American Collections blog

01 June 2012

Sheila Rowbotham, Eccles Centre Writer in Residence: Meeting Mrs Satan in a hedged garden maze

 Sheila
Sheila Rowbotham, Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, Image (c) J. Swinson

I have become more and more intrigued by discovering the extent to which information and ideas were transmitted internationally between radicals in the nineteenth century. There is a curious spasm of recognition when an interesting historical figure turns out to have been aware of another who I had assumed to be in an entirely different bag. It is like walking through a hedged garden maze and suddenly bumping into a surprising cluster of ghosts.

While tracing an 1880s Bristol socialist, William Baster back into an 1870s Republican group in Bath, I was amazed to bump into a larger than life American rebel, Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was a spiritualist, free lover, suffrage campaigner and member of the First International, dubbed by her opponents as ‘Mrs Satan’.  From a poor family of wandering clairvoyants and medical showmen, she had married at fifteen and became a mother at seventeen, leaving a drunken husband and supporting her family by acting. She was expelled from the International for arguing that the emancipation of women had to precede any change in the relationship between capital and labour.

She was mentioned favorably and her works extracted, in an old newspaper The International Herald. The link was William Harrison Riley a Republican and member of the First International who ran a Temperance coffee house in Bristol and knew William Baster. As Riley’s hopes of international revolution dimmed he went local, issuing vegetarian recipes for “Buttered or Rumbled” (our scrambled) eggs and then, when the coffee house collapsed, moving  to a communal farm in Totley, near Sheffield, where he encountered Edward Carpenter.  When both international and local socialism failed him Riley would migrate in despair in an unsuccessful effort to join a utopian colony in the United States: Woodhull in contrast married a wealthy man and settled in Britain.

‘Woodhull’ and ‘Riley’ are names to historians, but it is possible to  uncover even more obscure connections.  Fabrice Bensimon, who has examined the social and cultural impact of several thousand British workers to France in the  first half of the  nineteenth century has noted a growing interest in these ‘connected’ histories, reporting how the British listened to a comrade reading from a Chartist newspaper in Brittany in the late 1840s (Past and Present no. 213 Nov. 2011).

I went recently to look at the papers of William Morris’ Socialist League in the  Institute of Social History in Amsterdam They contain numerous letters expressing routine complaints about not receiving  the journal Commonweal and frequent apologies for not sending the money for sales which made me smile in recognition. But among them I also came across  references to workers who had tried their luck in America and returned. I was pursuing William Bailie, a basket maker and Socialist League member who went to Boston and wrote for Liberty, the individualist anarchist paper.  How he came to make the decision to migrate is something I may never know, but it was evident from the letters that information was circulating in working class circles about life across the Atlantic.

Bailie was a frequent contributor to Liberty and wrote a biography of the anarchistic community builder  Josiah Warren. I first picked up his trail though because two of the women I am writing about, Helena Born and Helen Tufts fell in love with him – which kind of takes us back to Victoria Woodhull. Quite how though is another shaggy dog story and too long for a blog.

[S.R.]

N.b., All the Eccles Centre Writers in Residence posts are collected here.

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