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When Psychics Ran for President on a Platform of Free Love

The late 19th century was a time of revolution and free thinking. Victoria and Tennessee Claflin became involved, and Victoria ran for President.

Patrick Powers

The late 19th century was a time of revolution and free thinking. The new spiritualist religion of Theosophy was growing rapidly in Europe. Sigmund Freud was so concerned about this that he promoted a theory that spiritualism was a sexual pathology. Germany had a revolutionary movement. The Kaiser stayed in power, but adopted the flag of the revolution as a compromise. Germany still has that flag today. In the United States the fringe cause of abolition of slavery won a near-miraculous victory. US women wanted the vote, and got it in the territories of Wyoming. In the American West many people were practicing multiple marriages, most notably the Mormons. Spiritualism like Ouija boards and table tapping séances were popular. The mainstream public disdained all this. But the single thing that most outraged the public was Bloomers. This was women's wear of loose pants under a below-the-knee-length skirt. Wearers were harassed so severely that eventually they all gave up the practice. Bloomers were so outrageous that no photograph has survived.

This is the story of two sisters, Victoria and Tennessee Claflin. Though Tennessee wore short hair and "mannish clothes" neither ever adopted the ultimate rebellion of Bloomers. Nevertheless they were to become deeply involved in all the other free-thinking causes.

Victoria WoodhullThe two were born in frontier Ohio, which at the time had little to offer in the way of education. At age fourteen Victoria married a Mr. Woodhull. Mr. Woodhall was doctor, a drunk, and a philanderer. Though Victoria loathed having sex with a man she didn't like or respect she did her wifely duty and bore a son Byron who was an idiot. A daughter arrived as well and in best free-thinking style was named Zula in honor of Zulu tribespeople. But all in all the marriage was not a success. Victoria got a divorce, which was quite unusual in those days. Tennesee also married badly but seems to have simply taken her leave, leaving hubby in the lurch.

The two newly freed sisters needed money. There was a big trend towards spiritualism, with psychic healings and seances to contact spirits. The sisters caught the rising wave of spiritualism and became quite successful. A Colonel Blood came to solicit a psychic healing for his wife. Victoria gazed into his eyes and told him that they were fated to be married. They were "married naturally" on the spot. Later the couple claimed that the records of their marriage had been destroyed in the big Chicago fire.

Things got a bit dodgy for spiritualists when the famous Fox sisters confessed that they had generated fake spirit raps on the table by cracking their toes. Some states outlawed psychic healing after some patients felt better then died of untreated curable conditions (though the allopathic medicine of that day was so primitive it was often worse than nothing). Tennessee had given a placebo tonic to a cancer patient who unfortunately died. Tennie was about to be indicted on a manslaughter rap. The sisters decided to head for New York City and become the paramours of the richest man in the United States, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Their mother and Colonel Blood came along for the adventure.

Cornelius Vanderbilt had also been born in poor circumstances and didn't care much for high society. He was know for disdaining the spittoon, adorning the Turkish rugs of his New York City acquaintances with tobacco juice. He insulted his children and gave them phony stock tips to toughen them up. Cornelius made most of his fortune in transportation, making a coup by transporting gold-seeking 49'ers to Sacramento with an overland shortcut over Nicaragua. It was necessary to drive a steamboat up the rapids of a Nicaraguan river. Cornelius would sometimes pilot the boat himself, with the safety value on the boiler tied down if necessary, risking a devastating explosion. In business he followed the time-honored strategy of cutting prices to bankrupt a smaller opponent, then jacking up the price once he had a monopoly. Once successful Vanderbuilt entertained himself via numerous affairs. He was interested in physic healing and being of age 74 was in need of it. An appointment was made. Cornelius was so taken with the sisters that he took Tennessee as an intimate companion. Once his wife passed away he proposed marriage to Tennie. She refused, possibly because she might have been found guilty of bigamy. Vanderbilt married another young woman, then set Victoria and Tennessee up as stock brokers on Wall Street. They were the first women stockbrokers in the world, focusing on highly leveraged investments in gold. They said their stock tips came to them in a spiritualist trance. It was believed that they got inside tips from Vanderbilt so it was quite a successful brokerage. Victoria speculated on her own account and made a small fortune during a crash. The sisters put their money into a newspaper called Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly. The paper exposed crooked dealings on Wall Street, of which there was no shortage, and featured the first American publication of The Communist Manifesto. The sisters became both rich and famous. The two new celebrities arrived for work every day in a carriage pulled by white horses, drawing crowds. There was a sticky bit when their mother filed a battery complaint against Colonel Blood. During the trial she revealed that Victoria was living under the same roof with two men, Blood and ex-husband Woodhull. We aren't told what Mr. Woodhull was doing there but I bet he was a househusband, taking care of the kids. Idiot Byron needed a lot of care, and Victoria was too busy at the brokerage and newspaper. Sister Tennessee got into the act, testifing that "many of the best men of [Wall] Street know my power." It was a bit of a scandal, but they got through it.

The psychic stockbroker with the bulls and bears of Wall Street

At the time there was a lot of discussing of changing the institution of marriage. The United States followed the tradtions of Europe, where rich people had many affairs. The woman had to remain faithful until she bore an heir, a male child, then she could play around. Wealthy single women were "ruined" if they got caught having sex, so some married to gain the freedom to have affairs. The poor were sexually free as well, with the middle classes being more strict about things. It wasn't unusual for a wife have a baby by a man other than their husband, but the husband might have some other family rearing some of his children so it evened out. On the other hand, married women could hold only property they had inherited and could not sign even the simplest contract. There was a good deal of dissatisfaction with the chattel status of women and with the hypocrisy of the whole thing. There was much discussion of some new and better way, so much so that it was simply called The Social Issue. The rich were for some kind of free love, the middle class and the church were strongly against it, and the poor did whatever they felt like doing. The Mormons practiced polygamy in Illinois , which so offended their neighbors that the Mormons were forced to flee to Utah. The Oneida colony, having joined together in a group marriage, prudently choose a location on the Canadian border should there be need for an escape. Victoria and Tennessee favored and practiced a policy of free love. They thought that if it was OK for a man to have affairs then women should have equal status. Women should be free to make love to whomever they chose, and equally importantly to refuse whomever they chose, husband or no. In case of a loveless marriage divorce ought to be readily available.

Victoria used her newly found influence to arrange an audience with President Grant, who fumigated the Oval Office with his continual smoking of cigars, and to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the subject of votes for women. This greatly interested Susan B. Anthony, who made the trip to Washington to listen in. Victoria's argument was that the 15th amendment to the Constitution guaranteed the vote to all "persons" of legal age, and women were people. Victoria also noted that women were taxed without representation. Susan thought that could be a way to get women the vote without all the struggle of passing a constitutional amendment, and put a lot of effort into promoting this. Alas, the judicial system wasn't going to give women the vote no matter what the Constitution read.

Susan B. Anthony wasn't a spiritualist or a free love advocate, but her Abolitionist lectures could cause uproar bordering on riot. Women's rights was an even more unpopular topic than abolition of slavery. Men's social lives revolved around hard liquor, firearms, tobacco, and gambling, and it was feared that if women were to get the vote these popular practices would be banned. Susan also wore Bloomers longer than anyone else so if anything she was even more of a rebel than Victoria. While Victoria had a scandalous reputation, she also had a fortune and a newspaper. Most suffragettes were married and so had no money of their own, and the single suffragettes were poor. Victoria was in a position to be of great aid to the movement. Susan's best friend was Elizabeth Stanton. They worked very closely together as co-heads of the National Women Suffrage Association. Susan introduced Victoria to Elizabeth. This was a fateful meeting, as Elizabeth was open to Victoria's message of free love. Elizabeth had fallen in love with her older sister's husband, and the feeling was mutual. He would not divorce. The affair was never physical, but they conspired constantly to be together. Elizabeth eventually couldn't stand it anymore and married a famous abolitionist, Henry Stanton, to get out of the relationship. Mrs. Stanton was all in favor of more liberal divorce and an end to hypocrisy. Quaker Susan B. cared for neither sex nor marriage and favored strict monogamy for those who did. On the other hand she got a warm welcome in Mormon Utah where women were soon granted the vote, so she accepted a strategic alliance with the free lovers. Anthony and Stanton brought in Victoria as a prominent member and spoke of nominating her as a candidate for President. Woodhull addressed the group.

Let spiritualists and all reformers tear from their banners the names of Democrat and Republican, which have become a stench in the nostrils of all thoughtful people, and throw to the breeze that more comprehensive name "Equal Rights" ... and let them battle for it stoutly and devotedly, never faltering until it shall be planted on the dome of the Capitol at Washington in the hands of the Goddess of Liberty, in whose keeping it may be entrusted for all future ages...This is the destiny of spiritualism.

The New York Times denounced the "free love convention." The New York Herald came out strongly pro-Woodhull, predicting a Woodhull victory if women were granted the vote. The convention stopped short of nominating Woodhull. Susan B. Anthony thought that women shouldn't form a political party until they got the vote, and likely didn't want to antagonize the two established parties..

Victoria attempts to vote

While trying to run a newspaper named Revolution Susan B. Anthony had worked with a Mr. Theodore Tilton, who was a deputy of the famous abolitionist Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher made love to many of the women in his congregation including Mrs. Tilton, who in turn told Susan all about it. Susan passed the story along to her best friend Mrs. Stanton, who then passed it on further to Victoria Woodhull. Victoria thought Henry should publicly back the cause of free love, but he sensibly wouldn't do it. She published a description of the affair without naming names. Mr. Tilton burst into the newspaper office and exclaimed "What do you mean by that?" Woodhull declared she had "almost determined" to expose Beecher's hypocrisy. Tilton, who was a bit of a poet, said,

Mrs. Woodhull, you are the first person I have ever met who has dared to ... tell me the truth. I have carried my heart as a stone in my breast for months, for the sake of Elizabeth my wife. I have had courage to endure rather than add more to her weight of sorrow.

He invited Victoria over to dine with his wife Elizabeth. The hope was that Victoria would take pity Elizabeth and not saddle her with social stigmata by publicizing the affair. Tilton was very popular with women and had had numerous affairs with suffragettes. He and Victoria become lovers, with Tilton going public about the goings on. Then Victoria and the Reverend Beecher possibly became intimate as well. We don't know for sure, but Victoria later had this to say about Henry. Such style has hence disappeared from this Earth.

The immense physical potency of Mr. Beecher, and the indomitable urgency of his great nature for the intimacy and embraces of the noble and cultured women about him, instead of being a bad thing, as the world thinks, or thinks that it thinks, is one of the noblest and grandest of the endowments of ths truly great and representative man. The amative impulse is the physiological basis of character. It is this which emanates zest and magnetic power to his whole audience through the organism of the great preacher... Passional starvation, enforced on such a nature, so richly endowed, by the ignorance and prejudice of the past, is a horrid cruelty. The bigoted public... condemned him in their ignorance, to live without food. Every great man of Beecher's type has had, in the past, and will ever have the need for, and the right to, the loving manifestations of many women.... Mr. Beecher's grand and amative nature is not, then, the bad element in the whole matter, but intrinsically the good thing, and one of God's best gifts to the world.

After all of this good lovin' Victoria held off publication.

Susan B. Anthony had rented a lecture hall for a suffragettes' convention. The other women were married and were not allowed to rent anything, so spinster Susan had to do it. She had also gone heavily into debt publishing the failed The Revolutionist. In those days lectures were important entertainment and it was possible to make a good deal of money on the lecture tour. Susan had to tour constantly to pay back the loan, so she was to miss the convention. While she was away Victoria Woodhull convinced Mrs. Stanton that at the convention a political party should be formed. This party would then nominate Victoria to run for President of the United States. A notice of the formation of the party was printed Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, with the sisters taking the liberty of affixing Susan B. Anthony's signature while not bothering to inform Susan. On tour in Illinois a gentleman handed Susan a copy of the newspaper and she read the notice. What!?!?! She caught the first train back to New York City and the convention hall. Victoria had packed the place with her psychic friends, but they weren't members of the Nationals and didn't have a vote. Victoria wouldn't give up her plan. She said she was told by a spirit to continue to speak and did so. Susan turned off the lights to break up the meeting. Victoria rented her own hall, formed a Equal Rights Party with her fellow psychics, and got their nomination for President on a platform of free love and Christian communism. New York high society was OK with free love but communism was very much not OK. Victoria was shunned, Vanderbilt cut them off, and the brokerage and newspaper failed. Victoria hit the lecture circuit promoting free love, and earned enough to revive the newspaper. But post-Vanderbilt advertising was hard to come by. They needed to sell newspapers.

The sisters decided to print an issue exposing the Beecher-Tilton adultery. Over 150,000 copies of that edition were printed and quickly sold out. It was such a sensation that those who had been able to buy a copy for fifty cents could rent it out for a dollar a day. It was said two million copies would have been sold but before more could be printed a federal obscenity charge was filed. The sisters and Colonel Blood were imprisoned on bail. The government wanted them to promise to cease publication but they wouldn't. Every time they raised bail a new charge was filed and they were imprisoned again. After a month of this all the bonds were paid and they were out of jail. Victoria arranged to give a speech, and to avoid arrest went disguised as an elderly Quaker. She ascended the podium and dashed off the coal-scuttle bonnet and grey dress. A member of the audience wrote:

The audience was as though struck by a thunderbolt. There stood Victoria C. Woodhull, an overwhelming inspirational fire scintillating from her eyes and beaming from her face...with her breast heaving with long suppressed nervous emotion, her arms raised aloft in nervous excitement, her hair in wild and graceful confusion, and her head thrown back defiantly...she looke the personification of LIberty in Arms. Her voice rose in clear and piercing tones, like a song of love, blended with the war cry of battle, and the pent-up forces of her soul rushed forth in an impetuous and irresistable torrent of burning, glowing words.

She said, "I speak of myself as conducing a warfare on the present impacted mass of love and hate, of confidence and jealousy, of prudery and flippancy, of deceit and hypocrisy, marital infidelity, sexual debauchery, seduction, abortion, and consequent moral degradation, all mingled in frightful confusion and labeled the social system."

After the speech she was arrested and imprisoned again. The sisters were released on more bail, bringing the total amount for all the charges to $60,000. That would be over a million dollars today. Henry's sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, authoress of the megabestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin, got the text of the speech banned in Boston, calling Woodhull a "vile jailbird" and "impudent witch" who by "practicing every diabolical art" had seduced Blood away from his former wife. Not long afterward Victoria collapsed and almost died from a lung hemorrage, but recovered. After eight months of legal harrassment the three defendants won a directed verdict. In other words, the judge considered the charges so completely bogus that there was no chance of a conviction. The church tried Beecher for adultery, exonerating him and expelling Mrs. Tilton, outraging Mrs. Stanton.

Victoria and Blood were divorced. An admirer whose advances Victoria rebuffed accused her of harlotry. There was much bad press. Vanderbilt died and left almost all his money to the only son who would stand up to him. Victoria and Tennesee tired of all this, and Victoria abjured free love. The sisters left for England along with Victoria's children, Byron and Zula. Susan B. Anthony sent a letter to British suffragettes urging them to have nothing to do with Victoria. Tennie soon married Francis Cook, one of the richest merchants in the world from his dealings in fabric, while Victoria paired up with John Martin, the owner of Martin's Bank. John Martin had followed her career in the press and wooed her with words in classical Greek. There was a long up-and-down courtship in whch John's brother Richard Martin objected to the "gay lady from the other side," but in the end John and Victoria were married. They took up the brand-new art of bicycling, which led to John's death from pneumonia after falling into a watercourse. Victoria passed away much later at the age of ninety. Her ashes were scattered in the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the Martins became a famous conductor of symphonies. Mr. Tilton moved to Paris, France. President Grant died of the effects of cigar smoke. US women got the vote in 1920, seven years before Victoria Woodhull's death, so she lived to see it happen. Oh yes, those Bloomers. Victoria never wore them but she did hold a press conference wearing the men's clothes and shortened hair that she would wear as President of the United States. A reporter told her if she ever appeared like that in public she would be arrested. Not if I'm President, she replied.

Patrick Powers is a bass guitarist and poet, formerly of Bali, now living in northern Michigan. Photo of Victoria Woodhull from the Gallery of Heroes. Cartoon of stockbrokers in harness from the New York Telegraph, February 18, 1870. Drawing "Victoria C. Woodhull at the Polls Asserting Her Right to Vote" by H. Balling.

Copyright © Patrick Powers. All rights reserved.