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Victoria’s Secrets


During the first decade after the Civil War what was called the “trial of the century” opened in New York and became a sensational popular spectacle. It was not even a murder trial—just a husband’s suit against the man he claimed was his wife’s seducer—but it transfixed the nation, crowding other events off the front pages of the newspapers for the 112 days the trial lasted. The accused was the best-known Christian minister in the country, Henry Ward Beecher of Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. From the day the trial opened, on January 11, 1875, thousands tried to get spectator seats at the trial in Brooklyn City Court. Only a few were able to obtain admission tickets, which were sold in the street for ten dollars apiece. Over a million words of testimony were recorded; there were more than a hundred witnesses; the summations took twenty-five days. In households throughout the land Beecher’s guilt was debated.

Only briefly present in the court though frequently mentioned was thirty-seven-year-old Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the woman who two years before, in November 1872, had bro-ken the story of Beecher’s adultery in her newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly. The jury was sequestered for eight days and there were fifty-two ballots, but no decision was reached, and a mistrial was declared. Beecher went back to his pulpit more popular than ever. But Woodhull, who had vowed to make it “hotter on earth for Henry Ward Beecher than Hell is below,” was implicitly rebuked by the verdict. Much of Barbara Goldsmith’s excellent book is devoted to showing how she came to attack him and why she eventually was defeated.

As remarkable a person as Beecher himself, Woodhull had, with the help of Cornelius Vanderbilt, made a fortune as a Wall Street stockbroker during the late 1860s, the first woman to do so. A handsome, dark-haired woman with a confident, determined manner, she had in the early 1870s seized a place at the front of the growing women’s movement, adored by many of its members, repelling others. Two years before the Beecher trial, as the head of her own party, “The People’s Party,” she had run as the first woman candidate for president. She had testified on the vote for women to a congressional committee—the first woman ever to address Congress.

What she stood for, as her speeches and the essays printed under her name in the Weekly soon made clear, was more than female suffrage. None of her diverse radical views and activities—not even the publication in her newspaper of the complete text of the Communist Manifesto, its first appearance in English in this country—shocked Americans so much as her demand for the overthrow of marriage. She thought women needed to be freed from marriage just as blacks had to be freed from slavery. Her own charge against Beecher was not the same as the complaint of the aggrieved husband, Theodore Tilton. She held Beecher guilty not because he had had sex with another man’s wife, but because he had been ashamed to admit openly his belief in the principle of free love. As the trial wound on, Beecher and his team of prestigious lawyers (one of them, William Evarts, had been US attorney general and secretary of state, and had successfully defended President Johnson against impeachment) not only argued that he had been innocent of a sexual liaison with Elizabeth Tilton. They made it clear that it was Woodhull, with her utopian views on the relations of men and women, who should be condemned.

Woodhull’s radical ideas and her flair for publicizing them emerged during a particularly volatile and often contradictory period of American history. This was the Gilded Age, of cynicism and corruption in politics and of rampant greed and skulduggery in economic life. It was the period when the original aims of Reconstruction were betrayed in the South and white control was reimposed over the former slaves. But it was also the time of a renewed struggle for woman suffrage, of many experiments in communal living, of the rise of working-class protest, and also of the spiritualist movement, which produced a vogue for table tapping, mesmerism, and faith healing in villages and cities. Concepts such as “communism” and “free love” became current for the first time.

Although Barbara Goldsmith’s account of Woodhull concentrates on her career and on the Beecher-Tilton scandal, it is far more than a conventional biography, giving as it does a perceptive account of the principal social and political movements of the post-Civil War period and many of its leading characters. The effect of her method is to present a dense and complex picture of an entire culture, in which the status of women became, more than ever before, a contentious public issue.


The Civil War’s unfinished business—black enfranchisement—split the advocates of women’s rights who had first come together at a convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the American Equal Rights Association dedicated to universal suffrage, but by 1869 it had divided in two. The new National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton, Anthony, and Isabella Hooker, Beecher’s sister, opposed not only the Fourteenth Amendment asserting the right of male citizens to the vote, but the Fifteenth, which would enfranchise black men, but only black men. The right to vote would be a mockery, they said, if it did not include women.

The American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, and also by Henry Blackwell, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Beecher, its first president, was willing to let women wait their turn. In the spring of 1870, just as the division between the two groups was clearly becoming irreconcilable, one of the “bewitching brokers” who recently had been making money on Wall Street appeared as an “evangel,” as Hooker called her. Victoria Woodhull had put an ad in the New York Herald that said in part:

While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence…. While others sought to show that there was no valid reason why woman should be treated…as a being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed. I therefore claim the right to speak for the unenfranchised woman of the country and…I now announce myself as a candidate for the Presidency.

The new candidate for president was about to present a “memorial”—i.e., a petition—to the joint congressional Judiciary Committee which planned to kill off a proposed Sixteenth Amendment that would give the vote to women. She had a simple solution: since women were already defined as “citizens” by the Fourteenth Amendment, they were, she said, already entitled to vote. The memorial was circulated in thousands of copies. Grant’s wife read it, and Woodhull was invited to the White House, where the President said to her, “Someday you will occupy that chair”—pointing to his own.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton praised her for having “lifted the debate on woman suffrage from the low ground of expediency.” But Lucy Stone and her fellow AWSA leaders snobbishly called attention to the rumors that were circulating about Woodhull’s “antecedents.” She was not a Brahmin lady do-gooder like many of the Boston reformers in the AWSA but the daughter of a notorious Ohio con man.

Such claims were indeed true. Goldsmith describes how the Claflin family, often desperate for money, had left a trail of scandal through half a dozen states. Her father had run a medicine show, at which he sold a homemade concoction called “Life Elixer” for a dollar a bottle. Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, later her partner in Wall Street and co-publisher of the Weekly, had worked as itinerant fortunetellers and faith healers, and—as it was put—“perhaps worse.” Mary Livermore said of Woodhull that “her hands are unclean.” Harriet Beecher Stowe was as strongly anti-Woodhull as Beecher’s other sister, Isabella, was on her side. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin soon published a satirical novel called My Wife and I, which caricatured Woodhull as an adventuress who lived in moral squalor with unsavory company.

In May 1871, when Woodhull addressed a convention of the NWSA gathered to support her position on suffrage, even this more radical feminist group, which advocated fairer divorce laws and the protection of working women and other reforms, as well as suffrage, was taken aback by the platform she announced. Her address took more radical positions than her other speeches and went beyond what the most “advanced” were prepared for. She asked for high taxes on income and property, an eight-hour day, the abolition of the death penalty, a welfare system for the poor, national public education, public ownership of mines and waterways, an international tribunal and an international navy and army to enforce peace and justice. The delegates approved her vague demand that the government be prohibited from enacting laws that in any way “interfere with the rights of individuals to pursue happiness as they choose.” But they were alarmed when she made statements in favor of “free love”—forbidden words even among strong advocates of women’s rights. Woodhull said:

Why do I war upon marriage… because it is, I verily believe, the most terrible curse from which humanity now suffers, entailing more misery, sickness, and premature death than all other causes combined…. Sanctioned and defended by marriage, night after night there are thousands of rapes committed, under cover of this accursed license…. Sexual freedom means the abolition of prostitution both in and out of marriage, means the emancipation of woman from sexual slavery and her coming into ownership and control of her own body, means the end of her pecuniary dependence upon man,…means the abrogation of forced pregnancy, of antenatal murder of undesired children and the birth of love children only.

Her language, at times, owed something to the new rhetoric of international communism that was now circulating in the US. She had found supporters in the American Labor Reform League, a group of newly organized anarchists, socialists, and freethinkers, and earlier that year she had given a keynote speech on “The Great Social Problem of Labor and Capital” at its first meeting at Cooper Institute. She even became a member of “Section 12,” the American branch of Karl Marx’s First International, and was elected its honorary president. She called upon every woman to “rise and declare…yourself free.”

If the very next Congress refuses women all the legitimate results of citizenship…we shall proceed to call another convention expressly to frame a new constitution and to erect a new government…. We mean treason, we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution! We will overthrow this bogus Republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead.

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