instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull

“A Firebrand Suffragist Who Challenged Her Era”
New York Times
The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
By Barbara Goldsmith
Illustrated. 531 pages. Alfred A. Knopf.

For anyone who thinks that scandals mixing sex and politics are something new in American life, Barbara Goldsmith's savory 19th-century panorama of feminism, spiritualism, Protestantism and sex will induce a new awareness of history's farcical habit of repeating itself.

Ms. Goldsmith's absorbing, sweeping book, ''Other Powers,'' is, as its subtitle suggests, a portrait of an age, with the interesting figure, the ''scandalous Victoria Woodhull'' at its center. The adjective ''scandalous'' is used only partly in irony here because Ms. Goldsmith's main character -- ''the Spiritualist, the 'high priestess' of free love . . . and part-time prostitute, the founder of the first stock brokerage firm for women, the disciple of Karl Marx, the blackmailer, the presidential candidate'' -- was indeed both sinner and saint.

She was also the person who, in a paroxysm of vengeful rage, exposed the sexual infidelities of Henry Ward Beecher, a liberal Calvinist who was the most famous post-bellum American preacher, the head of the prosperous and powerful Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Her expose led to one of those ''trials of the century'' that seem to come along in American life every decade or so. The trial (in which Beecher was harmed but far from ruined even as Woodhull suffered ruinous disgrace for attacking such an esteemed person) is the dramatic climax to a book that provides fascinating information on just about every page.

Ms. Goldsmith, a journalist whose other books include ''Johnson v. Johnson'' and ''Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last,'' goes far beyond the eventful life of Woodhull to write a pointed history of private life in the United States just before and just after the Civil War. Her dramatis personae include the women's suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; the pioneering civil rights leader Frederick Douglass; the business tycoons Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and the newspaper editors Theodore Tilton and Horace Greeley.

The rest of the enormous cast includes bold whorehouse madams and timid housewives, spirit readers and church deacons, murderers, thieves, mountebanks, socialist reformers, opportunistic vagabonds, and anti-pornography zealots, with Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Boss Tweed and Mark Twain making cameo appearances.

Ms. Goldsmith has used the life of Woodhull to gouge a large chunk out of the flinty rock of the American pageant. ''Other Powers'' is so full of closely detailed conflict and hypocrisy that it takes on a Dante-esque dimension. It is certainly a feminist book, with its focus on the mid-19th-century oppression of women and their efforts, under figures like Stanton, Anthony and, in her unorthodox way, Woodhull, to overcome that oppression.

One of the many stories Ms. Goldsmith traces is the early suffrage movement and its collapse into bitter factionalism. But Ms. Goldsmith keeps interpretation to a minimum. The most conspicuous elements of her book are the richness of its narrative, the complex and morally nuanced portraits of its characters and the author's tendency to present the little-known facts without judgment so readers can decide for themselves.

A main theme is the close and previously unappreciated connection between mid-19th-century American feminism and the vogue for the spirit world -- communicating with the dead, trance talking, magnetic healing and the like -- which swept the country, especially just after the Civil War. As she does with the suffrage movement, Ms. Goldsmith traces the rise and eventual decline of spiritualism, showing its origins in ''spirit rapping'' demonstrations in Rochester, and its acceptance by progressive, antislavery freethinkers who ''carried to an extreme the Quaker principle that God's laws were written in every human soul.''

In Ms. Goldsmith's view, ''faith in invisible powers, mediated not by preachers in their Calvinist pulpits, but accessible to all believers,'' was a form of empowerment for women who were, quite literally, the chattel of their husbands and fathers.

All of Ms. Goldsmith's various themes -- feminism and spiritualism, the reckless, salacious, zany opportunism of mid-century American life, the battle between official values and what was called freethinking -- coalesce into two intersecting narrative threads.

One is the picaresque story of Woodhull, beginning with her humble origins in rural Ohio, covering her brief, dazzling, tragic career as a spirit medium, courtesan, stockbroker and charismatic suffrage leader in New York in the late 1860's and early 70's.
The second is the instructive tale of Beecher and his adulterous relationship with the wife of Tilton, an influential radical Republican journalist.

Ms. Goldsmith's sure-handed treatment of these tumultuous, tragic narratives gives her book both compelling narrative power and an aura of reliability. Woodhull -- who is the subject of another recent biography, ''Notorious Victoria'' by Mary Gabriel (Algonquin Books) -- is a fabulously rich character who mixed forthrightness and courage with a willingness to engage in blackmail, an unquenchable megalomania and self-promotional mendacity. She seems to have actually believed that the spirits of Demosthenes and Napoleon were her guides. She was depicted as Mrs. Satan in a devastating drawing by the cartoonist Thomas Nast.

But Woodhull certainly penetrated to the heart of the self-satisfaction and hypocrisy of American Victorianism, whose chief representative here is Beecher. You finish Ms. Goldsmith's extraordinary story nearly out of breath, amazed at the depth of the moral laxity that undergirded the American establishment, astonished at the tragic heroism of the flawed character who tried to challenge it.

New York Times, Published: 03 - 18 - 1998 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 3 , Page 8

Who's Here: Barbara Goldsmith, Author

Dan's Papers, September 4, 1998

By Jerry Cimisi

"When I was in the fifth grade," said Barbara Goldsmith, "I wrote a story about a jester in a medieval court who made everybody laugh. But he was deformed and he knew he could never have any of the things that those who laughed at him had. When I read this story to my class some of the kids were crying. And I thought this is wonderful, this is what I want to do."

Barbara Goldsmith's current book, "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull" weaves the post Civil War women's movement and rise in spiritualism around the tragic, fiery character of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. Gloria Steinem described the book as "An intimate view of religion and prostitution, equality and spirituality, corruption and the cost of human hierarchies."

Ms. Goldsmith, of New York and East Hampton (she first came to the Hamptons in the '60s), has been dissecting and illuminating the historical and social scene of various eras before the expansive "Other Powers".

She was born in New York City and grew up in New Rochelle. A graduate of Wellesley ("Hillary's school," Ms. Goldsmith pointed out), she actually had a short story published -- in the "New Yorker" -- before she had entered college. She had started out to major in English but soon suffered an academic -- and artistic -- disappointment.

"I got a C on the first paper I wrote," she said, "because I used a dangling participle. I realized if I went through college this way I wouldn't be able to write when I got out. So I switched my major to art history; and when I got out I began to write about art."

She wrote for "The Herald Tribune" and, in 1968, was one of the founders of "New York" magazine. "I would do articles about Andy Warhol and Thomas Hoving, and much earlier I did interviews with movie stars -- Clark Gable, Cary Grant. I enjoyed writing about what made people tick and I enjoyed writing about celebrities: how fame affects people."

She talked about America's obsession with celebrity. "In this country we prefer image over reality -- because you can manipulate an image, change it to suit a particular need, to get a desired reaction from the public. In fact, I would say that a subtheme in all my work is image vs. reality.

"I recently read that only 56 percent of the people who go to the Grand Canyon actually see the Canyon itself: the rest of them are content to 'see' if from images in the museum at the park entrance. A lot of people seem to get a more 'real' experience from pictures and films of something than from the thing itself."

In 1975, Barbara Goldsmith published "The Straw Man", a novel about the art world. "It was a way of using all the things I'd learned about that world that I hadn't been able to put into articles," she said. "A collector with a $100 million collection dies and his son, who had basically been drifting along in life, contests the will -- in order to find a will of his own. And this leads him into all the machinations of the art world. John Kenneth Galbraith called it "the most brilliant piece of social criticism of the decade."

In 1985, "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last" came out. "This was not a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt's life," said Ms. Goldsmith. "The story is really about the rich in America before World War II and focuses around the custody battle between Gloria's mother and aunt over who would get to raise the girl.

Little Gloria's father was dead; Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was her mother, a socialite who spent much of her time in Europe and saw little of her daughter. The girl's aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney felt that she could raise the child best. The matter went to court; in the end, joint custody of little Gloria was the verdict. It was in doing research for that book that Barbara Goldsmith came across some comments from Cornelius Vanderbilt which would eventually lead the author to write "Other Powers".

In 1870, Vanderbilt had been asked just how he had made so much money. His reply: "Do as I do. Consult the spirits." In speaking of the stock of the Central Pacific Railroad, he said, "It's bound to go up . . . . Mrs. Woodhull said so in a trance." Victoria Woodhull, future presidential candidate, advocate of women's right to vote and free love, had begun her public life as a spiritualist.

Before "Other Powers", Ms. Goldsmith wrote "Johnson v. Johnson" (1988), another story of the rich embattled within the law. "When Seward Johnson, who had inherited the Johnson fortune died, he had left a good portion of it to his wife, Basia, a much younger Polish woman, who had been a maid for the Johnsons. Johnson's children, who were already getting a good deal of money contested the will.

"The result was that Basia Johnson got half a billion dollars, and each of the children got $30 million more added on to an already generous sum."

Ms. Goldsmith added, "I look at that book as a nonfiction 'Bleak House'. It was about how lawyers can escalate a matter that might have been settled over a cup of tea. In all, there were 32 lawyers involved in that case, who came away with $30 million in legal fees."

Barbara Goldsmith sees the arena of the law as a great mirror for whatever period one wants to research. "If you have the patience to wade through thousands of pages of legal documents and transcripts, you get a pretty good idea of what were the prevailing attitudes of the time."

"Other Powers" was published earlier this year. Its tragic central character, Victoria Woodhull, is both a leader and a victim of a time in which more than a few people were shocked at the thought of allowing women the vote, let alone that they should not be regarded as the property of a husband. "Sixteen states," said Barbara Goldsmith, "specified the instruments that could be used by husbands to but their wives and how they could be used."

Victoria Woodhull was conceived at a Methodist revival meeting. The daughter of a religious zealot, Roxanna Hummel, and Buck Claflin, who was a carnie, conman and thief, Victoria, like her mother, would hold spiritualist meetings. She was also a healer -- with magnets (a science that is being seriously explored today).

Apparently Victoria's connection to the spirits was not a con. She had been, in her own words, "a child without a childhood." Her parents farmed her out as a household drudge and kept her meager wages. Victoria later related that when exhaustion and the task at hand had seemed too much to bear, heavy objects were lifted for her by unseen hands and ". . . when walking it seemed my feet did not touch the ground."

The rational eye might say a severely unhappy child was seeking the irrational to cope with her life. In fact, an entire country, or at least a good portion thereof, was seeking the spirits.

"It was estimated," Barbara Goldsmith said, "That in the 1870s ten million people -- out of a population of 40 million -- called themselves spiritualists. I believe that it was a direct outgrowth of the Civil War, in which people saw sons and brothers and husbands and lovers go off and never come back. They had not only died, but had died so horribly, in such numbers. There is the account of a man who literally walked on the bodies of the dead at Antietam for a quarter of a mile, there was no space between the dead bodies, in order to find his son's corpse, which he did eventually find. With all this, so many people could just not accept the dead were truly gone. There had to be a link to them somewhere.

"It was also a time," she added, "when Morse had invented the telegraph. Spiritualists said there was a spiritual telegraph to the dead."

It was not merely in embracing spiritualism but her involvement in the emerging women's movement of the last decades of the century that made Victoria Woodhull "emblematic of her time", said Barbara Goldsmith. "She was married to an alcoholic doctor; that's where she got the name Woodhull. Later she married Colonel James Blood, who had been with the Sixth Missouri Regiment in the Civil War."

The couple would eventually divorce as a protest against the laws and institution of marriage, but continued to live together.

Victoria Woodhull became a very public (and, again, tragic) figure in this era; butit is also the time of women whose names are better know: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who would view the tempestuous Woodhull as both a sister in a common struggle and a person so much given to personal flights and conflicts that she hindered the cause of women as much as aided it.

"When Woodhull ran for president in 1872 on the People's Party, against U.S. Grant and Horace Greeley, Stanton and Anthony did not support her. Anthony said, 'She's trying to run our ship into her own port.'"

Though not many years later, both women would acknowledge their debt, as Victoria Woodhull was being prosecuted (indeed, persecuted) in the courts and thrown into the Tombs, Stanton said, "Victoria Woodhull has done a work for woman that none of us could have done. She has faced and dared men to call her the names that make women shudder . . . . Leaping into brambles that were too high for us to see over them, she broke a path . . ."

Victoria Woodhull was the first woman presidential candidate in the history of the United States. She was 34 at the time. Two years before, in 1870, she and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, had started a newspaper, "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly". Tennessee, along with Victoria, had been a young spiritualist, much in the mold of her mother. In fact, on the eve of the Civil War, as Ms. Goldsmith writes, "Tennessee had become her father's golden goose". He'd bring her into a town, advertise her spiritualist powers "a super-natural gift," charge a dollar for a "consultation," and clean up.

At the end of the decade, Tennessee was mistress to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who put her in business and then gave her and her sister money to start a paper. Under the large bold print of the name of "Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly", was the motto, "PROGRESS! FREE THOUGH! UNTRAMMELED LIVES!" Victoria's husband, James Blood, was listed as managing editor. It was on the front page of the paper in 1871 that Victoria announced her candidacy for the presidency. The periodical promoted women's rights and spiritualism ("edited in one world, published in another"); and above all was a great publicity vehicle for Victoria Woodhull.

If both sisters, Tennessee and Victoria, lived in a world run by men, they apparently thought nothing of using their power as desirable women to further their own interests. There was Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Victoria had taken her husband, Col. Blood from his previous wife -- the colonel had brought his wife to Woodhull for healing of some physical ailment. A political supporter of Woodhull and the right of women to vote was Congressman Benjamin Butler. If he and Victoria actually enjoyed physical consummation is not know, but she certainly visited him alone at night. When Butler was asked about the rumor that he had offered to prod the Judiciary Committee toward the cause of woman suffrage if he could gaze upon Mrs. Woodhull naked, Butler replied, "Half truths kill."

Victoria Woodhull preached free love. One supposes that to her it meant a woman could pursue her desires with the freedom with which she saw men pursuing theirs. Of course, as with all so called free thinkers, she suffered her own passions of possessiveness. Ms. Goldsmith said, "She threw a pair of shears at Col. Blood when she thought he was involved with another woman."

But it was the desires of a famous man, not towards Victoria, that eventually resulted in Mrs. Woodhull's greatest trials and ultimate exile from America.

Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin", was, one might say, the Billy Graham of his day: a Famous and well respected man of the cloth. But in the end he was more like Jimmy Swaggert than Graham. From his Brooklyn pulpit, Beecher denounced Woodhull as the height of immorality. It was, of course, a view others shared. Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist, depicted Woodhull with devil's horns and clawed wings bearing a sign that said, "BE SAVED BY FREE LOVE." Beneath the drawing was the caption, "Get thee behind me, Mrs. Satan."

But as Beecher cast "Mrs. Satan" out into the spiritual wilderness of his own judgement, he was at the same time carrying on an affair with the wife of a parishioner. "Woodhull asked Beecher to stop attacking her or she would make known what he was doing," said Ms. Goldsmith. "She told him, 'You practice what you preach.'"

But Beecher paid no heed. Smug in his public sanctity, he denied rumors of the affair to his sister Harriet. But Woodhull published his guilt in her paper -- and was arrested. For pornography.

"She was charged under the Comstock Laws," said Barbara Goldsmith. "Anthony Comstock was the Special Agent for the U.S. Post Office in charge of pornography. Comstock had someone send Woodhull's paper to Connecticut so that he, Comstock, could go there himself, pick up the paper -- and Woodhull be charged with transporting pornography across state lines. Comstock was ill at the time, he had a bad cold, but he made the trip, zealot that he was.

The Comstock laws were in fact on the books until very recently, when they were deemed unconstitutional when the religious right tried to use them against material on the Internet."

Due to these charges, Woodhull suffered through three trials in two years, as well as stints in the Tombs, the underground prison in Manhattan. In each trial she was exonerated, but as a result of being continually dragged through this legal torture, she became broken materially, emotionally and spiritually. She left America after this ordeal, went to England in 1877, met a rich banker, married him, "and ended her days as Mrs. John Biddulph Martin, a rich English lady."

Ms. Goldsmith added that during the rest of Woodhull's life (she was only in her late 30s when she left the country) she was involved in the women's movement only peripherally. It was a life that had begun with a band and seemed to have ended with a whimper. Though one could easily see that in the years when Victoria Woodhull was a very public figure she had lived so much on the edge it is not surprising she almost certainly exhausted any further desire for activism and confrontation.

In 1876, Elizabeth Cady Stanton linked Woodhull's life to "a meteor's dash."

At the end of "Other Powers", Barbara Goldsmith writes: "She was a woman before her time in a world not ready to receive her."

Before her death in 1927, Victoria Woodhull wrote of herself, "Whoever I am, whatever I have done, belongs to the spirits."

Twenty years ago, when researching "Little Gloria", Barbara Goldsmith had been piqued by Vanderbilt's remark about Woodhull and the spirits. It is the mark of the artist to sense the worlds behind the briefest image. "Other Powers" took then years to research and write, says Mrs. Goldsmith. The book is the brilliantly recreated story of an era that is a like our own time as much as it is unlike it. When Woodhull ran for president, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, "Whoever is set up to be President of the United States is just set up to have his character torn off from his back in shreds and to be mauled, pummeled and covered in dirt by every filthy paper all over the country."

Words that could certainly be applied to the current president. Thought in our day it is hardly likely Victoria Woodhull would have suffered through the trials and imprisonment that she did for confronting the sins of a powerful preacher.

What we do see in "Other Powers" is that our age very much grew out of the age of that post-Civil war time. Woman have gained so much; and have yet much to gain. "The figure is," said Barbara Goldsmith, "that women still earn only 74 cents to every dollar men earn."

Ms. Goldsmith is a recent presidential appointee: to the Presidential Commission for the Celebration of Women in American History. She is also involved in, as she put is, "my avocation," of paper preservation, "making sure what is written lasts three hundred years instead of decaying in thirty."

With "Other Powers", Barbara Goldsmith has saved from the decay of historical forgetfulness the unfortunate Victoria Woodhull and the hopes and hypocrisies of an age we would do well to study to better apprehend the public and private qualities of our own time.