Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) led a weird, tumultuous life, marked by wild ups and downs, scandal and acclaim and the distinction of being, among other firsts, the first woman to run for president of the United States and co-founder (with her sister Tennessee Claflin) of the first female-run brokerage firm.
The latter role is what first brought her to wide public attention. When Woodhull, Claflin & Co. opened its doors in 1870, the press took excited notice, providing the sisters with such labels as “Queens of Finance” and “Bewitching Brokers.” A New York Sun headline put Wall Street bulls and bears on notice that there were now “Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals.”
The firm had financial backing from shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in America, who had taken to receiving investment tips from Woodhull while she was in a seeming trance communing with the spirit world.
Victoria had dabbled in such mysterious matters since she was a girl in Ohio. Her father, Buck Claflin, was a huckster who promoted his children’s purported paranormal powers. Victoria’s specialty was channeling the ancient Greek statesman Demosthenes.
She plied her psychic trade as part of a dubious family practice in which sister Tennessee acted as a “magnetic healer.” Victoria was married for some time from age 15 to Canning Woodhull, a doctor who was an alcoholic and womanizer. They had two kids.
By the late 1860s, Victoria and Tennessee (now going by the name Tennie) were living in New York City. Vanderbilt, a widower, had an interest in Victoria’s spiritualism and, for a time, a romantic affinity for Tennie. He also found the attractive sisters a valuable source of tips and gossip, giving him a sound business reason to back their firm.
Open for Business
In January 1870, the sisters sent out calling cards announcing Woodhull, Claflin. The firm initially was located at the Hoffman House, a fashionable hotel on Manhattan’s Madison Square. A New York Herald reporter visited and wrote a front-page story on the women’s brokerage, noting that its office had the look of “a ladies’ drawing room.”
Fame had arrived, and the business immediately took off. Within a month, the operation had moved to larger quarters at 44 Broad Street in the heart of the financial district. Helping manage the firm was Col. James Blood, Woodhull’s second husband, a Civil War veteran who had shown business acumen in the railroad industry.
Among the crowd attending the opening were Commodore Vanderbilt, the political power broker William “Boss” Tweed, the flamboyant broker-speculator Jim Fisk and his escort, famed showgirl Josie Mansfield.
Vanderbilt had profited by selling gold, on Woodhull’s advice, just a few months before the Black Friday panic caused by the market manipulations of Fisk and collaborator Jay Gould. Vanderbilt shared that profit with Woodhull, who likely had gotten a tip on Fisk’s activities from Mansfield. (A couple of years later, Mansfield and beau Edward Stokes tried to blackmail Fisk, and failing at that, Stokes murdered him.)
The new office received an influx of customers and curiosity-seekers alike, such that the sisters put up a sign demanding: “All gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.” In the rear of the new office was a partitioned area open only to women. And indeed, women — ranging from society matrons and heiresses to showgirls and others of a less exalted background — accounted for a large share of the firm’s clientele.
The inflow of customer money in a bull market, combined with Vanderbilt’s largesse and stock advice, transformed the sisters into wealthy women. Before long, Woodhull was branching out into publishing and politics. The sisters began publishing Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, propounding women’s right to vote, among other causes. The first issue, dated May 14, 1870, announced support for Woodhull for president.
The Political Fray
Woodhull never had any significant chance of winning the 1872 presidential election. Nor for that matter was she constitutionally eligible to hold the office, as she had not yet reached the required minimum of 35 years of age.
Moreover, her personal life and social views were apt to generate controversy. It emerged that her ex-husband, Dr. Woodhull, was living with her and her current husband, along with various other relatives. While Victoria may have regarded this as charity and a way to keep him in their children’s lives, it ran sharply against widely held sensibilities.
So did Victoria’s support for “free love,” an ill-defined term that could mean reforming marriage laws to protect women’s rights but was often interpreted as rejecting marriage altogether or favoring promiscuity. She first admitted to being a “free lover” in a heated departure from a prepared speech upon goading from her envious sister Utica.
In another unconventional move, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly became the first venue in the United States to publish The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Around this time, Woodhull organized and headed an American section of the leftist International Working Men’s Association.
Woodhull’s receptiveness to Marx, however, was not reciprocated. The Communist leader called her “a banker’s woman, free-lover and general humbug,” and denounced her section of the IWMA for “almost exclusively consisting of middle-class humbugs and worn-out Yankee swindlers in the reform business,” rather than workers.
In May 1872, Woodhull received the presidential nomination of the newly created Equal Rights Party. The delegates also nominated Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist and ex-slave, to be their vice presidential candidate, though Douglass rejected this move when he learned of it, citing his support for the incumbent, President Ulysses S. Grant.
On Nov. 2, three days before the election, Woodhull was arrested, on charges of sending obscene material through the mail. This referred to the latest issue of Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, in which she had attacked eminent preacher Rev. Henry Ward Beecher for practicing the same sort of “free love” that he denounced from the pulpit.
She was still in jail on Election Day, not that this made much difference. Grant won in a landslide, easily defeating his main opponent, crusading newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, who died a few weeks later. The Equal Rights Party apparently failed to get its name on many ballots, and it is unclear whether write-in votes for Woodhull received a proper count. It is safe to say, however, that she did not get many votes.
After its promising start, the firm of Woodhull, Claflin faced growing difficulties. Woodhull’s immersion in politics probably did not help matters, as it diverted her attention and raised questions about how The Communist Manifesto jibed with the investment strategy. Clients were leaving or even, in some cases, suing when the firm’s performance started turning south. The sisters’ fame, meanwhile, had brought some old creditors out of the woodwork to collect on half-forgotten debts run up by Buck Claflin’s brood.
Vanderbilt distanced himself from the firm, making comments suggesting he had little or nothing to do with it. The tycoon may have been trying to please his straight-laced second wife by steering clear of his former romantic interest, Tennie. Vanderbilt’s heirs from his first marriage had been quite opposed to a possible connection with the eccentric Claflin clan.
Woodhull, Claflin, along with many other brokerages, went under during the Panic of 1873. The wealth that Victoria and Tennie had accumulated through financial services proved transitory. However, both sisters moved to England and married wealthy men in subsequent years.
The Later Years
Woodhull tried to secure nominations for president again in 1884 and 1892. These achieved little traction, however, as many other suffragists thought her too idiosyncratic to be a good representative of their cause.
Victoria divorced her second husband, Col. James Blood, in 1876. The following year she delivered a lecture in London that was attended by a banker named John Biddulph Martin. They were married in 1883. He died in 1897.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull Martin died on June 9, 1927. Two days later, a New York Times obituary highlighted her presidential nomination and her philanthropic activities late in life. “As a young woman,” the obit mentioned in passing, she “engaged in the banking business for a short time in New York.”
A Later Pioneer
On Dec. 28, 1967, almost a century after Victoria Woodhull’s stint as a broker, Muriel Siebert became the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. Born in 1932, Siebert had worked her way up from a $65-a-week research trainee spot at Bache & Co. to partnerships at two brokerages before starting her own firm, Muriel Siebert & Co.
Starting in 1977, Siebert spent five years as New York State superintendent of banks. In 1982, she sought the Republican nomination for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s U.S. Senate seat.
As president of the New York Women’s Agenda in the late 1990s, Siebert developed a program to improve students’ financial literacy that is currently used in New York City public schools. She continues to head her firm and is a sought-after commentator on financial matters.