Portrait of Victoria Woodhull

Needless to say, that view didn't go over very well with most people. A few cities like Memphis and St. Louis had experimented with health inspections and the licensing of brothels, but there was no widespread acceptance of the practice. It was a radical view, then as now.


In 1871, Theodore Tilton published his biography of Victoria Woodhull. It revealed that she was an actress in San Francisco in the late 1850's. For many people, an actress and a prostitute were one and the same. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony shared this belief. She was shocked when one of her nephews wanted to be an actor. She protested, telling him, "It is selling your body to the public."

Little is known of Victoria's life in San Francisco, beyond Tilton's biography. What is known, is that she worked one day as a cigar girl, but was fired because she was too easily embarrassed. She worked as a seamstress, and that's how she met the actress Anna Cogswell, who told her she could make more money on the stage. Victoria was desperate for money to pay the bills, so she took Cogswell's advice. What she did after the footlights faded to black, no one knows. Did she sleep with men on the side for money? Or, did she go home to her husband and children? It's impossible to tell one way or the other. Victoria barely left a trace of her life in San Francisco. And yet, some writers say she began her life of prostitution on the Barbary Coast. She was an actress. Actresses sell their bodies to the public. She must have been a prostitute.


On Apr. 4, 1863, the Ottawa Free Trader ran an ad about the "cult of love" at the Fox River House in Ottawa, Illinois. (2015 update: The Cult of Love ad that Barbara Goldsmith said was in the Apr. 4, 1863 edition of the Ottawa Free Trader isn't there. See my offer of a $200 reward. Goldsmith claimed the ad was placed by Victoria's father.) Reuben Buckman Claflin had opened a cancer infirmary at the Fox River House in 1863. Victoria's sister, 17-year-old Tennie C. Claflin, was the star attraction as a clairvoyant and magnetic healer. The 24-year-old Victoria later joined the infirmary as a physician, according to biographer Emanie Sachs.

There were rumors about what the "cult of love" was. One woman alleged it was a "cult of free lovers." There were rumors that the "cult of love" was just another name for prostitution. Whatever it was, "the cult of love," sounded sexy; so, many writers latched on to it as "proof" that Victoria was a prostitute. Barbara Goldsmith implies in her book, "Other Powers" that "sexual services were offered" despite admitting that the "charges were never proved." And, she's right. They weren't proved. Although you can find an indictment against Tennie C. for her fraudulent cancer cure, which failed to cure breast cancer victim, Rebecca Howe, no one has found any indictments against Tennie C. or Victoria for prostitution in Ottawa.

But, then again, maybe no one has dug deep enough. It appears that Barbara Goldsmith, for her Ottawa research, relied primarily on the work of Victoria's first modern day biographer, Emanie Sachs, who had rediscovered the "Cult of Love" ad and the Ottawa indictment. (2015 correction: What Emanie Sachs wrote about the "cult of love" in her book is actually this: "The Claflins did well enough in Ottawa to rent the Fox River House, the town's oldest hotel for a cancer infirmary, where the 'cult of love' was taught incidentally."


"The Terrible Siren" by Emanie Sachs is considered the definitive biography of Victoria Woodhull. It's no wonder other Victoria Woodhull biographers have relied heavily upon her. Her book still makes fascinating reading.

Her account of Victoria Woodhull sounds like fiction, and there's a good reason for that. Emanie Sachs was a novelist, not an historian. She wanted to tell a good story. She wrote, "Both the false and the true are significant, because both show what people thought and felt about Victoria Woodhull . . . and like Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan and other Gargantuan American figures, she and her remarkable family were only half real." The problem is, Emanie Sachs didn't tell her readers what half was real, and what half was fiction. She wove fact and fancy into a romantic tale of rags to riches to rags to riches. Her publisher's lawyers warned her that her book was full of libel, and that in New York, criminal libel (even if the libeled person was dead) could be punishable by a jail sentence. Sachs was terrified that she might go to jail, but she published the book anyway. Her husband was Walter Sachs, as in Goldman Sachs, and he probably had the resources to keep her out of jail.

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