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Victoria has nothing against Henry Beecher, and she is willing to keep his secret. She has seen enough of mankind—and of men—to believe that even those men deemed paragons of virtue can conduct themselves dishonorably in private life. Besides, at just this moment her own private life is being dragged embarrassingly before the public. In May 1871 Victoria finds herself in court. Her mother, Roxanna Claflin, has brought a lawsuit against Victoria’s husband, James Blood, for alienation of affections—Victoria’s and Tennie’s—and attempted, or at least threatened, murder. Victoria and Tennie believe their mother to be unstable, perhaps insane, and the suit to be utterly unfounded. But Anna, as the family calls her (the papers prefer “Roxy”), has enlisted lawyers who note the success of Victoria and Tennie’s brokerage and accept the case for a share of the judgment. A large crowd of spectators attends the trial, eager to learn more about Victoria and her family.
“My daughters were good daughters and affectionate children before they got in with this man Blood,” Anna testifies. She says she has attempted to recall them to their former ways, only to encounter Blood’s determined and eventually violent resistance. “He has threatened my life several times, and one night last November he came into the house on Thirty-eighth street and said he would not go to bed till he had washed his hands in my blood.” Her son-in-law, besides being violent, is a calculating wastrel. “He is one of those who have no bottom in their pockets. You can keep stuffing in all the money in New York; they never get full up. If my daughters would just send this man away, as I always told them, they might be millionairesses and riding around in their own carriages. I came here”—to the court—“because I want to get my daughter out of this man’s clutches; he has taken away Vickie’s and Tennie’s affection from their poor old mother.”
Anna’s testimony stirs the crowd in the courtroom. Some seem to sympathize; others appear more—negatively—impressed by the shrillness of her voice and the wild look in her eyes.
James Blood is called to the witness stand. “Did you ever make any threat to Mrs. Claflin?” Anna’s counsel asks the defendant.
“Nothing, except one night last fall, when she was very troublesome, I said if she was not my mother-in-law I would turn her over my knee and spank her.”
“Would you really do that?”
Blood declines to answer.
Members of the audience whisper and exchange glances.
Anna’s lawyer inquires into Blood’s background, and Victoria’s. “When were you married to Mrs. Woodhull?”
“In 1866 at Chicago.”
“Were you married before that to anyone?”
“Yes, I was married in Framingham, Massachusetts.”
“Were you divorced from your first wife?”
“Was Mrs. Woodhull divorced when you married her?”
“I don’t know.”
The audience murmurs more loudly.
“Were you not afterwards divorced from Mrs. Woodhull?”
“Yes, in Chicago in 1868.”
This is news, and the spectators lean closer to hear more.
“When did you remarry?”
“I’m not sure.”
More whispers, and dubious looks.
“How long were you separated from her?”
“We were never separated. We continued to live together, and were afterwards remarried.”
Anna’s lawyer inquires about Victoria’s first husband. “When have you seen Dr. Woodhull?”
“I see him every day. We are living in the same house.”
A loud buzz among the audience. Most in the courtroom have heard rumors to this effect, but the confirmation is titillating.
“Do you and Mrs. Woodhull and Dr. Woodhull occupy the same room?”
Blood says nothing.
The buzzing grows more excited. The judge glares at the audiences and waves his gavel.
The trial concludes for the day with the announcement that Victoria and Tennie will be called as witnesses tomorrow. The New York dailies print the lurid testimony of Anna Claflin and the startling words—and shocking silence—of James Blood. The next morning everyone knows that Victoria lives with her two husbands, apparently in the same bedroom.
The second day’s crowd is larger and more clamorous than the first. The Claflin trial is the best ticket in town, and only the early arrivals get in.
Victoria is the first to testify. She wears her working outfit: a black silk suit and a jockey hat. A single rose adorns her collar. She speaks calmly and to the point. “I am the wife of the defendant, Col. Blood, and have been formerly married to Dr. Woodhull, from whom I was divorced. I was married at the age of fourteen, and eleven years subsequently was divorced. Since my return to New York, my mother has resided with us; my husband, Miss Tennie Claflin and myself compose the firm of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. My husband’s treatment of my mother was always of the kindest manner; I never knew him to utter an unkind word against her, except when she commenced to abuse him in regard to our firm. On this point I think she was insane on account of the influence of some outside parties. I never saw my husband use any violence toward her, and all statements to the contrary are untrue. I heard him on one occasion, when annoyed by her abuse, say he would force her to leave his room, but he generally avoided her by leaving the house altogether.”
The audience is impressed but disappointed. They have come for a show, and Victoria has declined to give them one.
But then Tennie takes the stand. She obviously enjoys being the center of attention. She nods sincerely to the judge; she smiles winningly at the audience; she glances seductively at the dozens of reporters covering the trial. “Tennessee Celeste has good eyes and knows her power,” one writes. She swears fervently to tell the truth and kisses the Bible with a loud smack. She gives her name and launches into her own version of events. “I am the martyred one in this case,” she says. “Col. Blood is the best son-in-law my mother ever had. If my husband”—this is a hypothetical spouse; she is not married—“submitted to the abuse he received from her, I would not live with him one day. I never knew the defendant to assault or threaten her, and have frequently seen him leave the house to avoid a collision with her. The real object of the prosecution is this: My mother is insane on spiritualism; I am a spiritualist and have followed the business of fortune-teller and clairvoyant since I was eleven years old. She wants me to go back with her to that business. But Vickie and Col. Blood got me away from that life, and they are the best friends I ever had. I have left the degradation of a life where I was almost lost, and because I will not return to it and leave my present position, I am persecuted. I have followed the business and have humbugged a great many rich people, Vanderbilt included, and because I will not resume my clairvoyant power, which my mother says is God’s power, she has instigated this attack on my character.”
She looks defiantly at Anna’s lawyer, and then at the judge, both of whom simply stare at her. “Hadn’t you better ask me more questions?” she says.
The lawyer doesn’t want to set her off again, and neither does the judge. Tennie takes the initiative. “But, Judge,” she declares, “I want my mother. I am willing to take my mother home with me now, or pay two hundred dollars a month for her in any safe place. I am afraid she will die under this excitement. I am single myself, and don’t want anyone else with me but my mother.”
Then, having said her piece, she gathers herself, steps from the witness chair, sashays over to where her mother is sitting, and hugs and kisses her repeatedly. After some moments of this the crowd begins to squirm. James Blood approaches, pats Tennie softly on the arm, tucks her hair back, and says, “Do retire, my dear, you are only making yourself conspicuous.”