The following is the text from episode 20 of the Spooky Stitches podcast, where we discuss the life and times of Victoria Woodhull. To listen to the full podcast, please visit my youtube page.
Last episode we talked about Kate and Maggie Fox, who accidentally started the Spiritualist movement back in the 1840s, and despite numerous scandals and investigations, could never be proven as frauds.
This week we’re going to talk about Victoria Woodhull, a dedicated spiritualist, women’s rights leader, presidential candidate, and stock broker–who was almost certainly a fraud.
I’m going to start this off by warning you that she led a very long and complicated life, surrounded by some very problematic family. That family would have a big influence on how she tried to change her life from a very young age, but they were ties she just could never break. I’m going to skim over a lot of history here, but I pulled a lot of this information from a book called Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith, which goes into a lot more detail.
Victoria Chafflin was born on September 23, 1838, making her just a little younger than Kate Fox. She was born in Homer, Ohio and was one of ten children, though only six survived to adulthood. She was closest to her younger sister, Tennessee or Tennie, and her parents were illiterate and unmarried, which was quite the scandal at the time. Over the years as her fame grew, Victoria would make up all sorts of stories about her childhood to cover the truth.
Their father, Buck, would be in and out of their life while they were young. He was a snake-oil salesman known for beating his wife and children, and the family were often starving. He attempted insurance fraud by burning down the family home and grist mill at one point, but was caught and run out of town by vigilantes. The town actually paid the rest of the Chafflins to leave with him when they didn’t have enough money to do so.
Throughout their childhood, Buck would use and abuse Victoria and her siblings, almost certainly pimping out Victoria and her mother. When Tennie was 11, he started taking her on tour with him, claiming she had spiritual powers. Victoria was 18 by that point, and it wasn’t long until she and her mother were also drawn into the traveling sideshow, providing remarkably accurate fortunes to the locals.
At 18, Victoria was already divorced with two children. She married her first husband at 15 and immediately had a daughter, Zulu, and a son, Byron. Byron was born with an intellectual disability, which she blamed on her husband’s drinking. She divorced him but kept the surname Woodhull.
With two young children, Victoria went back to the “family business,” but knew it wasn’t a safe option long term. Her father was just as abusive, if not moreso, than her ex husband.
Finally, Victoria and Tennie made a break from the family and went to New York City. Though both highly intelligent women, they had two young children to care for, one of which was disabled, and they needed money fast. They fell back on what they knew, which was telling fortunes and communing with the departed. They were asked to leave several boarding houses as rumors of prostitution dogged them.
Eventually, Tennie met and charmed Corneilius Vanderbuilt, much to the chagrin of his family. The two were lovers, and this provided the financial security the women needed to really settle down.
The social connections meant that more and more people came to them for readings and seances, and during this period Victoria was able to purchase a house of her own, which would host a revolving door of family members, for better or for worse.
After Victoria predicted large gains for Commodore Vanderbuilt which later came to fruition, he believed whole heartedly in the sisters abilities and came to them for everything. As their reputations grew, Victoria decided to take advantage of this and in 1870, she and her sister opened Woodhull, Chafflin & Co, a brokerage on wallstreet, which shocked the men in the business. Even better, they catered specifically to women, serving tea and cakes as they discussed finances behind closed doors, providing women with independent means, and requiring that men make appointments and use the back door.
They used the money from the brokerage to start a newspaper, and it’s here that things really started to pick up. Tennie and Victoria edited and wrote for the paper, espousing ideas of women’s rights and free love, even going so far as to equate marriage for monetary gain as prostitution. While she was not pro-choice, she did argue that “Every woman knows that if she were free, she would never bear an unwished-for child, nor think of murdering one before its birth,” and “Can any one suggest a better than to so situate woman, that she may never be obligated to conceive a life she does not desire shall be continuous?” She argued for rights in divorce, legal rights for women, and more.
Through these arguments, she gained the attention of the foundering women’s right’s movement. History states that Victoria’s later actions would kill the women’s rights movement of the 1800s, but I argue that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had already done that through infighting and attacking and excluding black women, but that is an argument for another day.
At any rate, Anthony and Stanton were already bickering and their friendship was on the outs when Victoria took center stage. Stanton was a staunch supporter of Victoria’s, much to the horror of Anthony. As Victoria’s opinions got louder and louder, she began calling out social leaders who didn’t practice what they preached–literally. Henry Ward Beecher was a local minister, abolitionist, and women’s rights supporter. He also espoused the sanctity of marriage, while carrying on numerous affairs and having an untold number of illegitimate children. When the wife of a mutual friend got caught in the middle, Victoria called a spade a spade and told Beecher to own up to his affairs, which he adamantly denied and refused to to. This was the spark that ignited an epic battle over free-love that would eventually take down the women’s movement (for the time being) and Victoria and Tennie themselves.
As I said, I am really glossing over things here. This feud went on for years, and there was a lot of collateral damage. In the end, Beecher had Tennie and VIctoria arrested numerous times for printing “indecent” things in their newspaper. The brokerage was shuttered, the paper was shut down by the state, Victoria lost her house, and even the relatives living with them got involved, with their mother verbally attacking Tennie and denouncing them to anyone who would listen. Tennie lost her most important supporter, Commodore Vanderbuilt, and by the end Henry Ward Beecher had more fans than ever, his affairs were kept out of the public eye, the woman he’d been sleeping with had her life and her marriage ruined, support for women’s rights fell to an all time low, and Victoria and Tennie ended up moving from cheap boarding house to cheap boarding house as they were repeatedly kicked out due to their reputations. Eventually, when Cornelious Vanderbuilt died, one of his sons gave them $2000 to leave the country, afraid they would try to get involved in the distribution of the estate. Victoria married a British banker in 1883 and died in comparative obscurity in 1927, after building schools and fighting for education reform in England.
And all of this barely scratches the surface. Throughout her career, Victoria insisted that an ancient Greek spirit gave her information from beyond, on everything from stocks to reproductive rights. In reality, she was almost certainly privy to some insider trading, and she and her sister had a way of getting secrets out of people. It’s iffy on if Victoria or Tennie took part, but their mother certainly sent blackmail letters to important people, especially as her daughters’ gravy boat started to sink.
So were Victoria and Tennie mediums? No, probably not. But they were definitely smart and used what little resources they had to make things better for themselves and their family, while also fighting to improve the lot of others. Though history would like to forget them now, their meteoric rise and fall changed things for a lot of people, for better or for worse, and it would be decades before anyone else decided to take on women’s rights, women’s health, and the role of women in the workplace–and never all at once, in such a dramatic fashion. They got blamed for a lot they did, and even more they didn’t do.
Thank you for joining me tonight. Please remember to check out the links down below, like and subscribe, and leave a comment if you have any questions.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and I hope you have something cute and fluffy to cuddle with. Ciao.
Other Powers by Barbara Goldsmith
National Women’s History Museum
The Strange Tale of the First Woman to Run for President
Victoria Woodhull Ran for President Before Women had the Right to Vote
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