America's Scandalous, Psychic, Forgotten First Female Presidential Candidate

Decades before women won the right to vote, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, started her own newspaper, and became one of America's first female stockbrokers. She also found time to advocate for free love and talk to ghosts.

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Feb 11 2016, 5:00pm

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In the crowded Apollo Hall in New York City, a man stood at a podium and decried the corruption of both Republicans and Democrats. Spectators cheered as he yelled about the evils of greed and the complete failure of the government. This was the time for change, he declared.

After he stepped down, the candidate he was introducing swept up to the stage through a mob of supporters. She was dressed in black silk, and her voice thundered through the crowds as she spoke for half an hour about the need for change. "It may be laid down as fundamental that every person on arriving at adult age is entitled to have had equal opportunities for secular, industrial and intellectual education," she said. "Well, and if it do mean revolution, what then? Shall we be slaves to escape revolution? I say, never! I say away with such weak stupidity... let us have justice though the heavens fall!"

At the end of her speech, the theater shook with applause. Somewhere in the noise a delegate shouted that he nominated the speaker, a woman named Victoria Woodhull, for president. The nomination was met with a standing ovation that lasted five minutes. People rushed in from the streets caught up in the fervor.

The date was May 10, 1872; this is how America just got its first female presidential candidate. Woodhull's nomination was ratified that June—even though she was not legally permitted to vote—and Frederick Douglass was chosen as her running mate (although he did not acknowledge the nomination).

Early Life

Victoria Woodhull was far from presidential material. She was born in 1838 to Reuben Buck Claflin, a one-eyed conman, and his wife Roxanna, known as Annie. Victoria grew up in a near-Dickensian state of poverty and cruelty. Her mother was distant, doting, and then violently abusive. Buck was a liar and a cheat: In his criminal career, he impersonated a doctor and a lawyer, and there are tales that he once ate counterfeit bills while being pursued by police.

Perhaps his most unsavory con involved setting up a fake cancer treatment center, where he convinced the poor and suffering that his other daughter, Tennessee, could heal them with the magnetic power of her hands and with a special elixir. When the authorities finally stormed into the center, they found scores of men and women lying in their own filth, burned by the elixir, which may have contained lye. Buck and his family managed to get away; however, after one of their patients died, a warrant was put out for Tennessee's arrest. Though she was never arrested, this was a black mark that would hang over the sisters for many years and sent the family into hiding.

By speaking for the dead, women in this era were given a voice. In those ghosts and spirits, Victoria found not only her voice but her fortune.

At the age of 15 (although she told everyone it was 14), Victoria married Canning Woodhull. He was a doctor and claimed to have grand family connections. However, he proved to be no more than a philandering alcoholic. Together they had two children, Byron and Zula. Byron was Victoria's oldest child and suffered from a severe mental disability that Victoria blamed on Canning's alcoholism. She divorced Canning after eleven years of marriage and remarried Colonel James Harvey Blood. Victoria kept her own last name.

When Victoria met Colonel Blood, she was making a living as spiritualist—holding séances and telling fortunes. Civil War America was a hot bed of spiritualism, and at its center was a generation of women who had lost their husbands, fathers, and brothers, but were still denied basic political and financial rights. In her biography of Victoria and Tennessee, The Scarlet Sisters, Myra MacPherson writes that, by speaking for the dead, women in this era were given a voice. In those ghosts and spirits, Victoria found not only her voice but her fortune.

After the Civil War, Victoria went into business with Tennessee as a clairvoyant and healer. They were under-educated and poor, but also beguiling and smart. Their business flourished.

Image via Wikipedia.

Speculating on Politics

Victoria and Tennessee were smart business woman; as such, they came to call on Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America. Perhaps they heard he was looking to speak to his wife from beyond the grave. Perhaps they heard he was lonely. But whatever they heard, the sisters knocked on his door and began to use their otherworldly connections to advise him on stock tips. Through their association with Vanderbilt, the sisters played the stock market and cashed in on the financial panic of Black Friday in 1869. Victoria claimed to Theodore Tilton in a biographical sketch that he wrote of her that she and Tennessee amassed a fortune of $700,000 in this way—which would have equaled to a few million in modern currency.

The sisters immediately used their earnings to start an investing firm, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. They were Wall Street's first female stockbrokers; the sign on the door of their offices read, "Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once."

Victoria used her Wall Street power to launch her candidacy for president and found a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly. The newspaper argued for sex education, contraceptive rights, short skirts, and free love. The Weekly was the first place to publish and English translation of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto.

An illustration of Woodhull that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1871. Image via Wikipedia.

Revealing Truths

But women can only go about shouting for equal rights for so long. Five days before Election Day in 1872, Victoria and Tennessee published a story alleging that a prominent preacher named Henry Beecher had engaged in an adulterous affair with one of his parishioners. The sisters noted that they were revealing this story not out of a sense of Victorian morality, but because of the sexual double standard held against women, and that Beecher wasn't their only target.

In that same issue, Tennessee wrote that Luther Challis, a Wall Street banker, and a friend had "seduced" two schoolgirls at New York's French Ball. "And this scoundrel Challis," she said, "to prove that he had seduced a maiden, carried for days on his finger, exhibiting in triumph, the red trophy of her virginity."

It was that sentence that got the sisters thrown into jail on charges of obscenity and libel. Although they were acquitted six months later, the damage to Victoria's candidacy was done. She had been in jail during the election, and, as a result of taking a stand against Beecher, she gained several powerful enemies. Beecher's sister, Harrier Beecher Stowe, called Woodhull a " vile jailbird" and an "impudent witch." A cartoonist depicted Victoria as Mrs. Satan. Beecher eventually went on trial for adultery, which ended in a hung jury. The trial lasted two years, and, by the end, Tennessee and Victoria were once again poor and struggling to reinvent themselves. Rumors began to swirl about the sisters working as prostitutes. In 1876, Victoria divorced Colonel Blood and the Weekly folded.

Woodhull as Mrs. Satan. Image via Wikipedia.

Another Presidential Bid

By the end of 1876, Victoria set off for London, where she began to give lectures and met the banker John Biddulph Martin. The two married, and Victoria spent the last years of her life presiding over his London estate as well as a castle in Portugal. She tried again to secure a nomination to run for president in in 1884 and failed. She tried for a third time in 1892, declaring that it was her destiny to become president. (She had often written out her title as " Future Presidentess.") This time, she was successful, securing a nomination by the National Women Suffragists' Nominating Convention.

Almost immediately, British tabloid The Daily Mail began to print stories that claimed Victoria was not fit to be president. When she threatened to sue, they published everything they had on her and Tennessee, which was a lot: accusations of blackmail and prostitution, the outstanding warrant for Tennessee's arrest from the failed cancer center, and every detail on their sordid, crazy family. Victoria backed down and dropped her candidacy.

She lied, conned, cheated, and fought to be a self-made millionaire. Had she been a man, she would have sat alongside the robber barons of the Gilded Age.

Victoria Woodhull died in 1927. It's been nearly 90 years since then, but some ways things haven't changed at all. The charges leveled against Woodhull during her time and throughout history have modern resonance—newspapers wrote that she had loose morals, she was too close to Wall Street, and just three days before the election she was carted off to jail for, in part, the way she used information.

It is plain from the many biographies and stories that surround her that Victoria Woodhull must have ruthless, believing herself to be an almost messianic figure—a woman full of power and love, who fought for the rights of all people. She lied, conned, cheated, and fought to be a self-made millionaire. Had she been a man, she would have sat alongside the robber barons of the Gilded Age—men who engaged in the exact same behavior as Woodhull, the only difference being they got away with it. She had the courage to fight for the rights of sex workers, for suffrage, and for financial and legal rights for women—causes that are still hotly contested today. In an age of Victorian morals, Comstock laws, and yellow wallpaper, Victoria was never a women who was held back by her context.