The Scarlet Sisters

Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age

by Myra MacPherson

7 March 2014


There Was Something Spooky About Those Claflins

Unquestionably Victoria and Tennie were intuitively smart and quick‐witted. Victoria’s later great oratorical skills, which kept thousands spellbound, stemmed from her ability to read a page once and commit it to memory. If her mother’s talent at memorizing large portions of the Bible, which she could not read, was true, Victoria may indeed have inherited the gift of total recall. Tennie’s ebullient street smarts and confidence also won over audiences, well into the thousands. Everyone remarked that the sisters were a decided cut above their squabbling clan, although Tennie was more of a hoyden, and could dip into slang and jokes with ease.

A neighbor recalled that there was something spooky about the Claflins. “The family always bore the reputation and were looked upon by the neighbors as being in some way ‘uncanny,’ the eldest daughter being mesmerized by several traveling professors and relating marvelous tales of things she had seen and known while ‘out of the body.’”

Victoria could not have survived, she claimed, without her visions, her comforting conversations with ghosts during her childhood as a “house‐hold drudge, serving others so long as they were awake, and serving herself only when they slept.” Her version of her childhood as recounted to Tilton made Cinderella’s sound pampered: “Had she been born black, or been chained to a cart‐wheel in Alabama, she could not have been a more enslaved slave.” Later, living with her older married sister Margaret “Meg” Miles and her family, Victoria “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.”

Buck and Roxanna’s “eccentricities” were reproduced in all their children—“except Victoria and Tennie,” wrote Tilton, singling out the sister partners as noble. The others were “leeches.” “They love and hate— they do good and evil—they bless and smite each other… For years there has been one common sentiment sweetly pervading the breasts” of the Claflin siblings, “namely, a determination that Victoria and Tennie should earn all the money for the support of the numerous remainder of the Claflin tribe—wives, husbands, children, servants, and all… Victoria is a green leaf, and her legion of relatives are caterpillars who devour her.”

Tales (not mentioned by Tilton) of the Claflin clan’s sudden departure from Homer depict Buck as the supreme con man, remembered by neighbors as allegedly setting fire to his empty gristmill to get the insurance money. Small‐town folks didn’t take kindly to cheating, and there was talk of tarring and feathering him. He vanished in the night, while Homer residents took up a collection to get the rest of the family out of town. After the departure of Claflin, who had been appointed postmaster, the community found undelivered envelopes on which senders had written, “Money enclosed.” The envelopes had been opened; the money was gone.

In 1853 the Claflins traveled to the town of Mount Gilead, Ohio, where the oldest sister, Meg Miles, was living with her husband and brood. In Mount Gilead, Victoria soon became a child bride. The marriage between her, scarcely fifteen, and her twenty‐eight‐year‐old bridegroom, Canning Woodhull, was a “fellowship of misery—and her parents, who abetted it, ought to have prevented it,” wrote Tilton. “From the endurable cruelty of her parents, she fled to the unendurable cruelty of her husband.”

As Victoria was scandalously divorced from Woodhull at the time Tilton was writing her biography, and embroiled in a front‐page family ruckus involving her current husband, it was prudent to paint her first husband as dark as possible. She needed to portray herself as an innocent child so tormented in marriage that a Victorian‐age divorce would have seemed acceptable.

When fourteen‐year‐old Victoria became feverish one day, “Dr. Canning Woodhull, a gay rake, whose habits were kept hidden from her under the general respectability of his family connections, attended her. Coming as a prince, he found her as Cinderella—a child of the ashes,” wrote Tilton. He invited Victoria to a Fourth of July picnic. She sold apples to buy a pair of shoes for the occasion. On the way home he said to her, “My little puss, tell your father and mother that I want you for a wife.”

Victoria is depicted in this sketch as a startled innocent who beseeched her parents to save her. This does not ring true. Canning was a handsome doctor who said he was from a refined East Coast family. Surely to a child who dreamed of power and her own glory, and who fully believed she would one day ride in a fine carriage, he must have seemed a magical escape from her dreary life. Her story continued: “But the parents, as if not unwilling to be rid of a daughter whose sorrow was ripening her into a woman before her time, were delighted at the unexpected offer. They thought it a grand match.” Victoria also admitted that she soon looked at the marriage as “an escape from the parental yoke.”

On September 23, 1853, Victoria celebrated her fifteenth birthday. Two months later, on November 23, she celebrated her wedding—yet, all her life, she would say she was married at fourteen, to throw an even more helpless cast on the union. “On the third night,” her husband “broke her heart by remaining away all night at a house of ill‐repute… she learned, to her dismay, that he was habitually unchaste, and given to long fits of intoxication… She grew ten years older in a single day. Six weeks after her marriage (during which time her husband was mostly with his cups and his mistresses), she discovered a letter addressed to him in a lady’s elegant penmanship, ‘Did you marry that child because she too was en famille?’” On the day of his marriage, Woodhull had “sent away into the country a mistress” who gave birth to his child.

“He suddenly put his wife into the humblest quarters, where, left mostly to herself, she dwelt in bitterness of spirit, aggravated… by learning of his ordering baskets of champagne and drinking himself drunk in the company of harlots.” At this point the couple was residing in Chicago, probably because Canning could make a better living in this bustling frontier city, known in those days as far out West. However, his drinking left him incapable of functioning. Wrote Tilton, extravagantly, “Through rain and sleet, half clad and shivering, she would track him to his dens,” compelling him to return. Other nights, she would wait by the window until she heard him “languidly shuffling along the pavement with the staggering reel of a drunken man, in the shameless hours of the morning.”

Somehow Canning had found time to impregnate his wife. In retelling the birth, Tilton poured on the pathos: “In the dead of winter, with icicles clinging to her bedpost, and attended only by her half‐drunken husband, she brought forth in almost mortal agony her first‐born child.” For icicles to have found their way to bedposts, the temperature would have to have been mighty frigid, but miracle of miracles, Victoria and even the newborn babe survived. A neighbor brought her food and wrapped the baby in a blanket and took it “to a happier mother in the near neighborhood” to nurse the infant.

Her firstborn child became the real sorrow of Victoria’s life, one that would haunt her and spur her lifelong interest in eugenics, her arguments for planned parenting by the most physically and mentally pure, and her fight against loveless marriages. She blamed Canning’s drunkenness, and their empty union, for the son she bore on that last day of December 1854: “Her child, begotten in drunkenness, and born in squalor, was a half idiot; predestined to be a hopeless imbecile for life.” The son, named Byron, would live a long life. In 1871, at the age of sixteen, he was “a sad and pitiful spectacle in his mother’s house… where he roams from room to room, muttering noises more sepulchral than human; a daily agony to the woman who bore him.” Byron also displayed an “uncommon sweet‐ ness,” wrote Tilton, that won “everyone’s love, doubles everyone’s pity.”

One visitor to the brokerage office who often witnessed Byron during the period Tilton described said, “He was almost a complete idiot… although he had the Claflin beauty… Generally he sat on a lounge for a time, and then would rise and walk very rapidly about ten feet, back and forth, mumbling, grimacing and drooling. After five or ten minutes of this he would resume his seat, and remain for a short time comparatively quiet. The alternation went on continually. When his mother was in the office, she at times would seat herself beside him and fondle him. I thought then that she did so out of sincere maternal affection.”

Other than Victoria’s martyrdom, and the continuing, vain hope that Canning Woodhull would reform, the rest of their time in Chicago is a blank, except for one melodramatic scene after Canning stayed away for a month. He was “keeping a mistress at a fashionable boarding‐house, under the title of wife.” Victoria “sallied forth into the wintry street, clad in a calico dress without undergarments, and shod only with India‐rubbers without shoes or stockings, entered the house, confronted the household as they sat at table.” Her tale drew tears from everyone, and the listeners “compelled the harlot to pack her trunk and flee the city, and shamed the husband into creeping like a spaniel back into the kennel” called home.

Victoria no doubt embellished accounts of her husband’s behavior, but he did end up an alcoholic and morphine addict. And she was legally helpless to leave him. Like all married women, she was literally her husband’s property, as were any children she would bear. In most states, he lawfully had the right to beat her. In a divorce, he had the right to take the children. Even if he had had money, she would not have gotten any if she had instituted a divorce. Though the Claflins were hardly of a social class where a divorce scandal would have tainted the entire family, Victoria was nonetheless crushed, and trapped by the rules of the day.

Tilton gives no date for Victoria’s next giant leap: impulsively taking her damaged child and drunken husband with her to San Francisco, during an unspecified time (probably in 1857 or 1858). Victoria was desperate enough, with no money or livelihood, to bravely strike out on a torturous journey that took nearly two months by sea, and more if they went from Chicago in covered wagon through dangerous Indian Territory. Her usually histrionic descriptions are startlingly absent regarding this trip to the coast and their life there. One can even wonder if she might not have made up the San Francisco journey to hide her Midwest life, as here her story becomes elusive. How the young mother who described her Chicago existence as penniless, her clothes meager, and her lodgings squalid found the money for the trip or how they could afford a place to live, or where they settled in San Francisco, are unmentioned. If true, the venture seems to have been an impulsive disaster that lasted less than a year.

In the wake of the 1849 gold rush, San Francisco had grown up. Miners’ shacks and shanties had given way to substantial brick houses, the U.S. Mint had built headquarters there, vigilante committees fussed about cleaning up crime in red‐light districts, mud streets were being paved with cobblestones and earthquake tremors dutifully tracked. Levi Strauss had opened a store to sell his denims to the miners who still flocked to the surrounding hills. San Francisco had its streets of frontier bawdiness; the Barbary Coast, with its bars and brothels, remained a treacherous den of thieves. Newcomers arrived daily on ships that clogged the harbor, hoping to grab their share of gold.

Canning’s drinking continued, and Victoria found herself “supporting the man by whom she ought to have been supported.” Who cared for Byron is not explained by Tilton. Victoria answered an ad for a “cigar girl” in a tobacco emporium, which were notoriously fronts for brothels. Behind the slim sampling of cigars, girls were supposed to sell favors instead of cheroots. These establishments were routine in large cities. To demonstrate just how vulgar cigar stores were considered, an 1870 guide to Manhattan brothels noted that a cigar girl was low on the list. Customers ranged from fatherly judges to toughly aggressive youths. Newspapers warned impoverished women about the “great evil consequent upon very beautiful girls being placed in cigar stores,” where customers “ultimately affect her ruin.”

Why Victoria cited this dubious job in an otherwise meager account of her life in San Francisco seems strange, unless it was an attempt to prove herself innocent of prostitution. Tilton wrote that the “blushing, modest, and sensitive” Victoria was fired after one day because she was “too fine” for the job. The proprietor in this sordid occupation allegedly gave Victoria a twenty‐dollar gold piece, puzzlingly generous compensation for a young woman he had just fired.

Victoria then became a seamstress, her needle being the “only weapon many women possess wherewith to fight the battle of life,” continued Tilton. There are no clues as to how long she performed this job, an exhausting process of hand‐stitching, before sewing machines were in general use. One day, “She chanced to come upon Anna Cogswell,” an actress, who wanted a seamstress. Victoria complained that she could not make enough money sewing, so Cogswell told her she should go on the stage. Just like that, Victoria was “engaged as a lesser light to the Cogswell star.” In those days, actresses were considered part of the shady demimonde, with stage door Johnnies waiting for a trophy in exchange for a late supper.

With Victoria’s quick memory, she learned the part, and for six weeks earned fifty‐two dollars a week. “Never leave the stage,” admiring fellow performers urged. Victoria allegedly said she was meant for something higher. Then, while “clad in a pink silk dress and slippers, acting in the ballroom scene in the Corsican Brothers, suddenly a spirit‐voice told her ‘Victoria, come home!’” In her vision, she saw Tennie, “then a mere child—standing by her mother,” calling her to return. She raced out, still in her “dramatic adornments, through a foggy rain to her hotel. She packed up her few clothes, Canning, and Byron and grabbed the morning steamer for New York.” On board, her “spiritual states” produced “pro‐ found excitement among the passengers.”

Mother Annie, wrote Tilton, had told Tennie—at the same time Victoria saw the vision—“to send the spirits after Victoria to bring her home.”

The spirits may have been calling, but it was their mother who wanted Victoria back, to help support the family. With Victoria home, they now had another golden goose to put to work.

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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