Sunday, December 30, 2012

40. Mrs. Satan Locks Horns with the Mighty, part 2

What happened after Victoria Woodhull's threat of exposure to the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, minutes before she was to begin her lecture to a hall jammed with spectators lured there in hopes of a candid exposition of free love, was probably a surprise to all.  When Victoria and her supporters, her sister Tennie included, marched out onto the platform, Theodore Tilton was at the head of the group.  Stepping to the front of the platform, he raised his hands to quiet the crowd, then explained that he had come to hear what his friend had to say on a great question of much importance to her, and since various gentlemen had declined to introduce her because of objections to her character, he would do so himself.  He then vouched warmly for her character and said that it was with great pride that he presented Victoria Woodhull, who would speak on the subject of social freedom.

What had prompted this sudden act by Tilton?  Perhaps he wanted to deflect her threat to expose Beecher, which would also compromise his wife's reputation.  Perhaps he was yielding to a generous quixotic impulse, as he was known to do.  And perhaps it was out of gallantry.  The tone of his words was that of a lover.  He may well have been one of her many inamorati, which complicates even more the complexities of the Beecher-Tilton relationship.

Following the outlines of a speech prepared by one of her male associates, Victoria began with an account of changing attitudes toward the freedom of the individual.  But when she got to the present, she registered more passion and emphasis, and excitement began to mount in the audience, then hissing countered by applause.

"Are you a free lover?"someone shouted.

"Yes!" she replied.  "I am a free lover!" And as cheers, hoots, and howls redoubled, she persisted with fervor, ignoring her prepared text completely: "I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as a short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!"

Pandemonium ensued.  Some hissed and booed; others  cheered and tossed their hats in the air.  She continued speaking for another ten minutes, decrying the false modesty that silences discussions of sex, and the evils attending such modesty's abuses, while insisting that she would have her fellow beings think well of her, that she was telling them her vision of the future because she loved them well.  No one present was likely to forget her impassioned finale.

The speech was fully reported in the Herald, and dire consequences followed.  Victoria and her household were soon forced to leave their mansion for a boardinghouse on 23rd Street, and business fell off dramatically at their Broad Street office.  Commodore Vanderbilt's family were doubtlessly thanking their lucky stars -- or perhaps the Beneficent Creator -- that he had long since severed ties with this wanton and her sister, whose names would now be inexorably linked to free love.  But if Americans didn't share the firebrand's opinions, they were eager to hear about them; lecture invitations poured in from all over the country.

A cartoon by Thomas Nast, 1872.

BE SAVED BY FREE LOVE offers Woodhull, in the garb of the Devil,
as a respectable housewife toils in the opposite direction, burdened with
 children and an alcoholic spouse: "I'd rather follow the 
hardest path of matrimony than follow in your footsteps."

In December 1871 the undaunted sisters marched up Broadway in solidarity with the International Workingmen's Association, in memory of martyred Communards executed by the bourgeois  government of France after the brutal repression of the French Commune.  And at the annual winter convention of the National Suffrage Association in Washington, Victoria appeared on the platform with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, who were not yet ready to break with the firebrand whom some were now calling Mrs. Satan.  Rumors of scandal plagued her campaign for the presidency on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and lack of funds forced her from the Broad Street office and caused the Weekly to suspend publication.  Things didn't look good for Mrs. Satan.

But Victoria wasn't done yet.  In September, when a delegate to the National Spiritualists' Association in Boston accused her of obtaining money under false pretenses, she took the stand and, furious, gave the details of the Rev. Beecher's affair with Libby Tilton.  How dare he preach the sanctity of marriage while practicing free love clandestinely?  Impressed, the spiritualists reelected her president of the association.  So the cat was out of the bag at last.

Back in New York, using funds from a still unknown source, she revived Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly with a bang.  The first new issue, dated November 2, 1872 (though published earlier), gave a lengthy account of the Beecher-Tilton scandal.  She claimed to speak reluctantly, out of a sense of duty, so as to support her campaign against the outworn institution of marriage.  She was nothing if not candid, mentioning Beecher's "demanding physical nature" and "immense physical potency." With the intimacy of Mrs. Tilton and the minister she had no quarrel, only with Beecher's hypocrisy.  As for Tilton, his conduct had been no better than Beecher's; she deplored his displays of wounded feelings and pride.  (Whatever intimacy they may once have shared by now had obviously soured.)

Word spread quickly; issues flew off the stands.  By evening, they were said to be going for forty dollars a copy.  The scandal of the century had finally burst into full view of the public.

On November 2, several days after the issue actually appeared, the sisters were arrested while riding in a carriage on Broad Street.  Arraigned before a packed courtroom, they learned that they were charged with sending obscene matter through the mail, the matter involved being "an atrocious, abominable and untrue libel on a gentleman whom the whole country reveres."  Who had brought the charges?  None other than Anthony Comstock (see post #37), using a federal law of 1872, since the famous and infamous Comstock law had yet to be lobbied for and passed.  The sisters were in full bloom, according to the press, which described Victoria as "sedate," and Tennie as "bright" and "animated," with sparkling blue eyes, and "splendid teeth" that she took care to display.  And who was there to defend them?  Another giant of the day whom we have seen already (post #29):  William Howe, the bejeweled elephant.  The sisters were a magnet for the eminences of the time.

Choosing not to put up bail, the sisters were confined to Ludlow Street Jail, where they vividly denounced  the American Bastille to the journalists who flocked to interview them.  (In point of fact, their durance was not so vile, since the staff there gave them courteous attention and by their own account never, during their sojourn, uttered a word unmentionable to ears polite.)  Meanwhile Counselor Howe protested this attack on free speech, and insisted that the Bible, Lord Byron, and Shakespeare could be similarly suppressed.  As the trial was endlessly delayed, the press made a good show of the lovely captives, their grim accuser, their diamond-bedecked defender, and others related to the case.  Finally, after four weeks in the Bastille, the sisters consented to put up bail and were released.  Their month's incarceration had won them sympathy, and garnered Comstock criticism and more than a touch of mockery.

 Poster for a lecture by the sisters following their incarceration.
From the collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The whole affair dragged on, with further legal complications, and ever fuller measures of mockery for Comstock from the ungodly, until a ruling came at last on June 27, 1873, when the presiding judge ruled that the 1872 law did not apply to newspapers.  By then the stricter Comstock law had been passed, but for this case it was irrelevant.  The sisters were gloriously free on a technicality, and their accuser must once again ponder the mysteries of the Master's will, before consoling himself by arresting a local bookdealer for the third time.  Victoria meanwhile referred to the YMCA in the Weekly as the American Inquisition, but added that there was no more similarity between the inquisitor Torquemada and Comstock than between a dead lion and a living skunk.

The ensuing scandal took a heavy toll on all concerned.  Plymouth Church was stricken, but at Beecher's urging held a board of inquiry that, in spite of the misgivings of some, exonerated Beecher; Tilton was then expelled from the church.  Tilton's wife was badgered by Beecher into retracting her confession, and then badgered by Tilton into retracting the retraction; she finally left Tilton because of the publicity.  Then in 1875 Tilton sued Beecher for "criminal intimacy" with his wife; the long trial riveted the nation's attention, but after six days of deliberation it ended in a hung jury.  The troubled church held a second board of inquiry that also exonerated their beloved minister, but Libby Tilton confessed again to the affair and was also excommunicated.  Unable to find employment in this country because of the scandal, Tilton moved to Paris and spent the rest of his life there.  Beecher's popularity continued, but he never again enjoyed the uncritical adulation of before.

Henry Ward Beecher
A statue by John Quincy Ward, ca. 1888-89,
at Amherst College, Massachusetts, 

the reverend's alma mater.
The heroic pose shows that, for some,
he is best remembered as a stalwart abolitionist.

Life for Victoria and her sister was not triumphant either.  They were shunned on Wall Street, no longer had the support of the leading suffragists of the time, and had mounting financial problems that made the continued publication of the Weekly difficult.  Victoria now divorced her current husband, who had supplied many of the articles for their publication.  In 1877, in a move that must have surprised all, the two sisters left this country for England, probably financed by William Vanderbilt, the Commodore's heir, so they wouldn't testify in court when some of the Commodore's offspring challenged his will.  In England Victoria continued to give controversial lectures, but ended up marrying a wealthy banker.  Tennie did even better, marrying a wealthy widower who became a baronet; so the rebel who had once scorned what squeamish people said of her, and who had graced the lap of the richest man in America, was now known as Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat, and lived at times in her husband's castle in Portugal.  Needless to say, a curious ending for two flaming female radicals.  Their rise in English society may have inspired Henry James's delicious story "The Siege of London," in which an American woman with a shady past (multiple marriages) manages to hook a most respectable young baronet.  Tennie died in 1923, and Victoria in 1927.  Though the feminists of their time came to shun them, they have since been reclaimed with enthusiasm by the women's rights movement of today.

Historical footnote:  When newly moneyed Americans began hitting Europe after the Civil War, in England the upper classes asked a crucial question:  Does one marry Americans?  When Lord Randolph Churchill of illustrious lineage married Jenny Jerome, the eldest daughter of Wall Street speculator Leonard Jerome, the answer was a resounding Yes!  What was good enough for Lord Randolph had to be good enough for the rest of society.  (The result, by the way, was Winston Churchill.)  Usually these unions involved new American money bonding with impoverished foreign titles.  In the case of the Claflin sisters, however, the money was all on the side of the husbands; the sisters provided spark and charm.  After World War I impoverished foreign titles were much less enticing to American heiresses; they looked a bit shopworn (the titles, not the heiresses).  Henry James treats this theme beautifully in many novels and short stories.  He is my favorite American novelist; I highly recommend his works.

Thought for the day:  Existence is ecstasy.  (A Buddhist idea that has always intrigued me; it prompts reflection.)

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder

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