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.
Around this time a variety of different forces started mounting attacks on Woodhull, although in some cases the circumstances are still not clear. As Goldsmith tells us, her unstable mother, Roxy Claflin, who had been living with the rest of the Claflin clan on Victoria and Tennessee’s bounty, was somehow induced to swear out a warrant for the arrest of Woodhull’s husband, Colonel James Blood, whom she accused of alienating her daughters’ affections. A description of the sisters’ household came out in the resulting trial. In the Murray Hill brownstone they had rented and furnished lavishly with their Wall Street earnings, a crowd of eccentrics and disreputable hangers-on were said to lounge about on the new plush sofas. Dr. Canning Woodhull, Victoria’s former husband, had also been living there—which suggested that she was cohabiting with two husbands at once. And the newspapers had no difficulty in digging up the tawdry Claflin background.
The AWSA women were horrified. The NWSA leaders tried to calm the panic in their own ranks. Anthony, Stanton, and another NWSA partisan, Paulina Wright Davis, told Woodhull about some prominent liberals whose behavior, they said, was hypocritical and cowardly, not least Henry Ward Beecher, the AWSA’s own president, who was having a secret affair with one of his Sunday School teachers. All three had heard about this directly, from either Elizabeth Tilton herself or her unhappy husband. Woodhull then charged in the press, “My judges preach against ‘free love’ openly, and practise it secretly.” And she mentioned, without naming Beecher directly, the case of a “public teacher of eminence.”
In fact, Beecher’s Sunday sermons were so thrilling that special ferries—known as Beecher’s Boats—took eager New Yorkers across the East River to Brooklyn to hear them. John Hay called Beecher “the greatest preacher the world has seen since Saint Paul preached on Mars Hill.” Goldsmith gives a convincing account of his appeal. His preaching style at his Plymouth Church was both theatrical and intimate, and he had a beguiling message. He urged his hearers to cast off the deterministic pessimism of inherited Calvinist faith, a view no longer suited to the expectations aroused by an expanding society, and replace it with religious optimism and self-trust. He encouraged restless women to believe in their own possibilities and secret feelings. Some were prompted, it was said, to respond to his “religion of love” in a literal way; a joke went that Beecher preached to twenty of his mistresses every Sunday.
Beecher’s own wife was plain and dour, the worn-out survivor of nine childbirths and five miscarriages, and would be unkindly nicknamed “the griffon” by the press during Beecher’s trial. Beecher preferred to spend his evenings with the young Tiltons. But if Beecher’s marriage illustrated the grim outcome of the Victorian dedication to procreation, the marriage of the handsome Theodore Tilton concealed the effects of the Victorian ideal that enshrined woman as the vessel of sexual “purity.” Tilton, a promising journalist and ambitious politician, was a brilliant and driven man. His wife was pretty and shy, a doll-like woman whose look of sentimental submission made her seem the image of the subservient domestic angel. But as with many nineteenth-century marriages, the effects of diverted erotic feeling broke through the surface of domestic life.
The cult of female purity held that the “good” woman must be above carnal desire; but Tilton later claimed that his wife’s frigidity had been the cause of his own “falling into sin.” Her sexual reluctance would in any case have been the greater because she had borne three children in four years and a fourth child who died at six months, and she suffered a prolonged illness after each delivery. Goldsmith quotes a friend of the Tiltons: “Here is Theodore marrying at twenty a woman like a Spanish nun. He is a bold, frowning, gifted man, a product of Plymouth Church. She is the female product, an idealist, interesting by fervent sincerity, but she made religion a bore and became irksome to her husband.”
The “Spanish nun” was ready for the sentimental seduction offered by her pastor. Lib Tilton called her private séances with him occasions of “profound wonder and hushed solemnity at this great mystery of soul loving to which I have awakened.” On October 10, 1868, she had recorded in her diary “A Day Memorable” and soon after, Beecher, speaking in cloudy confessional rhetoric to his unbelieving congregation, declared himself a “man who has been wallowing in lust.” In July 1870, Lib admitted to Tilton that she had conceived a “love babe” while he had been away on a speaking tour. He was both outraged and fearful of public humiliation. After reading Woodhull’s insinuations about his wife and Beecher in the press, he made an effort to make friends with her and even undertook to write a laudatory biography for her campaign. Goldsmith suggests they may briefly have been lovers. Woodhull understood him all too well, ridiculing the “dreadful suzz, maudlin sentiment, and mock heroics” he had been exhibiting over his wife’s infidelity. She deplored the effect of “our sickly religious literature, Sunday school morality, and pulpit phariseeism [that had] humbugged him into the belief he ought to feel and act in this harlequin and absurd way.”
Beecher must have struck Woodhull as someone more like herself. Both were charismatic, highly sexed, inspired by adulation. Woodhull described Beecher as follows:
I have no fault to find with him in any such sense…as that in which the world will condemn him. I have no doubt that he has done the very best he could do—under all the circumstances—with his demanding physical nature…passional starvation, enforced on such a nature, so richly endowed…is a horrid cruelty. Every great man of Mr. Beecher’s type has had in the past and will ever have, the need for and the right to the loving manifestations of many women.
And were not their views alike? Beecher had told her that he, too, thought that “marriage is the grave of love. I have never married a couple that I did not feel condemned.” After she was attacked by Horace Greeley’s powerful Tribune and other newspapers for expressing her ideas of free love in public, she had hoped he would openly defend her by introducing her lecture on “social freedom” at New York’s Steinway Hall in November 1871. He had reneged at the last moment, begging, “Oh, let me off, let me off,” and calling himself a “moral coward on this subject.” She told her audience,
[W]hen Christian ministers are no longer afraid or ashamed to be Christians they will embrace this doctrine. Free Love will be an integral part of the religion of the future…. Yes! I am a Free Lover! I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love for as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love every day if I please!…
The reaction to this speech throughout the women’s movement was called “the Free Love panic.”
Woodhull’s attempted takeover of the NWSA at its convention in New York in May 1872 split the movement still further. Susan B. Anthony turned the lights off when Woodhull tried to move for a joint meeting with her own People’s Party. The next day, she hired another hall to stage a wildcat convention that officially nominated her for president with the great black leader, Frederick Douglass, as her running mate. The remaining members of the NWSA, which had lost Stanton and Hooker, came out for Grant, and the AWSA for Greeley. Conservatism—or cynicism—was setting in. Beecher, for his part, backed Grant, who was supported by powerful money interests looking for lucrative federal contracts. Tilton became Greeley’s campaign manager, and, despite his former radicalism, was now involved in Greeley’s effort to cultivate the Southern Democrats seeking to reclaim their rule in the South. After Woodhull’s open advocacy of free love, the newspapers gave her campaign scant coverage; her speaking engagements were canceled everywhere. In Harper’s Weekly, the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed her as a horned “Mrs. Satan” holding a sign that read “BE SAVED BY FREE LOVE” while a ragged mother struggled to carry her children and her drunken husband on her back. Even the splinter group of feminists led by Stanton had second thoughts and withdrew their support.
Woodhull had already caused trouble for her radical trade union followers. In December 1871, she and Tennessee had marched in a parade with the members of Section 12 carrying the flag of the Paris Commune to honor an executed communard. The news of her activities was forwarded to Karl Marx in London who, Goldsmith suggests, may have heard that the American comrades were more interested in Woodhull’s “dazzling eyes and free love” than in the eight-hour day. Section 12 was suspended from the International. The only group still supporting her was the National Association of Spiritualists, whose president she had become.
We now have difficulty understanding how important the spiritualist movement was to women in Woodhull’s time. The longing to renew one’s bonds with the dead seems to have been more intense than it had been for previous generations—not only because women grieved for their dead children, as they had for centuries of high infant and child mortality, but because they missed the sons and husbands and fathers who had been killed in the Civil War. Besides this, spiritualism, like feminism, distrusted the social institutions of Church and State, which were controlled by men. Its church was the home, where holy truth could be dispensed during a séance around the dining-room table or with the aid of an inexpensive device—the planchette—that could be ordered by mail and was easy to use. In mesmerist performances, the medium was almost always a woman. She might be said to have duplicated the passive roles of women: she was the instrument both of the man who manipulated her and of the “powers” that spoke through her. And yet, paradoxically, she had, in doing so, a certain power. She spoke out of unknown depths inaccessible to men and could receive messages they could not.
Woodhull seems always to have thought of herself as a spiritualist medium. In her early youth she had worked as a clairvoyant in her father’s road show, offering her clients communication with the dead or glimpses of the future. She claimed that her career as a writer and public speaker was made possible by the same gifts. When Tilton set out to write her campaign biography in 1871, she asked him to emphasize the part “the spirits” had played in her life; to omit this element would be, she told him, “as if you were writing Hamlet and decided to leave out his father’s ghost.” Tilton wrote:
She acquired her studies, performed her work, and lived her life by the help (as she believes) of heavenly spirits…. They dictate her life with daily revelation; and like St. Paul, she is “not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” She goes and comes at their behest. Her enterprises are not the coinage of her own brain, but of their divine intervention. Her writings and speeches are the products, not only of their indwelling in her soul, but of their absolute control of her brain and tongue. Like a good Greek of the olden time, she does nothing without consulting her oracles….
Her published writings and the texts of her formal speeches were, the reader of Tilton’s biography was asked to believe, dictated to her by these invisible prompters, and transmitted by her in a tranced state, to be taken down by others. Afterward, she said, she “had no memory at all of what she had just done.” She told Tilton, he said, that “every characteristic utterance which she gives to the world is dictated while under spirit-influence, and most often in a totally unconscious state. The words that fall from her lips are garnered by the swift pen of her husband [James Blood], and published almost verbatim, as she gets and gives them.” Blood, who was acting as the Weekly’s editor, himself described the process:
At about eleven or twelve o’clock at night, two or three times a week…Victoria and I hold parliament with the spirits…. Victoria goes into a trance, during which her guardian spirit [whom she often identified as the Greek orator, Demosthenes] takes control of her mind, speaking audibly through her lips, propounding various matters for our subsequent investigation and verification, and announcing principles, detached thoughts, hints of systems, and suggestions for affairs…. During her entranced state, which generally lasts about an hour, but sometimes twice as long, I make copious notes of all she says, and when her speech is unbroken, I write down every word, and publish it without correction or amendment.
Blood said that the famous “memorial” delivered to Congress had been created in this way in December 1869, when, “while she lay in deep sleep, her Greek guardian came to her, and sitting transfigured by her couch, wrote on a scroll (so that she could not only see the words, but immediately dictated them to her watchful amanuensis).”1
The problem with this account is that the legal argument and the style of the speech resemble those of another of Woodhull’s male mentors, Benjamin Butler, the famous Union general who was now a radical Republican senator. Butler had become a close friend of Woodhull’s, and it was he who arranged for her address to the congressional committee and had it printed and mailed throughout the country under his franking privilege. Similarly, some of her more extreme statements about free love echo the tracts of the spiritualist and free love advocate Stephen Pearl Andrews, particularly his popular free love textbook, Love, Marriage, and Divorce, and the Sovereignty of the Individual. One can say that Butler, Andrews, and Blood—who was the chief source of her Marxist-socialist ideas—were in some degree coauthors of these compositions.
Still, Woodhull could show such ability to express herself extemporaneously on many of the questions treated in her signed articles and formal speeches that one cannot deny her own genius. In her case, one might say, the medium seized power. Goldsmith makes it clear that her speaking performances were not fraudulent spiritualist acts. Woodhull herself believed that she was genuinely possessed by mysterious powers. She told Isabella Hooker, “As I am about to speak, I call upon the spirits. They surround me and protect me. I sense them hovering about me in the air…and the light beaming through. I am doing their bidding.” She would come on stage pale and abstracted, her eyes glazed and, suddenly, she would become flushed, her eyes would shine brilliantly. Addressing the Spiritualists in September 1872, she was overtaken by what she called “one of those overwhelming gusts of inspiration which sometimes come upon me.”
Since its inception, as Goldsmith writes, the women’s movement had had a special relation with spiritualism. In 1848, in upstate New York, members of an abolitionist, freethinking Quaker sect were discussing their beliefs around a mahogany table when, a report went, the table started to vibrate with responses to their questions. This was the first recorded “spirit table.” A month later, around that same table, Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom had found themselves excluded from the floor of the recent international antislavery convention in London, drew up the agenda for the coming meeting at Seneca Falls to demand female suffrage.
But many women who had been aroused to a struggle for the vote became frightened by the course spiritualism took after the Civil War, particularly its openness to dangerous ideas like communitarian communism and, above all, free love. Indeed, at utopian colonies like John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida in upstate New York and Stephen Pearl Andrews’s commune, Modern Times, on Long Island, spiritualism and free love went together.
Tilton, himself, who became president of the NWSA, had written in his newspaper, the Independent, “Marriage without love is a sin against God—a sin which, like other sins, is to be repented of, ceased from, and put away.” His ideas and practice, moreover, went beyond support of divorce. He had formed a liaison with a woman who was one of Stephen Andrews’s followers. When Tilton’s wife first confessed her affair with Beecher to him, he made his own confession and proposed an open marriage. In private Beecher justified his own affair with Elizabeth Tilton as an expression of free love. He told a friend,
The red lounge on which we consummated our love was to me an almost sacred object…. My acts of intercourse with that woman were as natural and sincere an expression of my love for her as the words of endearment which I addressed to her. There seemed to be nothing in what we did together that I could not justify to myself on the ground of our love for each other and I think God will not blame me for my acts with her. I know at present it would be utterly impossible for me to justify myself before man.
Victoria Claflin’s own first marriage—to the man whose name she always kept—was an illustration of the worst aspects of legal union. She was fifteen when, in 1853, she married Woodhull, an alcoholic and a drug addict to whom she bore a defective child. Until they were divorced in 1864, she earned what money they had by touring the Middle West as a clairvoyant, putting into practice the lessons she had learned from her father’s road shows. She and Colonel Blood were married in 1866 but divorced a couple of years later in order, he would claim, to protest the institution of marriage. When asked in 1871 how long they had been separated he replied, “We were never separated.” Blood was a man of many ideas besides free love. He was a war veteran who had taken up spiritualism out of a desire to keep in touch with his fallen comrades, and had become president of the St. Louis Society of Spiritualists. He encouraged Victoria to continue working as a healer and clairvoyant as they scrambled to make a living.
But it was in 1866, the year of Victoria’s marriage, that she and her sister Tennessee were introduced as healers to Cornelius Vanderbilt. The railroad tycoon wanted someone to soothe his aching old bones and a chance to speak to his dead mother. The sisters were able to supply both, and won his affection, and he is even said to have proposed marriage to Tennessee. When asked the secret of his ability to forecast turns in the price of stocks, the financier said, “Do as I do. Consult the Spirits!” But Goldsmith suggests a nonspiritual explanation. Woodhull had a friend who happened to be the mistress of Vanderbilt’s rival, Jim Fisk, and with her friend’s help she tipped her patron off about the stock maneuverings of Fisk and his partner Jay Gould for control of the Erie Railroad. In September 1869, when Fisk and Gould were manipulating the price of gold, she was able to tell Vanderbilt when to buy and when to sell. He pulled out at the right moment and made $1.3 million, of which he gave Victoria half. What is certain is that the sisters were suddenly rich and became stockbrokers themselves.
In September 1872, as Woodhull’s remarks on free love to the National Association of Spiritualists were being reported in the newspapers, there was pain and rage throughout the liberal establishment at her willingness to talk about people’s secret lives, particularly those of Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton. Julia Ward Howe called Woodhull “a self-aggrandizing harlot” who had destroyed respectable persons by her “bogus revelations.” On November 2, Woodhull put the story of Beecher’s affair into print in Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, naming her sources and publishing their letters. This issue of the Weekly was soon selling for $2.50 a copy (its face value was 10 cents) and in three days 150,000 new copies were sold, some scalped for as much as $40.
At Plymouth Church, those who had a stake in Beecher’s career rallied to his defense. Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed,
It was a matter of money. The church property is not taxed, its bonds in the hands of wealthy men of that organization are valuable, and the bond holders, alive to their financial interests, stand around Mr. Beecher, a faithful, protecting band—not loving truth and justice less, but their own pockets more.
At the instigation of YMCA vice crusader Anthony Comstock, the Weekly was shut down, and Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin were arrested for obscenity, remaining in prison for a month; then, after a grand jury hearing, they were charged again, this time for libel, and jailed once more. Beecher’s denials of his adultery to the press met with derision in the private letters passed between Anthony, Stanton, and Isabella Hooker, who had become convinced that her brother was an adulterer. She had the wild idea that Beecher must confess the truth in his pulpit. She proposed to go to his church and proclaim it herself if he did not—and found herself threatened with incarceration in an asylum by a doctor Beecher summoned.
Public sympathy for the imprisoned sisters and impatience with Comstockism finally took effect, and in March 1874 a jury found them not guilty. Nevertheless the vindication of Beecher was soon to come. Tilton, no longer silent, was expelled from the Plymouth congregation for his “immoral” attack on Beecher. “It was not I but another man who brought dishonor on the Christian name. And yet this other person, a clergyman, permitted his Church to brand me,” he declared.
Beecher appointed an examining board of eight loyal friends to judge his conduct and called a meeting at his church. Tilton described to the board his wife’s illicit relationship. But that miserable woman, who had once written out for her husband a full confession of her affair with Beecher, then written another statement at Beecher’s insistence taking everything back, and then at her husband’s insistence reaffirmed her original confession, now again denied her adultery.
Beecher, for his part, told the board of his pastoral interest in Mrs. Tilton, a wife neglected and abused. He admitted only that his sympathy “had beguiled her heart and roused her husband into a fury of jealousy.” He denounced those who claimed to know anything else as “human hyenas” and free lovers like Victoria Woodhull. His hand-picked committee completely exonerated him. This helped him win the trial that followed in January 1875, when Tilton unsuccessfully sued him for alienation of affection, claiming $100,000 in damages. After Beecher’s victory, the same sum was awarded to him as a raise in salary by his loyal congregation.
Despite the letters and other evidence offered by Tilton’s lawyers, Beecher had had no difficulty winning over the jury members and much of the public. His lawyers made a point of portraying him as the victim of the dangerously radical Victoria Woodhull. Those who had given testimony against him—especially the NWSA leaders—were impugned because of their association with Woodhull and her free love ideas, and Beecher himself said that Woodhull and the women’s rights activists who supported her were “the centre of loathsome scandals, organized, classified, and perpetuated with a greedy and unclean appetite for everything that was foul and vile.” His sister Isabella Hooker, who had called Woodhull “My Darling Queen,” was attacked by Beecher’s defenders after the trial as the victim of “an unnatural affection for Victoria Woodhull.”
After Beecher was acquitted, Tilton was a broken man. In 1877 he left for Paris where he remained until he died in 1907, writing poetry and a novel and playing chess at the Café de la Régence. He was wholly forgotten. Mrs. Tilton, living alone with her children in Brooklyn, joined a group of spiritualists who convinced her that she must at last tell her story as it actually happened. But the letter she published in the Times in 1878 declaring that the adultery charges had been true hardly seems to have been noticed. Beecher later referred to her as an “unbalanced clairvoyant.”
And Victoria Woodhull? She had now lost connection with the causes for which she had fought. The women’s rights leaders who had once welcomed her as a brilliant sister now thought bitterly that she had only set their movement back. Even before the trial began, Stanton had remarked ruefully to Anthony that “the whole odium of this scandalum magnatum…has been rolled on our suffrage movement.” She was right. As Stanton, who would be excluded from the AWSA for her own radical ideas in 1895, had predicted, the opportunity of achieving votes for women had “gone down in the smash.” Though a Woman Suffrage Amendment was introduced into Congress in 1878, it was not until 1919 that it passed both houses.
The Beecher-Tilton trial, which had largely destroyed Woodhull’s reputation, can be seen as part of a wave of reaction that was overtaking post-bellum radicalism. In 1877, all federal troops were removed from the South, and Frederick Douglass remarked, “You turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.” Spiritualism came under attack as never before when the Fox sisters, whose table-tapping exploits had started the rage in 1848, confessed that they had been frauds. And in 1876, after the annual meeting of the Association of Spiritualists drew only a handful, Woodhull resigned as president. The press concluded that the Beecher-Tilton trial had alerted Americans to the danger of new ideas. The Times editorialized that the exposure of scandal might induce people “to return to the older and safer moorings which alone can prevent society from drifting into chaos.”
As though the spirits in which she had believed had now deserted her, her speeches after the trial lacked their former boldness. Like Beecher claiming that the love he had given Elizabeth Tilton was only holy sympathy, she said that she had never meant sexual freedom when she spoke of free love and that she believed in marriage. She took up a new idea—eugenics, called “stirpiculture,” a program of selective human breeding—and lectured about it occasionally. By 1877, partly as a result of her legal costs, she was pressed for money, but again Vanderbilt saved her. When he died, leaving most of his vast estate to his son, William Henry, two of his other children tried to break the will, charging that their father had been of unsound mind for years. But Victoria and Tennessee, who had known the old magnate intimately, told William Henry they could testify to his father’s enduring mental powers. They lent him letters to prove it, and then moved to England where the grateful heir had provided a house in West Brompton and a comfortable reserve in Lloyd’s Bank.
The story could end at this point; the Victoria Woodhull who had fascinated and frightened large numbers of Americans was no longer visible, and the woman who remained seemed to have no connection with her—like the medium who wakes up after her trance and knows nothing about what she has said. Goldsmith devotes only a few pages to Woodhull’s years in England before she died there in 1927. But her activities during those fifty years would have astonished her early followers. In very short order she met a conservative English banker, John Biddulph Martin, who married her in 1883 (Tennessee married another rich Englishman and became Lady Cook). Mrs. Martin buried her origins, claiming that she was descended from British royalty as well as Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. She started a conservative weekly, The Humanitarian, in which she repudiated free love and gave notice that the most “notorious” of the writings attributed to her were the work of that “high priest of debauchery,” Stephen Andrews, and of her divorced husband, Colonel Blood, neglecting to say that she had once cried out “Yes! I am a Free Lover!” When Martin died in 1897, she became the proprietor of a large estate, from which she administered the affairs of a small village, choosing the local vicar, dispensing charity, and making local improvements for the benefit of her tenants.
Victoria Woodhull suppressed her past, and historical memory tried to erase her. In 1981, Milton Rugoff, writing his definitive history of the Beecher family, noted that “sober-sided historians almost never mention ‘The Woodhull,’ as she was known, yet in her life and loves as well as her views she was one of the most emancipated and uninhibited women of that or any other American time.”2 Even the historians of the women’s movement chose to be curiously amnesic about her; she is mentioned only passingly in the official History of Woman Suffrage produced by Stanton, Anthony, and Matilda Gage, published in 1882. Susan B. Anthony’s own memoirs and the biography by her official biographer, Ida Husted Harper, mention Woodhull only when reference to her is unavoidable. Yet only six years before the History was published, Stanton told an interviewer,
Victoria Woodhull has done a work for woman that none of us could have done. She has faced and dared men to call the names that make women shudder, while she chucked principle, like medicine, down their throats. She has risked and realized the sort of ignominy that would have paralyzed any of us who have longer been called strong-minded…. She will be as famous as she has been infamous, made so by benighted or cowardly men and women.
But no serious biography of Woodhull was published until 1928, when, directly after her death, Emanie Sachs was the first to collect and use much of the complex record available. Sachs had read Paxton Hibben’s highly critical biography of Beecher, published the previous year, which described Stanton and Anthony’s contribution in Woodhull’s exposure of him. As Ellen Carol DuBois remarks in her recent book about the Stanton legacy, she “found in Woodhull the perfect counter-heroine for a modern rereading of the history of the woman suffrage movement.”3 Sachs’s book The Terrible Siren (1928), though without index or footnotes, has remained the best account of Woodhull until now, most of its material having simply been reprocessed in a half-dozen journalistic biographies.
Goldsmith’s is by far the most serious biography since Sachs’s. It augments Sachs’s work with much careful research and shows Woodhull as a force within a constellation of American social movements that soon broke apart. Mary Gabriel, whose book is a much more modest affair, makes one further contribution, and a telling one; she has looked into the English story and gives the first detailed account of Woodhull’s years as a bossy, conservative lady of the manor.
Woodhull’s final phase may, I think, give us pause in arriving at an understanding of her. She may have accepted the verdict of a generation which had so sharply turned its back on progressivism; and she may have accepted, as well, some of the negative views of her former allies who held her culpable for inciting the backlash of reaction. Goldsmith’s book opens with a telling late episode in the Woodhull story—a glimpse of her failed attempt, in 1892, to recapture her past by a return to America with an offer, made to the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention of that year, to run again for president. This was seen as a ludicrous gesture. No one was interested in her. The Chicago Mail commented that “all America knows that Victoria Woodhull was solely responsible for the greatest scandal of the century.”
Was she perhaps telling a part of the truth when she protested during her English years that she had only been, in effect, a talking doll voicing the ideas of men who used her as the spokeswoman for different kinds of extreme radicalism? Was she really so different from Elizabeth Tilton, who could not be relied upon to give a true account of herself but described her own experience first at one man’s dictation and then at another’s? Or is hers another American story of the power of self-fabrication in which seemingly idealistic conviction and great personal ambition can, for a time, successfully merge? After all, this devotee of the principal revolutions of her time started out with very little and twice made herself rich; and there was a moment when she imagined she could have made it to the White House.
May 14, 1998
Theodore Tilton, “Victoria C. Woodhull: A Biographical Sketch,” in The Golden Age, tract no. 3 (1871), pp. 8, 24-25, 28. Copy in the Research Collection of the Boston Public Library. ↩
Milton Rugoff, The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (Harper and Row, 1981), p. 486. ↩
Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (Yale University Press, 1997), p. 252. ↩