Skip to content

Madam Prescient

Raising the spirit of American radicalism

It was not, at one time, considered so remarkable that a candidate for the United States presidency talked to the dead. That the candidate was a former prostitute and an advocate for free love was more worrying. What’s more, her vice-presidential pick was a former slave; that was likely the surest sign that Victoria Woodhull was not going to be the next American president.

It was the election of 1872, and Woodhull stood as the nominee for the newly organized Equal Rights Party, with Frederick Douglass as her VP. (There’s no real evidence to show that Douglass agreed to this arrangement, and he certainly did not campaign with her.) Women might not have had the right to vote, but they could run for office, and Woodhull felt that the presidency was her destiny.

In the end, the first woman to seek the White House received no electoral college votes, and her party made the ballot in only twenty-two states. Her enemies pounced on her utopian call for sexual freedom for both men and women, and stirred up the fear of miscegenation that white voters felt, with only minimal prompting, at the sight of a white woman consorting with a black man. Meanwhile, Woodhull’s history of working as a clairvoyant and her vocal support of Spiritualism were not much of a hindrance to her campaign. Go figure.

Of course, elections now are different. If Hillary Clinton started summoning the spirits of the dead at her rallies, instead of merely communing with undead monsters like Henry Kissinger, her run would be over. Or if she started openly consulting with astrologers to plan strategy, surely her numbers would drop. Someone on her staff must have known how to guide her through Mars retrograding over her natal Jupiter in Sagittarius—just look at the events of the last few months!—but they were smart enough to keep it quiet. Today’s electorate wouldn’t stand for it. Instead, we focus on the issues that truly matter, such as our candidates’ spray tans, summer reading lists, and dick sizes.

We would like to think that we choose our politicians logically, that we carefully review their policy proposals, coolly assess their histories and temperaments, and then make sensible judgments based on the facts. Yet if this election cycle has gifted us anything, it’s a reminder of how deeply irrational the political process actually is.

The progress of reason may well march ever onward, but it hasn’t managed to kick absurdities like racial hygiene theory and skimpy suffrage into the gutter of history where they belong. Nor has it stamped out clannish devotion to our chosen political parties, gut feelings about who we “like,” or an overwhelming fear of the unknown. Fear is such a powerful motivator in this election—fear of the other, fear of terrorism, fear of change—that were Clinton to announce she has the power to assemble the dark forces to wage a cosmic war against our enemies, I’m guessing her poll numbers would surge. Donald Trump, after all, has made that skill a central plank of his campaign.

The Spirit of Change

Accept the irrational when you fear, but not when you hope—this has been the sales pitch of the 2016 election, with Democrats hawking pragmatism as idealism’s one true antidote while Republicans spurn both with shouts of “Build the wall!” For her part, Victoria Woodhull (née Claflin) proposed exactly the opposite. She was the daughter of an illiterate woman and a con man, born into poverty in a small Ohio town. Henry James might have called her, sneeringly, a sensitive girl, an example of the kind of people who “take things hard,” but in any case, she was surrounded by death. Infant mortality rates in the mid-nineteenth century were high, and diseases like cholera, typhus, and malaria came in regular waves. Around the age of five, Victoria had her first vision. After Rachel Scribner, her next-door neighbor and sometime caretaker, died suddenly of cholera, Victoria went into a trance and saw the woman, her spirit released.

In the Spiritualist world, there was no “fall” of mankind, and it certainly wasn’t orchestrated by Eve.

The gift of sight was shared by many of the women in the family. Victoria’s mother, Roxy, also had visions, and her sister Tennessee’s ability was so uncanny that her father, who neither spared the rod nor spoiled his children, made her into a little child preacher. They toured the countryside, Tennessee making her predictions, her father selling snake oil cures. It was, according to Woodhull’s biographer Barbara Goldsmith, a combination of swindling and truth. Tennessee did, it seems, have an unsettling gift of revelation, of saying out loud what people were keeping hidden, of seeing what no one else could see. And when the gift didn’t come, she relied on old con-man tricks taught to her by her father to make people think she’d spoken to their dead relatives.

Something new was coalescing in the culture, which was sagging under the rules of the hardline Calvinist church. The Calvinists, who worshipped a fearsome Old Testament God rather than a compassionate, loving savior figure, had little to offer women in the way of solace. Worse, the church legitimized the subordinate position of women with sermons on their God-given inferiority.

But there were cracks in the Calvinist dominance, and many of those cracks were made by women and young girls. When Victoria was around eleven years old, a pair of teens known as the Fox sisters began communicating with ghosts and spirits in upstate New York. They became a sensation. The spirits communicated with the girls by rapping on the walls, and an audience quickly flocked to their house. Some who came were believers, while others wanted to catch the sisters and reveal them as fakes. They removed everyone from the room except for the sister acting as medium, and still there were raps on the walls. They held onto the sisters’ feet to make sure they weren’t creating the sounds with their shoes. Still there were raps. They tied the sisters down. Still the knocks came.

Much later, the Fox sisters disavowed their early performances, and then disavowed their disavowal. But in the meantime, they had touched off Spiritualism, a movement that went beyond faith in an afterlife to propose that the living could communicate directly with the dead. Spiritualism was more than sudden trances and eerie knocks in the night. As Leah Fox (who published under her married name Underhill) wrote in The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism, the mediums “not only console bereavement, snatch from death its sting, and from the grave its victory, but through the concurrent teachings of all good and advanced spirits they make us feel the real reality of the brotherhood of mankind, and the common fatherhood of that supreme, unnamed, and unnamable Infinitude of Love, Wisdom, and Power.” The God of the Spiritualists was quite different from the vengeful God being yelled about in the churches. Women, who had suffered the loss of so many children, were His biggest believers.

Hell? No!

When Victoria was fifteen, she married Canning Woodhull, and by the time she left him after ten years of marriage, her radicalization was well under way. Taking Woodhull’s name, their two children, and not much else, she did what she had to do to survive, as the saying goes. Sometimes that was telling fortunes. Other times, that was working as a prostitute. And as she established herself in the arena of social reform, that was writing radical tracts about the importance of education for girls and women, labor rights, and family planning.

Under the circumstances, trying to raise a mob of women willing to fight and die for their rights was even harder than raising spirits. Defying fathers and husbands meant defying God himself. (Woodhull was freer than most from the Calvinist hold. Neither her visionary mother nor her criminal father could be described as God-fearing.) Though women like Mary Greeley—the wife of New York Tribune founder, anti-women’s-suffrage campaigner, and future presidential hopeful Horace Greeley—would go on to become important allies, for the time being they were stuck. Greeley was pregnant again and again, and five of her seven children died young.

Spiritualism offered people a different story about both life and death. Those dead children were not in hell; they were still within reach. They could be communicated with. Perhaps more important, Spiritualism got rid of sin. In the Spiritualist world, there was no “fall” of mankind, and it certainly wasn’t orchestrated by Eve. Preachers had been using that old story since the beginning of the church to express the devious nature of woman and warn against their rebellious, destructive ways.

Determinism was another target. In Calvinism, everything is already decided; you are marked from birth with damnation or salvation. What, then, is the use of trying? Everything, including your own suffering, is God’s will. The Spiritualists replaced this idea with the concept of spiritual evolution. The more you progressed as an individual, the higher into the spheres of heaven you could ascend. That progression depended on your behavior here on earth, on how you treated your fellow man and woman. That was something worth fighting for. Spiritualism, in the words of Radical Spirits author Ann Braude, “presented an extreme case of the rejection of Calvinism that pervaded women’s culture” at the time.

Unlike traditional Christian church services, many, if not most, of the Spiritualist gatherings were led by women.

And so is it any wonder that when the spirits began speaking through mediums, the spirits said men and women were equal? Or that they were loved by God and held in equal regard? The Spiritualists would gather in a private home and join hands in a darkened room while sitting in a circle. Mediums like Fannie Davis would go into trances, and through them the spirits would speak of the importance of the woman issue. What was important to the spirits, according to the mediums, was equal rights for all—in other words, the establishment of universal suffrage, the end of slavery, and the spiritual progression of all of society and not just the individual.

Victoria Woodhull became a Spiritualist, as did Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan B. Anthony dabbled, and she made references to her experiences with spirits in her letters. Even Mary Greeley converted, drawn in by the ability to communicate with a dead son. Greeley became a suffragist, too, in public defiance of her husband. While Spiritualism and suffragism were not one and the same, there was significant overlap, and both were training grounds for female leadership. Unlike traditional Christian church services, many, if not most, of the Spiritualist gatherings were led by women—a fact that is either lazily ignored or pointedly invoked when today’s historians write off Spiritualism as a crude pack of magic tricks.

The Cunning of Reason

Ever since the purifying forces of the Enlightenment cleansed us of our base superstitions, philosophers have been trying to pretend that rationality is a stable, unflinching force. Whole branches of economic and political theory rest on the assumption that people behave in rational (and inevitably self-interested) ways that scholars can predict. If these disciples of Homo economicus have to downplay or deny large portions of human experience to arrive at their models, then so be it—they are nothing if not creative. The Enlightenment, too, somehow gets all the credit for birthing what we now call human rights. Never mind that appeals to rationality have been used to justify pretty much every abuse in the book. That what is deemed “logical” in one age is deemed illogical in the next is not, we are told, rationality’s problem.

In 1872, Woodhull lost her presidential bid. And the one after that. And the one after that. And though at its peak Spiritualism had millions of followers, it mostly fell apart after too many hucksters and charlatans used it to con the desperate. Now all we remember of the movement that called for the abolition of slavery, marriage reform, and education rights is the discredited image of flexible girls holding séances to pick the pockets of the vulnerable and bereaved. What we forget is that Spiritualism, with its mix of Swedenborgian and Gnostic principles, had its own radical belief system, with its own rhyme and reason.

Spiritualists were hardly the first to call for revolution by way of the occult, or the last to see one of those things overshadow the other. The emergence of Spiritualism in America coincided with that of mystery cults in Europe and the United Kingdom, and the emergence of American feminism coincided with similar social reforms across the Atlantic. Maud Gonne, for example, was one such reformer. Those who know only of her militant Irish nationalism might be surprised to learn that she sold her soul to the devil when she was nineteen years old. Meanwhile, those who remember her as the woman who tried to resurrect the soul of her dead baby by having sex next to his coffin (or worse, as Yeats’s muse) may not fully grasp how intertwined her political activism was with her occult practice. We accept that the occult can spoil a woman, or sway or corrupt her. But radicalize her? That’s beyond the pale.

Here Be Witches

Fast forward 140 years or so, and there is less room than ever in American elections for unorthodoxies, including and especially radicalism, solidarity, movement-building, third-party candidacies, and spiritual affiliations that begin with anything other than a capital letter “C.”

That said, even as we retain pride in our political skepticism and reasonableness, our appetite for sensational tales about our chosen candidates remains enormous. Back in the 1990s, investigative reporter Bob Woodward caused a stir when he relayed the information that then-first lady Hillary Clinton liked to summon the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt for advice. Clinton was quick to correct the record: she was role-playing Eleanor, not holding séances, and the whole affair was supervised by a certified professional, namely her life-coach-cum-spiritual-adviser-cum-socially-acceptable-woo-wooist Jean Houston. At the time, Clinton was working on her soppy ode to neoliberal education, It Takes a Village, and she wanted Eleanor’s input. (It’s unfortunate for Hillary and her book that Eleanor did not pick up the call.)

Cue a hundred gifs of Hillary green in the face and wearing a pointy black hat.

Now that Clinton is all but set to return to the White House, certain corners of the internet have delivered us some even riper news: Hillary Clinton is a witch! You may be surprised to learn that she “partakes of the witch ritual,” but apparently it’s true: take it from longtime Clinton conspiracy theorist (and self-described former hit man) Larry Nichols, who appeared on InfoWars last fall to reveal that Hillary was once “part of a witches’ church.” Cue a hundred gifs of Hillary green in the face and wearing a pointy black hat. This position was given a weird legitimacy at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland when former candidate Dr. Ben Carson, in what was either a very loud dog-whistle or a messy act of projection, implied that Hillary Clinton has a relationship with Lucifer.

Of course, Clinton is no more a witch than Delaware Tea Partier and 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, or at least as far as I can tell. O’Donnell, you may remember, fended off a Bill Maher-led witch hunt focused on her youthful “dabblings” by staring imploringly into a TV camera and announcing, “I’m not a witch . . . I’m you.”

Nor, for that matter, is Clinton all that similar to Victoria Woodhull, despite sharing with her the good fortune of having run for high office while female. But wouldn’t it be so much more interesting if she were? What if she ripped off the roof, called down the ghost of Emma Goldman, and achieved a truly liberal platform of economic justice, universal health care, strict environmental protections, and widespread education reform? In March, Clinton made extraterrestrial transparency a promise of her campaign; she told Jimmy Kimmel that as soon as she takes office, she will open the government’s top-secret files on Area 51. It’s a start. But what if she also pledged to open an investigation into our government’s drone warfare, which is an unexplained aerial phenomenon of an entirely different kind?

Spells, Not Prayers!

Well, let’s be honest: none of that is likely to happen. Perhaps, then, we should be wondering not how long it will be before we have our first female president, but how long it will be before we have our first witch candidate.

The dominant religions of our time, including atheism, seem unable to adequately inspire and sustain the revolutionary change that is needed to address racist policing, mass murder by semi-automatic weapon, and other everyday occurrences in America. After the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, or the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, preachers spoke of the power of the devil, the mystery of God’s ways, and the meaning of suffering. In reply, many said that prayer is not enough.

Meanwhile, a 2001 study found that Wicca was the fastest-growing religion in America, and the nation’s traditional religion, Christianity, has been losing American members in recent years. But to remind us all how rare witches seem to be among our current crop of political leaders, let me offer up this provisional definition: witchcraft involves not only the belief that one can control the future via spells and rituals, but also faith in the balance between humans and the natural world, in the power of sexuality, in human equality and dignity, and in community over hierarchical power or authority. When you put it like that, this seems like exactly what we need right now.

This summer, a call went out online for witches to join together all over the world and hex Brock Turner. Turner had been caught in the act of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, but still he was sentenced to only six months in prison by a lenient Santa Clara County judge. Instead of feeling disempowered and helpless, the witches wanted action. Six hundred witches responded to the call, and they hexed Turner for impotence and nightmares, constant pain and justice.

It’s unclear what political or social change may come out of this rise of witchcraft, or whether it will help to remystify our politics in the best sense of the word, as Spiritualists once tried to do. I imagine Victoria Woodhull’s ghost would have some thoughts on the topic, if any of our current political leaders knew how to ask her.