Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 22, 2020

Victoria Woodhull and Cornelius Vanderbilt

Filed under: Woodhull — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

Below you will find an excerpt from Barbara Goldsmith’s 1998 “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull”. It deals with the unlikely hook-up between Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin with Cornelius Vanderbilt, the richest man in America. Woodhull and her sister put out a magazine called Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly that called for socialist revolution, free love and spiritualist values. As I pointed out in a CounterPunch article, Marxists in the USA were divided between the “Yankee” faction led by her and the “orthodox” faction led by Frederick Sorge and supported by Marx. Sorge and Marx led a drive to expel Woodhull and her comrades that culminated in them capturing themselves. Despite Woodhull’s idiosyncrasies, she was connected to the living pulse of America’s most exploited—the women, the African-Americans and the most militant workers.

In addition to being the first woman to run for president (her running-mate was Frederick Douglass), she and her sister were the first women to own a Wall St. stock brokerage. The excerpt shows how they got their hands on the money to fund the business and to pay for their revolutionary-minded magazine.

It will be immediately obvious that Goldsmith has not written a scholarly book. Since her previous biography was about Gloria Vanderbilt (the great-granddaughter of the patriarch discussed below), you can probably guess that she was writing for the mass market rather than Marxist ne’er-do-wells like me.

Apparently the book was optioned to become a Hollywood movie but nothing came of that until 2017, when Amazon announced plans to make such a film but not based on Goldsmith’s book as far as I can tell. Someone named Ben Kopit is working on the script and I wouldn’t expect much. Maybe the best bet would be for Paul Buhle to do a comic book since he is a Woodhull scholar among his many other assets.

As a mass-market biographer rather than a historian, Goldsmith paints a lurid picture but perhaps one not that remote from the reality. To balance this book, I also received a copy of Mark Lause’s “Long Road to Harpers Ferry: The Rise of the First American Left” that deals with the Yankee left. Mark has also written a book on “Free Spirits: Spiritualism, Republicanism, and Radicalism in the Civil War Era” that I am anxious to read.

IN THE world of the demimondaine the most open of secrets was Commodore Vanderbilt’s insatiable sexual appetite. In the world of the Spiritualists the most open of secrets was the Commodore’s support of any medium, fortune-teller, or healer who could aid him in his insatiable search for riches and immortality. He paid Mrs. Tufts, a medium from Staten Island, enough money to retire to Vermont when she rid him of two spirits: a boy of seven who had been crushed under the hooves of Vanderbilt’s four white-footed trotters as they sped around the reservoir in Central Park, and a railroad worker who had been mangled under the wheels of the Commodore’s Flying Devil and appeared before him in a bloody, shredded, and oil-stained condition.

Vanderbilt instructed his barber to collect his hair and burn it, for fear that someone who secured a lock would have power over him. He believed that through portraits one could communicate with those who had “passed over,” and kept a miniature of his late mother in his breast pocket above his heart. He despised doctors and followed the advice of Spiritualist healers, one of whom had instructed that saltcellars be placed under each leg of his bed to ward off evil spirits.

It was common knowledge that Commodore Vanderbilt saw all callers at his town house at 10 Washington Place, no matter who they were. He usually dispatched them promptly and rudely, but said he never knew where a good idea might come from. Within a month of his arrival, the ever alert Buck Claflin arranged a meeting between his Spiritualist daughters and the Commodore. When the crusty Vanderbilt peered over the balcony of his Greek revival mansion and saw the two women standing below, he could not have failed to be impressed: There stood Victoria with her delicate cameo features and Tennessee with her overblown figure. Vanderbilt had an eye for women, so much so that the housemaids frequently quit to escape his prurient advances.

The Commodore, for all his bluster, was old and lonely. Despite his fortune he was not welcome in society. He swore like a stevedore and spat tobacco juice onto his hostesses’ Persian carpets. He was nearly illiterate. His home life was bleak; he and his wife, Sophia, had barely spoken for a decade. Sophia had borne the Commodore twelve children, and when they were young and poor she worked at Bellona Hall, their Staten Island boardinghouse, with one child at her breast and several others trailing behind.

Two decades earlier, when Sophia mustered the courage to object to his pursuit of the children’s governess and refused to go along with his plan to move to a New York City town house, the Commodore established complete domination over her by having her committed to Dr. McDonald’s insane asylum in Flushing. His eldest son, the obese William Henry, arranged for his mother’s internment, and when the governess fled after being driven frantic by the Commodore’s sexual advances, William Henry found another young girl “to content” his father, saying, “The old man is bound to have his way and it is useless to oppose him.”

If not for the intercession of Vanderbilt’s mother, Sophia would have remained in the insane asylum while the Commodore played his beloved whist, raced his magnificent trotters, conducted business, and pursued women. Phebe Hand Van der Bilt summoned her son to Staten Island and told him he’d better fetch his wife back if he knew what was good lot him. (Sophia was not only his wife but his first cousin, the daughter of his father’s sister, Eleanor.) “I would never cross that woman,” he said of his mother. From that time on, Sophia had been compliant, uncomplaining and aloof.

The summer after the Commodore met Victoria and Tennessee, following his usual routine, he repaired to Saratoga for the racing season and to take the spa water. Sophia, having little place in her husband’s life, remained behind and moved into the home of her daughter and son-in-law, Mary Louise and Horace Clark. On August 17, 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt was sitting on the porch of the United States Hotel, drinking beer and smoking a black cigar when word came that Sophia had died of an apoplectic attack. Six hours later, he arrived in New York in his private railroad car, Duchess. Two days after that, Sophia was interred in the Vanderbilt Mausoleum at the Moravian Cemetery on Staten Island. Horace Greeley, who had been one of the pallbearers, wrote in the Tribune that Mrs. Vanderbilt had “lived nearly seventy-four years without incurring a reproach or provoking an enmity.”

Soon Victoria and Tennessee became daily fixtures in the Commodore’s household, for they answered his considerable needs: Although he was still slim and spry enough to race his horses and spend hours at his one-desk, one-secretary office on Fourth Street near Broadway, he was slowing down. His hearing was failing, and he suffered from heart trouble, a hernia, kidney stones, constipation, and an enlarged prostate. At meals he had been known to consume pâté de foie gras, woodcock, Spanish mackerel, and saddle of venison, accompanied by Burgundy or Veuve Clicquot or beer. Tennessee took over: She babied, cajoled, and disciplined Vanderbilt, removing the rich foods from his diet and insisting that he walk as well as drive his horses. She tried to get him to stop smoking, but he said, “When I have to give up smoking, you may give me up.” Tennessee’s treatments consisted of clystering (a high enema), manipulating the prostate, and magnetic healing. With her left hand acting as a negative magnet, the right as a positive, she claimed to reverse the polarity of his body and to expel negative energy.

Almost everyone was terrified of the Commodore, but not Tennessee. Their relationship was light and affectionate. She called him “old boy” and “the old goat.” He called her “my little sparrow.” Four servants were later to recall that they often found her occupying the Commodore’s bed in the morning. “Ample”—that was Vanderbilt’s word for Tennessee—ample breasts, ample hips, inviting. She was what she was and didn’t care what anyone thought. Her jealous sister Utica said that when Tennessee asked the Commodore how many women he’d had, he replied, “A thousand,” to which Tennessee laughingly responded, “Then I am only half as bad as you are, for I have had but five hundred.” Within a few months of Sophia’s death, in the fall of 1868, the “old goat” asked Tennessee to become the next Mrs. Vanderbilt.

If Tennessee ministered to the Commodore’s body, Victoria ministered to his soul and eventually to his purse as well. Sitting in the darkened parlor under Phebe Hand Van der Bilt’s portrait, Victoria transmitted messages to him from his mother, who had died fifteen years earlier. When Victoria was in the room, the Commodore said he could even smell his mother’s presence—a combination of strong soap and lavender. His mother was the only woman he had truly loved. He liked his eight daughters well enough but told people, “After all, they’re not Vanderbilts.” His two living sons, William Henry and Cornelius Jeremiah, he called a “blatherskite” and a “sucker,” respectively. William Henry was hardworking and dull and, what was more irritating to the Commodore, prudent and obedient: He’d bring round his sons, Willie K. and Cornelius, for hymn singing and money-grubbing, but the Commodore said there was no life in any of them. The Commodore refused to see Cornelius Jeremiah, an epileptic, because he was unable to admit that he could produce a less-than-perfect human being. He also felt that Cornelius Jeremiah was God’s reprimand to him for having married his first cousin. This poor son nevertheless loved his father deeply and would stand for hours on the back porch hoping to catch a glimpse of the Commodore. Horace Greeley occasionally lent Cornelius Jeremiah money. The Commodore told Greeley that he would never pay him back for the loans to his son. “Who the devil asked you?” Greeley shot back.

The Commodore had once despised his father as well, but he softened his attitude in his old age. Convinced that Victoria Woodhull truly was able to go in a trance and relay messages from his beloved mother, Vanderbilt offered her $100,000 if she would go into a trance and conjure up his father, then describe the man well enough for an artist to paint a portrait. Prudently, she declined but soon Victoria was to make a great deal more money than that by conjuring up some numbers for the Commodore.

In February 1868, Commodore Vanderbilt engaged in a battle with Jim Fisk and Fisk’s partner, Jay Gould, for control of the Erie Railroad. Fisk and Gould had won because at a secret meeting in a suite at the American Club Hotel at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, the Erie directors decided to print more than one hundred fifty thousand new shares of Erie stock. The suite was the residence of a friend a friend of Victoria Woodhull’s from their acting days in San Francisco. As Fisk remarked, “If this printing press don’t break down, I’ll be damned if I don’t give the old hog all he wants of Erie.” Finally, on March 10, having bought the one hundred fifty thousand shares without gaining control of the Erie, the Commodore caught on. The humiliation was as painful as the swindle. With Victoria Woodhull’s help, it would not happen again.

The world of high finance and the low life of prostitutes seemed separate, but in fact they converged in the elegant brothels Victoria visited. At these establishments, women entertained the richest and most powerful men of the day in their beds, and yet they were considered insensate and invisible. Some madams, including Annie Wood, undoubtedly made the most of the opportunity this provided. As Wall Street traders, city officials, businessmen, and politicians gathered in her parlor, Annie listened carefully to what they said. She also trained her “girls” to encourage the men to boast about their financial maneuverings, instructing these women both in the art of exacting information and in seeming ignorant of what they had heard.

Victoria was an intimate of Annie Wood and knew many of the prostitutes who worked in her house. It was there that Vicky became reacquainted with her friend from San Francisco, Josie Mansfield. Josie and husband, Frank Lawlor, had come to the city in 1864 in the hope of finding employment in the theater. They were unsuccessful and soon Lawlor admitted that Josie had married him only to escape the sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her stepfather, found that his wife was “going astray” and divorced her. According to Annie Wood, Josie became so impoverished that she had but one dress and could not pay her rent. It was then that she began to frequent Annie Wood’s house on Thirty-fourth Street, where she set her sights on the overblown Jim Fisk, a regular patron.

Josie knew of Fisk’s wild behavior, his quiet wife in Boston, and his free spending: He would give $100 bills to any pretty prostitute who caught his eye. In November 1867, Fisk arrived at the bordello for an evening’s entertainment and was immediately taken with the buxom Miss Mansfield. Although Josie professed to find Fisk intelligent and manly, she refused his money and rebuffed his advances. For three months Josie skillfully withheld her favors, thereby inflating her worth. Then she allowed Fisk to pay the overdue rent on her tiny room on Lexington Avenue, after which he installed her in the American Club Hotel suite. Fisk underwent a remarkable change: He trimmed his unkempt red mustache and waxed the ends to handlebar perfection, he wore French cologne and kept his boots shined. This besotted lover bought Josie a roomful of dresses and gave her $50,000 in cash and about five times that in Tiffany emeralds.

Josie became a lady of fashion. Daily the hairdresser called, teasing her hair into a variety of puffs, curls, and frizzes. Once every two weeks the enamelist painted her face, shoulders, neck, and arms with a compound of bismuth and arsenic that gave her skin a much-desired deathlike pallor. To be a woman of fashion was a full-time occupation carried to an absurd degree. George Ellington described the requirements:

The elite do not wear the same dress twice . . . she has two new dresses of some sort for every day in the year, or seven hundred and twenty. . . . She must have one or two velvet dresses which cannot cost less than five hundred dollars each; she must possess thousands of dollars’ worth of laces, in the shape of flounces, to loop up over the skirts of dresses as occasion shall require. Walking-dresses cost from fifty to three hundred dollars; ball-dresses are frequently imported from Paris at a cost of from five hundred to a thousand dollars. . . . Nice white llama jackets can be had for sixty dollars; robes princesse, or overskirts of lace, are worth from sixty to two hundred dollars. Then there are . . . dresses for all possible occasions. A lady going to the Springs takes from twenty to sixty dresses and fills an enormous number of Saratoga trunks.

Fisk complained that in one year he spent $30,000 to equip Josie ($5,000 more, he noted, than the president’s salary). Her casket of jewels contained her fabulous emeralds, a set (necklace, earrings, tiara) of diamonds, a set of pearls, a set of corals, a medallion set, and twenty-five finger rings. Within the year Fisk had given Josie a house in her own name at 359 West Twenty-third Street, only half a block west of Fisk’s Opera House. He also supplied her with several maids, a cook, butler, and coachman. Yet Josie’s demands on Fisk escalated: He said that she was more temperamental than an opera diva. Once when she asked Fisk for an extra $30,000, he sent Boss Tweed himself to mediate. Tweed asked her what it was she really wanted. “I want more,” she replied. One of Fisk’s business associates was a startlingly handsome playboy with jet-black hair and classic features named Edward (Ned) Stiles Stokes. Stokes was married to the daughter of a furniture tycoon, and both his father and father-in-law paid his debts and supplied him with cash to disport himself at well-known restaurants and Broadway gambling houses, Fisk, taking a liking to Stokes, lent him some money for an oil venture, named one of his 125 canaries after him, and introduced him to Josie.

Several times a day, Fisk sent a messenger to Josie’s house with notes out-lining his plans. Woodhull was to observe of Mansfield that “she obtained not only Fisk’s money but she also participated in his business secrets. He concealed nothing . . . of his business plans and aspirations from her.” Although both women denied any business association, there is little doubt that, for a price, Josie Mansfield shared these plans with Victoria Woodhull. And on the client register of Woodhull, Claflin & Co. (a Wall Street investment firm formed in the winter of 1869) there was listed an H. J. Mansfield. Josie Mansfield’s given name was Helen Josephine.

By the end of 1868, Vanderbilt was giving Victoria and Tennessee a percentage of the profits from his business transactions. In a trance state, Victoria offered him uncannily accurate financial advice, and the Commodore was shrewd enough not to question whether her sources were from this world or another. In December, Vanderbilt made the boldest move of his career. He declared an 80 percent stock dividend on the Central Pacific Railroad (issuing four extra shares for every five now owned). On Christmas Day, Victoria visited the Commodore and offered advice from the spirits. That evening, he told a young widow to place all her savings in Central stock. “It’s bound to go up. . . . Mrs. Woodhull said so in a trance,” he declared. On the Monday after Christmas, the Central stock opened at $134. By the time the exchange closed, it had bounded up to $165. It was rumored that the Commodore had allocated the profits on three thousand shares, or $93,000, to Victoria and Tennessee. When the Commodore was asked how he made such astute financial decisions, he laughed and replied, “Do as I do. Consult the spirits.”


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