Wow. Just wow.
This book is the story of what is just one knot of the tangled web of the history of America in the mid-nineteenth century. Its main focus is on Victoria Woodhull, a self-proclaimed spiritualist (and so much more) who was the first woman to run for President of the United States, long before women even had the right to vote.
But Victoria Woodhull was involved in so much stuff during her life that it also picks up at least half a dozen other stories involving many of the most famous and infamous characters in the history of that period including three presidents, several preachers, newspapermen (both publishers and editors – Victoria Woodhull published her own newspaper for a while), railroad tycoons, and leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.
Victoria’s parents were quacks and swindlers of the most persistent kind. Her father, while probably not the inventor of patent medicines, appears to have been one of their most devoted salesmen. His specialty was a combination of alcohol and laudanum brewed by her mother and one of her sisters in their back yard (except they were constantly on the move). At a fairly early age Victoria began having visions and seeing spirits, even before talking with spirits became all the rage, which it did about that time. Her parents quickly moved to cash in on this ability, taking her around the country to tell fortunes.
Apparently the parents were pretty abusive, and Victoria married early in an attempt to get away from them. But her husband also turned out to be a drunk and was abusive as well. After a while, she divorced him and married another man. But the experience of her first marriage left her with great sympathy for the women of her time and the legal disabilities they suffered under. Not being able to vote was almost the least of the problems of these women.
Over the course of years her spiritualist contacts led her into contact also with the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, and after she successfully predicted the moves of stock prices for Commodore Vanderbilt for a period and was rewarded by him with a modest fortune (so that they saw her as being able to contribute financially to the movement) she sort of took it upon herself to run for President. For a number of reasons, she didn’t actually get very far with this, but it must have been an interesting prospect.
There is a long history in the book regarding the men who supported this early women’s movement, especially Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) and Theodore Tilton, and the protracted battle between them over Tilton’s wife. Tilton treated her like dirt, and partly in consequence, she fell in love with Beecher. The two men had other areas of conflict and sued and counter-sued each other over several trials and several venues. Fans of the Kardashians would have been right at home. They entertained the public for several seasons, and in the process destroyed a number of lives, including Mrs. Tilton’s and Beecher’s sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker’s. They also (with some help from other men and from some of the women themselves) managed to pretty effectively destroy the women’s movement, setting back the onset of women’s suffrage forty or fifty years at least. Who needs enemies when you can have friends, right?
One of the women they managed to almost destroy was Victoria Woodhull, although her family, who she could never get clear of, helped quite a bit in this effort as well. Eventually she divorced her second husband and went to England, where she remarried a third time, and except for a brief return to run for President again (this was mostly to show the English society ladies who refused to have anything to do with her that she was close to the leaders of the suffrage movement), she lived quietly in the English countryside for the remainder of her life.
An able unraveling of the historical knot, as far as it can be unraveled. Ably narrated by Margaret Daly as well.
Cover image from Goodreads.
Title: Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
Author: Barbara Goldsmith
Narrator: Margaret Daly