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.

Related Articles & Resources:

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

Enter Last Name

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.

Read More Articles about the Civil War:

1st genealogy published in America – 7 May 1724

The first genealogy published in America appeared in a newspaper 284 years ago – today – May 7, 1724.

It appeared in the American Weekly Mercury. It was a genealogy of King Philip V of Spain. Genealogy articles routinely appeared in colonial newspapers.

The first genealogy published in book form was in 1771 – the Stebbins Genealogy and by 1876 and the nation’s first centennial there were less than 1,000 genealogies published.

With a push from President Ulysses S. Grant the idea really took off. It was 132 years ago on May 25th that he issued a “Proclamation” to the American people asking them to remember their history, write it down and distribute it widely.

He wrote that he wanted to see “a complete record” of our history … be kept and placed in each county and in the Library of Congress”. If the Internet were available then I am sure he would have suggested that they be put online too.

According to the 16 Mar 1912 issue of the San Jose Mercury “Genealogy Study Rapidly Growing. In Recent Years Americans Have Been Making Great Study of the Family Tree”. By the year 1920 there were 2,000 published genealogies and by 1972 there were 50,000 family histories in print.

With the publication of Roots in 1976 genealogy really took off.

By the late 90s the Internet was becoming a common tool for genealogists. By 1998 there were over 90,000 published genealogies. Today, just ten years later that number has jumped to over 150,000 published genealogies.

GenealogyBank was launched in 2005 and is also growing at a rapid pace. Now we are adding over 4 million items per month.

This month we added 4.3 million records; included 78 newspapers from 23 States. Click here for the complete list.
What a great day for genealogy!