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This “cabinet card” photograph of Victoria Woodhull was taken at Mathew Brady’s New York studio between 1866 and 1873. 

In the decades after the Civil War there were few national figures as polarizing as Victoria Woodhull. For the Chicago Tribune she was “obscene and libidinous.” Yet for The Pantagraph she offered “truth spoken in chaste language by a sweet-voiced woman.”

Woodhull was best known as a suffragist, spiritualist, uncompromising feminist and advocate for free love as the path to Christian-like eternal life. And in 1872, under the banner of the Equal Rights Party, she became the first woman to run for U.S. president — this at a time when women were still 48 years away from securing the right to vote!

Born and raised in rural Ohio, Woodhull’s childhood was one of squalor and deprivation. She married Canning Woodhull at the age of 15, but he proved to be an alcoholic womanizer and the two divorced sometime after the birth of their second child. After the Civil War she married Union Army veteran Col. James Harvey Blood and the two moved to New York City. It was there that Woodhull (she kept her first husband’s name) became a spiritualist adviser to railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. With Vanderbilt’s financial support she and her sister Tennessee “Tennie” Claflin opened their own brokerage house and newspaper called Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly.

Woodhull ferociously fought the sexual double-standard imposed on women, even publishing in her weekly an account of an affair between nationally prominent minister Henry Ward Beecher and one of his parishioners. For sending so-called “obscene materials” through the U.S. mail she was arrested and carted off to Ludlow Street Jail, a federal prison in Manhattan, where she spent one month. It was there that the nation’s first female presidential candidate spent Election Day, Nov. 5, 1872.

From available, albeit conflicting, sources it appears as if Woodhull visited Bloomington on at least four separate occasions, all of which occurred after the 1872 election.

As mentioned, Woodhull drew wildly divergent opinions from the public and press alike. In March 1873, for instance, the Chicago Tribune assailed her “foul-mouthed” lecture “The Naked Truth” as “obscene and libidinous.” Her language “was so coarse, gross, filthy, and blasphemous” that it shocked even those sympathetic to her attack on moralizing, adulterous and hypocritical men. The lecture, the Tribune added, “was absolutely so nasty that not a single phrase could be found in it which a respectable journal would wish to publish.”

Woodhull made what’s believed to be her first visit to Bloomington in late January 1874. She was scheduled to lecture on Jan. 28 at Durley Hall, though her agent, either by design or not, never mentioned Woodhull’s name when booking the date. Yet once Durley Hall management got wind of who was doing the lecturing, they locked her out of their theater. Some residents applauded the effort to deny “a brazen-faced, shameless” Woodhull a public forum “to advocate atheism and immorality.”

Even so, Woodhull and her supporters hastily organized a new meeting place. The Pantagraph reported that although few, if any, in the audience agreed with all she said, “none heard her but went away praising her inimitable fervor and eloquence, her candid boldness of expression, and her intense enthusiasm and earnestness.” For reasons that remain lost to time, The Pantagraph proved, for the most part, to be a tireless supporter of Woodhull.

She returned to Bloomington on Jan. 19, 1875, for two nights of lectures, arriving by way of a Chicago & Alton Railroad express from Chicago. “She was accompanied by her husband — if we may use the term under her construction of the laws that govern her utopian scheme of social relations,” noted a wry Pantagraph scribe.

This time Woodhull appeared at Herman Schroeder’s Grand Opera House (often spelled Schroder without the first “e”) on the east side the courthouse square in what was billed as the event of the season. One suspects that German-born freethinker Herman Schroeder welcomed controversy by inviting radical or polarizing figures such as Woodhull to his opera house.

For the Jan. 19 lecture she was dressed “very plainly yet extremely neatly and modestly,” The Pantagraph was careful to note. The talk commenced in a “commonplace way,” though once Woodhull warmed to her topic “the divinely gifted powers of oratory burst forth in all their splendor” and she strode the stage “with all the fury of an enraged tigress that has lost her young.”

The mostly male audience was there to hear Woodhull expound on her doctrine of free love. “When the laws of social and sexual freedom are obeyed,” she said, “woman will be freed.” She believed this not only in a social, economic and political sense, but most profoundly in a religious one. In her mind sexual self-determination would open spiritual doors to a utopia of gender equality and everlasting life. “She handled the sexual question without gloves,” remarked The Pantagraph, “but in as delicate and womanly a manner as this important subject can be discussed in public.”

A little more than two years later, Feb. 7, 1877, Woodhull was back in Bloomington and Schroeder’s Opera House. Her lectures, declared The Pantagraph, “are full of the most familiar truth — truth spoken in chaste language by a sweet-voiced woman, who, while she does not offend the pure minded, strips from her assertions every semblance of false modesty.”

Woodhull eventually divorced Col. Blood and a year later, in 1877, left for England. There she remarried for the third and final time all the while remaining active in the suffrage movement and supporting various charity causes and reform efforts. She died in London in 1927.

“She is Woodhull only and all through,” noted The Pantagraph on occasion of her 1875 visit to Bloomington. “There is no one like her, and she can be compared with no orator of the day, for she is peculiarly and individually herself and resembles none other.”

Bill Kemp is the librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be reached at BKemp@mchistory.org.

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