The Scarlet Sisters

Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age


By Myra MacPherson

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A fresh look at the life and times of Victoria Woodhull and Tennie Claflin, two sisters whose radical views on sex, love, politics, and business threatened the white male power structure of the nineteenth century and shocked the world. Here award-winning author Myra MacPherson deconstructs and lays bare the manners and mores of Victorian America, remarkably illuminating the struggle for equality that women are still fighting today.

Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin-the most fascinating and scandalous sisters in American history-were unequaled for their vastly avant-garde crusade for women’s fiscal, political, and sexual independence. They escaped a tawdry childhood to become rich and famous, achieving a stunning list of firsts. In 1870 they became the first women to open a brokerage firm, not to be repeated for nearly a century.

Amid high gossip that he was Tennie’s lover, the richest man in America, fabled tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, bankrolled the sisters. As beautiful as they were audacious, the sisters drew a crowd of more than two thousand Wall Street bankers on opening day. A half century before women could vote, Victoria used her Wall Street fame to become the first woman to run for president, choosing former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate. She was also the first woman to address a United States congressional committee. Tennie ran for Congress and shocked the world by becoming the honorary colonel of a black regiment.

They were the first female publishers of a radical weekly, and the first to print Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto in America. As free lovers they railed against Victorian hypocrisy and exposed the alleged adultery of Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher in America, igniting the “Trial of the Century” that rivaled the Civil War for media coverage. Eventually banished from the women’s movement while imprisoned for allegedly sending “obscenity” through the mail, the sisters sashayed to London and married two of the richest men in England, dining with royalty while pushing for women’s rights well into the twentieth century. Vividly telling their story, Myra MacPherson brings these inspiring and outrageous sisters brilliantly to life.


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Cast of Characters

THE SCARLET SISTERS: Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin

CANNING WOODHULL: Victoria's first husband, a doctor and a drunk

BYRON AND ZULA MAUD: Victoria and Canning Woodhull's children

COLONEL JAMES H. BLOOD: Victoria's second husband, a Civil War hero and free lover

JOHN BIDDULPH MARTIN: Victoria's third husband, devoted and rich

The Claflin Clan

REUBEN BUCK CLAFLIN: Father to Victoria and Tennessee, snake oil salesman


UTICA CLAFLIN: Victoria and Tennessee's sister

MEG MILES AND POLLY SPARR: Two older sisters

DR. SPARR: Polly's husband and blackmailer


SUSAN B. ANTHONY: Pushed women's suffrage at the expense of other freedom

ELIZABETH CADY STANTON: Supported Woodhull's free love position

LUCY STONE: Emphatically did not support free love

LUCRETIA MOTT: The grande dame of the movement

PAULINA WRIGHT DAVIS: Rich suffragist and Spiritualist


CORNELIUS VANDERBILT: Thought to be Tennie's lover

JIM FISK: Flamboyant robber baron

JAY GOULD: Fisk's dour sidekick

DANIEL DREW: The King of Watered Stock

HENRY CLEWS: Cashed the famous check that began the sisters' career

Abolitionists, Anarchists, Radicals, and Communists

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: Former slave, nominated by the Equal Rights Party to run as vice president with Victoria Woodhull in 1872

BEN BUTLER: Yankee Civil War general, progressive congressman, friend of Lincoln and Grant, supporter of the sisters

STEPHEN PEARL ANDREWS: Abolitionist, anarchist, philosopher, linguist, free lover, and mentor to the sisters

KARL MARX: International revolutionary socialist and onetime friend

BENJAMIN TUCKER: Well-known anarchist who claimed he lost his virginity to Victoria

GEORGE FRANCIS TRAIN: Eccentric, controversial, racist millionaire who gave money to suffragists


HORACE GREELEY: Editor and publisher of the New-York Daily Tribune

WHITELAW REID: Succeeded Greeley at the Tribune

CHARLES DANA: Publisher of the New York Sun

JOHNNY GREEN: New York Sun city editor and Tennie's boyfriend

The Beecher Dynasty

HENRY WARD BEECHER: The most famous preacher in America in the latter half of the nineteenth century

HARRIET BEECHER STOWE: Beecher's sister, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and of a vitriolic roman à clef about the sisters

CATHARINE BEECHER: Spinster sister to Harriet, author, opponent of women's suffrage

ISABELLA BEECHER HOOKER: Half sister to the Beechers; renegade supporter of Victoria Woodhull

Major Figures in the Tilton-Beecher Scandal

THEODORE TILTON: Handsome abolitionist, journalist, suffragist, thought to be Victoria's lover

ELIZABETH "LIB" TILTON: Wife of Theodore, accused of adultery with Beecher

FRANK MOULTON AND EMMA MOULTON: Major witnesses in the trial

BESSIE TURNER: Former Tilton family servant and paid-off Beecher witness

Rivals to the Sisters

ANTHONY COMSTOCK: Self-appointed one-man Victorian vice squad

THOMAS BYRNES: The "World's Most Famous Detective" of the era

HENRY JAMES: Victorian-era man of letters, fictionalized the sisters

LUTHER CHALLIS: Wall Street financier who sued the sisters for libel

BENJAMIN TRACY: Beecher's meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog lawyer

HENRY C. BOWEN: Brooklyn's Plymouth Church president, who hired Beecher and fired Tilton


SIR FRANCIS COOK: Husband of Tennie, one of the richest men in England

SIR THOMAS BEECHAM: Founder of the London Philharmonic, married to the sisters' grandniece

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII

The King and Queen of Portugal, circa 1886

Introducing Two Improper Victorians

Yes, I am a free lover! I have an inalienable, constitutional, and natural right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can; to change that love every day if I please, and with that right neither you nor any law can frame any right to interfere.

—Victoria Claflin Woodhull, November 20, 1871, Steinway Hall

For myself I have at least one financial opinion, and that is that gold is cash. To have plenty of it [gold] is to be pretty nearly independent of everything and everybody.

—Tennessee Claflin, 1871

In 2008 everyone was talking about a momentous historic possibility: the Democratic Party nominating a woman, Hillary Clinton, for president, and an African American man, Barack Obama, for vice president. At the time, I read a squib in a newspaper saying it had already been done, back in 1872. An obscure third party had nominated a woman, Victoria Woodhull, with the famed former slave Frederick Douglass as her running mate.

I started to read more about Woodhull and discovered her younger, sassy sister Tennessee Claflin, and I was hooked. Here were the two most symbiotic and scandalous sisters in American history. They rose from poverty, a trashy family, and a childhood of scam fortune-telling to become rich, powerful, and infamous feminists in the raucous heyday of post–Civil War Wall Street buccaneers and beauties.

Bankrolled by the richest man in America, Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt, in 1870 these strikingly beautiful sisters became the first women stockbrokers in the world, a feat not equaled in America for nearly another hundred years. So amazing was this venture that thousands of gawkers mobbed them when they opened their Broad Street office. However, this was just the start.

The sisters could barely write when they first set out on the road to pursue a divine future. Yet Woodhull became one of the greatest lecturers of her time, with Tennie running a close second. Both sisters were so charismatic that as many as ten thousand people rushed to hear their avant-garde lectures on sex, politics, business, race, prostitution, marriage, divorce, and free love. Even at the age of sixty-four, Tennie twice commanded a sellout crowd of seven thousand cheering fans at London's Royal Albert Hall.

The two shocked the world while racking up amazing "firsts." Half a century before women could vote, Woodhull made her historic presidential bid. Tennie was the second woman (after Elizabeth Cady Stanton) to run for Congress. Woodhull was the first woman in history to address a congressional committee. The sisters became the first women to publish a successful radical weekly that dealt with finance and muckraking decades before Theodore Roosevelt coined the pejorative term for hard-nosed reporting. They fought for women's rights, labor issues, sex education, Spiritualism, and "free love"—a maligned term that could mean anything from fighting for divorce reform to choosing a lover whenever one felt like it. Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly devoted itself to the person Victoria Woodhull thought most highly of, herself, and to her quest for fame as the first woman to run for president of the United States.

They were the only women who could cavort with capitalists and Communists alike, from Vanderbilt to Karl Marx. They simultaneously operated on Wall Street, exposed the graft of financiers they observed, and then published the first English-language version of The Communist Manifesto in America. They formed the English-speaking section of Karl Marx's New York International, and Tennie marched at the head of a famed Manhattan parade carrying the flag in honor of massacred Paris Commune leaders.

A bodacious beauty in her early twenties, Tennie stunned audiences when she said that women who married for money were "legalized prostitutes," no better, and in most cases ethically worse, than streetwalkers. The sisters championed sex education for adolescents, called for testing for sexual diseases in clients as well as prostitutes, and advocated for contraception decades before Margaret Sanger—outrageous concepts in this era of stifling hypocrisy. Now, 144 years after they began electrifying the country, their ideas remain controversial. The sisters railed against the restrictions of everything from corsets to all-male law courts. Tennie advanced a cause that still creates a stir: training women for army combat. During Reconstruction, when violence erupted over the status of freed blacks, Tennie scandalized Manhattan by commanding an all-black regiment as its honorary colonel.

The sisters also swore they had a supernatural gift, communing with the dead, and Woodhull became a leader in the immensely popular Spiritualist movement.

For a brief time they were heroines of the militant arm of the suffrage movement, and Victoria, with Tennie at her side, historically addressed a congressional committee on women's suffrage in 1871. The first black male voted in March of 1870, a few weeks after the sisters' historic Wall Street brokerage house opening, but women's suffrage, threatened by fractious infighting, seemed as distant a goal as it was twenty-two years before, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton began her 1848 crusade at Seneca Falls. The sisters annoyed establishment suffragists by arguing that the right to vote was meaningless if it meant electing the same timid or corrupt white males. Women must be elected, yes, but the vote was nothing if it was not coupled with economic independence. Although some laws had changed by 1870, fathers or husbands still essentially owned women.

The sisters not only preached free love—which was also referred to by the more demure name of "social freedom"—but also practiced it, discarding husbands and lovers as they liked. Tennie was the strongest in decrying a sexual double standard, and she defended prostitutes, calling them victims in a hypocritical society where rich men patronized them but continued to be honored as respectable citizens.

In the Victorian age, men made the social as well as legal rules. If a wife conducted a circumspect affair, it was often tolerated, but to break the rules openly with a public lover and to divorce meant punishment, shunning, and ruin for her. In speaking out, the sisters broke a cardinal system by exposing what society wanted hidden.

In nine tumultuous years—1868 to 1877—they went from rags to riches to rags again. They were reviled and loved. They were called tramps, prostitutes, harlots, and, conversely, Joans of Arc: brave, courageous, and misunderstood.

They were survivors, sometimes barely, in a Manhattan that in 1868 was reinventing itself as a center of finance with the emergence of nouveau riche and bohemian cadres, and where, according to contemporary police reports, prostitution and crime were unequaled. It was a time when Ulysses S. Grant's administration was famed for being totally corruptible and when Boss Tweed still ruled Albany, Manhattan's City Hall, and all points in between. All this was conducted under a public code of Victorian prudery and a double standard that subjugated women as wifely slaves or mere ornaments.

But the sisters lost any claim to respectability, and a place in the suffrage movement, when they charged in their Weekly newspaper and on the lecture stage that the most famous preacher in America, Henry Ward Beecher, had conducted adulterous affairs with his parishioners. One presumed cuckolded husband was Theodore Tilton, handsome Adonis of freethinkers, abolitionist, fighter for women's rights, free love advocate, and on-and-off friend of Abraham Lincoln's. He was also thought to be one of Victoria's lovers.

It was not Beecher's adultery that drove the sisters to expose him, they insisted, but the hypocrisy of a man who preached faithfulness and did not practice it. In the same issue of their newspaper, Tennie penned an article charging a Wall Street financier with raping a virgin, and as a result, both sisters were thrown in jail on the charge of sending obscene material through the mail.

Then, when all seemed lost, the sisters shocked enemies, friends, and probably themselves with a grand final act of hobnobbing with British royalty and enjoying stupendous wealth that lasted for decades.

As for discovering who the sisters really were, while trying to assess the variety of opinions, facts, and falsehoods that exist, I was reminded of a reprobate editor who early on in my journalism career admonished, "Never let the facts stand in the way of a good feature story." I have discovered that this problematic guidance also tempts historians and biographers. After generations of mythmaking, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate fact from fiction regarding the sisters. Everything written about them is a snarled knot of conjecture, hearsay, fabrication, perceptions of the times, and, yes, some facts.

Historical research is always an investigative attempt to define who people really were, but the Scarlet Sisters—which I have dubbed them for their ability to thoroughly shock Victorians and garner infamy—remain maddening enigmas. The first biography of Woodhull, The Terrible Siren, with peripheral attention paid to Tennie, did not appear until decades after the sisters' march on Manhattan and just after their deaths (Tennie's in 1923 and Victoria's in 1927). In the book, novelist Emanie Sachs sought sensationalism over facts, paying anarchist Benjamin Tucker, a friend turned enemy of the sisters, $3,500 to produce his account of losing his virginity at nineteen to thirty-four-year-old Victoria, and to describe Tennie's sexual advances. Tucker was an old man when he told his tale to Sachs, who used his material lavishly and did not divulge to readers the hefty price she had paid for it. Victoria died shortly before the book was published—much to the relief of Sachs, who triumphantly wrote to a friend that families of the dead cannot sue for libel, even if the dear departed were called "prostitutes."

If Tucker's tale is true, it dramatized a freewheeling arrangement that fit the love-for-love's-sake definition of free love, with Victoria's husband looking the other way and sister Tennie ready to substitute for Victoria if Tucker was so inclined. If he exaggerated, there was no one left to complain. Victoria's mortified daughter, Zula Maud, then in her sixties and living in England, considered suing but decided to devote her life to writing a biography of her mother, an unsuccessful effort.

Sachs's machinations in pursuit of scandal remain paramount factors in the cloudy history of the sisters. She repeated gossip as fact and treated much of Victoria's dubious accounts as gospel. For much of the twentieth century, Sachs's book—which contains no attributions, notes, or index—was followed as fact or used in fictionalized books masquerading as biographies, with made-up scenes and dialogue, but after the 1970s rebirth of feminism, sympathetic portrayals of the sisters emerged by women authors. Historical battles among authors continue. Two recent biographies of the sisters' friend Commodore Vanderbilt tangle over whether he had syphilis or "merely" gonorrhea or neither of these diseases that plagued rich and poor bounders alike in the Victorian era of brothel hopping.

Newspapers in the sisters' heyday showed biases that deflect from balanced accounts. Yet these printed perceptions are vital from a historical perspective, illuminating contemporary attitudes toward crucial events involving the sisters. Sporting magazines, the forerunners to contemporary tabloids, broadcast the sisters' every move, with illustrations that depicted them as hard-featured Jezebels. Forget the idea that celebrity journalism and paparazzi blitzes are relatively modern. A glance at the cartoons, daguerreotypes, blazing headlines, and gossip about the sisters proves that celebrity-chasing was virulent in the Victorian age. The publicity-savvy sisters in turn used the press as much as the press used them. Famous authors Henry James and Harriet Beecher Stowe even immortalized them as shady characters in their novels.

But just as suspect were the sisters' own accounts of their lives. Over the years, they revamped, embellished, or reinvented themselves when it suited their purpose—nothing new in an era where a thief one day could make a fortune the next and needed a pedigree to go with his millionaire trappings.

A crucial example is the "as told to" biographical sketch of Woodhull written by Theodore Tilton, the alleged cuckold in the Beecher scandal. It is lively and lurid, self-aggrandizing, draped in purple prose, and soaked in sentimentality. Victoria orchestrated the tale with several agendas in mind. Paramount was a vendetta against her parents for airing dirty family linen in a court scandal that was wrecking the sisters' fame and future. Victoria also needed to woo the popular Spiritualist movement with declarations of sensational supernatural ghostly powers. She alleged that she was in a trance when, in 1871, at the age of thirty-two, she related the account to her current husband, Colonel Blood, who took notes. Handsome Theodore Tilton, who needed to curry favor with Woodhull, polished this melodramatic extravaganza for his magazine. All too often it has been cited as complete fact.

In this book, for the first time, Tennie is given the attention she deserves, and has been resurrected from a footnote in her sister's life. She played a far larger role than biographers intent solely on Woodhull have portrayed. Contemporary papers gave her more coverage than Victoria before her older sister's drive for the presidency and fame during the Beecher scandal. I have uncovered her fascinating life after Manhattan, previously ignored, including accounts of her married role as doyenne of a London estate and of her castle in Portugal, intimate letters between her and her sister, and accounts of her globe-trotting crusade for women's rights.

The sisters were intriguing characters. They sought riches while pursuing Communist goals, arguing that they had to possess wealth in order to do good. They crawled out of a hustler's childhood of fleecing females as well as males to champion an unheard-of concept in Victorian times: equal pay for women. They fought for female sexual independence when at the same time they may have sold themselves to rich men to earn money for their cause.

They were among the very few Victorian women who knew how to play the male game. As cunning as they were stunning, they crusaded for women's freedom from men yet were nonetheless tough, and sometimes unscrupulous, pragmatists who adopted male rules. They courted and used powerful men in an era when women had no power themselves. With charm and beauty, they turned the tables on males, taking credit while using men to help them in their careers. Yet they were capable of stirring, heroic bravery by espousing unpopular radical humanitarian causes—even as they were recklessly outrageous, extravagant liars, and at times, extremely unprincipled. Initially pushed and prodded by their con artist father, they learned how to survive as fabulists. They moved through life (with men) by their wits, indigenous street smarts, and intelligence, while fighting with feminist fervency for radical causes more than a hundred years ahead of their time.

Theirs was a wild ride through America during and following the Civil War. Along the way, their lives intersected with those of a cast of characters who are real but who, dare I say, read like fiction. Most were famous or infamous during this riveting time in history, and many remain so today (see Cast of Characters).

No American women in history surpass their raging, life-devouring, and life-enhancing journey from pre–Civil War days, through their Victorian battles, down to their final years as two Roaring Twenties grande dames having secured their place in history.

Opening Scene: Arriving

On a crisp February morning in 1870, the most dazzling and flamboyant sisters in American history made their debut. Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin had plotted, cajoled, and advertised and had been written up with besotted fervor in major New York newspapers by male reporters stunned by their beauty and daring.

As their open carriage turned the corner at Wall Street and Broad, the sisters could see the mob moving toward their brand-new Woodhull, Claflin and Co. brokerage firm. Estimates of the crowd reached two thousand and up. One hundred policemen were called out to keep order. Here they were! The first lady stockbrokers in the world! Wall Street had never seen anything like it. Nor would it again for nearly a hundred years.

The buzz on the Street, abetted by the sisters, was that the coarse, ruthless, and immensely rich—in fact, the richest man in America—Cornelius Vanderbilt had bankrolled the young beauties.

Males eagerly grabbed the reins of the high-stepping horses and, as the sisters descended lightly from the carriage, shouts, cheers, jeers, and catcalls shattered the air. The sisters pushed their way through the boisterous crowd held back by policemen, opened the door, and went to work. All day, men peered in the windows and doors of Woodhull and Claflin and whooped with surprise and pleasure if they caught a glimpse of one of the sisters. A doorkeeper guarded the entrance. Nailed on the door was a sign: GENTLEMEN WILL STATE THEIR BUSINESS AND THEN RETIRE AT ONCE.

The mysterious sisters, who seemed to have stepped out from nowhere, had made the splash they wanted. Everything had been staged "to secure the most general and at the same time prominent introduction to the world that was possible," Victoria later admitted.


On Sale
Mar 4, 2014
Page Count
432 pages

Myra MacPherson

About the Author

Myra MacPherson is the award-winning and bestselling author of four previous books, including The Power Lovers, the Vietnam War classic Long Time Passing, and All Governments Lie. She was an acclaimed journalist at the Washington Post, and has also written for the New York Times,, numerous magazines, and websites. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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