Sex, blackmail, corrupt preachers, political treachery…oh, those Victorians!
In Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, Barbara Goldsmith tells not only the tale of Victoria Woodhull, best known these days for putting her name on the ballot as a candidate for president, but also weaves into that the stories of the women’s movement and Henry Ward Beecher, the powerful preacher who was at the center of another of the many “trials of the century.” Tying all these together is the belief in spiritualism and mediums that rose to popularity in the years after the Civil War.
It all seems so strange now—how people rushed to séances, where the sole evidence of spirits oftentimes was little more than banging sounds or knocks on the supposed “spirit tables.” They believed that the dead were speaking to them from beyond the grave, even though the mediums weren’t giving them much more information than what they had been told, and the words they spoke basically added up to “heaven is a nice place.” And the people who believed this, and consulted the spirits weren’t just gullible naïve folk, but the leaders of the day, people in high positions, educators and academics; in 1842, when Samuel B. Morse appealed to Congress for money to build a telegraph line (not that he really had much to do with building the telegraph…) from Washington to Baltimore, one of the congressmen suggested that at the same time they put aside money for research into mesmerism. The idea was considered by the chairman of the committee because it was thought worthwhile to see how the reach of the magnetism of mesmerism compared to the magnetism used in telegraphs.
When you put the belief in spiritualism in the context of that story and the rest of the times, it seems a little less incredible. Imagine a world where suddenly you were told that you were able to send messages instantaneously through using pulses of electricity. And this was a time when science was telling people that there was electricity and magnetism everywhere, in the air, in different materials, even in humans. Throw in the Civil War, when many were at a loss and anxious to reconnect with the dead, and suddenly it seems a little easier to understand their credulity and feel sympathy for them.
Many of the mediums were women. A woman who claimed to be a medium suddenly could command a certain level of respect—people listened to her, she was important, and special. For the nineteenth century woman, who had few rights and little life outside the household, this was a whole new world. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that many of the women who were involved in the suffrage movement were firm believers in spiritualism. Mediums had power and with power came confidence and support.
These were the respectable, middle-class women who had séances in their living rooms, who were Christian and churchgoing. The other side of the spiritualist wave was the itinerant fortune tellers, who traveled around using their spirit powers for money. These women were generally poor, from low backgrounds, and seen as not much better than prostitutes. And it was out of this group that Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee (later Tennie C.) Claflin came to prominence.
The Claflin family was dirt poor, yet ever scheming and fighting. When father Buck realized two of his daughters were pretty and articulate, it wasn’t long before they were out on the road supporting the family as fortune tellers. Victoria escaped into early marriage, spent a brief period on the stage, ran fortune telling houses that also seemed to double as houses of prostitution, married another time, and continued to tour as a medium. Eventually her sister Tennie, who had been supporting the rest of the family as a medium (and likely as a prostitute) caught up with her. When Victoria’s spirits told her to go to New York, it wasn’t too long before the two sisters conquered the city. They became friendly with some of the best known madams in the area and used the business tips that the high-rollers who visited prostitutes carelessly spilled to turn their medium powers from more than just spiritual contact to business tips. They worked their way into the confidence of wealthy old Commodore Vanderbilt, who was impressed by the stock tips Victoria’s “spirits” gave out and Tennie’s good looks (they nearly married). The sisters became rich, opened a brokerage house, and the emboldened Victoria began to speak out about women’s rights.
The women’s suffrage movement had splintered between the New England faction, led by Lucy Stone, which was solely interested in voting rights, and the New York faction, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who also advocated for other rights—for poor working women, and more controversially, for reform of marriage and divorce laws, a subject which quickly was tabloidized into the belief in “free love.”
Into this bickering fray, entered Woodhull, who genuinely believed in the idea free love. Having spent as much time as she had with prostitutes and the men who frequented them, she felt that there was something severely wrong with the institution of marriage. Why were men coming to prostitutes? Because they weren’t happy with their wives? Why were wives staying with husbands who weren’t happy with them and with whom, presumably, they were equally discontent? Woodhull’s belief was simple—if you weren’t in love, you shouldn’t have to stay married. And if you were in love with someone, you should be able to be with that person, free of penalty, and most important of all, women shouldn’t be held to a different standard than men when it came to love and sex. They had a right to happiness as much as men.
Needless to say, this scandalized the New England group, and many others were equally uncomfortable with the idea. As one person—actually, one of the Claflin’s sisters, perpetually drunk Utica—pointed out, what happened to the children that were the byproduct of free love, when parents weren’t bound to each other and could leave when they fell in love with another. Victoria, though, was beautiful and charismatic, and many of her scandalous ideas and her shady past was overlooked by the large group of spiritualists in the group. If she was good enough for the spirits to speak through, then she was good enough for them.
The infighting and backstabbing and squabbling amongst the different groups in the women’s rights movement, eventually broke it apart, and the sticky free love topic made the whole movement an easy target; voting rights got lost in the shouting about free love, divorce and prostitution.
This infuriated Victoria. She lost her money (her large freeloading family’s constant fighting and public embarrassments became too much for Vanderbilt’ to continue his support), her business, and many friends, as she was constantly dragged to court by moral crusaders. Eventually she published a pamphlet that listed in detail many of the sexual shenanigans of the high minded men who had condemned her stance on free love and marriage law reform. One of these was Henry Ward Beecher, the powerful, famous preacher at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.
Although Harriet Beecher Stowe is more famous now, back in the late 19th century, her brother Henry was just as, if not more, well-known. Despite his moral rhetoric, a number of people, including Anthony and Stanton, were aware of Beecher’s affairs with some of his parishioners, married ones, in fact. With a financial empire teetering on Beecher’s reputation, Beecher was able to fight back against the accusations by Victoria using whatever means necessary; his sister, Isabella, one of Victoria’s most ardent supporters and a believer in all she had heard about her brother’s affairs, was locked up and called insane to save his good name. When Theodore Tilton, whose wife had had an affair with Beecher (she became pregnant but lost the baby), sued Beecher for alienation of affection, the trial attracted national attention. People fought for tickets that were given away through a lottery system, and street vendors set themselves up outside the courtroom, selling snacks and drinks. Victoria came to testify, bearing a sheaf of letters in which Beecher, his wife, and others, admitted the affair. But Victoria was dismissed from the court after only a few words, and several of the participants, including Tilton himself, who had once written a gushing biography of her, apologized for ever associating with such a woman.
The jury was deadlocked and Beecher survived and kept on preaching; others involved in the trial were ruined. The nation was in financial disarray in the mid-late 1870s, and Victoria and Tennie C. were again dirt poor. They were rescued when Vanderbilt died, and a lawsuit over the will broke out between his children, with some of them trying to prove that Vanderbilt had been of unsound mind when he wrote the will. Victoria and Tennie C. were in possession of correspondence that would show that Vanderbilt had indeed been competent. A large amount of money suddenly appeared in their bank account, a house in London was purchased in their names, and the two sisters sailed to England, where oddly enough, after all the scandal and storm of their lives, they married respectably and lived quietly.
Goldsmith juggles all these storylines and a cast of thousands admirably. She has impressively researched her topic, with conversations coming directly from letters, diaries and transcripts (anytime you think a conversation is too melodramatic to be real, check the notes—it was. These were just melodramatic times). Her one weakness is that I’m suspicious, or perhaps confused by how much credit she gives to the spirits that spoke through many of the major players. She will write, “Victoria’s spirits told her,” or “Isabella reconciled with her sisters when they spoke to her after their deaths,” when I would expect something like, “Victoria said that her spirits told her,” and “Isabella claimed to speak with her sisters.” I’m not sure whether Goldsmith is a believer in spiritualism or if she is just trying to capture the experience of the self-proclaimed mediums. If the former, well, it’s not my place to judge, but it would surprise me; if the latter, then it’s a good idea, but perhaps the intent is not clear enough and too easily misleading. This doesn’t really matter, though. What is important is that Goldsmith has created a fascinating portrait not just of Victoria Woodhull, who is enough of a subject in herself, but of the whole time period and the issues of the day, and with that comes a reminder that times have not changed that much, and what we too often perceive as a squeaky clean past was just as frantic, scandal-ridden, and rambunctious as these days.
Victoria Woodhull’s doctrine of free love was ahead of its time, not so much because of sex, but because of money. In order for a woman to be able to leave a man, to live without a husband, she had to be able to support herself, and the world just didn’t offer women enough opportunities to do that in the 1870s. Before women could achieve sexual independence, they had to achieve financial independence. Because love, as we have the misfortune to know, is never free, whether the cost is in money or tears.