On the bitterly cold early morning of 2nd November 1872, three days before the Presidential election of the United States, two US deputy marshals, Colfax and Bernard, appeared in Broad Street, calling at a nondescript shop front at number 48, around the corner from the imposing facade of the New York Stock Exchange to arrest a woman who was neither a prostitute, nor a thief, a pickpocket or a husband poisoner, but a woman of substance. As they were about to knock at the door, suddenly they saw a fast carriage swept past carrying the woman they wanted. Immediately they chased, stopped the carriage, and producing a warrant, arrested her on charges of sending obscene publications through the mail. The woman they arrested was Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872, about 50 years before women could vote.
Born on 23 September 1838, the seventh of ten children, in the rural frontier town of Homer in Ohio, Victoria was starved and sexually abused by her father when still very young. During her budding years, she became close to her sister Tennessee Celeste Claflin, called Tennie, seven years her junior and the last child born to the family. In a desperate attempt to escape her father's brutality Victoria, at the age of 15, eloped with Canning Woodhull, a patent medicine salesman who also claimed to be a doctor. But her dream of a new life was shattered when she learned that apart from being an alcoholic, her husband was a womanizer, despite their two children. Victoria grew more intolerant of Canning for his occasional beating and coming home only for money. Finally, after eleven years of marriage, Victoria divorced him in 1864.
It is presumed that during her troubled first marriage, Victoria Woodhull became an advocate of free love, the idea that a person has the right to stay with a person only so long as they choose, and that they can commit to another relationship when they decide to move on. Probably in late 1865 or early 1866, Victoria met Colonel James Harvey Blood, an educated man who also believed in the doctrine of free love. He served in the Union Army in Missouri during the Civil War and was elected as the city auditor of Saint Louis, Missouri. It is said that the couple married in 1866 though no record has been found of their official wedding. They shifted to New York in 1868, along with Victoria’s sister Tennie, and other family members.
In New York, Vanderbilt also helped Victoria and Tennie by funding their financial ventures on Wall Street, where they began making money in the stock market and eventually opened their own brokerage house, Woodhull, Claflin & Company. But the sisters did not stop there. They used the money they had made from their brokerage to start a newspaper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, a radical publication, on 14 May 1870 that continued for the next six years. The Weekly gave a platform to the sisters to express their ideas on social reforms, including women's suffrage, birth control and free love. The weekly quickly evolved into a radical political, economic and social open forum and became notorious for publishing controversial issues like women’s suffrage and advocating sex education, free love, short skirts, spiritualism, vegetarianism, and licensed prostitution.
Victoria Woodhull was a free thinker and she became notorious for publishing controversial opinions on taboo topics, while advocating free love and abusing the anomalies in the social system. During the 19th century, women married in the United States were bound into the unions, even if loveless, with few options to escape. Divorce was extremely limited by law and considered socially scandalous. Divorced women were stigmatized and often ostracized by society. The system led Victoria to conclude that women should have the choice to leave unbearable marriages. She also maintained that in the society women are treated as a legal property of their husbands, and the whole system needs changing. But men never make the changes as they have too much to lose.
The newly formed Equal Rights Party nominated Victoria Woodhull as their candidate for running the election of the President of the United States on 10 May 1872, with abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass as her running mate. However, before the election, she devoted an issue of her newspaper published on 2 November 1872, to an alleged adulterous affair between Elizabeth Tilton and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent Protestant minister in New York, who supported female suffrage but had lectured against free love in his sermons. Provoked by such hypocrisy, Victoria Woodhull published the article to highlight that a member of his church, Theodore Tilton, disclosed to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a colleague of Victoria, that his wife had confessed Beecher was committing adultery with her. Her target was not the morality of the affair, but the hypocrisy that permitted powerful men to be sexually free but denied such freedom to women. The story set off a national scandal and preoccupied the public for months.
That same day, just a few days before the presidential election, Victoria Woodhull, her sister Tennie and her second husband Colonel James Blood, were arrested by the US Federal Marshals on charges of publishing an obscene newspaper, and the first female Presidential candidate spent the Election Day 1872 in jail. Six months later, all three were acquitted on a technicality for publishing the story about Beecher's affair, they had to pay nearly $500,000 in bail and fines before being cleared of the charges.
Later, Colonel Blood divorced Victoria in 1876, the Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly stopped publication permanently, and almost bankrupt Victoria Woodhull and her sister Tennie left the US, to start a new life in England. On 31 October 1883, she married John Biddulph Martin, a wealthy banker. Later in her life, she published a magazine, The Humanitarian, from 1892 to 1901, as Victoria Woodhull Martin, remained active in the British women's suffrage movement, and worked to isolate herself from her former radical ideas on sex and love. After the death of her husband in 1901, she gave up publishing and retired to her country residence at Bredon's Norton, Worcestershire in England and died on June 9, 1927 at the age of 88.