In 1872, American history changed forever when a woman named Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to try and become President of the United States. She had an uphill battle ahead of her. As a woman, she wasn’t even allowed to vote. If elected, she would have been too young at the age of 34 to serve, but it didn’t matter because she only received a handful of votes. Even her running mate, Frederick Douglass, voted for President Ulysses S. Grant. On Election Day, she was in jail for slandering the most famous minister in the country.
|Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman nominated for the presidency -- and practicing Spiritualist medium|
When Hillary Clinton was nominated as the Democratic Party’s choice for the presidency in 2016, Victoria Woodhull, a largely forgotten novelty in the historical record, was suddenly in the spotlight for the first time in more than a century and a half. She began to be lauded for her trailblazing advocacy of woman’s rights – including the movement for “free love” and divorce – and her work in the suffrage movement of the day. But what most people neglect to mention is that Victoria Woodhull didn’t achieve her greatest notoriety as a presidential nominee, but rather as a Spiritualist medium who started the first female brokerage firm on Wall Street by charging some of the nation’s wealthiest men to contact the dead.
When someone once asked shipping magnate, financier, and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt for financial advice, he replied, “Do as I do, consult the spirits!” His conduit between this world and the next was Victoria Woodhull.
Born Victoria Clafflin in Homer, Ohio, in September 1838, her childhood was a nightmare. Her mother was an eccentric who had “memorized the Bible backward and forward.” Her father was a con artist who abused his family and was one described by a neighbor as a “one-eyed, one-man crime spree.” He fled town after allegedly burning down his own mill for the insurance money and stealing petty cash from the post office. Locals took up a collection so that his family could follow after him. Victoria was the seventh of ten children, four of whom did not live to adulthood. She had only a few years of formal education before being put to work in her father’s traveling medicine show. She and her younger sister, Tennessee, gave séances, performed as fortune tellers, and sold fake elixirs to the gullible.
At age 15, she was married for the first time to a drunken, philandering physician named Canning Woodhull. They had two children together, but divorced in 1864. She later married two more times.
In 1868, Victoria and Tennessee moved to New York City, where business and industry were growing rapidly in the years after the Civil War. Millionaires were being made in the shipping, construction, and railroad businesses, and through a series of fortunate coincidences that put the sisters in the right place at the right time, they met tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the richest man in America, had an eye for beautiful women, and was obsessed with contacting his late mother. Victoria soon became his personal spirit medium.
|Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria's wealthy benefactor|
Within two years, using the stock advice that was gleaned from the “spirits” during her séances with Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennessee became known as the “lady brokers.” Vanderbilt helped them to establish a stock brokerage office, the first of its kind for women of that era. The sisters did very well financially and realized a sizable profit.
With some of their earnings, they established a weekly newspaper that was designed to cast attention on topics that were of interest to feminists of the time, such as equal rights and suffrage. In 1871, Victoria and her political positions had become so well-known that she appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to speak on behalf of women’s rights. In doing so, she became the first women to ever testify before a congressional committee.
But her stance on women’s rights was not what earned her the nickname of “Mrs. Satan.” That came about because of her support of another controversial topic of the time: free love. She believed in the right of a woman “to love who I want for as long as I want,” then to divorce. Under the law, she said, marriage for women was slavery. By the age of 31, she was a millionaire, but when she walked into Delmonico’s restaurant without a male escort, she was refused a seat. She tried to vote in 1871, claiming that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women that right. As she had told the congressional committee, “we don’t need the right to vote, we have it.”
|Newspapers and religious leaders insulted Victoria with vile nicknames, editorials and cartoons, including this one, which dubbed her "Mrs. Satan."|
Even though Victoria could have never been elected, none of that mattered. Her goal was to call attention to women’s rights issues – and to herself. Few regarded Victoria’s candidacy seriously; but the press was more than happy to write about her efforts because it sold newspapers. During her run, she did gain support from a few women’s rights groups and from some Spiritualists, but her radical position toward free love alienated most of those who would have helped her. Conservative newspapers and religious organizations began accusing every one of America’s four million (or more) Spiritualists of supporting free love and while it was a false charge, it inflamed passions.
|One of Victoria's campaign posters|
The newspaper story may have been accurate, but under a federal law against mailing “obscene” material, Victoria was arrested and jailed, where she spent Election Day. By the way, the winner of the 1872 election was Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to a second term in office.
In the wake of the scandal, her arrest, and the election, Victoria was called a “vile jailbird” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and an “impudent witch.” Others called her much worse. She was later cleared at trial but the events ruined her health, her finances, and her reputation. In 1877, she moved to England, where she married a banker, still supported liberal causes, and lived comfortably until her death in 1927.
She seemed destined for historical oblivion. The Spiritualists wanted nothing to do with her because they believed that she had used the movement to simply further her radical women’s rights agenda. Following the Civil War, when so many people were seeking mediums to contact their loved ones, Victoria Woodhull had soured the movement’s reputation. The bereaved were more concerned with speaking with their loved ones than with listening to speeches about social injustice.
Victoria’s radical position on free love had caused rifts within the women’s rights movement, as well. Even bold feminist leaders like Susan B. Anthony, who had once welcomed Victoria, later distanced herself. When Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a six-volume history of the suffrage movement, Victoria’s contributions were reduced to one brief mention.
She would have likely have been forgotten altogether if not for another, far different woman who made history in 2016.