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.