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Notorious Victoria: the life of Victoria Woodhull, uncensored.

SHE WAS A professional conjurer of departed spirits, medicine woman, first woman stockbroker, first woman to address a congressional committee, first woman to run for president (while in prison on obscenity charges), a discreet blackmailer, the most radical of 19th century feminists, free lover, a stunning platform orator, three times married (first to a down-on-his-luck alcoholic, Canning Woodhull; second to a sophisticated manipulator who educated her and finally to a dashing, love-of-her-life, rich British banker).

She was born in abject poverty in Homer, Ohio. Her father was a forger, arsonist and con man who was a step ahead of the law when he wasn't in prison. She was editor of several radical magazines, and at the end of her life, at 88, a conservative, Bible-spouting dowager, rich and much loved philanthropist in England with estates and her own chauffer.

Added to the list is that Victoria Claflin Woodhull (1838-1927) was perhaps the most hated woman in the United States and England in the 19th century Thomas Nast, the famed cartoonist of the times, depicted her as "Mrs. Satan."

Edgar Allan Poe once said of pioneer woman journalist Margaret Fuller, who was a confidante of Horace Greeley, that "Humanity can be divided into three classes -- Men, Women, and Margaret Fuller."

The same could be said of Victoria Chaflin Woodhull. There were people and people and then there was invincible Victoria. Her story is told here along with that of her almost inseparable sister, Tennesse "Tennie" Claflin. In the early days, they were on the road together as quack healers and clairvoyants promoted by their ne'er-do-well father who kept them all on the run.

The two became another kind of curiosity when they opened the first brokerage firm established by women on Wall Street. Both women had a knack of coaxing the big bucks out of sugar daddies, but none did so well as Tennie. She almost married railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the world, who generously aided the sisters.

Says Gabriel: "Victoria was 30 and Tennessee just 22 when they met Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria's reserve and seriousness would have reassured the old gentleman that the two sisters meant business. But Tennessee was sure to be the healer of whatever ailed him. She was experienced at the laying on of hands, which was supposed to magnetize the patient and act as a kind of electric prod to jolt his system back into shape. No doubt it did. With her full, sensuous mouth, teasing eyes, and expert hands Tennessee was just the lighthearted hellion to work wonders on the Commodore's aged body and revive his sagging spirits."

The two sisters were arrested continually and forced to spend time in New York jails, including the gloomy Tombs, and they were saddled with high fines. They were jailed during the elections of November 1872 when Victoria was candidate for president on the Equal Rights Party ticket, and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was her running mate. The obscenity charge that landed the sisters in jail involved use of the words virginity and token in their magazine, Woodbull & Claflin's Weekly.

At the heart of much of the storm over the Claflin sisters was the viciousness of the Beecher clan. Henry Ward Beecher was the famous preacher involved in one of the most famous trials of the last century. Theodore Tilton, an editor (and a lover of Victoria) had brought an alienation-of-affection suit against Beecher for an affair with Tilton's wife, Elizabeth.

Victoria got all of the juicy details of this affair -- and others of Beecher -- and threatened to expose him if he did not lend his support by appearing on the same platform with her during one, of her lectures. He did not show up. Victoria made good on her word and spent much of the rest of her life denouncing Beecher.

Constantly hounding Victoria were the Beecher sisters, among them, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestseller Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was behind much of the legal travail that Victoria was forced to endure. Yet it was no secret that the good reverend "preaches to at least 20 of his mistresses every Sunday," as one gentleman summed it up for Victoria.

The tale of notorious Victoria, who preached that women's rights go beyond the vote to include freedom to love whomever they choose and to escape without penalty from a bad marriage, constitutes a soap opera that pales many of today's TV varieties.

Gabriel is an editor at the Washington bureau of Reuters.
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Author:Ward, Hiley
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 7, 1998
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