Edward Renehan: Strange Bedfellows: Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and the Woodhull/Claflins

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Renehan is the author of Commodore: The Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Basic/Perseus, 2007) and other books including Dark Genius of Wall Street, The Kennedys at War, The Lion's Pride, The Secret Six, and John Burroughs: An American Naturalist. He lives in Rhode Island. Find his blog at http:/renehan.typepad.com.]

During September of 1868, barely a month after the death of his wife Sophia, 74-year-old mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt made the acquaintance of two sisters with whom he was to have a complex and absurd relationship for several years going forward.

Victoria Woodhull was a 30-old clairvoyant and spiritualist. She was also a onetime prostitute. Victoria's nubile, 22-year-old sister, Tennessee Claflin, known as Tennie, shared a similar professional history. Tennie claimed expertise as a practitioner of medicinal magnetism and manual manipulation of the limbs.

The two had been born in Ohio. They spent their early years traveling in a medicine show with their gypsy-like parents, who promoted the girls as psychic healers, spiritualists and fortune-tellers. In time, the menu of services grew, and the father – Reuben Buckman ("Buck") Claflin – seems to have become something more than just a side-show barker for his daughters. He also became their pimp.

At the tender age of 15, Victoria began the process of suffering marriage to the much older Canning Woodhull, a Cincinnati "physician" of sorts who deployed Victoria as a saleswoman for his various quack medicines. Victoria had given birth to two children by the time she finally escaped the tender embraces of the alcoholic, womanizing Woodhull. She divorced when she was 26, after travels that had taken the couple as far west as San Francisco. Subsequently, she married Colonel James Harvey Blood: a man closer to her own age who (like the brilliant, precocious, charismatic Victoria herself) had come to believe in the doctrine of free love. (The couple also professed allegiance to a variety of other then-radical ideals including socialism and women's suffrage.)

Blood and Victoria settled in New York City in 1866, where she joined her father and her sister Tennie already in residence. In short order, Victoria opened a salon where, joined by Tennie, she practiced a variety of profitable trades. Sometimes the sisters were magnetic healers, sometimes spiritualists, sometimes fortune-tellers, and sometimes whores brandishing their wears under the reform banner of "free love," for a price.

Both, however, harbored great ambitions. Victoria, in particular, claimed a special impetus for her presence in Manhattan. She told anyone who would listen that the Greek orator Demosthenes had appeared to her at a séance in Pittsburgh during which he insisted she go to New York. There she was to make her fortune and, eventually, rise to rule her country.

Vanderbilt had, for some time, been a believer in spiritualism. Through the years he'd regularly made pilgrimages to the Staten Island home of a "Mrs. Tufts" through whom he believed he could commune with a variety of spirits from the nether world: his mother and George Washington among them. Tufts eventually exacted large fees from Vanderbilt in exchange for ridding him of two spirits by whom he believed he was haunted. One was a young boy he'd accidentally crushed beneath the hooves of his trotters as he'd raced around the Central Park Reservoir. The other was a railroad worker who'd been decapitated beneath the wheels of a New York Central train called, ominously, The Flying Devil. With what she made on those two exorcisms, Tufts was able to retire to Vermont.

Tufts appears to have removed to Vermont not long before Sophia died. Thereafter, though he felt no need to raise the specter of his dead wife, Vanderbilt was nevertheless in the market for a new spiritualist adviser.

Vanderbilt also professed a great interest in the quack science of magnetic and massage healing.

Hearing of Vanderbilt's fascination with these various "sciences," Buck Claflin sensed an opportunity. Thus, in the autumn of 1868, Buck paid a call on the Commodore, who was just one year his senior. Buck pitched Victoria as a spiritualist and clairvoyant, and Tennie as a healer. "She [Tennie] was experienced at the laying on of hands," writes Victoria's biographer Mary Gabriel, "which was supposed to magnetize the patient and act as a kind of electric prod to jolt his system back into shape. No doubt it did. With her full, sensuous mouth, teasing eyes, and expert hands, Tennessee was just the lighthearted hellion to work wonders on the Commodore's aged body and revive his sagging spirits."

As Gabriel reports, Tennie soon began spending much time with Vanderbilt outside of their medicinal sessions, "even bringing her to his [downtown] office [adjacent to his Washington Place home], where he would sit the 'little sparrow,' as he called her, on his knee and bounce her up and down as he talked railroad business. She told him jokes, read him the newspapers, and, pulling his whiskers, called him 'old boy.'"

The two had clearly become lovers. "Tennessee was the one [of the sisters] who captivated the Commodore most completely," writes Johanna Johnston. "She liked to talk with the same colloquial vulgarity that he did. She knew how to liven her magnetic treatments with unexpected tickles, squeezed or slaps. Before long, Vanderbilt ...was reaching for the magnetic hands of the healer to draw her into bed with him. Naturally obliging, Tennessee did not protest unduly."

For several months throughout the winter and spring of 1869, Tennie became a regular fixture at Vanderbilt's Manhattan townhouse on Washington Place. "The servants grew used to finding her, rosy and tousled, in the Commodore's bed in the morning." Vanderbilt's personal physician, the worldly Jared Linsly, expressed approval of Tennie's "invigorating" presence, about which he harbored no delusions; but Linsly also noted the slow, inevitable decline of the Commodore's mental acuity due to advanced syphilis making inevitable inroads. "He is often childish," wrote Linsly, "and therefore lucky to have so attractive and willing a plaything as Miss Tennessee to divert him, while others, more capable, go about his material affairs."

Even after Vanderbilt married a much younger cousin in 1869, he continued for a time to indulge Woodhull and Claflin, and continued to sleep with Tennie whenever possible.

A year and a half after their first meeting, Vanderbilt provided the financing with which the sisters set themselves up as stock brokers on New York's Broad Street. Chronicling the launch of Wall Street's first female firm, a New York Times article of February 5, 1870 noted that the financial district had found itself "aroused" by the two "adventurers." The Times said the scene at the opening of Woodhull, Claflin & Co., "beggered description. ... The place was thronged from early morning until late at night by a crowd of curiosity hunters, who gazed at the females and besieged them with questions." Not a few of the questions concerned the women's recent history.

"About a year ago, at 17 Great Jones Street, the parties who compose the stock brokerage firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Co., were magnetic physicians and clairvoyants. They charged $25 in advance for their services, advertised largely, and guaranteed wonderful cures. For a time business went on swimmingly. But at last a turn came in the tide. The clairvoyant powers becoming exhausted or discovered to be all humbug, they took another tack and have anchored their craft on Broad Street."

Near the end of its piece, the Times duly reported a denial by "friends" of Cornelius Vanderbilt that he had any involvement in subsidizing the new operation. The Times also issued an injunction and a prediction. "The scenes of yesterday are, to say the least, disgraceful in the extreme. Insulting remarks and shameful allusions were carried to the ears of the women ... by the throng that curiously gathered ... and who sang and whistled after the fashion of a Bowery pit. A short, speedy winding up of the firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. is predicted." Speaking to a Herald reporter who seemed to delight in interviewing the women he called Wall Street's "bewitching brokers," Tennie was less dogmatic than others in denying Vanderbilt's involvement. "Commodore Vanderbilt is my friend," she noted, "but I will not say anything more concerning that matter."

The Times was accurate in predicting a short life for the brokerage, because within months the sisters were onto something else altogether, administered out of the same office. First published in early May of 1870, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly focused on the themes of women's suffrage and free love, but also sought to advance "knowledge" of spiritualism as well as explore trends in political and economic reform. The paper lobbied for vegetarianism and legalization of prostitution, and on December 30th, 1871, the sisters made history by hosting the first American publication of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto.

During 1872 Woodhull used the paper to support her role as the new Equal Rights Party's candidate for president of the United States. (The party's announced vice-presidential contender, Frederick Douglass, refused the draft to the extent that he did not even acknowledge receipt of notification of his nomination, and instead served as a presidential elector for the Republican ticket in New York State.) Tennie ran for Congress on the Equal Rights ticket in the same election, campaigning in a Manhattan district.

Ironically, election night of 1872 found both Woodhull and Claflin in Manhattan's Ludlow Street jail. Several days before, they and Colonel Blood had been arrested on a charge of having sent obscene literature through the U.S. mails. The November 2nd issue of the Weekly featured salacious details of an alleged affair between renowned minister Henry Ward Beecher and one Elizabeth Tilton. Beecher, the internationally-famous rector of Brooklyn's Plymouth Church, had been a longtime critic of Victoria's. He was also an outspoken, perhaps hypocritical, opponent of free love. The woman in question was the wife of Beecher's once-devoted assistant, Theodore Tilton, who was himself, coincidentally, one of Victoria's many lovers.

The sisters and Blood were to spend nearly a month in jail before being released. Eventually, Theodore Tilton sued Beecher for alienation of affections, leading to a sensational 1875 trial. This trial ended in a hung jury while at the same time exhausting what little public goodwill Woodhull and Claflin still enjoyed.

By that time, however, the sisters had long been out of Vanderbilt's life. As of mid-1871, at the insistence of his new wife Frank Crawford Vanderbilt, the sisters were denied access to Vanderbilt's Washington Place townhouse, and Vanderbiltian funds stopped flowing their way. In May of 1871, just a few weeks prior to the final closing of Vanderbilt's doors, the Commodore had been embarrassed by having his name come up in an interfamily lawsuit involving the Claflins. "I am a clairvoyant; I am a spiritualist; I have power and I know my power," Tennie had informed a crowded New York courtroom. "Many of the best men in the street know my power. Commodore Vanderbilt knows my power. I have humbugged people, I know. But if I did it, it was to make money ..."

Not long after, in February of 1872, candidate Woodhull delivered and published a speech in which she criticized Vanderbilt and other railroad magnates as betrayers of the public trust.

Nevertheless, three years later, the by-then financially-desperate Victoria and Tennie published an open-appeal to Vanderbilt in the pages of the Weekly. "We want our hands supported," they wrote. "We want our Paper endowed beyond the fear of disaster ... we want the cause of Her emancipation assisted that it may become an active moving power. To do all this, would require a paltry sum only when compared with your many millions – a sum whose absence neither you nor your heirs would scarcely feel; but which for what we ask it, would be salvation indeed."

Within a few weeks, when there was no response from Vanderbilt, the sisters decided to find a new market for their struggling paper. Nearly instantly, they dropped the themes of free love and spiritualism, and adopted Catholicism. Their hoped-for new constituency of readers did not miraculously materialize, however. In the absence of Divine intervention, the Weekly folded in short order. Neither of the sisters ever saw their old benefactor again after mid-1871.

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