Spiritualism and scandal

Barbara Goldsmith. Other Powers: the Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. Granta, 1998.

An account of the life of Victoria Claffin Woodhull - fortune teller, spiritualist, part time prostitute, one time stockbroker, feminist candidate for US president in 1872 (the few votes cast for her were never counted), and finally, English lady of the manor - set against the background of the world of the abolitionist, feminist Left in America.

Woodhull herself, along with her sister Tennessee, seems well within the tradition of the charismatic fantasy-prone personalities which we are so familiar. Like her mother, she was a seer of visions. Like many fantasy prone personalities her Caraboo syndrome and fantastheisa seem to have been an escape from the poverty, neglect, exploitation and abuse of her childhood. Today no doubt she would have been reduced to being a flaky `victim' in perpetual `therapy'

Her first spiritual vision (at least according to her later account) included a vision of the spiritualist other-world, with busy spirits, including her spirit guides Napoleon, Josephine and Demosthenes, but also an apocalyptic vision of the world turned upside down, with cities sinking into the sea, and a new world in which the dead and living mingled. Virtually identical apocalyptic visions crop in the NDE literature today.

Woodhull's career provides an example of how traditional folk beliefs became assimilated into spiritualism, and her later decline into respectability mirrored the growing embougeoisification of spiritualism. Her fortune appears to have been left to the SPR. How very piquant that perhaps some of the rent of that august body is being paid for by the inheritance of a former hooker! -- Peter Rogerson

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