Tennessee Celeste Claflin: Wall Street Trailblazer or Scam Artist?

Sometimes American history can be downright surreal.

In 1870, the first brokerage firm owned by women opened its doors in New York. Located at 44 Broad St., some two blocks from the Stock Exchange, it was thronged its first day by men who had come to gawk at the show. Its proprietors, the sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, wore trousers instead of petticoats, smoked, and posted a sign above the door: “Gentlemen will state their business and then retire at once.” Strong feminists and publishers of a women’s-liberation broadsheet that ran for six years and sold 20,000 copies a day, they also amassed a respectable list of clients who were themselves primarily women. One of the male visitors came away pleasantly surprised: “They know a thing or two,” he was heard to have said.

An important blow for women’s rights? A harbinger of the strong female executives of today?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

If that person were, for example, one of the townspeople in her native Columbus, Ohio, he or she would probably be skeptical. It seems that the girls’ father, Buck Claflin, paraded Tennessee rather shamelessly in front of the locals, first as a promoter of beauty treatments, then as a child medium. That’s right, a medium. Apparently, her “consultations” frequently netted her a hundred dollars a day. Later, when Tennessee matured and her beauty attracted many gentleman callers, her consultations became something else entirely. Her “spiritual services” were widely regarded as a front for prostitution. After the end of the Civil War, Tennessee wandered through the South, providing comfort to the defeated and the despondent.

On the other hand, if you were to ask Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose lover Tennessee became in the late 1860s, he would no doubt have wonderful things to say about the healing effects of her attentions, for which he paid handsomely. He was evidently sufficiently enamored of her to give her the financial backing she needed for her brokerage firm, though not enough to forge a more lasting union (he married a woman from his own class in 1868). After his death, Tennessee was paid $100,000 by the family not to appear at a hearing where the will would be disputed. She took a cruise ship to England instead.

Then again, if you were to ask Tennessee’s clients back at the brokerage firm, they might have still another view. According to contemporary accounts, it’s not clear that Tennessee and Victoria were actually trading stocks at all. Instead, they were using the pin money of the old ladies who invested with them to fund radical feminist weeklies. One critic quipped:

So far the house has done little or nothing. The expenses are heavy, and funds must come from some source….It was currently reported when they first came on the Street, that Vanderbilt was to back them for any amount. Vanderbilt denies this, but reputable gentlemen, who have called on him in regard to business transactions, in which these ladies were concerned, have received his assurance, that it is all right….Beside their brokerage business, they practice in New York as clairvoyants. Whether they buy and sell stocks on that system is not known.

Not even the feminists were entirely comfortable with Tennessee. Though she was invited to the 1871 Suffrage Convention after her sister testified before the House Judiciary Committee on women’s right to vote, it seems her beauty and flamboyant sexuality upset a number of the other ladies in attendance. Among the principal themes of Tennessee’s weekly were prostitution, venereal disease, abortion, and women’s right to sexual expression and satisfaction; needless to say, these topics were viewed as somewhat prejudicial to the sisterhood’s cause. Some even questioned whether she wasn’t more interested in promoting herself than women’s rights. At many private gatherings, she openly flirted with other women’s husbands.

In later years, Tennessee ran for Congress in New York (she lost), became the Colonel of a black National Guard regiment, and moved to England to marry a wealthy Portuguese baronet.

So: a medium, a prostitute, a kept woman dependent on rich men for her livelihood, a con artist and despoiler of other women, with a dubious commitment to women’s rights.

I think NOW will have to look elsewhere for its historical forbears.

Posted by on April 3rd, 2013 at 2:26 pm

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