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Victoria Woodhull, the Original ‘Nasty Woman’

Victoria Woodhull is perhaps best known (if she is known at all) as the first woman to run for President of the United States, a campaign she first publicly announced on April 2, 1870 with a letter to the New York Herald.  In fact, she was so much more.  This one-time resident of what we now call NoHo didn’t just challenge Victorian Era mores and convention; she threw them on the ground and stomped all over them.  Aside from her historic run for the presidency in the election of 1872, she was a two-time divorcee, founded the first female-operated stock brokerage firm, was a champion of ‘free love,’ and was arrested on charges of obscenity.  While she only lived in New York City for a relatively short period of time, between 1868 and 1877, this was where some of her most radical acts took place.  We’re proud to call her one of our own.

Victoria Woodhull by Matthew Brady, 1870

Born Victoria California Claflin in 1838 in Ohio, Woodhull’s father was a con man and a snake oil salesman who moved his family from town to town. At 15 she married Canning Woodhull, a doctor who was nearly twice her age. As it turned out he was also an alcoholic and a philanderer. Following the birth of their two children, Victoria divorced Canning, and married Colonel James Harvey Blood.

Victoria became a spiritualist and worked as a medium and healer. She claims to have received a vision from the spirit of Demosthenes, a Greek orator from ancient Athens with whom she communicated regularly.  Demosthenes told her that she and her sister Tennesee (Tennie) Claflin, a magnetic healer, should move to a house on Great Jones Street in New York City, and that if they did so their lives would change for the better.

In 1868 the sisters did just that, moving to a house at 17 Great Jones Street (later demolished with the extension of Lafayette Street).  The 1869 New York City Directory listed her profession as ‘physician,’ although she only had three years of formal schooling.  In 1870 Victoria and Tennessee started two enterprises: a brokerage firm and a newspaper. Woodhull, Claflin & Co. was the first woman-run brokerage firm in New York, and opened on February 5, 1870 with the silent backing of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a sign cheekily stating “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.” The sisters worked for Vanderbilt as mediums and healers, and apparently he and Tennie were lovers. The press had a field day with “The Lady Bankers,” but the firm proved successful, earning $700,000 in its first six weeks according to reports. A private door at the rear of the firm allowed for the entrance of women who wished to manage their money – a radical idea at the time.

New York Evening Telegraph, February 18th, 1870. Reprinted in One Moral Standard for All: Extracts from the lives of Victoria Clafin Woodhull and Tennessee Clafin. Museum of the City of New York.

The success of the brokerage firm financed the newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which provided the platform for Victoria and Tennesse’s modern ideas, including sexual education for teenagers, fair wages, women’s suffrage, and licensed prostitution.  The sisters were frequently engaged to speak publicly on some of these issues as well. In one speech, Victoria expounded on her ideas of free love: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right, neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere.” This shocked many and led to her vilification by some members of the press, including Thomas Nast.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) for Harper’s Weekly. “Get Thee Behind Me, (Mrs.) Satan!”. 1872. Museum of the City of New York.

On January 11, 1871, Woodhull testified before the House Judiciary Committee for the right of women to vote. She became the first woman to ever address a house committee, and this catapulted her onto the national stage of the Women’s Suffrage movement. In 1872 she secured the nomination for President of the United States from the newly formed Equal Rights Party (founded by Victoria and Tennie), which also nominated Frederick Douglas as Vice President, although he never acknowledged this nomination.  Since the ‘Free Love’ speech, Victoria’s popularity had declined significantly. In an attempt to turn things around, Victoria devoted an entire issue of her weekly paper on the affair between Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton, emphasizing Beecher’s hypocrisy in preaching against free love. This led to the arrest of Victoria, Tennie, and Victoria’s husband, Colonel Blood. They were held for a month in the Ludlow Street jail, including during the actual election of 1872 in which Victoria was a candidate.  The charges were eventually dismissed, but by the time of their release, the sisters were broke and without friends or allies. In 1876 Victoria divorced her second husband, and in 1877 she and Tennie left for England, supposedly with money from the son of Cornelius Vanderbilt who had recently passed. The Vanderbilt family wanted the sisters out of the way during the ensuing family fight over the inheritance. While in England the sisters found new husbands and continued to champion the cause of education reform, eventually founding a school.

For her pioneering efforts, Victoria Woodhull is one of dozens of women who appear on GVSHP’s Civil Rights and Social Justice Map (here), as well as our Women’s Suffrage History Map. Explore each to learn more about other radical women and men and civil rights crusaders of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, and what they accomplished.

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