The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
US: Mar 2014
Excerpted from The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson. Published in March 2014 by Twelve Books. Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
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.
They had carefully picked their outfits, gambling correctly that a large crowd would scrutinize them on the most crucial day of their lives. Everything matched, as if they were twins, although Victoria, at thirty‐one, was seven years older than Tennie. Their skirts were shockingly short, touching the tops of their shiny boots, unlike fashionable dresses that trailed through the muck and manure of Manhattan’s streets. Their suit jackets were deep blue wool nipped at the waist but mannishly wide at the shoulders. Rich velvet embroidered the jackets, adding a feminine touch. But gone were the tightly laced corsets that warped a woman’s insides and made breathing difficult. Absent, too, were bustles, those steel half‐cages filled with horsehair that were strapped to petticoats and draped with heavy brocade and silk that could weigh a woman down by twenty pounds. One cartoon likened the woman who wore one to a snail, with the bustle forming the curlicue shell dragged behind. Instead of ruffles or jewelry, the sisters wore silk bow ties. Their light brown hair had been cut boyishly short; Tennie derided the fashionable nest of curls and chignons as “vile bunches of hair, tortured into all conceivable unnatural shapes.” They’d added a rakish final touch: each had tucked a solid gold pen behind an ear, to flash in the noonday sun or catch the gaslight’s glow.
The sisters were showstoppingly beautiful, and their unique costumes only added to their allure. Victoria was willowy and gazed at the world through luminous, intensely blue eyes. High cheekbones gave her broad face character, and her proud, chiseled profile could have graced an ivory cameo. Tennie, at twenty‐four, was the epitome of the term “pleasingly plump,” with a bosom that threatened to burst from her jacket and a sensuous, full mouth that curved into flirtatious smiles. There was mischief in her blue eyes, and she had the exuberance of an untamed colt.
Reporters gushed endlessly about the “Bewitching Brokers” and the “Queens of Finance.” They mentioned “their exquisite figures.” Reporters seemed astounded that women could be articulate: “They display remarkable conversational powers, Mrs. Claflin [Tennie] in particular talking with a rapidity and fluency that are really astonishing.” The gold pens behind their ears were the talk of the “gouty old war horses on the street.” The two women were praised, albeit as though they were a P. T. Barnum oddity: with one paper remarking that, at the end of their opening day, the ladies drove away “without any signs of headaches.”
Two dandies constantly dropped by the offices of Woodhull and Claflin on opening day, changing hats and outfits to mock the women brokers. Once, the men sauntered in wearing matching dress coats with polished blue buttons, pearl‐colored pantaloons, and green kid gloves. When they tried to trap the sisters by asking “‘how Central stood,’ Claflin sprang to the [Teletype ticker] and shouted ‘Before call 94 1⁄2.’” Remarked the Herald, these jokesters “realize for the first time that young ladies can be wise and discreet, and young men rash and foolish.” When one visitor told the sisters they would lose money, Woodhull tartly replied they had not come to Wall Street to “lose money, but to make money.”
The sisters told the eager Wall Street reporters a disarming tale of fortitude and spunk. Unable to penetrate the exclusive male Stock Exchange, Woodhull said that “solely through agents in the street,” they had parlayed business earnings to make about $700,000 before they opened their firm. In today’s dollars, that would have made them multimillionaires, if their claim was true. She then remarked with an air of nonchalance, “‘What do present profits amount to when it costs us over $2,600 a month to live?’” The reporter never asked what these staggering expenses could be, in a bad economic period when working‐class poor made $200 a year.
Tennie said that “natural aptitude” and early training in business management had equipped her for finance. “I studied law in my father’s office six years. My father was once a very successful merchant, and possessor of a large fortune. He lost it mainly in speculation.” Their father’s financial ruin had made it necessary for them to earn a profitable living, but their “very good education” and legal skills made it impossible to “settle down into the common course of life” of other women. Victoria wove tales of spectacular success in land deals, followed by investments in oil and “railroad stocks,” mentioning, among others, Vanderbilt’s New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.
The stories told by the sisters made for sympathetic reading: learning law at the knee of a spectacularly rich father, obtaining an education unusual for women at that time, starting a business at a young age. All gave an image of great enterprise.
There was just one problem. Most of it was false.
Victoria and Tennie’s father, Reuben Buck Claflin, was a one‐eyed snake oil salesman who posed as a doctor and a lawyer. By the time Victoria and Tennie were born, he was not professional at anything but thievery, black‐mailing, and forcing his youngest to join the family quack cure scam. Earlier he had studied some law, but in an era when rigorous policing of the legal profession was unknown, anyone could hang a sign outside his door. Aside from offering legal advice, he also ferried timber down the Susquehanna River and worked in saloons. In 1825, Buck married Roxanna Hummel, known as Annie. She has been identified in books as the niece of a prosperous tavern owner or the illegitimate maid in that establishment. When they moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1830s, construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal brought hopes of real estate riches.
Rough workmen may have gambled in a saloon owned by Buck, but there seemed no legitimate way to make the fortune he claimed to have made. He bragged about making half a million dollars, an incredible fortune, in frenzied real estate speculation. He supposedly lost it all in the 1837 depression, which makes him either a liar about owning this sum in the first place or a very poor manager of money. When Buck settled in obscure Homer, Ohio, some neighbors reckoned he was escaping the law. One legend claims that after selling some horses, he had to race out of one town before it rained and destroyed the horses’ shiny coat—of black paint. Buck was approached by a lawman, went another story, while trying to pass counterfeit money. To avoid arrest, Buck ripped the bills up, stuffed them in his mouth, and ate them.
By the time his wife, Annie, had borne ten children—two boys and eight girls, although three of the girls died young—Buck’s idea of heavy lifting was making his daughters do the work. As luck would have it, in one of the curious miracles of genetic mutation, the one‐eyed Buck and his slattern wife, described by all who met her in later life as an unpleasant old hag, spawned three beautiful daughters among the five living. Buck saw riches in his daughters, starting with the least beautiful and eldest, Margaret, and then her sister, Mary (known also as Polly). There were rumors that he pimped for these two and for Utica, the most beautiful of all the sisters, who was born between Victoria and Tennie.
He touted Victoria and Tennie as fortune‐tellers, faith healers, and clairvoyants who spoke to the dead. The sisters themselves professed clairvoyant powers, but Tennie later admitted that she was forced to “humbug” in order to get enough money to feed the family. Throughout her life, Victoria clung to her claim of communion with famous ghosts such as Demosthenes and assorted angels, and of the odd chat with Napoléon, Joséphine, and, when she needed to impress, the spirit of Jesus Christ. An intriguing legend vested mother Roxanna, who could not read or write, with a remarkable gift of memory; it was said that after the Bible was read to her, she could recite entire passages, chapter and verse, from memory.
Victoria was born on September 23, 1838, in Homer, an insignificant hamlet, like many frontier outposts. One lurid, unsubstantiated tale describes her mother, in a wild religious frenzy, babbling in tongues at a revival tent meeting, whereupon Buck dragged her to the back of the tent and fell upon her with equal enthusiasm. Thus Victoria was supposedly conceived in a manner that would have been the devil’s handiwork had it not come from passions aroused by religious ecstasy, as some might put it. She was born a few months after Queen Victoria was crowned, so any such consummation was now prettified with the crowning of the child as “Victoria.” When the family was in a good mood the child was referred to as their queen who would someday be famous.
“It is my destiny,” Victoria would say.
Tennie, born seven years later, on October 26, 1845, was the last child to survive.
As an adult, Victoria recounted to her biographer, Theodore Tilton, a writer thought to be her lover, a childhood filled with Dickensian debauchery, far from the fancies told to Wall Street reporters. No one could have predicted any life for the sisters except prostitution, domestic servitude, or marriage to drunken wife beaters, trailed by a passel of children. They had no education or social position to pursue anything else.
“She was worked like a slave—whipped like a convict. Her father was impartial in his cruelty to all his children,” wrote Tilton. He described her mother—whom Victoria claimed was “never wholly sane”—as having “a fickleness of spirit that renders her one of the most erratic of mortals,” and who “sometimes abetted him in his scourgings [sic], and at other times shielded the little ones from his blows.” Buck soaked braided green willow switches in water to produce a sharp sting, and with these weapons “he would cut the quivery flesh of the children till their tears and blood melted him into mercy.” Tilton continued: “Sometimes he took a handsaw or a stick of firewood as the instrument of his savagery.” Coming home late and learning of some offense, he would wake the children and “whip them till morning.” One rebellious son, Maldon, ran away at thirteen and “still bears in a shattered constitution the damning memorial of his father’s wrath.”
Victoria did not spare her mother. Wrote Tilton, “She on occasions tormented and harried her children until they would be thrown into spasms, whereat she would hysterically laugh, clap her hands, and look as fiercely delighted as a cat in playing with a mouse. At other times, her tenderness toward her offspring would appear almost angelic. She would fondle them, weep over them, lift her arms and thank God for such children, caress them with ecstatic joy, and then smite them as if seeking to destroy at a blow both body and soul.”
Victoria dressed up the Claflin home in her adult account, describing it as a white‐painted cottage with a long porch and a flower garden. Homer residents remembered it as an unpainted shack with a porch so rickety the boards rattled when children raced across them.
Neighbors stayed away from the Claflin house, which was ruled by a father with a suspect reputation and a religious fanatic mother given to babbling at a moonlit sky until foam appeared on her lips. Annie claimed distinguished German ancestors. A former neighbor guffawed. “I read of their claims of ancestry: the ‘Hummels of Germany.’ And who were they? The most ignorant country people of the county were the ‘Dutch Hummels’ as they were called.” Another neighbor remembered, “No properly trained child was considered in good company when associating with the little girls of the Claflin family, therefore my visits to their home were always without leave.” She added, “The Claflin house was a little three or at most four room affair… the furnishings and surroundings were of the most primitive possible description.”
Revival meetings transfixed Annie, who would twirl in violent religious ecstasy, speaking in tongues and shouting, “Hallelujah!” She would rise in her pew, beginning with a soft clapping of hands, then sway to and fro for a moment before gliding into the aisle and spinning rapidly round and round, “twirling all the way up the aisle, hollering ‘aglory!!’ She would finally sink down in front of the altar in a state of exhaustion that was called by herself and her family a ‘trance.’”
The sisters were not well educated, as they claimed to Wall Street reporters. Tilton’s sketch described Victoria’s schooling as “less than three years” of broken intervals from age eight to eleven. However, he wrote, she was “the pet alike of scholars and teacher,” with “an inward energy such as quickened the young blood of Joan of Arc… The little old head on the little young shoulders was often bent over her school‐book at the midnight hour.” A few years after Tilton’s biography was printed, Victoria strangely and flatly dismissed this. “I am a self made [sic] woman entirely,” she declared. “Never spent one year in the school room.”
Victoria was not, as Tilton claimed, a popular child. Some in Homer saw her beauty but pitied the fact that she was a Claflin. The woman from whom the children bought milk remembered them running wild, dirty, and hungry, waiting for snacks at her back door. When Buck’s brother joined him in Homer, the two large families lived together “in turmoil. Beds were everywhere; in the cellar, the parlor, anywhere room could be found and were never made and rarely changed.”
The pre–Civil War years were a time of revivalist “child preachers,” who allegedly had a special gift of holiness. Victoria copied them, loving the drama, staring down neighbor children with her intense blue eyes. Already a showman, she faced the “sinners” before her, lashing out at their “terrible sins.”