Portrait of Victoria Woodhull

Who Is Victoria Woodhull?

Because Henry Ward Beecher refused to listen to her pleas, Victoria felt there was no choice but to fight back and reveal the hypocrisy of her attackers. She published the story of Rev. Beecher's affair with a married woman, hoping that his family would stop the personal attacks. Instead, they enlisted the help of the United States marshals and the YMCA.

The first female presidential candidate spent election day in jail. The U.S. government arrested her under the Comstock Act for sending "obscene" literature through the mail. (As late as 1996, this act was still in effect as a part of the internet Communications Decency Act.) The alleged obscenity wasn't pornography. The obscenity was an article about Rev. Beecher's affair with Lib Tilton, the wife of Beecher's best friend, Theodore Tilton.

At first, people took the side of the government. They were glad to see the "Wicked Woodhull" in jail for smearing one of their favorite celebrities. As time went by, though, they realized that the principle of free speech was at stake. Victoria, her sister Tennie C., and her husband Col. Blood were in jail for publishing what they believed to be the truth. The government didn't care if it was the truth. They wanted to destroy Victoria Woodhull and her newspaper, "Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly." Some members of the press joined in. A Chicago editor admitted to an intentional campaign to destroy her. He said, "Editors know that all she has said about Beecher is true, and we must either indorse her and make her the most popular woman in the world, or write her down and crush her out; and we have determined to do the latter."

The scandal erupted into numerous trials for obscenity and libel. Victoria was on the defensive and was arrested eight times. Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton denied everything. They said that woman was lying. In 1875, Theodore Tilton had a change of heart. He took Reverend Beecher to court for alienation of his wife's affection. To some, it seemed a vindication of Woodhull. To others, it proved Theodore Tilton was part of a vast conspiracy to bring down Rev. Beecher.

The Beecher-Tilton trial was the biggest news since President Lincoln had been assassinated. It received more coverage than the impeachment of President Johnson. It was as widely covered as the O.J. Simpson trial. It created thousands of pages of testimony and numerous books like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The country was sharply divided. Some believed Beecher was guilty. Others believed Woodhull made the whole thing up. They thought she published the article because she wanted fame or increased circulation.

Victoria, Tennie C., and Colonel were eventually acquitted of any crimes, but the lawsuits ruined them. They spent a fortune in legal bills and bail. They lost their stock brokerage. The government confiscated their printing press, their personal papers, and their brokerage accounts, which were a major source of their income. They had received death threats and blackmail letters. They estimated their losses at half a million dollars and told the government they would be satisfied if they received $50,000 in restitution. They never received anything. With its malicious prosecution, the federal government bankrupted its first female presidential candidate--financially and emotionally.

It's been nearly 128 years, and still no woman has made it to the White House. No person of color has even made it to the Vice Presidency. Money is still a major obstacle for candidates. The private lives of public figures are still an issue. The people still feel the politicians aren't representing them. It seems little has changed in politics in the past century.



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