Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull
A comprehensive account of one of American history's most unusual and fascinating women, who, in an era of Victorian morality, was the loudest and most radical voice for women's equality.
Home to young Victoria Claflin was a wooden shack on the side of a hill
in a town with one intersection in the middle of the vast state of Ohio.
If there was a world beyond the endless rolling hills and fields, it
wasn't apparent. On the south side of Homer's main street was the large
and prosperous Williams Mound Farm with its stately two-story home and
twenty-five-foot-high Indian burial mound in the yard. The north side of
the street was lined with as many well-painted storefronts as a town of
fewer than three hundred could support. And on the back side of the main
street, clinging like a barnacle in the shadow of the shops and
storefronts, was the Claflin residence.
In later years, when Victoria was in the business of reinventing her past,
she would describe the Claflin home as a crisply painted white structure
surrounded by lovingly tended flowers. But in reality Victoria's
birthplace was a twenty-five-foot-long, one-story unpainted frame hovel so
rickety that the other children in Homer liked to run along the porch to
hear the boards rattle.
Victoria, born September 23, 1838, was the sixth of ten children, one
of whom died before she was born. She was a gifted, lovely, and
determined child, a rare jewel in a quarrelsome and indolent family that
was considered the town trash. One admiring neighbor remarked that it was
a shame the promising young girl had been born a Claflin.
From her father Victoria learned to bend, if not break, the law, and from
her mother she learned to communicate with spirits. Reuben Buckman "Buck"
Claflin was a one-eyed, one-man crime spree. The Homer shopkeeper Jacob
Yoakam was known to say that Buck Claflin "could see more deviltry to do
with that one eye than any two men with their four eyes." A census report
from the time listed Buck's occupation as lawyer, but his career indicated
that any background he may
have had in the law was aimed at learning how to get around it. Among
his alleged crimes were theft, counterfeiting, and arson.
Victoria's mother, Roxanna Hummel Claflin, was a religious zealot who gave
birth every two years, on average, over a twenty-year period. Anna, as she
was known, was as homely as her daughter was beautiful. Her face was a
shriveled triangle punctuated by small eyes and a tiny, tight mouth. She
was an abrasive personality given to ecstasies whose nightly
constitutional most often included a trip to a nearby orchard where she
would pray loudly and tearfully for the sins of her fellow Homerites and
in the same hour curse till her lips were white with foam. She was the
type of person referred to politely as eccentric but in more honest
moments as just plain crazy. Still, there was a streak of brilliance
behind that imploded face: Anna's memory was so good she could recite the
Beginning early in life, Victoria was given to ecstasies, perhaps as a way
of escaping the small town's disapprobation of her family or perhaps as a
means of escaping the wrath of her father, who was known to beat his
children with a willow or walnut tree switch that had been soaking in
water in anticipation of the character-building exercise. At various times
she described her first encounter with the spirit world as having occurred
at birth, at age three, and at age ten. But no matter when she said it
happened, each recounting of the experience detailed an escape to the
netherworld through the intercession of a spirit guide, and each ecstatic
revelation reinforced Victoria's notion that she was planted on the Earth
to do more than multiply: "When I first saw the light of day on this
planet," she wrote about her birth, "it seemed as if I had been rudely
awakened from a death-like sleep. How well I remember the conversation
between the doctor and my father as they handed me over to the nurse. I
remember looking back at my mother's face at that moment, the look of pain
and anguish on it was burnt into my plastic brain, and often during my
young babyhood I would watch as she suckled me. Somehow she was impelled
to talk to me, not as a child, but as her own heart, pouring out all her
woman's desires and bemoaning her failures. I remember well how the silent
prayers, when her lips were moving, would stir my heart, and as I look
back over the years from childhood to maturity, I realize that there was
some subtle power of transmutation at work, for somehow, from the very
first moment, I seemed to know all the future without being able to give
any expression in words.... I know that my companions from the moment of
birth were heaven's choicest souls.... I grew side by side with them, in
fact all the education and inspiration came over them."
Victoria's earthly education consisted of a total of three years of
elementary school, which she attended off and on between ages eight and
eleven. At school she was referred to--possibly mockingly--as "the little
queen," in part because she shared the name Victoria with the British
monarch but also because of her regal bearing, despite her squalid roots.
But even if her title did derive from sneers, she appeared to take her
role as a leader seriously. From a very early age Victoria believed
herself destined for great things. She had nothing and wanted much.
In Homer, residents remembered her at age eleven, crowned by thick
uncombed hair, narrating Bible stories from atop the Williams Farm Indian
mound, which she renamed the Mount of Olives, and when the children
listening grew restless, she abandoned Scripture for Indian stories, with
which she held them captive. It was on that mound that the uneducated,
unkempt, and dirty child first thrilled to an audience's approval.
It wouldn't be long, however, before a family crisis would force Victoria
to leave her audience behind in Homer. Buck Claflin had purchased a
gristmill and, as with most of his legitimate enterprises, he was having a
difficult time making a go of it. What actually happened was not clear,
but given Buck's reputation and the circumstantial evidence, it was
generally agreed that he decided to rid himself of the burden the mill had
become by burning it to the ground one stormy night in an attempt to
pocket five hundred dollars in insurance money.
The mill fire was the last straw for the town, which had put up with the
rogue in its midst for more than a decade. Buck heard the rumblings before
he saw the stampede and managed to escape Homer, leaving his family
behind. The locals were not prepared to support the Claflin clan, however,
so the Presbyterian church held a fund-raiser to buy Anna and her children
a horse-drawn wagon and enough supplies to get them out of town.
If any Homerites had qualms about ejecting the Claflins, they likely soon
disappeared. After the family had gone, the town discovered that Buck had
used his brief appointment as postmaster to his own advantage: he had left
behind a pile of undelivered mail addressed to Homer residents, and the
envelopes that indicated there was money inside had all been opened and
the money was gone.
The Claflin clan, rejoined by Buck, rolled into Mount Gilead, Ohio, not
far from Homer, where Victoria's eldest sister, Margaret Ann, known as
Maggie, lived with her husband, Enos Miles, and their three children. By
the time the Claflins moved on to Mount Gilead, the family's composition
had changed. Two of the children, Odessa and Hester, had died, but there
were two other healthy girls to take their place: Utica, named after a
nearby town, was born in 1843, and Tennessee, born in 1845, was named
after the home state of President James Polk as a tribute to Buck's
presidential aspirations. Victoria's second eldest sister, Mary, though
not listed in genealogy records as married at the time, had also added a
child to the Claflin brood, giving birth in 1850 to a daughter named
Zilpha. And Victoria's two brothers, despite Anna's appeals that the
family remain united, would leave the noisy flock to set out on their own.
Maldon married his cousin Corintha Claflin, and Hebern moved to Illinois,
where he married Mary Ann Edwards. The remaining crew of Claflins moved
into the American House, a hotel that Enos Miles owned. Considering the
number of family members under its roof, it's questionable whether there
was any room for guests.
THE MID-1800s were an age of possibilities for a man with ambition.
Industrialists had penetrated the aristocracy by hard work and ingenuity
rather than birth. School textbooks preached the message that, with
enough effort or a bright idea, all Americans could become rich and
famous. Buck Claflin was looking to sample that success. In the early
1850s, he was torn between a pair of moneymaking schemes discovered at
opposite ends of the country: from California came cries of gold and from
New York came a new phenomenon called spirit rappings. For a man who
preferred to earn his wealth by doing as little actual work as possible,
the spirit rappings held the greater promise.
In 1848, a pair of young sisters in a farmhouse in Hydesville, New York,
reported hearing strange noises. The rappings themselves may not have
surprised anyone, since the farmhouse was said to be haunted by the ghost
of a peddler who was murdered there. But what did come as a shock was
that the sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, appeared to be able to
communicate with the spirit, "Mr. Splitfoot," who provided responses to
their questions in a series of tapping sounds.
Within a year the Fox sisters were exhibiting their powers onstage before
audiences that paid seventy-five cents to see them, and in June 1850 they
were set up by P. T. Barnum at his hotel in New York City, holding
demonstrations three times a day at a dollar per person. The Fox sisters
phenomenon sparked an epidemic of spiritual encounters and by 1851 there
were said to be thousands of mediums in every state.
Two occurrences had primed the United States to accept the plausibility of
messages from the beyond. The first, the invention of the telegraph in
1848, showed that thoughts could travel mysteriously from one location to
another, which many viewed as scientific proof that there were unseen
energies at play in the universe. In fact, the Fox sisters' ability was
often referred to as spiritual telegraphy. The second occurrence, the
religious revival in the first half of the nineteenth century known as the
Second Great Awakening,' gave birth to the notion that a person could
communicate directly with God without the intercession of a cleric, and if
people could speak to God, surely they could communicate with dead
Buck had two daughters of his own who, even before the Fox sisters
announced their skills, were exhibiting strange powers. Victoria believed
that she could communicate with her dead infant sisters and that, through
spirit intervention, she had the ability to heal the sick. And when
Tennessee was just five she predicted a fire so precisely she was briefly
suspected of setting the blaze. Buck took advantage of his good fortune
and hung out a shingle at a Mount Gilead boardinghouse, establishing
Victoria, fourteen, and Tennessee, seven, as mediums, for one dollar per
Perhaps to boost Victoria's confidence in her first professional
undertaking, Buck wrote his daughter a prophetic rhyme that read, "Girl
your worth has never yet been known, but to the world it shall be shown."
She later remembered he also gave her a piece of practical advice. He told
her, "Be a good listener child."
From that time on, Victoria and Tennessee would be the primary
breadwinners in the Claflin family, supporting their extended clan, which,
rather than thanking them for their efforts, jealously resented their
success. Victoria's friend and first biographer, Theodore Tilton, wrote,
"Victoria is a green leaf, and her legion of relatives are caterpillars
who devour her."
(C) 1998 Mary Gabriel
All rights reserved.
ISBN No.: 1565121325
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