No individual lives in isolation, and Victoria and Tennessee were certainly not exceptions. Their extraordinary childhoods shaped their behavior in obvious and clear ways. The Early Years section of this website is intended to examine the events that led to the development of these remarkable women. The editors have intentionally ignored the written biographies of Woodhull and Tennessee. The early biographies ignored Tennessee or treated her as an afterthought; and they also tended to put far too much credence in Theodore Tilton’s propagandistic 1871 account and the 1928 cherry-picked (and, in some chapters, plagiarized) biography by Emanie Sachs when describing the sisters's early lives. Both Tilton and Sachs’s accounts of the Claflin sisters’s childhoods, while colorful, ignore many questions of the family’s interactions in later years and over time an over-developed sensationalism crept into most accounts of the childhood of the Claflins. One has to ask, for example, if their father was so excessively abusive, why did he remain a fixture of his daughters’s lives until his death in 1885? Why was he always the father figure to stand in for Victoria and Tennessee at their recorded divorces and marriages? If Buck was such a notorious thief, con-man, and arsonist, why did he never serve time in prison? In short, was he larger than the cartoon?
In order to treat the family fairly, the editors felt it was important to look at the lives of the other Claflins, parents and siblings and husbands. We turned to primary and contemporary sources in order to recreate their lives as much as possible. The result has completely changed our understanding of the “notorious” sisters, and has given a much clearer picture of the swirling dynamics of an admittedly tumultuous, eccentric family.
"Family" in the case of the Claflins can only be described as “extended.” Not only did Buck and Anna's children frequently share homes as adults, but Buck and Anna's own homes were often shared by Buck's siblings, nephews and nieces. One brother, Amos Claflin, lived with them in the Homer home in the 1840s (a daughter, Thankful, being born there in 1844), and remained in Licking County, where they are buried. Until Victoria and Tennessee moved to New York, Thankful remained with them as caretaker to Victoria's handicapped son Byron. Buck's aunt Sarah Claflin Sharp lived and in 1846 was buried in Hartford, Licking County about twelve miles from Homer. Corintha Claflin Calkins, wife of Moses Dewey Calkins, gave Buck a home in Ottawa, Illinois, when he was briefly in the cancer cure business. In the years from 1838-1868, the Claflin family was never far from cousins, aunts, and uncles, and these relatives formed a support group for the family — and they for their relatives. When times were good, every one benefited, especially after Tennessee’s lucrative business of clairvoyant healing gained traction.
Tennessee complained in 1871:
"When I was in Cincinnati I had to support thirty-five or forty deadheads. I didn’t care for myself; I gave all the money to the family. The Spar family lived with me ten or twelve years—up to the present time. Miles, the husband of my oldest sister, became blind, and the whole family, eight or nine of them, have lived on me till a week ago. All these people, with mother, were constantly in fear that I would marry and stop the income. I never had any happiness till I came to live with my darling sister Vicky. When I was traveling I supported three families in elegant style. In Columbus I made $14,000 in six or seven months, and in all that time I bought myself only two calico dresses. I paid $2,800 for boys’ clothes at one store in Cincinnati. I had thirteen or fourteen children to educate. Aunts, uncles, cousins to the fortieth degree flocked around me. They called me the bank.” [New York Herald, 8 June 1871.]
Tennessee’s experiences as the “Wonderful Child” both hardened her to public opinion and focused her ability to be equally comfortable and conversant across a broad spectrum of society, from working class bartenders to Queen Alexandra of England. One moment a hoyden, in the next she could be a Lady. To her, accusations of prostitution meant nothing, she could shrug them off. She had suffered worse than accusations and knew them for what they were.
Victoria was also shaped by her experiences growing up in the tumultuous Claflin family. Apparently close to, and to a limited degree, educated by her father, she became a reasoned intellectual, something he remained immensely proud of until his death. She did not view gender barriers as obstacles but insisted on challenging them – running to them at full speed with a determination to destroy them. Her family and her husbands sometimes offered little help by throwing obstacles in her path, and occasionally her frustrations were palpable. In the beginning she had been the “Queen,” named for Victoria I, holding the family’s adoration. But later, what she would come to call “what the world calls family,” eventually caused her to shelter her children and herself in isolation at her Brendon’s Norton estate in England.
In many ways, Victoria bore the legacy of her family’s “craziness,” as if it was an albatross tied around her neck. Her mother’s dislike of her second husband, her sisters’ distrust of her, and her own anger issues clearly arose from her background. It was a background where, married at 15 to a drunk, pregnant soon after and giving birth—with no family support—to a severely mentally handicapped son, she was turned into the woman who had the fortitude to buck tradition and run for President for the heck of it, live in a home with both of her husbands, and then allow Victorian society to peck away at her emotional stability until, nearly suicidal, she went to England for peace.