The “Mystic Inklings” and Savvy Business Acumen of Victoria Woodhull
Emily Midorikawa on the First Woman to Run for President,
and How She Built Her Reputation
During a stay in Pittsburgh in early 1868, Victoria Woodhull was sitting alone when a figure in white robes appeared and wrote on the marble surface of the table before her. The letters that appeared, curiously English characters rather than ancient Greek, spelled out the name “Demosthenes.” Victoria, almost 30 years of age at the time, trembled in awe as the writing, faint in appearance at first, grew brighter and brighter until its light filled the room.
She should go to New York City, the figure commanded, even giving a specific address. At 17 Great Jones Street, in Lower Manhattan, she would find a house readied for her arrival.
As with her sudden departure from San Francisco with Canning a decade earlier, Victoria seemingly had no difficulty in convincing her new husband to follow the spirit messenger’s words. Not long afterward, and with Tennessee in tow, she, the Colonel, Byron, and Zula—aged about 12 and 7, respectively, decamped to that very address. According to Victoria’s version of events, when she entered the house she found it just as she had envisioned it. The entrance hall and the staircases, the rooms and objects within, were exactly the same. In the library, she took up a book: The Orations of Demosthenes. A chill passed through her. In years to come, she’d often talk of this Greek statesman from the fourth century BC, and of how on numerous other occasions he had mapped out the course of her life.
Even without the career advice from her spirit guide Demosthenes, it is easy to understand why Victoria—like Emma Hardinge and the Fox sisters before her—would have been drawn to New York City. Over the past six years, its population had steadily increased, now totaling over 90,000. New York remained a place where fortunes could be swiftly made and lost. With her considerable charms, ability to capitalize on her talents, and tremendous sense of her own destiny, Victoria must have felt that her chance to succeed was as good as anyone’s. On the other hand, as a woman, she had very few legal or political rights. And the New York of 1868, like the world at large, remained a city dominated by men of means.
Big business had enjoyed steadily rising profits since the opening of the Erie Canal in the 1820s, built to establish a connection of waterways between the metropolis, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Great Lakes. Now, in the aftermath of the Civil War—as desperately poor former soldiers arrived in New York City in droves—its wealthiest citizens could revel in a postwar boom period of rapidly escalating wealth. But while those with riches had a fair shot at achieving their dreams, many of the less privileged had to eke out a squalid living within filthy, polluted slums. Conditions were especially precarious for women, and opportunities relatively few. Throughout the city, from smoke-choked narrow streets in the shadow of factories to tree-lined avenues filled with elegant new brownstones, prostitution was a constant presence.
In the words of George Ellington, one disapproving commentator of the day—who nonetheless devoted dozens of pages of his book The Women of New York to breathless descriptions of the lives of such “harlots”—there was “no street so fashionable, no neighborhood so respectable, no avenue so aristocratic” that it did not contain a number of houses of ill-repute. Ellington despaired of what New York would become “in point of morals 50 or even 20 years hence” and fretted that “unless a mighty change takes place, it will out-Sodom Sodom.” To an observer such as Victoria, however, the widespread condemnation of women who engaged in prostitution—but not the men who indulged in it—represented an inexcusable double-standard. And it was one that she would stow in her memory and force before the eyes of the public in the years to come.
In 1868, however, she focused her attentions on making a mark of her own on her new home city. To do this she would turn to two individuals in particular—Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America, and Tennessee.
One of the sisters’ aims in traveling east may have been to distance themselves from the other Claflins. Shortly after their arrival in New York, however, Victoria and Tennessee were joined by their parents and an array of other Claflin relatives. Another person to join the swelling numbers was someone who remained very much a part of the extended family business—Victoria’s first husband, Canning Woodhull. With this troublesome cast of characters surrounding them once more, Tennessee and Victoria might feasibly have slipped back into their familiar roles as clairvoyant-healers, and this was, indeed, how they first established themselves in the city. By the autumn of that year, advertisements for a Magnetic Healing Institute and Conservatory of Spiritual Science, based at 17 Great Jones Street and staffed by Victoria, Tennessee, and Canning, began appearing in East Coast newspapers. Even in her earliest months in the city, though, Victoria had far grander plans.
Gaining an audience with the shipping and railway tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt could be accomplished surprisingly easily. The formidable Commodore—whose nickname stemmed from his adolescent days ferrying passengers back and forth between Staten Island and Manhattan—kept his door open to unknown callers. Holding his attention was a greater challenge. Now in his seventies, he placed little value on social niceties and had a reputation for impatience and brusqueness. His usual greeting to those who mustered the courage to approach his bare one-room office on West Fourth Street, standing in the shadow of his mansion on Washington Place, is said to have been, ‘Come! speak quick and be off!’ But Victoria and Tennessee had prepared themselves well. Armed with knowledge of the Commodore’s keen interest in Spiritualism—not to mention his well-publicized taste for attractive younger women—they had good reason to hope that he would not give them so quick a brush-off.The fact that he was more willing to attribute her financial savvy to spirit guidance than business acumen speaks volumes about the extent to which female intellect was devalued.
Their instincts proved right. According to Victoria’s public recollections, when they arrived at his door, the Commodore liked what he saw. In Victoria’s words, he immediately extended his hand “to aid two struggling women to battle with the world.”
What conversation passed between the trio during this first meeting? Perhaps Victoria told him of the encounter with Demosthenes that had supposedly brought her and her family to New York City. Seventeen Great Jones Street stood only a short walk from the Commodore’s residence, but although Victoria preferred to insist that the family’s new home was a place she had known nothing of before their arrival in the city, this seems unlikely. It was in fact close to the miserable room in which her daughter, Zula, had been born just a few years before. One can well imagine the white-haired tycoon, unaware of this prior history, his eyes moving eagerly over these two beguiling women from rural Ohio. His interest, at least in terms of what Victoria would say in print, was one of “fatherly care and kindness,” but this was far from the whole story. And while it is true that the Commodore had a prior interest in Spiritualism—motivated in large part by a wish to establish contact with his late mother and an adult son, George, who had died of tuberculosis— the sisters also held his attention for other reasons.
The Commodore’s tough, entrepreneurial father had instilled in him a belief in the value of hard graft, and his son may have seen something of his own work ethic in the enterprising Victoria and Tennessee. What’s more, the beguiling pair managed to combine their undisguised ambition and flair for business—traits more commonly associated with Victorian men than women—with pretty faces, a flirtatious manner, and considerable feminine allure. To New Yorkers acquainted with the Commodore, the sisters seemed to have come out of nowhere. But soon they could be found regularly dining with him and even advising him—with the aid of the spirits, naturally—on how he should invest his money.
“Why don’t you do as I always do, and consult the spirits?” the Commodore was known to ask potential investors. To a woman of means who he hoped would put money into his own New York Central common stock, he offered the reassurance that Mrs. Woodhull had conveyed to him while “in a clairvoyant state” that it would “go up 22 percent within three months.” Clearly it suited him to take Victoria at her word on this occasion, but he does seem to have placed genuine confidence in her advice more generally—much to the bemusement of the city’s journalists. The fact that he was more willing to attribute her financial savvy to spirit guidance than business acumen speaks volumes about the extent to which female intellect was devalued. As in the case of Emma Hardinge’s trance lecturing, it also demonstrates how relatively easy it was to gain audiences with powerful men by supposedly channeling the thoughts of masculine dead spirits. Without Spiritualism, such men would otherwise have been likely to ignore Victoria.
Whether due to spirits or not, the fact remains that, over the period of their collaboration, both the Commodore and Victoria would see their wealth increase.
Excerpted from Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice by Emily Midorikawa. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Emily Midorikawa.