbroker, maybe a sex worker, an all-around force of nature. She might be one of the most controversial women in American history, which means she is one of our favorites. For this episode of our series on Women, we’re talking about the life of the groundbreaking, rule breaking Victoria Woodhull.


Sara Cushing · August 14, 2023 at 6:45 am

I just visited Tewkesbury Abbey where our guide pointed out a plaque dedicated to the memory of Victoria Woodhull Martin given by her daughter. That prompted me to find out more about her life, which led me to your podcast. Thanks for this informative and entertaining episode!

Sarah · August 17, 2023 at 9:56 am

Thank you, Sara! I would love to see that plaque someday!

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