The incredible lives of two sisters who became the first female brokers on Wall Street

Victoria Woodhull by Bradley & RulofsonWikimedia CommonsVictoria Woodhull by Bradley and Rulofson.

The story of the first women to work on Wall Street has everything.

It is a rags to riches story of two sisters who made it from a small rural town in Ohio to the Big City, with spiritualism, scandal and a presidential run included.

Victoria Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin, opened a successful brokerage firm in 1870 on Wall Street, sparking a wave of sensationalist news and cartoons.

They were radical women’s rights leaders, and Victoria was the first female presidential candidate. They were also the subject of numerous scurrilous rumours.

Some claimed they were prostitutes during their time as spiritualist mediums. Others insinuated that they slept with male clients at the brokerage firm.

The younger sister, Tennessee, was also linked with the railroad tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was said to have been her lover.

Scroll down to read about the sisters’ rise from rags in a rural town in Ohio to riches to Wall Street.

Woodhull was born September 23, 1838, in Licking County, Ohio. She was the seventh of 10 children raised by a con man and an illiterate spiritualist. Her sister, Tennessee Celeste Claflin, the youngest of 10, was born in 1844.

Honolulu Academy of Arts/Wikimedia Commons

At 11, her con-man father burned their family enterprise, a gristmill, down in order to collect the insurance benefits.

But the townsfolk caught on and the family was driven out of town instead.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

At 14, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, then 7, were marketed by their father as mediums who could heal people and communicate with the dead. They became the family's primary breadwinners.

Tennessee C. Claflin, the younger of the two sisters who would make their way to Wall Street. She was seven years Victoria Woodhull's junior.

The father wrote to Victoria, then 14, saying: 'Girl your worth has never yet been known, but to the world it shall be shown.'

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

At 15, Victoria married 28-year-old Canning Woodhull, her doctor who turned out to be a nobody. He had no steady medical practice and proved to be a serial adulterer and a drunkard. Quickly, the 15-year-old had her fairy-tale notions of romance dispelled.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1870.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

Victoria had just three years of schooling from elementary school, but she'd always believed she was destined for 'great things.'

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Victoria Woodhull, undated, by Bradley and Rulofson.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

She would have two children with Canning Woodhull, and worked to pay for his alcoholic habits. She was rumoured to have been a cigar girl, stage girl, and a topless waitress. She divorced Canning Woodhull not long after.

Trading cards for Gypsy Queen cigarettes in the 1800s.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

After leaving her husband, Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, set up shop once more as travelling spiritualist mediums, with the Civil War raging on in the background. They made a small fortune as medical clairvoyants and selling spiritual wares.

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At some point in this era, Tennessee was sued for manslaughter. One of her cancer patients died despite her spiritualist treatment.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

Victoria had a second marriage starting in 1866 and ending in 1876. The continued divorces, heavily stigmatised, may have led to Woodhull's activism later in life. She supported the freedom to marry, divorce, and bear children without government intervention. She also supported the legalization of prostitution.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1860.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

In 1868, the sisters became spiritualist advisers in New York. Tennessee became the clairvoyant to famed railroad-tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, 73 -- and they were rumoured to be lovers. He called her 'my little sparrow' while she called him 'the old goat.'

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Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Then in 1870, the two sisters opened the door of their Woodhull, Claflin and Co. brokerage house with the backing of Vanderbilt. It prompted the New York Sun to write 'Petticoats Among the Bovine and Ursine Animals.' Wall Streeters crowded to the brokerage's windows to get a glimpse of the female traders.

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'A new sensation was afforded Wall Street in the announcement that two ladies had taken rooms on the street, and were about to do a first-class brokers busi-ness, dealing in stocks and gold. The ladies rejoiced in the name of Victoria C. Woodhull, and Tennessee C. Claflin,' the writer of the 'Twenty years among the bulls and bears of Wall Street' wrote in 1870.

Vanderbilt gave the sisters stock tips -- one of which led to a profit of $700,000, about $13 million today.

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According to a blog from the Museum of the City of New York.

It was a time when women had nothing of their own -- but the sisters soon had a regular coterie of society wives, widows, teachers, actresses, and high-priced prostitutes served behind private doors at the brokerage. The firm was an instant success.

Auguste Toulmouche/Wikimedia Commons
Auguste Toulmouche's 'Reluctant Bride' of 1866.

According to The New York Times.

Her ex-husband Canning Woodhull was also allegedly still living with her and her then husband.

In May 1870, the two used their brokerage firm's profits to found Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly -- used to support Victoria Woodhull's bid for the presidential seat. It would publish on topics including sex education, free love, women's suffrage, and more.

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According to

Tennessee also ran for New York congressional seat in the 1870s.

They would start taking on Wall Street, too. They took on Tweed rings, fraudulent railroad schemes, fire-insurance companies, bond-scheme frauds, and more.

Joseph Keppler and Bernhard Gillam/Wikimedia Commons
Halsabschneiden in Wall Street, 1881.

According to 'The Human Body the Temple of God: or the Philosophy of Sociology' by Victoria Claflin Woodhull and Lady Tennessee Claflin.

The public, however, was growing eager to paint a sexualized picture of the pair as they became more public.

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Caricature of American suffragist Victoria Woodhull (1838 to 1927) by Thomas Nast (1840 to 1902). 'Get thee behind me, (Mrs.) Satan!' the wife, carrying heavy burden of children and drunk husband, says to Mrs. Satan, Victoria Woodhull. 'I'd rather travel the hardest path of matrimony than follow your footsteps.' Mrs. Satan holds a sign saying, 'Be saved by free love.' Illustration in Harper's Weekly, February 17, 1872.

Their background as spiritualists was also shady to Wall Streeters, as the practice was sometimes associated with prostitution.

They would use money earned from the brokerage firm to fund the suffrage movement, and Victoria Woodhull would come to be known as the first woman to petition for women's suffrage in front of Congress.

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Harper's Weekly, November 25, 1871, edition: 'Mrs. Victoria Woodhull ... was more determined and more demonstrative than her sister reformers.'

From the Museum of the City of New York.

Victoria later said, 'We went unto Wall Street, not particularly because I wanted to be a broker ... but because I wanted to plant the Flag of women's rebellion in the center of the continent.'

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After selling her home, British activist Emmeline Pankhurst travelled constantly, giving speeches throughout Britain and the US. One of her most famous speeches, 'Freedom or death,' was delivered in Connecticut in 1913. Victoria Woodhull would also travel throughout the US doing the same.

According to the Museum of the City of New York.

Victoria Woodhull was nominated as the US presidential candidate for the Equal Rights Party. Her vice presidential candidate was Frederick Douglass, though he never acknowledged it.


According to

Things started going downhill. In response to the virulent attack lobbed at her from media, Woodhull published stories on the sexual scandals of minister Henry Ward Beecher and stock-broker Luther Challis. She was arrested for sending obscene mail, and spent election night in prison.

Wikimedia Commons/Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Henry Ward Beecher and famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Stowe was Beecher's supporter, and would vehemently attack Woodhull.

From Harvard University Library's Open Collections Program.

She published details about how the popular minister had committed adultery, while Luther Challis had gotten two teenage girls drunk and seduced them.

Woodhull's mother reportedly tried to blackmail Vanderbilt. The tycoon instead withdrew support.

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According to The New York Times Learning Network.

The sisters soon lost the respect of their women's suffrage comrades because of their political ambitions. Later, when one of the first published books on the women's suffrage movement came out in 1880, both were omitted.

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Victoria Woodhull, circa 1870.

The brokerage firm also stuttered to a stop in the Panic of 1873. Some clients began suing the sisters when the firm's performance went south. Their father's debt collectors also came knocking.

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Tennessee Claflin later on in life, in 1922 with other suffrage advocates.

According to Think Advisor.

Woodhull would continue to speak publicly on women's suffrage throughout the 1870s, though her paper, the Weekly closed in 1876. She married a wealthy English banker in 1883, after moving to England.

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Winslow Homer, 'Croquet Scene' in 1864.

According to 'Notorious Victoria: The Life of Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored' by Mary Gabriel

Victoria tried again in 1884 and 1892 for the US presidential nomination.

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Victoria Woodhull by Mathew Brady, circa 1870.

Victoria died in 1927. The New York Times would print in her obituary: 'As a young woman she engaged in the banking business for a short time in New York.' Her sister had died in 1923.

Via New York Public Library

According to Think Advisor.

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