Hillary Clinton’s historic turn as first woman presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party has sparked renewed interest in Victoria Claflin Woodhull.
Back in 1872, when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President of the United States, nobody would have asked that question. Considered a visionary by some, a “she-devil” by others, Victoria had acquired quite a reputation by the time she was nominated by the Equal Rights Party. She’d been born poor in rural Ohio, the daughter of a con artist and a fanatic spiritualist, and she lived exactly the sort of peripatetic life those beginnings imply. Social activist, stockbroker, newspaper editor, suffragette, spiritualist (many would add prostitute, con artist, and fraud), Victoria got around.
It would take more than one blog post to do justice to Victoria and her vivid existence. Her relevance to me, however, is more easily defined: my novel, Newport, was inspired by an incident in her life that took place during her spiritualist phase.
Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee had spent much of their childhoods traveling in the Claflin family medicine show, promoted by their father as fortune-tellers and psychic healers. Victoria grew into adulthood claiming an ability to communicate with the dead. This communication grew particularly lucrative in 1866 when, at the insistence of her “spirit guide (the Greek statesman Demosthenes),” Victoria relocated to New York City to join her sister, who was already there. It was in New York that Victoria and Tennessee caught the biggest fish of their spiritualist careers: Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in the country.
The sisters met Commodore Vanderbilt at just the right time. Still mourning the loss of his wife, Vanderbilt was between spiritualists. His old one had made so much money getting rid of the two spirits the old man feared were haunting him that she could retire to Vermont, leaving the path free and clear for a new medium. Victoria and Tennie began hosting seances to ease Vanderbilt’s pains, both psychic and physical. Victoria channeled not only messages from Vanderbilt’s other-world mother and children, but stock tips from the great beyond. (Never mind that “the great beyond” was probably her friend Josie Mansfield, who was the mistress of one of Vanderbilt’s business rivals.) The tips worked so well that when Vanderbilt was asked about his stock market success, he replied, “Do as I do, consult the spirits.”
In the long run, the arrangement proved fortuitous for all parties involved. The sisters got the financial backing they needed to open the first female-run brokerage on Wall Street; Cornelius’s broken heart (and many other ailments) were soothed not only by Victoria’s seances, but by Tennie, with whom he had an affair.
Reading about this a few years ago made me think. At what point do people who grieve become so desperate that they’ll believe anything? What besides greed motivates the medium? Or …what if the medium is legit, and the messages delivered from “beyond” are real? Once the questions began flowing, characters, setting, and plot fell into place, and Newport was up and running.
Of course, Newport has many other plot points. But those who have read the book will recognize how this chapter from Victoria’s life impacted the story.
Who’s to say what will trigger inspiration for a book? Almost any tidbit or event will do, and once ignited, the writing process takes on a life of its own. Sometimes, the flow of ideas can feel like a gift from another realm. So, maybe I should add “muse” to Victoria Woodhull’s long list of professions.
Rumor had it that after Cornelius Vanderbilt’s death, his heirs paid Victoria and Tennessee to go away. If so, the money came at a good time. Recently divorced and exhausted, Victoria left for England, where she became a lecturer and magazine publisher. She married again and lived fairly respectably until her death in 1927 at the age of 88.
Victoria Woodhull was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001. You can read a little more about her here.