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The First Woman To Run For President Was a Clairvoyant Free-Love Advocate

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If Hillary Clinton’s campaign succeeds, she will become the first woman to be elected president of the United States. But she won’t have been the first to run. And she wasn’t in 2008 either, not by a long shot. More than a hundred years before Hillary, Victoria Claflin Woodhull ran as a third party candidate in the 1872 election. Her groundbreaking, albeit failed, campaign wasn't the only time she made headlines: though history has largely forgotten her, during her lifetime, Woodhull was one of the most notorious women in the country and a “first” many times over in business and politics.

Early Hardships

Victoria Claflin wasn’t born into status or opportunity. She was the sixth of 10 children—seven of which survived infancy—born to an illiterate mother and an abusive crook of a father in Homer, Ohio. Her only formal education consisted of three sporadic years of elementary school between the ages of 8 and 11. At a young age, Victoria and her younger sister Tennessee began supporting the Claflin clan after her father decided that of all his scams, his daughter’s professed clairvoyance had the most potential. For her part, it seems Victoria truly believed that she could communicate with her deceased siblings. Her father was plenty happy to exploit that belief by marketing her and Tennessee as fortunetellers and séance practitioners.

At just 15 years old, Victoria married 28-year-old Canning Woodhull of Rochester, N.Y., a man of some means. But while the union managed to liberate Victoria from her squalid family, it did little to improve her life. Her husband proved to be an alcoholic and a philanderer. Although the marriage resulted in two children—one of whom was brain-damaged, either as a result of a head trauma, or, as Victoria claimed, her husband’s drinking—Victoria finally demanded a divorce, despite the stigma it carried at the time.

There is little information available about what happened to Woodhull just after her divorce (she kept her ex-husband's last name), but by 1866, she had remarried. Col. James Blood fostered her Spiritualism (with a capital “S”), political radicalism, and free love.

It’s worth noting that Woodhull’s 19th century definition of “free love” is not quite as extreme the 1960s movement that comes to mind. And she was likely not a prostitute, despite contemporary slander to that effect. (In fact, she spoke out so vehemently against it as to call women who marry for personal advancement prostitutes.) Instead, the free love she advocated had more to do with a woman’s rights than promiscuity. She advocated for the ability to marry whomever she chose and to divorce without social repercussions. In her mind, marriage should be a system existing outside the sphere of government regulation, and society should reject any double standards for men and women regarding infidelity. She praised monogamy in theory, but admitted that it likely was not practical enough to be state-sanctioned. Incidentally, she and the Colonel married and divorced twice, although it’s not clear if the second marriage involved the law at all.

The liberal-minded Blood encouraged Woodhull and her sister Tennessee to move to New York with him in 1868 and pursue careers. There, they met and charmed millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Tennessee, it was rumored, had an affair with him.) While serving as his personal clairvoyants, the sisters picked up some handy stock tips that allowed them to emerge from the 1869 gold panic $700,000 richer. Using that money—and more from Mr. Vanderbilt—the sisters became the first women to found and run a Wall Street brokerage firm, Woodhull and Claflin, on Broad Street in 1870. The sisters, who weren't actually involved in any stock-brokering activities, wore shockingly short skirts to their office opening and served as fodder for the local papers—reporters dubbed them “the queens of finance” and “bewitching brokers."

Wall Street And The Weekly

That very same year, the women used the funds from the brokerage firm to start their own newspaper. Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly was a far-left leaning paper that proclaimed itself "The Organ of the Most Advanced Thought and Purpose in the World!" It went out to 20,000 subscribers a week for six years.

The paper was radical and bold: It published the first-ever English translation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Woodhull had grand plans for her publication. On April 22, 1871—more than a year before the national election—Woodhull announced on the front page her plans to run for president of the United States. She declared herself the nominee of the “Cosmo-Political Party” and noted that this was “subject to ratification by the national convention.” Earlier in the year, Woodhull had become the first woman to address a congressional committee when she argued, before the House Judiciary Committee, that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments already granted women the right to vote with the statement that “the citizen who is taxed should also have a voice in the subject matter of taxation.” Leaders of the women's suffrage movement took notice of this speech and saw her as a champion of their cause.

Running For President

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Woodhull helped organize the Equal Rights Party and at its May 1872 convention she was officially named their presidential nominee (so much for the Cosmo-Political Party). As her running mate, the party nominated famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass—although he never acknowledged the nomination and even campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.

Woodhull campaigned on a heavily liberal platform, calling for women’s suffrage, regulation of monopolies, nationalization of railroads, an eight-hour workday, direct taxation, abolition of the death penalty, and welfare for the poor. But Woodhull was never given a fair shake herself. Her personal life was repeatedly dragged through the mud by the tabloids of the day. Her potential presidency was considered such a long shot that virtually none of her contemporaries bothered to point out that at 34, she technically wasn’t even legally old enough to be president.

With universal suffrage still almost 50 years away, Woodhull would not have been able to vote for herself under even the best circumstances. But as it was, she spent Election Day in jail. On November 2, 1872, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly published a searing exposé of Brooklyn minister Henry Ward Beecher, accusing him of having an affair with one of his parishioners. Consistent with her beliefs, Woodhull was not upset with the affair itself, just his proclamations against such behavior. “I am not charging him with immorality—I applaud his enlightened views. I am charging him with hypocrisy,” she said.

The powerful minister was a beloved figure in the community and Woodhull’s takedown of him brought unprecedented disapproval. With the election just days away, she, her sister, and her husband, who had written many of the Weekly articles, were arrested on charges of “indecency,” and of publishing “an obscene newspaper” and sending it through the mail.

Ultimately, the three were released. But even with the election lost—generous estimates suggest she may have received a couple thousand votes—the public vitriol against her in defense of Beecher persisted. In 1877, having shuttered her paper and (again) divorced Blood, Woodhull moved to England. There, the first woman to ever run for President of the United States lived out the rest of her long and eventful life in relative peace. She ended up taking one more husband, whom she outlived.

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6 Times Multiple Leaders Reigned in a Single Year
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The longest presidential inauguration speech in U.S. history was given by William Henry Harrison when he took over from Martin Van Buren on March 4, 1841. Lasting a full hour and 45 minutes, the almost 8500-word speech was delivered amid a blinding snowstorm without a coat or hat to keep out the cold. Harrison's doctors blamed pneumonia caught that day for the president's death 31 days after taking office, though modern medical experts think the culprit was more likely enteric fever.

Whatever its cause, Harrison’s untimely death caused a brief political crisis, since it seemed unclear whether the president’s successor, Vice President John Tyler, should remain in power for Harrison’s full term or operate as acting president until a new election could be held. In the end, Tyler remained in office for the rest of Harrison’s term, becoming the United States’ third president in a single year. A similar situation emerged 40 years later, when James A. Garfield replaced Rutherford B. Hayes in March 1881 only to be replaced, after his death the following September, by Vice President Chester A. Arthur.

As tumultuous as these years were, they certainly aren’t the only in history to have seen an unusually quick turnaround in the highest offices in the land.

1. ANCIENT ROME, 69 C.E.

Shortly after Nero committed suicide in 68 C.E., the Roman Empire was thrown into a rocky 12 months known as The Year of the Four Emperors. Initially Nero was succeeded by the Roman governor Galba, but Galba soon proved just as unpredictable and as unpopular as his predecessor. As his reign became increasingly tyrannical (he had a habit of executing any senator he distrusted), he adopted a successor, slighting his longstanding supporter Otho, who subsequently arranged to have Galba and the successor assassinated on January 15, 69. Otho was crowned the same day, but Galba’s seven-month rule had caused such unrest across the empire that the northern province of Germania had already turned its back on Rome and appointed its own ruler, Aulus Vitellius—who now had his sights set firmly on the Roman throne.

In April, Vitellius marched his armies south, defeated Otho in battle, and swept to power. In celebration, he supposedly began spending so lavishly on parades and banquets in honor of himself that his entertainment bill alone almost bankrupted the state. But when his actions were questioned, he is said to have had his advisors, moneylenders, and debt collectors tortured and executed.

Once again, unrest spread throughout the empire, and in frustration many of the eastern provinces proclaimed Vespasian, one of Rome’s most successful generals, their new emperor. In December, an alliance of forces loyal to Vespasian met Vitellius’s dwindling supporters in battle at Cremona and ensured Vespasian’s successful march on Rome. After a short time on the run (with two of his chefs alongside him), Vitellius was caught, killed, and his body dumped in the Tiber. Vespasian took to the throne as the year came to an end, and quickly set about restoring some much-needed stability.

2. ENGLAND, 1016

Ethelred the Unready
Ethelred the Unready
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When the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready died on April 23, 1016, his 26-year-old son Edmund Ironside was elected to succeed him. He immediately faced the same struggle that had dogged his father’s final years: In the north of England, vast swathes of territory were being invaded and claimed by the Danish king Cnut the Great.

In the months that followed, Edmund’s armies clashed repeatedly with the Danes in a series of bloody but inconclusive battles, until finally a truce was agreed upon. England was to be divided between the two kings, with Edmund keeping the vast Saxon heartland of Wessex and Cnut ruling over the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia in the north and east. Just weeks later, however, Edmund too died suddenly and Cnut ascended to the throne unopposed as England’s third king in just eight months. Historians today are divided over whether foul play was responsible for Edmund’s death, and while some sources claim he succumbed to infected wounds inflicted in battle, at least one much more vivid account claims he was stabbed up the backside, while sitting on a latrine, by an assassin hiding in a cesspit.

3. FRANCE, 1316

 Louis X of France
Louis X
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When Louis X of France died on June 5, 1316 (either of pleurisy or from drinking poisoned wine, depending on which version you believe), a problem emerged over who should succeed him. Although Louis had a daughter, Joan, from his disastrous first marriage, a male heir was required—but Louis’s second wife, Queen Clementia of Hungary, was still pregnant at the time of the king’s death, and with the sex of the child unknown, it was impossible to tell whether Louis had a male successor or not.

As a result, Louis’s younger brother Philip was appointed regent for the final five months of the queen’s pregnancy, until finally, on November 15, 1316, she gave birth to a baby boy. The child was immediately crowned King John I, but died just five days later. The cause of his death is a mystery, and rumors soon emerged that the young king had likely been killed or exiled. But whatever the truth, Louis’s brother Philip was able to retake to the throne in his own right as King Philip V, becoming France’s third king in just six months.

4. THE VATICAN, 1590

Pope Sixtus V
Pope Sixtus V
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After the death of Pope Sixtus V on August 27, 1590, Urban VII was elected to succeed him a little over two weeks later, on September 15. But by September 27, Urban VII, too, was dead. His 13-day papacy remains the shortest in history, but despite its brevity he is nevertheless credited with introducing one of the world’s first smoking bans, threatening anyone who “took tobacco in the porchway of or inside of a church” with immediate excommunication. After Urban’s death, Gregory XIV became pope—the third in just 100 days—on December 5, but he fared little better and died of a “gallstone attack” the following October.

5. RUSSIA, 1605

When Tsar Feodor I died without a male heir to succeed him in 1598, the Russian parliament elected his brother-in-law and former advisor, Boris Godunov, as his successor. Although the first few years of Boris’s reign were prosperous, his rule later became a disaster: Russia was devastated by a widespread famine that killed a third of the population, and Boris’s ever-weakening leadership saw the country soon descend into anarchy. On his death in April 1605, Boris’s 16-year-old son succeeded him as Tsar Feodor II, but his reign only lasted a few weeks as both he and his mother were assassinated. And that paved the way for a successor few people saw coming.

A few years earlier, in 1601, a young man living in Moscow had attracted considerable attention by asserting that he was Tsarevich Dmitri Ivanovich, the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible. Tsarevich Dmitri, it was believed, had either been killed or had died in a terrible accident at the age of just 8 in 1591. This Muscovite Dmitri, however, claimed that the stories of his death had been greatly exaggerated: He had supposedly managed to escape and flee into exile, and with Russia on the verge of anarchy, he had now returned to take his rightful place as tsar.

Threatened with banishment for his treasonable actions, Dmitri fled to Lithuania, but there began forging support for his cause. With the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Catholic groups, and an army of mercenaries from across continental Europe now behind him, Dmitri marched on Moscow and swept to power on Feodor’s death to become Russia’s third tsar in as many months.

But even “False” Dmitri, as he became known, wasn’t to hold the throne for too long. A little under a year later, the Kremlin was stormed and Dmitri was killed by his opponents, having broken his leg fleeing from an upstairs window. (According to popular legend, as one final gesture, his body was cremated and his ashes fired from a cannon pointed in the direction of Poland.)

Dmitri was succeeded by Prince Vasili Shuisky (one of the opponents who had plotted his downfall), who became Tsar Vasili IV on May 19, 1606. His reign wasn’t exactly lacking in drama either—two more “False Dmitris” emerged over the coming years—leading to this entire shambolic period of Russian history becoming known as “The Time of Troubles.”

6. GREAT BRITAIN, 1782

Lord North
Lord North
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It's generally agreed that on March 20, 1782, Lord North became the first Prime Minister in British history to resign, following a vote of no confidence. His 12-year term had seen him lead Britain through much of the American Revolutionary War, but the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781 had damaged his standing beyond repair and he was forced from power. His successor, the Marquess of Rockingham, was appointed a week later and quickly sought to negotiate a peaceful end to the war and to recognize America’s independence. Negotiations began in Paris in April—but were halted when Rockingham died suddenly during a flu epidemic after just 14 weeks in power.

In his place, King George III himself appointed Rockingham’s Secretary of State, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, as Britain’s third Prime Minister in just five months.

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4 Ways You Can Register to Vote in Less Than 5 Minutes
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Not registered to vote? Time is running out. On Tuesday, November 8, the U.S. will elect a new president—but most states require residents to register well before Election Day. If you’re super busy, rest assured: Getting authorized to cast your ballot doesn’t need to be a tedious or time-consuming process. Once you’ve confirmed your local deadline, consider one of the simple registration tactics below.

1. LOG IN TO SNAPCHAT.

Snapchat has partnered with TurboVote, a voter registration app launched by nonprofit Democracy Works, to check users’ eligibility to vote—and if they’re qualified, to register them. Sign in to the video and picture-sharing app, and you’ll see video ads for the process (starring Jimmy Fallon, The Rock, and other celebrities) between Snapchat's Stories and Discover pages. Swipe up, and you’ll be led to a voter registration mobile webpage within the app.

Snapchat’s partnership with TurboVote runs until October 7.

2. SEND A TEXT OR FACEBOOK MESSAGE.

Thanks to HelloVote—which bills itself as the first text message-based voter-registration tool—you can now register to vote by sending a text or Facebook message. Simply text 384-387 or go to m.me/hellovote in Facebook Messenger. You’ll be provided with a form requesting your name, mailing address, and voter eligibility information (which varies from state to state), and if your state allows instant registration, HelloVote will submit the electronic paperwork for you. If not, don’t sweat it: You’ll be mailed the form, along with a pre-addressed stamped envelope. Sign it, send it to your local Board of Elections, and voila!—you’re all set to vote this November.

3. CLICK ON A GOOGLE DOODLE.

This year, National Voter Registration Day falls on September 27. To celebrate the occasion, Google has rolled out a special new Google Doodle. Click on the Doodle, and you’ll be led to a page with instructions on how to register by mail, in person, or online, depending on each state’s individual guidelines. You’ll also be provided with voting requirements and registration deadlines.

4. SIGN IN TO FACEBOOK.

On Friday, September 23, Facebook introduced a four-day nationwide voting registration drive. If you haven't already taken advantage of it, you can still catch its tail end. Log in to your account, and you’ll see a "Vote Now" button at the top of your Newsfeed. It leads you to USA.gov, which, in turn, directs you to your state's online voter registration page. Once you’re all finished, you can update your status to say you’ve registered.

BONUS: HANG WITH THE CAST OF HAMILTON.

This way will likely take more than five minutes, but it might be the most exciting on this list. On Wednesday, September 28, some of the musical’s cast members will lead a voter registration event outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Swing by between 5 and 7 p.m., and the actors—who have been trained by voter registration volunteers from The Hispanic Federation, a Latino nonprofit membership organization—will provide national registration forms and guide you through the process.

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