Sunday, December 23, 2012

39. Mrs. Satan Locks Horns with the Mighty, part 1

 Victoria Woodhull
Looking thoughtful, as appropriate for the serious one,
though no photograph of the period does full justice to
the "bewitching brokers" and their ability to
dazzle the all-male press corps of the day.

In January 1870 they popped up out of nowhere to appear on Wall Street, in the heart of the all-male bastion of finance: Victoria Woodhull (her married name, though no husband was visible) and her sister Tennie C. (or sometimes Tennessee) Claflin, who with remarkable knowledge and self-assurance began buying and selling stocks.  That the two sisters were young and attractive, and always receptive to the press, meant that word of them at once spread far and wide.  At a time when respectable women never wanted to be mentioned in the press, the appearance of these two young female speculators was itself unprecedented, and gossip immediately arose about where they got their knowledge of stocks, not to mention the funds to invest.  The Herald, always attuned to the new and sensational, sent a reporter to their suite at the stylish Hoffman House, where, significantly, a portrait of Commodore Vanderbilt adorned the wall of the parlor, and near it, a framed religious motto: "To Thy Cross I Cling."  That the richest man in the country was backing these two adventurers seemed obvious from the start.  The reporter described the sisters and their suite respectfully, and a Herald editorial concluded, "Vive la frou frou!"

Tennie C. Claflin, the other half of the frou frou,
presenting herself as a broker, her mirthful,
effervescent qualities well hidden.

File:Cornelius Vanderbilt three-quarter view.jpg
Cornelius Vanderbilt
 His handsome features and erect posture persisted even
in his later years, as did his taste for the old-fashioned
 stock, in preference to the new-fangled necktie.
The two sisters now opened a brokerage office at 44 Broad Street, and the entire financial district flocked there to see this phenomenon for themselves.  So packed were the premises that the sisters soon posted a sign: "All gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once."  The Herald now hailed them as "the bewitching brokers" and "queens of finance."  Further speculation was fueled by the sisters' quiet admission that in the previous year they had realized $750,000 in profits -- a dazzling sum mentioned in all the papers of the time.  Also noted were the daily visits to their office of Commodore Vanderbilt himself, between whom and Tennie a cheerful familiarity seemed to exist.  Adding spice to the scandal -- if scandal there was  -- was the fact that Old Sixty Millions, a widower, had recently married a young woman half his age; her husband's gallivanting on Broad Street was surely vexing to the new Mrs.Vanderbilt, who with great forbearance was trying to
tolerate -- for now -- her spouse's playful quirks and eccentricities and, ever so tactfully, nudge him toward her Methodist faith.

More and more rumors circulated: Victoria Woodhull was a divorced woman -- shocking!  Furthermore, she claimed to have powers of clairvoyance and healing, and had come to New York at the bidding of her spirit guide, Demosthenes.  Worse still, the sisters and their friends were said to believe in -- still more shocking! -- free love.  Both sisters had evidently been married before at least once, and maybe more than once; they seemed to shed husbands with remarkable ease.  Definitely not bruited in the press were the Vanderbilt clan's concern about the Commodore's prior relations with the duo.  William Vanderbilt, the son and heir, had it from his father's servants that Victoria had tried her powers of magnetic healing on him, while Tennie's gauzy charms had often graced the old man's lap.  She called him "Old Boy," and he called her "Little Sparrow";  there had even been talk of marriage.  So if the Commodore's two sons and nine daughters -- an ennead that he claimed he could barely keep straight -- had been startled by his sudden eloping to Canada with a young Southern gentlewoman, at least he was safely and respectably married.

Victoria and Tennie driving the bulls and bears of Wall Street.
An Evening Telegram cartoon of February 18, 1870.

The "bewitching brokers" shrugged off any rumors about their past.  Victoria was always the leader, and Tennie the willing follower, but it was Tennie, mirthful and outspoken, who expressed herself with vehemence: "I despise what squeamy, crying girls or powdered, counter-jumping dandies say of me!"  Always the earnest one, Victoria told a reporter, "All the talk about women's rights is moonshine.  Women have every right.  All they need do is exercise them.  That's what we're doing."  In post #22 I've already told how they coped with Delmonico's rule about admitting no women customers unless accompanied by a male escort.

If any doubts remained of the sisters' radical opinions, they vanished in May 1870 when a new  publication burst upon the scene: Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, whose motto was "Progress!  Free Thought!  Untrammeled Lives!"  In it readers could find articles advocating vocational training for girls, women's suffrage, and regulation of houses of prostitution, and articles on free love, birth control, and abortion, and in time, the first publication in the country of The Communist Manifesto.  Behind these views were the ideas of several of the sisters' radical male friends.  Every word printed in the Weekly was a challenge to Victorian notions of womanhood, which firmly planted Woman on a pedestal -- in the home, where she should stay.  Forays for good works were of course allowed, but otherwise she should be preoccupied with supervising servants, looking after the nursery, and maintaining that revered inner sanctum of the Victorian home, the parlor (about which more in a future post).

The sisters were now getting national attention.  In December 1870 Victoria presented a memorial to Congress advocating women's suffrage,  The following month she addressed the House Judiciary Committee in a session attended by two prominent leaders of the women's rights movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, whom this development had taken by surprise, and who wanted to get a look at this new advocate and seeming ally.  Indeed, by all accounts Victoria Woodhull was a passionate and magnetic speaker.  Impressed, Anthony and Stanton invited the sisters to attend their meetings, which let opponents of feminism insist that giving the vote to women would encourage free love and destroy the family.

Victoria Woodhull
Victoria addressing the House committee.
Her sister may be visible in the lower left.

Publicity had obviously come at a cost.  The Bewitching Brokers were now being labeled "humbugs," "public nuisances," and worse.   Forced to leave their hotel, they had trouble finding living quarters and for a while slept on the floor of their Broad Street office, before moving into more suitable quarters.  But they were in no way discouraged.  The Weekly's issue of April 22, 1871, announced in bold lettering the candidacy of Victoria C. Woodhull for the presidency in 1872 on the ticket of the Cosmo-Political Party, an amalgam of radical reform groups.  She was the first woman to aspire to the office, though her chances of being elected, or even being allowed to vote, were less than minimal.  Yet in September 1871 she had the satisfaction of indeed being elected president -- of the National Association of Spiritualists -- at their annual convention in Troy, New York.  (Besides growing apples, upstate New York in those days played host to many a new and radical idea.)  But when the sisters tried to vote in the national election in November, they were of course rebuffed.

Collection of the New York Historical Society

By now Victoria's home sheltered a curious assemblage of friends and refugees, stray family members, and assorted husbands (one ex- had turned up in deplorable condition and been granted asylum).  All of which fueled the rumors about her most unvictorian life style.  To tell the world exactly what her principles were -- as if they weren't apparent already -- soon after the election Victoria rented Steinway Hall for the evening of November 20, 1871, and announced in posters that she intended to silence the critics who had persistently misrepresented and vilified her.  The influential editor Horace Greeley and conservative suffragists who were voicing doubts about her were invited to seats on the platform.  "Freedom!  Freedom!  Freedom!" proclaimed banners outside the hall.

File:Henry Ward Beecher - Project Gutenberg eText 15394.jpg

In a further act of daring, Victoria invited Henry Ward Beecher, the most renowned preacher of the day, to see her just before the lecture, and in so doing joined her destiny to another giant of the time.   Beecher's sermons at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights were so famous and so inspired that they drew multitudes of Manhattanites every Sunday to that distant borough, still a separate city and not yet connected by a bridge to the metropolis.  His sermons were more than words, they were performances. An ardent abolitionist when it was most unfashionable to be one, before the war he had held mock auctions to raise money to free real slaves, and, having obtained the chains that had held John Brown before his execution, trampled those fetters dramatically in the pulpit.  He also advocated women's suffrage and Darwinian evolution, and denounced bigotry in all its forms.  Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain had all made the pilgrimage to Plymouth Church to witness this phenomenon in action.  If Lincoln had freed the slaves, Beecher was said to have freed men's minds.  So what did Victoria Woodhull want from the man?  Justice, she said in her note, adding that what she would then say or do depended on the result of the interview.  Which had the sound of a threat.

Victoria had learned from the feminist Elizabeth Stanton that all was not well in the realm of Beecher.  Stanton had heard from Theodore Tilton, a reformist newspaper editor and Beecher's close associate, that Tilton's wife Libby had confessed to having an affair with the renowned clergyman, who was himself married and the father of ten grown children.  Indeed, Beecher's muscular frame and long leonine locks, combined with his inspired oratory, made him vastly appealing to women.  The affair, though now over, was known to a small circle of Plymouth worshippers, who kept it a snug, tight secret so as to avoid scandal.  But word was spreading slowly, and Victoria was not inclined to discretion.  She was smarting from criticism by Beecher's sister Catherine, who had urged decent citizens to avoid her recent lecture in Catherine's hometown, Hartford.

Aware of this and feeling vulnerable, the famous preacher came to Victoria when summoned.  What she asked of him was simply to introduce her to the waiting audience, which need not imply acceptance of her opinions.  While Beecher had endorsed women's suffrage, he most definitely did not approve of free love.  Horrified, yet fearful of her reaction if he refused, he fell to his knees and begged her in tears, "Let me off!  Let me off!"  When she remained adamant, he consulted Tilton himself, who advised him to make the introduction and asked Victoria to join them.  Beecher again pleaded for mercy and even threatened suicide, but he could not agree.  "Mr. Beecher," said Victoria, "if I am compelled to go onto that platform alone, I shall begin by telling the audience why I am alone and why you are not with me."  With this, she left.  Beecher's famous emotionalism had been no match for her icy resolve.  There is something disturbing, even repellent, in his crumbling before her, but her satisfaction in humiliating the nation's most celebrated clergyman hardly enhances her image.  Victoria Woodhull, one has to conclude, was ruthlessly selfish and determined, regardless of the consequences to others.  Not just one man's reputation was at stake, but a whole empire of faith.

What happened next was both startling and dramatic.  The ongoing story of the sisters, and an account of this, perhaps the most sensational lecture of the century, will be told next week in part 2.

Thought for the day:  Desire is holy.

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder


  1. Your writing makes me regret even more that I had to drop out of school—and that which posed as such— at age 14. I greatly appreciate what you are doing with this cyber space and—to borrow from your daily thought—harbor a holy desire to see your words in a neat volume on the shelves of better book sellers. But hurry, they may not be here much longer.

  2. Many thanks. You probably got another kind of education; don't underestimate it. I'm not a pessimist; I think booksellers will survive, but in smaller numbers in a changing world. Whether my posts will ever end up there is dubious. But I plod on anyway.

  3. Dear Cliff, your blog posts this year are an amazing accomplishment, especially considering everything else you have been doing. I have really enjoyed their acerbic wit. Congratulations.

  4. You are giving me encouragement to write. Not as well as you, but to write. Honestly you are wonderful.