Victoria Claflin Woodhull – the 1st Woman to Run for U.S. President

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this blog article, Mary tells the story of Victoria Claflin Woodhull – who in a long, full life replete with many controversies, earned the distinction of being the first woman to run for U.S. president.

Who, you may be wondering, was this lady? And could you be related to her? If so, she may well be one of the “black sheep” in your family history!

photo of Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s

Photo: Victoria Woodhull, c. 1860s. Source: Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum, Historical Photographs and Special Visual Collections Department, Fine Arts Library; Wikimedia Commons.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull was a woman full of gumption and a household name in her own time. As a spiritualist, suffragette, newspaper publisher, the first woman to ever run a stock brokerage – and the first woman to run for U.S. president – she became a very famous and controversial person. Read on to find out why.

memorial for women suffrage submitted by Victoria Claflin Woodhull

Brief Family & Marriage History

Victoria Claflin was born 23 September 1838 in Homer, Ohio, to Reuben Buckman “Buck” Claflin and Roxanna “Annie” Hummel. She was one of ten children and the family struggled financially. Buck was a school teacher who later kept a store, and his wife reportedly did not have much education. Victoria’s father often got into trouble, including the counterfeiting of money.

He even marketed his children as clairvoyants. From the age of 10, Victoria reported receiving psychic messages from the Greek statesman Demosthenes (384–322 B.C.). The family traveled from town to town until, at the age of 14, Victoria married her first husband, Canning H. Woodhull, a native of New York.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her family, Plain Dealer newspaper article 23 September 1938

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 September 1938, page 6

By 1855, they were living with his parents, Byron and Louisa Woodhull. The New York State Census reports a son Byron, and at the time Canning’s occupation was sailor. (See “New York, State Census, 1855,” database with images from FamilySearch at accessed 3 September 2015.)

They later had a daughter named Zulu Maud Woodhull.

The marriage ended in divorce and Canning’s death certificate, displayed on his Findagrave memorial at, reports he succumbed to intemperance in 1872.

Victoria’s second marriage was to James Harvey Blood on 14 July 1866. (See “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch

He was a veteran of the Civil War who often went by an alias. Several reports indicate that at times, her first husband lived with them. Victoria’s second marriage also ended in a divorce.

A Fortune for a Fortune

As a psychic, Victoria met with millionaire railroad magnate and philanthropist Cornelius Vanderbilt. She told him his fortune which purportedly resulted in a large financial gain for Vanderbilt of $13 million in the gold market – and in exchange, Victoria was reportedly the benefactor of generous financing. She and sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin used this money to found the first female-owned bank and brokerage in the United States: Woodhull, Claflin & Company. In 1870, it was located at 44 Broad Street in New York and stayed in business until around 1876. The sisters also founded the first female-owned newspaper, called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, which began publication in 1870 in New York.

Newspaper advertisements announced that Woodhull, Claflin & Company bought and sold gold and government bonds, supplied advances, took collections of deposits in all parts of the Union, and paid interest on daily balances. They even provided mail and telegraphic services.

ad for Woodhull, Claflin & Company, Commercial Advertiser newspaper advertisement 24 February 1870

Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 24 February 1870, page 3

Legal Entanglements

In 1871, Victoria and Tennessee’s mother filed a petition to have Victoria’s husband arrested, alleging that Mr. Blood (who sometimes used the alias Dr. J. H. Harvey) encouraged Victoria to seek the attention of various married gentlemen for the purpose of blackmail.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her family, Springfield Republican newspaper article 6 May 1871

Springfield Republican (Springfield, Massachusetts), 6 May 1871, page 4

Several other legal squabbles ensued, the most notable with the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. One of their first entanglements was when the sisters sued, claiming that they were portrayed in the novel My Wife and I, by his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Later he retaliated with a lawsuit of his own.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister Tennessee suing Henry Ward Beecher for libel, Houston Daily Union newspaper article 28 June 1871

Houston Daily Union (Houston, Texas), 28 June 1871, page 2

In 1872, the sisters were deterred from sailing to Europe when they were charged by Mr. L. C. Challis with sending defamatory letters through the mail.

Arrest of Woodhull and Claflin, Washington Reporter newspaper article 6 November 1872

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 6 November 1872, page 4

Female Presidential Candidate Hopeful

Many of these lawsuits were instituted by political enemies because earlier that year, Victoria announced she was running for U.S. president on the Reform ticket. Her running mate was noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

article about Victoria Claflin Woodhull running for U.S. president in the 1872 election, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 4 April 1870

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 4 April 1870, page 2

They were among good company – U.S. presidential candidates that year included Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley and even Susan B. Anthony, who ran for vice president on the Independent ticket. Several authors report that Victoria’s name never appeared on an official ballot, as she was not yet 35.

list of the candidates in the 1872 U.S. presidential election, Stoughton Sentinel newspaper article 13 July 1872

Stoughton Sentinel (Stoughton, Massachusetts), 13 July 1872, page 5

Victoria lost her bid for the U.S. presidency, but went on to live a long, full life. She died at the age of 88 on 9 June 1927.

Are You Related?

I began this article with the question: Are you related to Victoria Claflin Woodhull? After reading these reports, perhaps you’re hoping you’re not – but as all genealogists know, if you root around your family tree, you’ll undoubtedly uncover some dirt.

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Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s Infamous ‘Last Stand’ at Little Big Horn

On 25 June 1876 a force of around 2,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, fiercely defending their combined village on the Little Bighorn River in Montana Territory, stopped a surprise attack from 600 men of the U.S. 7th Cavalry led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. When the dust finally settled from the furious fighting, Custer and every man of the five companies he was leading lay dead, with the 7th Cavalry’s other seven companies pinned down and unable to come to his aid.

Painting: “The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell

Painting: “The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. Lithograph. Shows the Battle of Little Bighorn, from the Indian side. Source: Library of Congress.

U.S. forces lost 268 men that day, including 31 officers and 10 scouts, and another 55 were wounded in the legendary battle. History will never know how many Indians died during the fighting, with estimates ranging from 40 to 140. One thing is certain, however: the Battle of the Little Bighorn was a complete disaster for Custer, and is known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”

The battle remains one of the most famous in American history, and one of the most controversial. Was Custer the victim of bad luck, overwhelmed by superior numbers through no fault of his own? Or did he cause the deaths of his men because he was proud and vain, recklessly attacking a much larger force because he wanted the glory and credit of defeating the enemy before approaching reinforcements from General Terry and Colonel Gibbon could arrive?

The following two 1800s newspaper articles give an indication of how a shocked America learned the news of Custer’s annihilation, just days after the nation had jubilantly celebrated its centennial on 4 July 1876. The first old news article is an editorial that, while acknowledging Custer’s bravery and touting his remarkable Civil War record, nonetheless calls him “not well balanced” and speaks of his “rashness.” The second historical news article presents some of the first news the outside world learned of the disaster, conveyed by a scout who arrived on the scene with Colonel Gibbon after the battle and surveyed the carnage on the battlefield.

Gen. Custer's Disaster and Death, Boston Journal newspaper article 6 July 1876

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 6 July 1876, page 2

This historical newspaper editorial states:

Gen. Custer’s Disaster and Death

The tidings of Gen. Custer’s fatal encounter with the Indian camp on the Little Horn River will be received by the public with mingled sorrow and indignation, and we may add with profound astonishment. The American people have known what it is to contend with the wily savage in his native forests from the days of Bradstreet’s terrible defeat to those of the Modoc war. Perhaps no amount of experience can guard disciplined troops against all danger of bloody surprises on the part of a foe whose cunning is equal to his ferocity. But here there seems to have been nothing of the kind. Gen. Custer directly and without a particle of excuse, so far as we now know, charged into the very jaws of destruction. He came upon an Indian camp, three or four miles long, occupied by from 2500 to 4000 warriors, and he attacked it in the very centre – amid grounds presumably chosen, as Indian camping places always are, for their advantages for defence – he attacked, we say, this overpowering force with 315 men! True, seven companies under General Reno were to make an attack in another quarter, and three companies were placed on a distant hill as a reserve, but these could render no assistance to Custer’s force, who, to a man, were simply butchered in cold blood! It is the most outrageous story that is yet on record in the annals of our regular army. We sincerely trust that some mitigating circumstances will come to light which will enable the American people to throw the mantle of charity over the fallen form of a brave officer who rendered some most excellent service in his time. Were he and his memory alone concerned we might say that he had paid the penalty of his rashness with his life, but the undeserved fate of his three hundred brave comrades who followed him to the slaughter, the bereavement of their families and the loss to their country, will not allow us to dismiss the matter thus lightly.

General George A. Custer, who, with two of his brothers and two other relatives, has thus fallen so suddenly and recklessly, was born in Ohio in 1840, so that he was only thirty-six years old at the time of his death. He graduated at West Point in 1861 and entered at once into active service in the war of the rebellion. He was in the Battle of Bull Run, in McClellan’s Peninsula campaign, in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam, in the Rappahannock campaign of 1863, in the battle of Gettysburg and the minor engagements connected therewith; he went through the whole of the Wilderness campaign and the Shenandoah campaign, and he bore a conspicuous part in the winding up operations at Five Forks and Appomattox Court House. It was a glorious career of service, and it raised its actor from Second Lieutenant of cavalry to brevet Major General. After the war Gen. Custer was put in command of the cavalry division of the Southwest and the Gulf, and in 1865-6 he was chief of cavalry in the Department of Texas. Since then he has been mainly on Western frontier duty.

Gen. Custer was preeminently the embodiment of the phrase, “a dashing cavalry officer.” His bravery was perfect, his energy was remarkable though not always sustained, and when under wise direction few officers were more effective and brilliant. But he was not well balanced, and Gen. Grant, whose judgment of army officers at least will never be questioned, deposed him from the chief command of the expedition against the Indians which has now so disastrously commenced operations. The act was largely attributed by a partisan press to personal and political prejudices, and Gen. Custer was ultimately allowed to go as commander of his regiment. It is of little use to bewail what is now past; we can only hope that Gen. Terry, who has the confidence of all, will retrieve the errors and fatalities which have thus far thrown a shadow over the expedition, and will bring it out successful in the end.

Custer's Death, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 6 July 1876

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 6 July 1876, page 1

This article reports:

Custer’s Death

The Fearful Tale of an Army Scout

An Indian Camp of Two Thousand Lodges Attacked by the Troops

General Custer and His Command Perish to the Last Man

Three Hundred Soldiers Killed and Thirty-one Wounded

Seventeen Commissioned Officers Surrender Their Swords to Death

Salt Lake, July 5. – A special correspondent of the Helena (Montana) Herald writes from Stillwater, Montana, on July 2d:

Muggins Taylor, scout for General Gibbon, got there last night direct from Little Horn River. General Custer found the Indian camp, of about 2,000 lodges, on the Little Horn, and immediately attacked the camp. Custer took five companies and charged the thickest portion of the camp. Nothing is known of the operations of the detachment, only as they trace it by the dead. Major Reno commanded the other seven companies, and attacked the lower portion of the camp. The Indians poured in a murderous fire from all directions, besides the greater portion fought on horseback. Custer, his two brothers, nephew, and brother-in-law were all killed, and not one of his detachment escaped. Two hundred and seven men were buried in one place, and the killed are estimated at three hundred, with only thirty-one wounded. The Indians surrounded Reno’s command, and held him one day in the hills, cut off from water, until Gibbon’s command came in sight, when they broke camp in the night and left. The Seventh fought like tigers, and were overcome by mere brute force. The Indian loss can not be estimated, as they bore off and cached most of their killed. The remnant of the 7th Cavalry and Gibbon’s command are returning to the mouth of Little Horn, where a steamboat lies. The Indians got all the arms of the killed soldiers. There were seventeen commissioned officers killed. The whole Custer family died at the head of their columns. The exact loss is not known, as both the Adjutants and the Sergeant-Major were killed. The Indian camp was from three to four miles long, and was twenty miles up the Little Horn from its mouth. The Indians actually pulled men off their horses in some instances. I give this as Taylor told me, as he was over the field after the battle. The above is confirmed by other letters which say that Custer has met with a fearful disaster.

(Another account.)

Bozeman, Montana, July 3 – 7:00 P.M. – Mr. Taylor, bearer of dispatches from Little Horn to Fort Ellis, arrived this evening and reported the following:

The battle was fought on the 25th, thirty or forty miles below the Little Horn. Custer attacked the Indian village, from 2,500 to 4,000 warriors, on one side, and Col. Reno was to attack it on the other. Three companies were placed on a hill as a reserve. Gen. Custer and fifteen officers and every man belonging to the five companies were killed. Reno retreated under the protection of the reserve. The whole number of killed was 315. When General Gibbon joined Reno the Indians left. The battleground looked like a slaughter pen, as it really was, being in a narrow ravine. The dead were much mutilated. The situation now looks serious. Gen. Terry arrived at Gibbon’s camp on a steamboat, and crossed the command over and accompanied it to join Custer, who knew it was coming before the fight occurred. Lieut. Crittenden, son of Gen. Crittenden, was among the killed.

(The scene of this reported fight is near the Crow Indian Reservation. The correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, accompanying Gen. Crook’s expedition, writes on June 9 as follows.)

It is getting very monotonous in camp, and we use up a good portion of the time discussing the general plan of the campaign, and the whereabouts of the Sioux. The most generally-accepted opinion appears to be that all the Indians have left this part of the country, and are now on the Yellowstone, watching Gibbon, and skirmishing after Terry. Supporters of this theory base their opinion mainly on the fact that we have not been molested; that none of our camps have been fired into; and that our column, starting from Fetterman so long after Gibbon and Terry had taken the field, concentrated the vigilance of the savages on them alone, and consequently they are not yet aware of our invasion of their country, which, by the way, is not their country, but “Absaroka,” or the country of the Crows, from which tribe the Sioux have taken it.

(If this reported engagement [i.e., Custer’s fight] should prove true, it would seem to prove the correctness of the correspondent’s opinion, as the Indian camp is represented as being immense in size, and was pitched on the land of the Crow Reservation.)

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149th Anniversary: Civil War Ends with Lee’s Surrender to Grant

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to learn more about Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant that effectively ended the American Civil War.

All of us have studied it, memorized the date, and (if we’ve been lucky) visited the place where it occurred: Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the site of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General U. S. Grant, effectively ending the United States Civil War on 9 April 1865.

Although General Lee’s surrender was 149 years ago now, that momentous historical event still seems fresh in the public’s mind—and it must have been incredible news to our American ancestors all those many years ago.

I decided to take a look in GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives to see how the news of General Lee’s surrender was announced via the nation’s newspapers, and learn what has happened to Appomattox Court House since that fateful day.

Just six days before the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, surrendered, this Richmond newspaper was still giving its readers news about the war.

Vigorous Assault upon the Enemy's Works near the Appomattox, Richmond Whig newspaper article 28 March 1865

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 28 March 1865, page 1

Just days before Generals Lee and Grant were to meet at Appomattox, the Battle of Five Forks was raging as reported in this Albany newspaper. One of my ancestors, Captain James Ham of the Pennsylvania Cavalry, was mortally wounded in this action and died five days before Lee’s surrender. I wonder how his family received the news about the war’s end, coming so soon after they had received word of his death.

article about the Civil War's Battle of Five Forks, Albany Evening Journal newspaper article 3 April 1865

Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York), 3 April 1865, page 2

After Lee surrendered on April 9, it didn’t take long for word to spread across America, as you can imagine.

Enter Last Name

The headlines of this Boston newspaper article say it all.

Surrender of General Lee and His Entire Army, Boston Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

That same day and in the same city, readers of this Boston newspaper saw this article, including this paragraph:

The joy of our population this morning, as the intelligence of the surrender of Lee’s army spread, hardly knew bounds. Men embraced each other with the most extravagant demonstrations of feeling; staid, quiet citizens forgot their equanimity for the moment and found themselves cheering in the streets for Gen. Grant and the Potomac Army; workmen in shore gave voice to a joyous outburst of patriotic exultation, and everywhere the same accordant strains of heartfelt rejoicing were heard.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, Boston Evening Transcript newspaper article 10 April 1865

Boston Evening Transcript (Boston, Massachusetts), 10 April 1865, page 2

Readers of a New York newspaper saw these headlines.

Surrender of Lee and His Whole Army to Grant, New York Herald newspaper article 10 April 1865

New York Herald (New York, New York), 10 April 1865, page 1

On the same day and across the country in California, this San Francisco newspaper reported the important news.

article about Civil War General Lee surrendering to General Grant, San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article 10 April 1865

San Francisco Bulletin (San Francisco, California), 10 April 1865, page 2

Twenty years later, as you can see in this 1885 Aberdeen newspaper article “The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold,” the details of Lee’s surrender to Grant were still being reported. I remember as a young student reading these types of Civil War stories and realizing for the first time that Appomattox Court House was the name of a town, and that Lee and Grant had actually met in the home of the Wilmer McLean family.

Grant and Lee--The Interesting Story of Appomattox Retold, Aberdeen Weekly News newspaper article 17 April 1885

Aberdeen Weekly News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 17 April 1885, page 3

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The fortunes of Appomattox Court House waned after the war, as you can read in this 1884 New York newspaper article. It reports that the town was almost deserted and the McLean home had been:

…taken down, brick by brick, for removal to the World’s Fair, but for some reason the plan was not carried out, and the bricks and timbers are still stored in the vacant houses in the neighborhood.

article about Appomattox Court House, Virginia, New York Tribune newspaper article 10 June 1894

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 10 June 1894, page 16

Luckily for all of us, as you can read in this 1903 Dallas newspaper article, bills had been introduced in Congress to provide funding to buy and save the historic McLean house in Appomattox before it was sold to a Chicagoan who planned to move it there and use it as his residence.

McLean House at Appomattox, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 22 February 1903

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 22 February 1903, page 23

And of course as a genealogist, it would be hard not to note the remarkable role played by one of the Appomattox surrender’s lesser known but critically important players, Ely Parker. You might not recognize the name so I’d recommend you take a look at this wonderful obituary for this full-blooded Seneca Indian who actually penned Grant’s terms for surrender. This obituary appeared in an 1895 Cleveland newspaper.

obituary for Ely Samuel Parker, Plain Dealer newspaper article 1 September 1895

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 1 September 1895, page 1

Today Appomattox Court House, Virginia, and the McLean House are part of our National Parks system and well worth a visit.

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