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“I shall swiftly sketch the life of Victoria Claflin Woodhull,” Tilton’s biography begins: “a young woman whose career had been as singular as any heroine's in a romance; whose ability is of a rare and whose character of the rarest type; whose personal sufferings are of themselves a whole drama pathos; whose name (through the malice of some and the ignorance of others) has caught a shadow in strange contrast with the whiteness of her life; whose position as a representative of her sex in the greatest reform of modern times renders her an object of peculiar interest to her fellow-citizens; and whose character (inasmuch as I know her well) I can portray without color or tinge from any other partiality save that I hold her in uncommon respect.”
Readers of Tilton’s biography, which is quickly published and avidly purchased, discover that Victoria was named for the new queen of England in the year of that monarch’s coronation. But the American Victoria had anything but a royal childhood. “Not a sunbeam gilded the morning of her life,” Tilton writes. “Her girlish career was a continuous bitterness—an unbroken heart-break. She was worked like a slave—whipped like a convict. Her father was impartial in his cruelty to all his children; her mother, with a fickleness of spirit that renders her one of the most erratic of mortals, sometimes abetted him in his scourgings, and at other times shielded the little ones from his blows. In a barrel of rain-water he kept a number of braided green withes made of willow or walnut twigs, and with these stinging weapons, never with an ordinary whip, he would cut the quivery flesh of the children till their tears and blood melted him into mercy. Sometimes he took a handsaw or a stick of firewood as the instrument of his savagery.” Many readers by now know that Victoria’s father and mother, along with several siblings and in-laws, live with her in the big house in Manhattan, and some will wonder why this is the case, if her girlhood was so horrific. Tilton answers the question obliquely: “It is the common law of the Claflin clan that the idle many shall eat up the substance of the thrifty few. Victoria is a green leaf, and her legion of relatives are caterpillars who devour her. Their sin is that they return no thanks after meat; they curse the hand that feeds them.”
Victoria attended school for a total of three years, Tilton continues. She would have gone longer, being an apt pupil, but her parents and older siblings insisted she perform all manner of chores around the house. “During these school years, child as she was, she was the many-burdened maid-of-all-work in the large family of a married sister. She made fires, she washed and ironed, she baked bread, she cut wood, she spaded a vegetable garden, she went on errands, she tended infants, she did everything.” The burden was more than any child should have borne—more than any ordinary child could have borne.
“I must now let out a secret,” Tilton says, by way of explanation. “She acquired her studies, performed her work, and lived her life by the help (as she believes) of heavenly spirits. From her childhood till now (having reached her thirty-third year) her anticipation of the other world has been more vivid than her realization of this. She has entertained angels, and not unawares. These gracious guests have been her constant companions. They abide with her night and day. They dictate her life with daily revelation; and like St. Paul, she is ‘not disobedient to the heavenly vision.’ She goes and comes at their behest. Her enterprises are not the coinage of her own brain, but of their divine invention. Her writings and speeches are the products, not only of their indwelling in her soul, but of their absolute control of her brain and tongue. Like a good Greek of the olden time, she does nothing without consulting her oracles. Never, as she avers, have they deceived her, nor ever will she neglect their decrees. One-third of human life is passed in sleep; and in her case, a goodly fragment of this third is spent in trance. Seldom a day goes by but she enters into this fairy-land, or rather into this spirit-realm. In pleasant weather, she has a habit of sitting on the roof of her stately mansion on Murray Hill, and there communing hour by hour with the spirits. She is a religious devotee—her simple theology being an absorbing faith in God and the angels.”
The angels have help from an eminent pagan. Tilton introduces the world to Victoria’s Demosthenes, and he explains how the great Greek counseled her, inspired her, eventually directed her to New York. Unfortunately Demosthenes failed to warn her against Canning Woodhull, as did her parents, who were quite willing to hand their young daughter to a man of twice her years and half her moral worth. “They thought it a grand match. They helped the young man's suit, and augmented their persecutions of the child. Ignorant, innocent, and simple, the girl's chief thought of the proffered marriage was an escape from the parental yoke. Four months later she accepted the change—flying from the ills she had to others that she knew not of. Her captor, once possessed of his treasure, ceased to value it. On the third night after taking his child-wife to his lodgings, he broke her heart by remaining away all night at a house of ill-repute. Then for the first time she learned, to her dismay, that he was habitually unchaste, and given to long fits of intoxication. She was stung to the quick. The shock awoke all her womanhood. She grew ten years older in a single day.”
Of necessity she took command of her situation. She managed the household finances, decided where they would live and what she would do to support them. She ultimately divorced Canning Woodhull and married James Blood, whom Tilton characterizes for readers: “Col. Blood is a man of philosophic and reflective cast of mind, an enthusiastic student of the higher lore of spiritualism, a recluse from society, and an expectant believer in a stupendous destiny for Victoria. A modesty not uncommon to men of intellect prompts him to sequester his name in the shade rather than to set it glittering in the sun. But he is an indefatigable worker—driving his pen through all hours of the day and half of the night.” Blood is an editor of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly and a partner in the brokerage Woodhull, Claflin & Co. His politics are, if anything, more radical than those of his spouse. “His civic views are (to use his favorite designation of them) cosmopolitical; in other words, he is a radical of extreme radicalism—an internationalist of the most uncompromising type—a communist who would rather have died in Paris than be the president of a pretended republic whose first official act has been the judicial murder of the only republicans in France.” Tilton is referring to the recent demise of the Paris Commune, the short-lived and sanguinarily extinguished revolutionary regime in France, whose cause has been championed in America only by the most uncompromising radicals.
Blood shares Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs. “His spiritualistic habits he describes in a letter to his friend, the writer of this memorial, as follows: ‘At about eleven or twelve o’clock at night, two or three times a week, and sometimes without nightly interval, Victoria and I hold parliament with the spirits. It is by this kind of study that we both have learned nearly all the valuable knowledge that we possess. Victoria goes into a trance, during which her guardian spirit takes control of her mind, speaking audibly through her lips, propounding various matters for our subsequent investigation and verification, and announcing principles, detached thoughts, hints of systems, and suggestions for affairs. In this way, and in this spiritual night-school, began that process of instruction by which Victoria has risen to her present position as a political economist and politician. During her entranced state, which generally lasts about an hour, but sometimes twice as long, I make copious notes of all she says, and when her speech is unbroken, I write down every word, and publish it without correction or amendment. She and I regard all the other portion of our lives as almost valueless compared with these midnight hours.’”
Because so many people have expressed curiosity, Tilton elaborates on the circumstances that have caused Victoria to open her home to her first husband while living with her second. “One night about half a year after their marriage, she and her husband were wakened at midnight in Cincinnati by the announcement that a man by the name of Dr. Woodhull had been attacked with delirium tremens at the Burnet House, and in a lucid moment had spoken of the woman from whom he had been divorced, and begged to see her. Col. Blood immediately took a carriage, drove to the hotel, brought the wretched victim home, and jointly with Victoria took care of him with life-saving kindness for six weeks. On his going away they gave him a few hundred dollars of their joint property to make him comfortable in another city. He departed full of gratitude, bearing with him the assurance that he would always be welcome to come and go as a friend of the family. And from that day to this, the poor man, dilapidated in body and emasculated in spirit, has sometimes sojourned under Victoria’s roof and sometimes elsewhere, according to his whim or will.” She does not care that the world refuses to understand. Nor should she care, Tilton says. “For this piece of noble conduct—what is commonly called her living with two husbands under one roof—she has received not so much censure on earth as I think she will receive reward in heaven. No other passage of her life more signally illustrates the nobility of her moral judgments, or the supernal courage with which she stands by her convictions. Not all the clamorous tongues in Christendom, though they should simultaneously cry out against her ‘Fie, for shame!’ could persuade her to turn this wretched wreck from her home. And I say she is right; and I will maintain this opinion against the combined Pecksniffs of the whole world.”
Tilton says he approached Victoria a skeptic but became a believer. The transformation has been common enough. “I know of no person against whom there are more prejudices, nor anyone who more quickly disarms them. This strange faculty is the most powerful of her powers. She shoots a word like a sudden sunbeam through the thickest mist of people's doubts and accusations, and clears the sky in a moment. Questioned by some committee or delegation who have come to her with idle tales against her busy life, I have seen her swiftly gather together all the stones which they have cast, put them like the miner's quartz into the furnace, melt them with fierce and fervent heat, bring out of them the purest gold, stamp thereon her image and superscription as if she were sovereign of the realm, and then (as the marvel of it all) receive the sworn allegiance of the whole company on the spot. At one of her public meetings when the chair (as she hoped) would be occupied by Lucretia Mott, this venerable woman had been persuaded to decline this responsibility, but afterward stepped forward on the platform and lovingly kissed the young speaker in presence of the multitude. Her enemies (save those of her own household) are strangers. To see her is to respect her; to know her is to vindicate her. She has some impetuous headlong faults, but were she without the same traits which produce these she would not possess the mad and magnificent energies which (if she lives) will make her a heroine of history.”