About Tennessee Celeste Bortels-Cook (Claflin)
Tennessee Celeste Claflin (October 26, 1845 – January 18, 1923), also known as Tennie C. and later Lady Cook, was an American suffragist best known as one of the first women to open a Wall Street brokerage firm. Her stock market gains financed the publication of her radical feminist newspaper, and she was an advocate of legalized prostitution. Tennessee and her sister Victoria "were hard to classify, either as journalists or human beings. They were magnetic, eerie, raffish, triumphantly heralding the freedom of women, basking in the counsel of the great financiers of the period, and using the honest craft of journalism for their own questionable ends."
Tennie was born in Homer, Ohio, "where the worth of a woman was judged by the washing she hung out on a line and the crust of the pies she baked," the daughter of Reuben Buckman Claflin (Buck) and Roxanna Hummell Claflin, he a "stableman, tavern keeper, farmer, and promoter – a man of many occupations and of dubious reputation." Roxanna "Communed with the spirits and attended religious revivals. She went into trances and insisted that she heard spirit voices."Tennie was raised in abject poverty in an "indolent family that was considered the town trash" and joined in her parents' money–making schemes, pedaling Miss Tennessee's Magnetic Elixir for Beautifying the Complexion and Cleansing the Blood as a young child. By the age of 14, she "had already been working nearly half her life as a medium. Like a child actress, she had lived in a universe of adults – administering to them in her profession and earning money to support them at home. She was billed in Columbus, Ohio, as a 'wonderful child' – 'endowed from birth with a supernatural gift' and available for consultations from eight in the morning until nine at night. Tennessee said she could earn up to one hundred dollars a day, but there was little time left in that day for a childhood."
She was the younger sister of Victoria Claflin Woodhull, 1838-1927. "Victoria took her youngest and still malleable sister, Tennessee, under her wing and the pair set themselves up in Cincinnati, Ohio, as clairvoyants in much the way their father had a dozen years before ... Because they were no longer children, though, and because the Claflin women had many male admirers, they were suspected not of communing with spirits but of communing with men. Society in the 1860s often considered mediums and prostitutes to be one and the same. Watchful neighbors had no way of knowing if the men who entered darkened rooms alone to visit a woman were interested in the comfort she might give their souls or the sexual stimulation she might proffer their bodies. The issue was especially clouded if the women looked like Tennessee and Victoria. Tennessee was the more beautiful of the two sisters. She was positively bewitching. She had Buck Claflin's devilish cunning in her eyes, but on her the look translated into a sexual rascality. She was slightly plump, dimpled, and delightful, possessed of a boyish carnality in an altogether feminine body. She ... was untouched by strain. Her face was that of a young woman who reveled in life, seeing it for the good joke that it was."
“Tennessee [was] just twenty-two when [she] met Cornelius Vanderbilt ... [as] the healer of whatever ailed him. She was experienced at the laying on of hands, which was supposed to magnetize the patient and act as a kind of electric prod to jolt his system back into shape. No doubt it did. With her full, sensuous mouth, teasing eyes, and expert hands, Tennessee was just the lighthearted hellion to work wonders on the Commodore’s aged body and revive his sagging spirits,” and she was paid handsomely for her trouble.
At some point the widowed Vanderbilt’s “status as a backer changed somewhat” as he followed the wishes of his family and married someone other than Tennie, “despite Tennessee’s understanding that he had promised himself to her.” Rumor had it “that the new Mrs. Vanderbilt had seen him with his arm around Tennie and forbidden him further association” with her. “If Tennessee and Victoria were concerned that their pipeline to the stock market would be closed by Vanderbilt’s marriage” Black Friday made that a moot point. “On September 24, 1869, Wall Street crashed with a mighty thud.”
Vanderbilt died on January 4, 1877, worth $100 million. Some family members contested his will and Tennie was “sure to be brought in to testify to … [his] interest in spirit communications.” She and her sister were paid $100,000 by a Vanderbilt heir to make themselves unavailable to testify. Before the trial “[they] set off for England in six first-class double staterooms, accompanied by a small army of servants.”
Early on “Tennessee … had impetuously married a [young gambler] named John Bortels [nee Bartels] … but the marriage was short-lived.” When Bortels [Bartels] asked how she made money after disappearing for a time, it “led to a bitter quarrel, after which she agreed to give him her share of the proceeds … on the condition that he go away and divorce her.” In her late thirties she was married a second time. “Her choice was a man strikingly like Cornelius Vanderbilt—perhaps Tennie had learned a lesson by missing the chance to become the thirty-five-year-old widow of the richest man in America.”
On October 15, 1885, in England, Tennie married the vastly wealthy widower Sir Francis Cook, Viscount of Montserrat, Portugal, after telling him that the spirit of his dead wife told her she approved. “For endowing London’s Alexandra House and a concert hall for impoverished student artists,” Queen Victoria created a Cook Baronetcy. As the wife of an English Baronet, Claflin would thereafter have been correctly styled “Lady Cook, Viscountess of Montserrat,” whom the British found witty and amusing. “Tennessee was still an ivory-skinned beauty with red hair and a delicate cleft chin.” When Sir Cook died sixteen years later amid rumors that she had murdered him, Tennie inherited $250,000.
“On February 5, 1870, Woodhull, Claflin & Co. formally opened its doors to the public, sending the perfumed scent of a new breed of broker wafting through the halls of finance then dominated by the masculine odors of cigars and champagne. In a front-page story, the New York Sun sounded the warning that change had come to Wall Street with the headline ‘Petticoats Among The Bovine and Ursine Animals.’
At the stock and gold exchanges, the news of a brokerage firm operated by women was greeted with a frenzy of speculation. The presence on Wall Street of Victoria C. Woodhull and her sister Tennessee Claflin created a commotion only slightly less dramatic than a crash. From early morning until the close of business, men and boys crowded the sidewalk outside their office at 44 Broad Street, peering through the windows and doors to get a look at this new creature–the female broker. Jostling for a view they shouted to each other. ‘They know a thing or two.’ ‘When will this end?’ ‘Two thousand visitors for two ladies within eight hours.’ ‘Stocks will go sky high.’ Inside, shielded from the crowds by a doorkeeper and a sign that read Gentlemen Will State Their Business And Then Retire At Once, the sisters were busy making history. It would be another century before a woman would hold a seat in her own name on the New York Stock Exchange, and possibly never again would a pair of female financiers cause such a stir … The remarkable sisters had arrived in New York City two years earlier, after amassing a small fortune traveling caravan-style through the fallow fields and ruined towns of the Civil War, offering their services as clairvoyants and spiritualist healers. Their path to Wall Street was made easier by the legendary tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, who, at seventy-three, had been one of the sisters’ ‘patients’ before becoming young Tennessee’s lover and patron. But while Vanderbilt’s assistance was helpful, it was the sisters’ own ingenuity that won them praise and publicity,” earning them the nicknames, The Bewitching Brokers and The Queens of Finance.
Historians disagree on whether or not Woodhull, Claflin & Company was a legitimate business. T.J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, writes on his The Biographer’s Blog on August 2, 2009, that Vanderbilt denied that he supported their brokerage firm. Stiles found evidence that the sisters were not trading stock at all. “They were sued for losing all the money that old ladies invested with them. Rather, it seems to have been a publicity stunt, used to propel their radical weekly (which Vanderbilt did not support) and their bid to lead the women’s rights movement. Woodhull and Claflin, the daughters of grifters, were in part con artists themselves.”
“So far the house has done little or nothing. The expenses are heavy, and funds must come from some source. The street [Wall Street] look on with suspicion. It is believed that the women have been sent into the street, by interested parties, for a purpose which will develop itself by and by. The ladies denounce these rumors and suspicions as the fruits of jealousy on the part of the men. On the first of May, they affirm that they will have a banking capital of a quarter of a million, that they have the promise of deposits that will make other Banking Houses turn pale. 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 … when they first appeared on the street, they deposited in the bank Vanderbilt’s check for seven thousand five hundred dollars … Beside their brokerage business, they practice in New York as clairvoyants. Whether they buy and sell stocks on that system is not known. Their principal customers so far, have been ladies, who take their pin money, and make a venture with it on the street.
When Susan B. Anthony turned over The Revolution to a less-than-capable follower, Tennie’s sister pleaded with her to publish their own newspaper, “‘We’ve got enough cash in the bank to swing it, and if we should run short, you, Tennie, have always got old Vanderbilt to fall back on.” They had not been involved in the feminist movement until they “burst upon the scene in 1870 with the [sell-out] publication of their radical feminist newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, [discussing] prostitution, venereal disease, abortion and female sexuality and print[ing] news about workingwomen and their efforts to organize and better their conditions. The Weekly advocated spiritualism, socialism … and free love,” though it was believed to have begun solely to support Victoria’s bid for the U.S. Presidency. “Just as the brokerage had introduced Victoria and Tennessee to the leaders of the financial world, the newspaper, with its bold positions and columns open to would-be writers, introduced the sisters to the city’s thinkers.” Sales were “soon … up to twenty thousand copies at a nickel a copy,” and the Weekly lasted six years, closing on June 10, 1876, “longer than most papers of its kind.”
As a result of her sister’s appeal to the House Judiciary Committee for the right to vote already in the Fourteenth Amendment, the two “were asked to attend the suffrage convention. They had earned their stripes and had changed the course of the suffrage fight. Instead of battling for new rights, the suffrage leaders now proposed to assert those already in the Constitution.” The sisters’ “uninhibited sex lives, which they made no attempt to conceal,” though, was thought to have embarrassed some of the suffrage delegates. Suffragists were leery because “opponents of women’s rights had long used the charge of ‘free love’ to discredit the movement.”
“The flamboyance and grandiosity of Victoria Woodhull tend to obscure her and her sister’s real contribution to the ideas of feminism in their relatively brief association with the American woman’s movement. For publicly challenging the dearly held Victorian belief in the purity (that is, asexuality) of women, they were certain to be isolated and silenced. However, there is no doubt that Woodhull and Claflin gave voice to the secret longings and dissatisfactions of great numbers of women. Elizabeth Stanton wrote in her confidential diary, begun at the age of sixty-five, that she had come to the conclusion that ‘the first great work to be accomplished for woman is to revolutionize the dogma that sex is a crime.’ Later she added, ‘a healthy woman has as much passion as a man.’” Two articles written in the Weekly by Tennie, “a better writer and clearer thinker than her more famous sister” are of particular note. In one she “urged women to gain their sexual freedom by defying oppressive social customs; in the second, she pointed out that woman’s economic dependence forces her to submerge her own nature and become little more than a sexual snare for men.”
“It isn’t clear what Tennie actually thought of the women’s movement, or if she thought of it at all. Perhaps for her the fluttering of skirts and the earnest whispers of movement women were just a new bit of fun. The suffragists themselves were not entirely sure what to make of her, either. When one of their group called on Victoria and Tennessee, the suffragist chided her husband for putting his arm around young Tennie. But he defended himself saying, ‘My dear, when you take me into a house where a damsel as plump and pretty as Miss Tennie C. sits on the arm of my chair and leans over until I suspect there is very little if anything underneath the Mother Hubbard she is wearing—then how can you blame any man for putting his arm around the damsel to verify such a suspicion?’” During the 1870s she was a flamboyant proponent of women's rights with her sister Victoria Woodhull. Tennessee ran for the United States Congress in the state of New York. She held the controversial belief that women could serve in the military and was elected Colonel of a "colored" National Guard Regiment.
Breaking the dress code
“Tennie C. once called a reporter into her office to show him the man’s banking suit she was wearing. The reporter gaped at the trousers that ended three inches above her ankle and said, ‘If you wear that out on the street, there’ll be a riot worse than the draft riot.’ Tennie C. nevertheless wore the man’s jacket and waist-coat but added a long black broadcloth skirt, and Victoria soon joined her in wearing this attire. Clothes were a political statement. Women who dressed like men threatened the entire structure of male domination. An eminent physician, reinforcing this belief, stated that women who wore men’s clothes manifested an aggressiveness unbecoming to their sex ... Tennie C. … chose men’s attire not only for publicity but also to protest the fact that women were kept in their place by clothes.”
“New York City, early November, 1871 … Victoria and Tennessee registered to vote … decid[ing] to set an example … surprised by how little opposition they met; their names were eagerly recorded. Four days later, on election day, [Tennie] and a group of women gathered … before heading out en masse to put equality of citizenship to the test. The Herald later reported that, ‘the irresistible Tennie read the … fourteenth and fifteenth amendments … The assembly thus satisfied themselves that the law was on their side, and confident in their right, sallied forth and swept down on the astonished inspectors,’” only to be denied the right to cast their ballots.
End of life
“The two once-inseparable sisters had been estranged for years. Tennessee’s marriage to Francis Cook had been an unhappy one. Early on, Victoria recognized Cook as ‘an old man libertine’ who, she said, ‘openly insulted’ Tennessee and boasted about it. Under John Martin [Victoria’s husband]’s guidance, Victoria had distanced herself from her sister’s domestic troubles and had remained distant even after Cook died in 1901. Tennie appeared to grieve neither the loss of her husband nor the separation from her sister. She died on January 18, 1923, in England at the home of her grandniece Lady Utica Celeste Beecham at the age of seventy-seven. She left no will. “Lady Cook … best known to the elder generation of Americans as the radical, beautiful Tennessee Claflin. In the early days of the suffrage movement, as Tennie Claflin, with Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, she led a delegation of women before the United States Senate, and demanded the right to vote. She also nominated Lucretia Mott for President of the United States. She once held the unique position of colonel of a regiment of negroes.” “Many New Yorkers have almost forgotten that Lady Cook was Miss Tennessee Claflin, women’s rights champion, writer, banker, broker, successful Wall Street speculator, and all-around new woman, who with her sister, Victoria Woodhull, startled two continents with their daring.”
Together with her sister, Victoria Woodhull, Claflin has been portrayed in two musicals, Winner Take All (1976) and Onward Victoria (1980) and in J.D. Christilian's novel "Scarlet Women" (1996).