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The Scandalous Adventures of the Free-loving Mystic Who Captivated Wall Street, Exposed Hypocrisy in the Pulpit and Shockingly Proclaimed a Woman’s Right to Be President
(Following the example of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, I herewith commence the serialization of a book about one of the most remarkable women in American history. Please comment and indicate whether you like the topic and the approach.)
Victoria Woodhull sees things others cannot see and hears words that were never spoken. This peculiar gift has been hers since birth, she says. “When I first saw the light of day on this planet, it seemed as if I had been rudely awakened from a death-like sleep. How well I remember the conversation between the doctor and my mother as they handed me over to the nurse. I remember looking back at my mother’s face at that moment; the look of pain and anguish on it was burnt into my plastic brain, and often during my young babyhood I would watch as she suckled me. Somehow she was impelled to talk to me, not as a child, but as her own heart, pouring out all her woman’s desires and bemoaning her failures. I remember well how the silent prayers, when her lips were moving, would stir my heart, and as I look back over the years from childhood to maturity, I realized that there was some subtle power of transmutation at work, for somehow, from the very first moment, I seemed to know all the future without being able to give any expression in words.”
Gradually she learns to give expression, to her own future and those of the many who seek her out. Her father has already mastered various arts of the con—swindling, counterfeiting, fraud—but Victoria’s gifts open new realms of opportunity for separating the gullible from their money. Buck Claflin presents the sweet-faced child to their neighbors in Ohio as a spirit medium, a communicator with worlds beyond the tangible and visible. For a dollar a session the young girl puts clients in touch with loved ones departed or yet to come.
Victoria believes in her gift, and her belief inspires the hundreds who come to her. Her soothing touch diminishes the pain of the chronically afflicted; her assurance that deceased spouses and children are in heaven affords balm to their survivors. But Buck controls the business end of the operation, and he can’t resist promising more than Victoria can deliver. The pressure makes her ill, and her illness reduces her client intake and jeopardizes Buck’s income. He grows angry and abusive. “I have no remembrance of a father’s kiss,” Victoria recalls. What she remembers instead is the punishment he metes out to her and her siblings: the recurrent cuffs and whippings.
At fourteen she finds relief in the arms of a man who seems to be all her father is not. Dr. Canning Woodhull is charming, handsome and well-connected. His father is a judge and his uncle the mayor of New York, he says. He is nearly twice her age, old enough to be the father she wishes she had. He falls in love with her face and form, she with the image he presents and the freedom he promises. They elope, and while he gets what he wants, she discovers that his image is as counterfeit as the banknotes Buck passes. Woodhull is no doctor, no son of a judge, no nephew of a mayor. Her freedom consists of lonely nights waiting for her drunken husband to return from the nearest whorehouse. He often leaves her without money; searching for pennies to buy food, she finds a note in a strange female hand, addressed to him but referring to her: “Did you marry that child because she too was en famille?”
Soon enough she is, as divorce is difficult and a wife cannot legally refuse her husband’s advances. She hopes the baby will soften his heart and stem his straying, but when the poor child proves to be mentally impaired, the father grows more distant still.
Yet she manages to talk him into moving to California, where half of America, it seems, is hunting for gold and related shortcuts to happiness. He continues his tawdry habits in the new location, while she supports the family by sewing and what other work she can find. Eventually her visions and voices tell her to return to Ohio. Or perhaps the message comes in a letter from her younger sister Tennessee, who has been bearing the brunt of their father’s temper in Victoria’s absence.
Somewhat older now, more confident and with a husband who, for all his faults, shields her from Buck Claflin’s blows, Victoria rejoins the family swindles. Buck calls himself the King of Cancer, and Victoria and Tennie lay hands on the hidden tumors he detects. The racket succeeds for a time, but patients eventually die, and the sight of two beautiful young women laying hands on the men of Ohio is more than the women of Ohio can abide. Dissatisfied customers complain to the sheriffs; neighbors assert that Buck is running a brothel. The family skips one town and then another, wending across the Ohio and Mississippi valleys.
In St. Louis Victoria meets James Harvey Blood, a Civil War veteran with five bullet scars to prove his gallantry. He has a wife but is drawn to Victoria, at first for her reputation as a spiritualist, then for the same attributes most other men observe in her. He is astonished and not a little flattered to see her fall into a trance and, seemingly unconscious of what she is saying, declare that they are destined to be husband and wife. He accepts the verdict of her vision and they shortly depart the city as Mr. and Madame Harvey, leaving spouses, children and pasts behind. “Henceforth life seemed larger and fuller,” she says later.
For millennia humans have listened to spirits and consulted shamans, priests, seers and other mediums. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries spiritualism acquires a new respectability. The electrical investigations of Benjamin Franklin and his Enlightenment colleagues suggest a scientific basis for the power of the unseen. Franz Anton Mesmer hypothesizes that electricity will heal what ails his patients, and he sends jolts of current through their bodies. Many report feeling better, but all find the electrical shocks painful. Mesmer switches to electricity’s twin, magnetism, which provides relief—or so the patients report, and so Mesmer publicizes—without the pain. He proposes a theory of “animal magnetism” and commences a corresponding practice, attaching magnets to the heads, limbs and torsos of human sufferers. The magnetic currents flow through the patients and ease pain, stiffness and other forms of distress. The happy patients tell their friends about Mesmer, who conquers Vienna and then Paris, taking the French capital by magnetic storm during the frantic days before the French Revolution.
Women are especially drawn to the handsome doctor’s sessions. Marie Antoinette participates, as do the wives and daughters of many influential men. They hear messages from the beyond; they see apparitions; they feel strange sensations surging through their bodies. This last phenomenon constitutes much of the appeal, and the whole Mesmer experience acquires a markedly sexual charge. The keepers of public mores take alarm. Benjamin Franklin, in Paris conducting America’s Revolutionary War diplomacy, is asked to join an examining board, which finds publicly that Mesmer’s methods may work in the alleviation of pain and suffering, but only by self-delusion. A second, private report addresses the sexual aspect of Mesmerism, which is said to be dangerous to the morals of society. “Touch them in one point, and you touch them everywhere,” the suppressed version of the report asserts disapprovingly.
Mesmer’s vogue diminishes, but the desire to base spiritual longings upon science persists. In America it gives rise to spiritualism and becomes linked to Christian sects that employ emotion as a way of drawing believers to God. The “burned-over district” of upstate New York—so called for the recurrent fires of religious passion—becomes fertile ground for spiritualist teachings and practices. The dissidents and reformers that populate the district are drawn to spiritualism in large numbers. Women play a central role, as seers, healers and mediums. The sexual aspect is less overt in spiritualism than in Mesmerism, but critics of religious revivals often complain that the revivals unleash sexual passions along with spiritual passions, and the criticism carries over to spiritualism. Yet women, and especially advocates of women’s rights, continue to come spiritualism, which accords them greater respect and influence than they enjoy in politics or traditional religion.
The introduction of the telegraph in the 1840s lends new credibility to spiritualism. Now that people can communicate invisibly across long distances via electrical impulses on a daily basis, the notion of communicating with the dead, perhaps via electrical impulses, seems increasingly plausible. Spiritualism moves from the fringes of society toward the center; eminent authors, intellectuals, artists and political figures join spiritualist societies and take part in their activities. People—mostly women—with spiritualist powers find themselves in great demand.
Some members of the Beecher family believe in spiritualism; others do not. They are a sufficiently large and opinionated clan to furnish contingents to both sides of most debates on public issues. Their patriarch, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, is a stern Calvinist who lashes one of his early congregations for its failure to follow the gospel and its refusal to provide for its minister; on leaving for a more lucrative post he preaches a sermon of disappointment: “What shall I say to you, my dear hearers of decent lives and impenitent hearts, to whom, through the whole period of my ministry, God by me has called in vain? God is my witness that I have gravely desired and earnestly sought the salvation of your souls, and I had hoped before the close of my ministry to be able to present you as dear children of God. But I shall not. My ministry is ended, and you are not saved.”
Lyman Beecher fights the devil but also the depression that afflicts much of his family. The Bible neutralizes Satan; for the blues he resorts to barbells and other instruments of physical exercise. He installs gymnastic equipment behind the house and composes his sermons while climbing rope or hanging upside down by his knees. For the long New England winters he has a pile of sand delivered to his cellar; he shovels the sand from one side of the cellar to the other, muttering psalms the while.
When he isn’t recreating he is procreating. Over three decades he sires thirteen children by two wives. The eldest child, Catharine, is bright but unhandsome, a combination prospective suitors find off-putting. Yet eventually a Yale professor courts her, and promises to wed her after he returns from a sabbatical in Europe. A rogue wave, however, sinks his ship and the marriage plans; Catharine consoles herself with the news that her fiancé has left her two thousand dollars in his will. She takes this as a sign that she is never to marry or, perforce, have children. This doesn’t prevent her from publishing her views on child-rearing and home-making. Unaccountably she becomes the conscience and guide of American domesticity.
Catharine’s younger sister Harriet is a Beecher by blood but kin in a sense—a sixth sense—to Victoria Woodhull. Like Victoria, Harriet Beecher Stowe believes in visions. Sitting in church one winter Sunday morning, her mind drifts from the sermon and she is transported to another place, a warm place, apparently in the American South. A white man, a planter, stands watching two black slaves, acting under his orders, whipping a third black slave, an old man with silver hair and a saintly expression who winces in pain but nonetheless calls to God to forgive those responsible for his suffering. A silent voice quotes Jesus to Harriet: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” She herds her children home from church, supervises Sunday dinner and then disappears into her room. Feeling that another hand is guiding her pen, she puts her vision to words. When she runs out of writing paper she tears the brown wrapping off a package and writes on that. She returns to the parlor and reads her transcribed vision to the family; they break down in tears at the affecting scene. She keeps writing, and the resulting book is published as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly. It sells hundreds of thousands of copies and makes Harriet Beecher Stowe famous. Her friends fear she will become conceited by her success. She tells them not to worry. “I did not write that book,” she says. What? a neighbor replies; what can she possibly mean? “I only put down what I saw,” she explains. The neighbor objects that Harriet has never been to the South. “No,” Harriet grants. “But it all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.”
Henry Ward Beecher doesn’t have visions, but he does have vision. Two years younger than Harriet, thirteen years younger than Catharine, Henry Beecher is an unpromising child intellectually. He learns late to speak and then with difficulty; ideas form in his brain slowly and with imprecision. He takes nothing seriously except humor. The family tells of the boy at a grammar lesson. “Now, Henry,” the tutor says, “A is the indefinite article and must be used only with a singular noun. You can say a man, but you can’t say a men, can you?”
“Yes,” Henry responds. “I can say amen, too. Father says it at the end of his prayers.”
“Come, Henry, don’t always be joking. Now decline he. Nominative, he; possessive, his; objective, him. You can say his book, but you can’t say him book.”
“Yes, I do say hymn book.”
Henry follows his father into the ministry, where his lack of seriousness emerges as a rejection of the grim predestinarianism of the elder Reverend Beecher, in favor of a smiling view of God’s grace. Meantime his voice acquires a power few in the family have expected. A friend who takes part in Henry’s seminary graduation exercises explains a short while later to Isabella Beecher, Henry’s younger sister, how he has stolen the afternoon. “The speeches were so dull and the weather so hot that I began to be afraid that the audience would not be pleased,” the friend says of the event. But then Henry rose to speak. “As he opened his mouth everyone seemed to wake up, his manner is so impressive and his voice so deep and commanding. His subject was regeneration, and as it has been so much talked upon it requires a great deal of talent to make it original and interesting, but your brother did both, he struck out a new path and every word was so forcible and went so directly to the point and every idea was clothed in such flowing and elegant language that I don’t know what, only it was first rate.”
Henry’s gift draws the attention of Henry Bowen, a religious entrepreneur of a type found peculiarly in America in the nineteenth century. Bowen believes in the Bible and its revelations, but he believes in the dollar and its dispensations as well. Bowen has observed what a popular church can do for a community—how it can attract visitors and new residents, stimulate the restaurants and hotels that cater to the churchgoers, enhance property values and tax receipts. Money can be made, too, in the construction and financing of a church and its operations.
Bowen and some partners have bought a failing Presbyterian church in Brooklyn and aim to convert it into a successful Congregational one. Bowen’s business plan is complete in all essentials save one: he lacks a charismatic minister. He has heard of Henry Beecher but doesn’t know him. He invites Beecher for an interview. The meeting goes poorly, as Henry hardly fits the model of the minister. “His hat was shockingly bad, his coat seedy, and pants darned,” an observer recalls. “His books and his shirts were equally out of repair.” Henry, for his part, is put off by Bowen, who wants his minister to attract the largest flock by eschewing controversial topics. Temperance and abolition are worthy causes, Bowen says, but people come to church seeking solace and comfort, not dispute and division. Henry refuses to censor himself. “I despised them all, and preached like thunder on those subjects,” he says after Bowen and the partners hire him anyway.
It is the thunder that fills the pews. Word gets out that Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is the best show in greater New York on any Sunday evening; trains, ferries and cabs run full bringing congregants and visitors from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut. Henry preaches not from a pulpit but from a platform—a stage, in fact—that juts like the prow of a ship into his audience. “He went marching up and down the stage, sawing his arms in the air, howling sarcasms this way and that, discharging rockets of poetry, and exploding mines of eloquence, halting now and then to stamp his foot three times in succession to emphasize a point,” an astonished, exhausted and envious Samuel Clemens, no mean speaker himself, observes after a visit.
Henry thunders against evil in all its forms. Demon rum of course is condemned; so too the barbarous practice of human bondage. The abolitionist movement has been gaining momentum for a few decades, but though others have spoken against slavery longer, none now speaks with greater audacity than Henry Ward Beecher. Amid the bloody struggle over slavery in Kansas in the 1850s he declines to contradict reports that he has declared that there is greater moral power in one Sharp’s rifle than in a hundred Bibles, and he smiles on learning that the antislavery forces call their long firearms “Beecher’s Bibles.”
Yet his flock can stand the thunder only so long. Henry is an apt student of human psychology, and he knows to bring forth the sun before he frightens his listeners away. He preaches no traditionally Calvinist gospel of fear and retribution, nothing like the fire and brimstone his father threatened flocks with; rather Henry preaches a modern gospel of love and salvation. Sin is not a ticket to hell but an opportunity for heaven. “Christ can save you because you are a sinner, not because you aren’t one,” he assures his congregation. He dismisses doctrine with a shake of his shoulder-length hair and a wave of his broad, fleshy hand. “What is terribly and dangerously heterodox this year may be accepted as the very essence of orthodoxy next year. What is orthodoxy? Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is your doxy.” Beecher’s loose construction of Christian theology lets him embrace progress with hearty enthusiasm. Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes a metaphor for the gradual perfection of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Capitalism enables Americans to grow rich, as God intends.
Henry Ward Beecher emerges as the model of the responsible reformer, taking all good causes in moderation, none to excess. But first and last he is a showman: a consummate actor, a compelling speaker, an estimable mimic, a maestro of emotions.
(To be continued)