Victoria Woodhull — Speaking out for Free Love; going to jail.

Victoria Woodhull — in typical radical pose for the 1870s: no bonnet, no shawl, and short-cut hair. 

Free Love:

     “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 exchange that love every day if I
      please…. and with that right neither you nor any law you can frame has any right to interfere….”

The Boston crowd screamed wildly — half booing and hissing, half cheering — when Victoria Woodhull shouted these words in January 1872.  Not surprisingly, more Americans back then saw her as the “Mrs. Satan” in the cartoon below, leading poor women to sin and poverty, that as the respectable face in the handsome photo of her above.  Victoria Woodhull earned her spot as the most noticed, emphatic, assertive, talented, envied, and (as a result) vilified, mocked, and slandered women in the country during the early 1870s, that free-wheeling period after the Civil War called the Flash Age.  

As a girl, she performed in her parents’ traveling medicine and fortune-telling shows.  She came to New York City in 1868 a vivacious 30year-old, already twice divorced.  She set up housekeeping with two husbands — one current, one former — and set up shop with her younger sister Tennessee (later Tennie C.) as spiritualist clairvoyants.  Victoria claimed to channel Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator.  Her sister Tennessee’s healing massages soon won the physical affection of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in town.  

Woodhull as “Mrs. Satan”
in 1872
Harpers Weekly

Fearless and with a sharp eye for publicity, Victoria quickly recorded a remarkable string of firsts:

  • She and Tennessee started the first women-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street, with help and trading tips from Vanderbilt; 

  • She then used the money they made to start a newspaper, Woodhall and Claflin’s Weekly, favoring free love, women’s rights, and a ten-hour work day.  In December 1871, she published the full text of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, its first appearance in the US; 
  • She became the first women to run for President of the United  States, nominated in 1872 by the Equal Rights Party. Notably, she was under age, and her VP running mate, Frederick Douglass, supported one of her opponents, Republican Ulysses S Grant.
And then there was the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal, the one that landed her in jail.  

The Adultery Scandal:

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn’s popular Plymouth Church, was a uniquely well-liked public figure in America at the time.  His Sunday sermons reached far beyond his packed church, carried in newspaper columns across the country.  Dynamic and handsome, he was also cheating on his wife Eunice, the mother of his ten children.  Beecher had seduced the wife of one of his church followers, Theodore Tilton, and reputedly many others as well.   Eunice Beecher, distraught over the affair, finally told her friend Susan B. Anthony about it.  Anthony told the story to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who made the mistake of repeating it to Victoria Woodhull.  

Woodhull appearing before Congress’s House Judiciary
Committee,  from Leslie’s Illustrated, February 1871

Woodhull was appalled.  This same Henry Ward Beecher had publicly mocked her for her own “free love” speeches, yet here he was doing the same thing — only in secret and at his wife’s expense.  Victoria Woodhull,  decided there was only one thing to do with such a hypocrite coward.  Call him out !!!

And so, in the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly of November 2, 1872, Victoria led with a splashy front-page column exposing all the dirty laundry of the Beecher family, calling Reverend Beecher himself a hypocrite, and daring him to sue.

Slanderous?  Tawdry?  Intrusive?  None of her business?  Yes to all these things.  Today we call it “sleazy tabloid journalism” — but that alone was not enough to put Victoria Woodhuill in jail, even in 1872.  

Instead, there was something worse.  Around this time in New York City, there lived a stout, pugnacious young man named Anthony Comstock obsessed with pornography and vice.  Backed by wealthy patrons like banker J.P. Morgan, Comstock had launched a crusade. He had convinced the local YMCA to create a New York Society for the Suppression of Vice with himself at its head, and had convinced the United States Congress to pass a law making it a crime to send obscene material through the US mail.  (Full disclosure: I once considered writing a book about Comstock, but in doing the research I found him so odious that I decided I did not want to have my own name attached to his in Google searches till the end of time.)  

Comstock had already run a few small-time smut dealers out of business, and drove one of them to suicide.  He now read Victoria Woodhull’s article about Henry Ward Beecher’s adultery and decided to make a bigger score.  Anthony Comstock decided that, to his eye, the article was obscene.  Among other things, it contained the words “token” and “virginity.”  And it traveled through the US mail — a crime.  He quickly obtained a federal arrest warrrant and instructed two burly marshals to waylay Victoria and sister Tennessee one day at their office after returning from a carriage ride.  

Behind Bars:
Victoria and Tennessee quickly found themselves in big trouble, placed under arrest and held for questioning at New York’s federal courthouse.  Passions ran high at this point against “Mrs. Satan,” an uppity woman talking Free Love, mocking politicians, and now staining the good name of a church leader.  “An example is needed, and we propose to make one of these women,” said U.S. Commissioner Osborn setting their initial bail at an eye-popping, unaffordable $8,000 apiece (about $200,000 apiece in modern money).    

The authorities immediately took Victoria and Tennessee and locked them up inside New York’s Ludlow Street Jail.  To make things worse, the police also arrested Victoria’s husband (the current one) and two men who worked at the Weekly, and  destroyed thousands of copies of the newspaper.  Typical of 1870s newspapers, the New-York Times, in covering the initial court hearing, failed to even notice the gross violation of free speech underway, focusing instead on Victoria’s clothes (a black dress with purple bows) and facial expression (she looked “grave and severe” while Tennessee looked “indignant.”). 

The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher denied everything — causing major grumbling among people who knew better — and the public backed him.  A federal grand jury indicted Victoria and Tennessee under Comstock’s anti-obscenity law, and one of Beecher’s church friends filed a libel suit as well.  It would take a full month of legal wrangling, until December 3, for Victoria and her sister finally to be freed on bail that, for the multiple cases, ending up totalling $16,000 apiece.  During this entire time, the judge never allowed Victoria to answer the obscenity charge in a public hearing.  Instead, her only chance to speak came through a single letter she snuck out to the New York Herald in which she declared herself “sick in mind, sick in body, sick in heart…. because I am a women, I am to have no justice, no fair play, no chance through the press to reach public opinion.”

The legal costs almost bankrupted Victoria Woodhull and her newspaper.  Most auditoriums now black-listed her speeches.  Still, she left Ludlow Street Jail full of fight.  She immediately issued a new edition of Wooodhull and Claflin’s Weekly detailing all the legal conniving and used the publicity to pack out-of-the-way venues for her new featured speech performance: “Moral Cowardice and Moral Hypocrisy, or Four Weeks in the Ludlow Street Jail.”  Comstock had her arrested two more times, resulting in another week in the Ludlow Street Jail, a night at The Tombs — New York’s maximum security prison — and thousands more spent in bail money.  But when Victoria finally had the chance for a trial on the original obscenity change in June 1873, the judge found the case so weak that he threw it out before it even reached the jury.  

And more:  Theodore Tilton, husband of the women seduced by Henry Ward Beecher, finally had enough of the Reverend’s evasions and went public.  His lawsuit against Beecher over the affair would produce the first great media circus celebrity sex-scandal trial in America.  (The trial ended in a hung jury, a technical win for Beecher.)

All all this was not enough to save Victoria Woodhull.  After the Beecher-Comstock episode, she found her reputation destroyed, constantly harrassed by lawsuits and slanders.  In 1877, she finally called it quits and sailed to England where she married a rich British blue-blood banker named John Biddulph Martin. Here, she gave lectures, started a new magazine (The Humanist), and moved to remote Bredon’s Norton where she made her home a refuge for wayward eccentric Americans, then to Brighton near the sea.  A spritely old lady until 1927, she became the first women to drive a motorcar, to predict trans-Altantic flight, and to predict wireless radio.  

If you’ve never heard of Victoria Woodhull because nobody bothered to mention her in your high school or college history classes, don’t let them get away with it!!   Before Women’s History Month is over, check out one of these good books: 
Mrs. Satan: The incredible saga of Victoria C. Woodhull by Johanna Johnston (1976); or
The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher dy Debby Applegate (2006).

Next up, Emma Goldman…..


On Susan B. Anthony’s trail — Ohio’s South Newbury Union Chapel

The South Newbury Union Chapel in Newbury, Ohio.

Last time, I told you the story of how Susan B. Anthony had one chance to vote for president of the United States in her lifetime, in 1872,  and was thrown in jail as a result. (Click here for the story.)

Here’s a photo sent by Guest Blogger  Jim Robenalt taken from Remarkable Ohio, the fine website of the Ohio Historical Society, showing the South Newbury Union Chapel, where Susan B. Anthony gave many of her subsequent speeches on women’s suffrage.  Note how small the building is, but how big an impact had.  Here’s the description:

           “Called the ‘Cradle of Equal Suffrage’ and ‘Free Speech Chapel,’ Union Chapel was to be ‘…open and free for all denominations, but to be monopolized by no one or to the exclusion of anyone.’

           “Built in 1858 or 1859 on land donated by Anson Ma it tthews, the chapel reputedly exists in response to incident triggered by James A. Garfield, then principal of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) and later president of the United States. He was scheduled to speak at the Congregationists’ ‘Brick Church’ in December 1857. Because of the supposed controversial nature of Garfield’s speech, however, the invitation was withdrawn.  Outraged citizens built Union Chapel in response. 

           “Fulfilling its mission, the chapel welcomed groups crusading for many causes in late 19th century America, including women’s dress reform and temperance. One of the most active groups at the chapel was the Newbury Woman’s Suffrage Political Club, founded in January 1874. The chapel was the club’s meeting place and the site of lectures by Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Taylor Upton, leaders in the woman’s suffrage movement. The chapel also hosted singing schools, plays, and other social, religious, and political gatherings.” 

Next time you’re in Ohio, check it out.  

Susan B. Anthony — Casting her first vote; going to jail.

Susan B. Anthony in 1848, as a 28 year-old school teacher in upstate New York,  shortly before meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton and joining the movement for women’s rights.

 She always looks so stern in her photographs, even her face on the $1 gold coin.  I looked hard to find one that showed her smiling or laughing, but came up empty.  If any of you has one, please send it to me so I can post it here.

Susan B. Anthony dollar —
still not smiling.
Susan B. Anthony devoted herself to causes: ending slavery, temperance, and the one she’s most famous for, winning women the right to vote.  She lived 86 years, until 1906, and spent most of that time traveling the country giving thousands of speeches for the cause.  But she never saw it happen in her lifetime.  America would not give women the right to vote in Federal elections until 1920.  Never, that is, except once….

The vote: 
That one time came in 1872 when she was 52 years old — already a grizzled activist veteran.  Susan B. Anthony fully expected the men at the desk to tell her “no” that day, November 2, when she and two women friends stopped by the courthouse in Rochester, New York, and asked if they might register.  Women had never yet been allowed to vote anyplace in the USA in 1872, except the Wyoming territory.  Still, the newly-minted 14th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1868 after the Civil War to protect freed black slaves, guaranteed equal rights to all citizens.  Were not women ciitizens?  Did this not include the right to vote?  

Nobody had yet tested the idea.  So Susan B. Anthony decided to go first.  To her delight, none of the voting officials complained that day.  They let her write her name in the registration book, and that was that.  She told some friends about it and, within 24 hours, fourteen other local women also registered to vote.

Susan B. Anthony, circa 1872, 
still stern-looking at 52 years old.

Election Day 1872 came two days later, on November 5, and Susan B. Anthony came early to cast her ballot.  This time, when her turn came, a poll watcher named Sylvester Lewis raised his voice to object.  New York State law limited voting to men, he argued, making her vote illegal.   

In respense, the chief inspector at the polling place, a man named Beverly Waugh Jones, asked Susan B. Anthony to please take an oath.  Then he asked her some questions:  Was she a US citizen?  Yes, she said.  Did she live in Rochester’s 8th Ward?  Yes.  Had she accepted any bribe for her vote?  Certainly not.  

Amazingly, with that, inspector Jones took her ballot and placed it in the box.  The fiirst woman’s vote for president in American history was thus duly cast for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.  “Successful Attempt of Women to Vote in Rochester,” announced the New York Times.   It was time to celebrate.  Or so it seemed.

The arrest:
But then, twelve days later, came a knock at the door of her home in Rochester.  Susan B. Anthony answered it and immediately found herself facing a deputy federal marshall asking her to accompany him downtown.  “What for?” she asked.   “To arrest you,” the marshall replied.  It seems the poll watcher had complained, and the US government had decided that a crime had taken place. 

If it seems strange today, in 2011, that a women (or any person of any sex) could be arrested in America simply for voting,  it should.  Yes, we have rights in this country, and they are fundamental to us.  But they are also very fragile, and it is way too easy to take them for granted.  In almost every case, before the rest of us can start enjoying those rights, somebody had to go first and fight for them.  That was Susan B. Anthony.  

Cartoon mocking Susan B. Anthony
for wanting to vote.

Facing the deputy marshall at her door that morning in 1872, Susan B. Anthony not only didn’t mind being arrested, she insisted on it.  Having never been arrested before, she asked him if this was the way he arrested men?   When he said no, she shot back:  “Then I demand that I should be arrested properly.”  If that was unlady-like, then so be it.

And so the great legal case of United States v. Susan B. Anthony began.  A federal grand jury indicted her for intentional casting of an illegal vote. They offered to release her on bail, but she refused to pay it and was placed under custody of a federal marshal.  .  Her lawyer– a very good one named Henry Selden — filed for a habeas corpus writ for her release, but the judge refused it.  Just for good measure, the Rochester police also arrested the voting inspectors who had accepted her ballot, and they too refused bail.    Enemies mocked and vilified her, as in this cartoon.

The news quickly flashed across the country:  “Woman arrested for casting illegal vote.”  Supporters organized protest rallies, and Susan B. Anthony supplied then a constant stream of material: speeches, letters, and interviews.  The authorities allowed her to travel in  mid-January 1873 to Washington, D.C., but only if the federal marshall came along so she wouldn’t escape.  In her speech there, she described her arrest this way:  “When arrested, I was taken to the office of the United States Commissioner in Rochester — in the very same room where fugitive slaves … were examined and turned over to their masters for bondage.  Never till then did I fully realize the ease and rapidity with which an American citizen can be deprived of his or her liberty.” 

The trial:
The trial took place in June 1973 in Canandaigua, New York, before a jury of 12 men. ( Click here for more details.).  The Judge, Ward Hunt, a non-nonsense Utica politico, took a narrow view of the 14th Amendment.  Susan B. Anthony asked to testify, wanting to explain that she was no criminal because she had voted in good faith in the belief that her vote was legal, but Judge Hunt found her “incompetent” and denied the request.  Then, rather than risk having the jury take her side, Judge Hunt ordered a “directed verdict,” that is, he determined that there were no issues of fact to decide and instructed the jury to return a verdict of guilty.   (In 1895, twenty years later, New York State’s own Court of Appeals would find this proceduire unacceptable in state criminal cases.) 

Susan B. Anthony’s lawyer then insisted that the jury members be polled so they could speak for themselves.  Again, Judge Hunt refused.

It all seemd pretty well locked up, until Judge Hunt made one big mistake.  As with any defendant at the end of a trial, he asked if she had anything to say before he pronounced sentence.  Asking Susan B. Anthony if she had anything to say — especially in a crowded coutroom brimming with newspaper reporters — was not the way to keep things quiet. 

Given the chance, Susan B. Anthony immediately stood up and launched into an eloquent, searing, and blunt indictment of the preposterously unfair trial, unfair law, and unfair judge.   “Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government.  My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.”  

Judge Hunt immediate saw his mistake.  He started banging his gavel and told her to sit down.  Not a chance.  Instead, she lectured him.  “May it please the court to remember that since the day of my arrest last November, this is the first time that either myself or any person of my disenfranchised class has been allowed a word of defense before judge or jury.”  She then explained why she believed she had the right to vote, how the 14th Amendment worked, how this same court in Rochester had ignored the Fugitive Slave Law back in the 1850s, and why the trial was unfair — how she had failed “even, to get a trial by a jury not of my peers.”
At least seven times during the harrangue Judge Hunt interrupted Susan B. Anthory and told her to sit down and be quiet.   But she just kept on talking, politely, clearly, and directly.  The newsmen wrote it all down.

When she finished, she sat down.   But then Judge Hunt ordered her to stand up  again.  “The sentence of the court is that you pay a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of the procesution,” he announced from the bench.

“May it please your honor, I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty,” she replied, standing at her seat.  She never did.  He never did anything about it.   [By contrast, the male inspectors who allowed her to vote in 1872 were tried and convicted as well.  The judge ordered them to pay a  fine of $25 which they too refused.  But the men were thrown in jail until President Grant pardoned them later in 1874.]

Susan B. Anthony lost her court case but she won her point.  She would spend the rest of her life lobbying and rabble-rousing for adoption of a Constitutional amendment allowing women the right to vote.  She, along with her friend and partner-in-advocacy Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would be celebrated as the founding heroes of women’s right in America, culminating in her face on the $1 gold coin in 1979.  

So for Women’s History Month, my favorite to start is Susan B. Anthony.  Let her scowl all she wants in her photographs.  She’s  welcome any time on this Blog.

Special: Women’s History Month

Ms. Apolinaria Gutierrez Garrett, wife of famous frontier sheriff Pat Garrett, holding the gun he used in 1881 to kill Billy the Kid.  Photo circa 1920.   More on Pat Garrett later ….

March is Women’s History Month.   For we zealots here at Viral History, this is cause for yet another party.   

To celebrate, this month we will give you three iconic moments from three favorite American women:

Stay tuned all March for plenty of good stuff.  

[As for Ms. Pat Garrett, top of page, one of the generation of no-nonsense women who helped settle the Old West, don’t be surprised to see a set of posts on Old West lawmen coming up in the not-too-distant future.] 

Meanwhile, here are a few links on Women’s History Month.  Enjoy — 

  — International Women’s Day
  — Library of Congress
  — National Women’s History Project