Saturday, August 15, 2020

Victoria Woodhull: The First Woman to Run for President of the United States

Victoria Woodhull

"American history holds few women - or men - to rival the daring of Victoria Claflin Woodhull.  During the 1870s she defied every double standard against women.  Along with being the first woman to run for president, she was the first female broker on Wall Street, the first woman to run a newspaper, and the first to address Congress.  But her American pedigree comes not from "firsts" but from her spirit - a blend of grit, honesty, and faith in the future." 

- Bruce Watson
The Attic, "Victoria for President -In 1872"

In the 19th century, Victoria Woodhull was considered outrageous and unorthodox.  She was very radical for a woman of her era.  Some of her beliefs are still regarded as "off the wall" in contemporary 21st century society.  She described herself as a "medical clairvoyant" and was raised by her parents to tell fortunes. She was a magnetic healer (one who uses different types of magnets to help improve overall health), and a member of the spiritualist movement of the 1870s.

Victoria was also a self-proclaimed advocate of "free love," by which she did not necessarily mean promiscuity.  She defined the term as the freedom to marry, divorce and bear children without the interference or restrictions of society or of government.  At a time when divorce was frowned upon, she believed hat women had the right to escape bad marriages.  Her views were shocking to people of the Victorian age.

Victoria Woodhull was a leader of the American suffragette movement, but her greatest claim to fame was that she was the first woman to run for President of the United States,  In 1872,  she was a candidate for the U.S. presidency under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, which supported women's suffrage and equal rights for all..  On May 10th of that year, the Equal Rights Party held its convention in Manhattan, New York City.  Clad in a black dress and blue tie, Woodhill walked to centre stage and accepted her party's nomination. 

Frederick Douglass, the noted abolitionist, social reformer, writer, orator and statesman, was nominated as Victoria's running mate.  Douglass, a former slave, believed in the equality of all persons and he actively supported women's suffrage.  He he never attended the Manhattan convention and some historians say he ignored the nomination.  Others contend that  he declined it.  However, a public letter he supposedly wrote declining the nomination has never been found.  The fact remains that without his approval, Frederick Douglass became the first African-American nominated for the office. of Vice President.

Frederick Douglass
On election day, November 5, 1872, Victoria's name appeared on the ballot in some places because, at that time, political parties printed their own ballots in newspapers and passed them out at the polls.  According to newspaper accounts written years later, Equal Rights Party ballots were handed out at some polling stations.  Although Victoria Woodhull did receive some popular votes, it can't be determined exactly how many people voted for her because her votes appear not to have been counted.  She didn't receive any Electoral College votes, not even the vote of Frederick Douglass, who had been named as an elector.  Douglass and his fellow New York electors cast all of the state's votes for the incumbent, Republican Ulysses S. Grant, who easily won re-election.

Victoria never really had a chance to be elected president.  Her candidacy was an uphill battle, but it was still highly symbolic.  It attracted much attention to the issue of women's rights.  It was historic because, for the first time, a woman had the audacity to run for America's highest office.  Some historians, however, do not consider Woodull's bid for the presidency to be legitimate because she was only 34 years old at the time, not 35 as required by the Constitution of the United States.  Newspaper election coverage, however, suggests that her age was not an important issue in the 19th century.

Victoria Woodhull was born Victoria California Claflin on September 23, 1838 in the rural pioneer town of Homer, Licking County, Ohio.  She was the sixth or seventh of 10 children, three sons and seven daughters.  Three of Victoria's siblings (Delia, Odessa and Hester) died in infancy, and six of them (Margaret Ann, Maldon, Mary, Hebern, Utica, and Tennessee Celeste) survived to adulthood.  Her family was dirt poor and eccentric.  Her father, Reuben Buckman "Buck" Claflin was a conman, a veritable snake oil salesman.  He was also an abusive man who reportedly beat his children without provocation.  One of Victoria's brothers, Maldon, ran away at the age of 13 and never returned.

Victoria's mother was Anna Roxanna Hummel Claflin, known as Anna or Annie.  Annie was a homemaker and she reportedly helped to make "Tennessee's Magic Elixir," which the Claflin family sold through agents.  She has been described at different times as the niece of a wealthy saloon owner, and as the illegitimate daughter of a maid.  Annie spoke with a German accent.  She met Buck in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where he was a guest in the house where she worked as a maid.  They married in December of 1825.

Victoria was especially close to her sister, Tennessee Celeste Claflin, commonly known a Tennie.  Tennie was some seven years Victoria's junior and the youngest of her siblings.  Although Tennie's exact birth date is unclear, she is widely reported to have been born between 1843 and 1846.  Her biographer, Myrna MacPherson, cites her date of birth as October 26, 1845.

Victoria received very little formal education.  She spent much of her youth with her the Claflin family's medicine show, telling fortunes and selling patent medicines.  Victoria's father, Buck, was accused of burning the family's rotting gristmill in order to collect on the insurance policy.  Although claims that he committed fraud and arson have been disputed, Victoria was forced to leave home and school with  her family.  Buck was driven out of the town of Homer by vigilantes and the town raised funds to assist the rest of the family in their departure from Ohio. The family continued to make a living through false medical cures and fortune telling.  Buck, who was always searching for a good money-making scheme, put his daughters to work, contacting spirits, selling elixirs, giving massages and offering cures for ailments ranging from cancer to asthma.  

When Victoria was only 15 years old, she eloped with Canning (or Channing) Woodhull, although according to some accounts, Woodhull abducted her to marry her.  They wed on November 20, 1853 in Cleveland, Ohio  Woodhull was a patent medicine salesman who claimed to be a physician at a time when such credentials were loose or non-existent.  Before long, Victoria discovered that her husband was an alcoholic and a philanderer.  

The Woodhulls had two children.  They were Byron (born December 31, 1854 in Chicago)  and Zulu (or Zula) Maude (born April 23 or 26, 1861 in New York City).  Byron Woodhull was intellectually disabled.  According to Victoria's first cousin, Byron suffered brain damage, the result of a a head injury while a toddler..  Victoria and Tennie claimed he may have been adversely affected by his father's alcoholism.  Byron was unable to speak and was not capable of working.  He remained in the care of various friends and relatives for his entire life.

In 1860, Victoria Woodhull and her family relocated to New York City, where the Claflin clan resided, and Victoria and Tennie tried to established themselves as mediums.  While in New York, Victoria and her sister made the acquaintance of wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Vanderbilt was a recent widower and a septuagenarian.  Victoria and Tennie became his spiritual advisers and they helped him contact the spirit of his deceased wife.  Vanderbilt, in return, financed the sisters'investments on Wall Street, where they began to cash in on the stock market.  

In 1863, Buck Claflin  rented a room in Ottawa Ohio.  He billed himself as "The King of Cancer" and promoted Tennie's healing powers.  In June of 1864, police raided the Claflin hotel clinic and the family fled.  The Claflins were charged with nine crimes, including disorderly conduct and medical fraud (quackery).  Tenniie was charged with manslaughter when her "treatments" did not succeeded in curing a woman, Rebecca Howe, who had breast cancer.  The family never went to court to face their phony cancer cure.  In 1864, in order to stay one step ahead of legal proceedings, and in search of new clients, the Woodhulls and Tennie moved to Cincinnati, then to Chicago.  

Between 1863 and 1866 (most likely 1864 or 1865), Victoria is believed to have divorced Canning, in Chicago, Illinois (Divorce records were destroyed in the The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and no newspaper accounts of the divorce have been located).  She could no longer tolerate his drinking and womanizing.  He had become increasingly distant from the family, only coming home to ask for money  It had been Victoria who worked and supported the children.  

The legal status of Victoria's second marriage, to Colonel James Harvey Blood, is confusing and somewhat murky.    On July 10, 1865, Victoria married Colonel Blood in a Presbyterian ceremony in Hamilton County, Ohio.  Colonel Blood was a soldier in the Union Army in Missouri during the American Civil War.  He had also been elected as city auditor of St. Louis, Missouri.  James and Victoria applied for a marriage licence in Dayton, Ohio.

It seems, however, that James Blood was still married to his previous wife, Marry Ann Blood.  Dr. Mary Sparr, Victoria's sister, used this information to try to blackmail Colonel Blood into giving her a large sum of money under the threat of having him charged with bigamy.  On July 9, 1866, Mary Ann  Blood divorced her husband in Chicago for adultery.  On July 14, 1866, James and Victoria applied for a marriage licence in Dayton, Ohio, where Victoria always claimed she wed Colonel Blood.  The original record was destroyed by fire, but a microfilm copy remains.  The marriage was a common law one, not a statutory one, because the minister forgot to file the return.

In 1868, Colonel Blood and Victoria settled in New York City, along with Tennie and other family members. On February 10th of that year, the Chicago Tribune reported that Victoria had divorced Colonel Blood in the Chicago Recorder's Court for the cause of adultery.

Col. James Blood
On April 2, 1870, two years before the election, Victoria Woodhiull announced her candidacy for the American presidency in The New York Herald  Since women were not allowed to vote until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she was not permitted to vote for herself.  

On January 11, 1871, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to address a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.  She had spent months in Washington, D.C. advocating for women's suffrage. She succeeded in persuading  Benjamin Butler, an eminent Republican, who would later chair the committee, to deliver her "Woodhull memorial" in person.  Accompanied by suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Isabella Beecher Hooker,, Victoria contended that the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S, Constitution implicitly gave women the right to vote.  For example, the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States," which, Victoria argued, included females. 

Not only was Victoria an activist for women's rights, she was also a fierce advocate for labour reform.  Furthermore, she and Tennie became the first women to own a brokerage firm on Wall Street when they opened their own brokerage house, Woodhull, Claflin & Company, in 1870.  Still, they never gained a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, something no woman would be able to achieve until 1967.

The sisters used their profits from the brokerage to launch Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, which began publication on May 14, 1870.  They were among the first women to found a newspaper in the United States. 

Below is the front page of the June 3, 1871 edition of Woodhill and Claflin's Weekly.

Victoria lived a very colourful life.  She was controversial, unconventional and no stranger to scandal.  Just four days before the election of 1872, U.S. federal marshals arrested Woodhull, her spouse, Colonel James Blood, and her sister, Tennie, on charges of "publishing an obscene newspaper" and circulating it through the United States postal service.  Their paper, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly, had published a detailed narrative of the alleged adulterous affair between  prominent preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Richards Titan, in more detail than what was regarded as  proper during that era.

The influential Reverend Beecher was Congregationalist minister and pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York.  He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Elizabeth Richards Tilton was the wife of Beecher's friend,and fellow abolitionist, Theodore Tilton.  As a result of the Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly article, Tilton, a newspaper editor and poet, filed charges against Beecher for "criminal conversation" (adultery) with his wife and sued for a $100,000 judgement.

In 1875, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher went on trial.  It was one of the most sensational court cases of its era, and it captured the interest of the American public.  The trial ended with a hung jury, after which Theodore Tilton moved to Paris, where he spent the rest of his life.

Henry Ward Beecher

It is most likely that Victoria Woodhull had no personal grudge against Henry Ward Beecher, especially since he was an advocate of social reform and woman's suffrage.  She published the Beecher article in order to highlight the hypocrisy of powerful men of her era.  Her association with the Beecher scandal only added to the sensational coverage in the press of her run for the presidency.  After their arrests, Victoria and her sister were detained in the Ludlow Street Jail  on and off for the next month.  Thus, the first female candidate for the presidency of the United States spent election day 1872 in a prison cell.  She did not get the opportunity to even attempt to vote.

Victoria and Teenie also faced libel charges over another article in Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly that accused a Wall Street trader of getting getting to teenage females drunk and then seducing them.  The sisters were found not guilty, but faced a barrage of criticism from  the press.  One of their harshest critics was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who called Woodhull a "vile jailbard" and cartoonist Thomas Nast, who dubbed her "Mrs. Satan."

By the time of the Beecher trial, Colonel James Blood and Victoria Woodhull had gone their separate ways.  On September 18, 1876, they legally divorced again.  A number of newspapers reported that Victoria had divorced Colonel Blood in Brooklyn, New York, at a special session of the Supreme Court.  A dissolution order was filed on October 6, 1876, according to Victoria's account in Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly on January 29, 1881.

Colonel James Blood further muddied the waters regarding his marital history.  According to Blood's testimony, he and Victoria Woodhull were legally divorced in 1868 in Chicago. and "remarried" The remarriage was most likely not a statutory one, but they continued to live together until they were legally divorced in Brooklyn in 1876.  While they were together, Victoria and Colonel Blood referred to each other as husband and wife. When Victoria remarried, she stated that she was the widow of "Dr. Woodhull" and was divorced from Colonel Blood.  When Colonel Blood remarried, he claimed that he had only been married once and described himself as a widower.

In 1877, Victoria and her sister, Tennie, found themselves bankrupt.  In August of that year, the financially strapped siblings left  the United States and began a new life in England.  There is evidence that the move may have been financed by the heirs of the recently deceased Cornelius Vanderbilt, who didn't want the sisters around during a squabble in court over the family his $100 million estate.

Victoria delivered her first public lecture at St. James Hall in London.  At one of ensuing lectures, a well-to-do banker named John Biddolph Martin was in attendance.  The two began seeing each other.  They wed on October 31, 1883, despite opposition to the marriage from Martin's family.  From that time on, Victoria became known as Victoria Woodhull Martin.  From 1892 to 1901, she published a magazine, The Humanitarian, under that moniker.  

John Biddulph Martin in 1886

During her years in England, Victoria remained active in the British suffrage movement and devoted herself to conserving the English home of George Washington's ancestors.  She also became an automobile aficionado.and provided financial support to the people in the town surrounding her estate.  In 1892, she travelled to the United States in order to run for president again.  She founded an agricultural school and during World War I, she volunteered with the Red Cross.

After John Biddolph Martin's death in 1901, Victoria gave up publishing and retired to the English countryside.  She died in her sleep on June 9, Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire, England.  Her death certificate states that died of myocarditis, a disease that causes inflammation and damage to the heart.  She was 88 at the time of her passing.

Victoria Woodhull was daring and outspoken.  Her views on love and marriage were considered quite radical during the nineteenth century.  She grew up with an abusive father and a family of grifters and quacks.  She made her historic run for the presidency 148 years ago.  A century has passed since women won the right to vote in the United States.  Yet, there has never been a female president or vice president.  When that finally happens, it must be acknowledged that Victoria helped pave the way for female presidential and vice presidential candidates such as Geraldine Ferraro, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.  She often said, "They cannot turn back the rising tide of reform.  The world moves."


* Victoria Woodhull was a proponent of eugenics, the idea of improving the human race by selectively mating with people with specific desirable traits.

* Victoria's sister, Tennessee Celeste 'Tennie" Claflin died in England on January 18, 1923 at the age of 78.  On October 15, 1885,  at St. Mary Abbpt's, Kensington in London, Tennie married Francis Cook, chairman of Cook, Son & Co. drapers.  Cook was also Viscount of Monserrate in Sinitra in the Portuguese Riviera.  Soon after the marriage, Queen Victoria created a Cook Baronetcy.  As the wife of a n English baronet, Tennie held the title of "Lady Cook."  Following her husband's death in 1901, Tennessee Claflin founded a short-lived bank called Lady Cook & Co.

Tennie Claflin

* Victoria never had the opportunity to cast a vote when women in the United States were finally permitted to vote in the election of 1920.  She was residing in England by then.

* Victoria's disabled son, Byron,Woodhull  spent the final years of his life in England.  He was supported financially by his mother.  After her death, his sister Zula took care of him, with the help of others.  Byron died on January 17, 1832 in Hove Brighton, Sussex, England.  Zula Woodhull wrote a play and edited her mother's journal, The Humanitarian.  Zula never married and she died in England in September of 1940.

* Colonel James H. Blood remarried after his divorce from Victoria Woodhull..  On August 18, 1885, he wed Isabella Morrill (formerly Fogg) in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Colonel Blood died on December 29, 1885, his 52nd birthday, after striking gold while on a gold mining expedition in Akantem, Gold Coast.

Woodhill and Claflin's Weekly ceased publication on June 10, 1876.

* Victoria Woodhull had a falling out with other suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had supported her enthusiastically at the time of her congressional appearance.  They were not pleased about Victoria's political ambitions and they felt she was getting too much attention.  As a result, Victoria was not invited to speak at suffrage conventions after her first run for the presidency.  Susan B. Anthony even advised British suffragists not to meet with her.  In a letter, Anthony wrote that Victoria and her sister, Tennie, were "considered lewd and indecent."

SOURCES ehistory. The Department of History, The Ohio State University, "Victoria Woodhull: Feminist - First Woman to Run for President of the United States," by Maggie MacLean,; History, Art &Archives: United States House of Representatives, 'The First Woman to Address a House Committee"; Victoria Woodhull: Spirit to Run the White House,  Frequently Asked Questions About Victoria Woodhull, Answered by Mary L Shearer; Commonplace Fun Fact website, "It's Pretty Bad When Your Own V.P. Won't Vote for You," March 16, 2016,; website, "9 Things You Should Know About Victoria Woodhull," by Jesse Greenspan, September 23, 2013 (Updated August 22, 2018); Wikipedia

- Joanne