Woodhull, born Victoria Claflin, came to public life early, working with her younger sister, Tennessee, as part of her amoral father’s medicine show. Besides singing and testifying to the efficacy of “Dr. Claflin’s Pure Elixir,” the girls acted as fortune tellers by means of “spirits” whom they claimed talked to them. (The script makes it plain that most of the time they are fraudulent and know it, but also that they both have, from time to time experienced “visions” and spirit voices they believe to be real.)
In order to escape her odious father, she accepts the proposal of Dr. Canning Woodhull, who soon proved to be a disappointment due to his alcoholism. The script depicts Victoria giving birth at home alone while her doctor husband is getting drunk(er) at the nearby saloon.
She is soon shown as leaving Woodhull for the much more supportive Col. James Blood, who became her second husband. (Note: The musical script plays loose with facts for dramatic effect, but also portrays Woodhull in much the same light her opponents shown on her. Records are unclear when she obtained a divorce from Dr. Woodhull, and when she was legally married to Col. Blood, which, given her highly publicized and often deliberately misconstrued stance on “free love”, allowed enemies to argue that she was a bigamist, if not actually living in a ménage a trois with Blood and Woodhull, whom she supported when he became unable to work.)
With Blood’s help, she rescues her sister from their father, and moves t o New York, where they become protégés of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ultimately helps set them up as the first women to own a stock brokerage. Whether Vanderbilt was more enamoured of their supposedly spiritually inspired stock advice, or Tennessee’s charms is debatable, but he was reportedly interested in both.
The musical deals with Victoria’s rise to becoming the first woman to own and operate a newspaper, the second woman to petition Congress for suffrage, and the first woman to run for President, and her fall, when speaking about “free love” caused her to become a scandal, and her publishing of details of the extramarital affairs of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher resulted in being prosecuted for obscenity by Anthony Comstock.
The concert presentation had an excellent cast of voices, lead by Kerry Hart Bienemann as Victoria and Katy Johnson as Tennessee. A very literate and clever book was supplied by sister authors Susan Peterson Holmes and Peggy Peterson Ryan, and, mirabile dictu, a tuneful and singable score by Alissa Rhode.
We had been particularly interested in the piece because Georgie had done research on Victoria Woodhull and made a presentation about her at TeslaCon. We found it a fascinating and amusing portrait of a truly unique American character, many of whose ideas are still thought radical today. The musical, still a work in progress, has great promise, and we hope one day to be able to see a full professionally produced performance.
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