Victoria Woodhull, our first female presidential candidate, spent election night in jail

February 21, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Victoria Woodhull, on the night of November 5, 1872, should have been at home with her husband and family or possibly somewhere with friends and companions. It was the evening of the presidential election of 1872, and Woodhull had a special interest in its outcome. During that campaign, Woodhull had been the first female presidential candidate in the history of the United States.

She was that, even though women would not obtain universal suffrage in this country for almost another 50 years.

Impossibilities, such as being elected president when she couldn’t even vote, never seem to deter Woodhull from doing – or at least attempting — whatever she set her mind to doing. She had, after all, done the following:

— divorced her husband to whom she was married when she was 15 years old;

— made her own way in the world, including making a living for herself;

— established, with her sister Tennessee Claflin, the first female-owned stock brokerage company on Wall Street and in the process made a ton of money;

— testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 1871 and thus became the first woman ever to address United States Congress officially;

— owned and operated a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, begun in 1870, the circulation of which reached 20,000 subscribers;

— become one of the nation’s most well-known and sought-after mediums (people who could communicate with the dead) and healers;

— spoken to large and paying crowds on subjects such as sexual freedom, Spiritualism, and women’s suffrage.

After all of that, forming a political party and mounting a campaign for the presidency did not occur to Woodhull as something that she should not do.

But on that presidential election day evening in 1872, she found herself experiencing another unique event in her life. She was spending the night in the Ludlow Street jail in New York City.

Woodhull was born Victoria Claflin in 1838 in Ohio, the seventh of 11 children. Her father was a trickster and con man, and the family had to move frequently to avoid creditors and others whom he had tricked and swindled. In 1853 she was married to a local doctor, Canning Woodhull, who turned out to be a womanizer and an alcoholic. Victoria developed her skills as a medium and earned enough money to keep her family, which included two children, together. But before too long, she had had enough of her husband, and she divorced him, keeping only his last name.

The experience of her first marriage turned Woodhull into a passionate advocate for social and legal rights for women. She moved to New York City where, with her favorite sister Tennessee (Tennie), she established her base of operations. She believed that all sexual activity should be the choice of the woman and should not be an obligation of marriage. She also called for the legalization of prostitution.

As a spiritualist, Woodhull attracted many clients both rich and poor. One of the rich ones was railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who became romantically involved with her sister. Woodhull understood the workings of the stock market, and in 1868 when Vanderbilt offered her and her sister financial backing to set up a brokerage firm, they accepted.

By this time Woodhall had acquired a new husband, James Blood, a Missourian and Civil War veteran who willingly supported many of the causes that Wodhull had espoused.

In 1870, as part of her planning to run for president in the next election, Woodhull and her sister began the publication of a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, and it gave a national voice to Woodhull’s views on controversial topics such as feminism, vegetarianism, sex education, and licensed prostitution. James Blood was one of the paper’s chief contributors.

Woodhull and her cadre of followers had many critics, of course, one of them being Henry Ward Beecher. As the pastor of Brooklyn Plymouth Church, Beecher had become one of the most famous men in America, and his criticisms of Woodhull stung. Woodhull decided to sting back when, in early November 1872, she published an account of an affair the Beecher had with a church member.

Beecher had powerful friends, however, and on the night of November 3, 1872, marshals showed up at Woodhull’s door and arrested her, her sister, and her husband on charges of printing obscene material. Woodhull was still there on election night and remained there for more than a month. Eventually, all three who were arrested were cleared of the charges.

Woodhull and Blood were divorced in 1876. Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, and the Vanderbilt family feared that Woodhull’s sister would make some claim on his estate. The family offered $1,000 to Victoria and Tennie if they would leave the country. They accepted that offer and sailed for Great Britain.

Woodhull wasted no time in making herself known in her new country. She gave a lecture at St. James Hall in December of that year, the first of a series of lectures. In the crowd of one of those lectures was a banker named James B. Martin. He was smitten with Woodhull’s presentation and with Woodhull herself. They were married in 1883.

During the 1890s Woodhull published a magazine titled The Humanitarian. When her husband died in 1901, she moved to a country village where she established a local school and became a champion for educational reform in Great Britain. She lived until 1927 and died at the age of 88.


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