Anne Royall is extolled as the first female journalist to interview a president of the United States. According to the usual telling of the story, she perched herself atop the clothes of John Quincy Adams while he was skinny dipping in the Potomac, refusing to return them until he agreed to talk to her. Adams supposedly answered Royall’s questions while treading water in the river.
The tale is almost certainly apocryphal, and Royall’s biographer, Jeff Biggers, neatly debunks it in “The Trials of a Scold.” True or not, the story captures the spirit of this unconventional woman, who took up journalism late in life and then contended with some of the most powerful political and religious figures of her day. In 1891, nearly a half-century after Royall’s death, a headline in the Washington Post proclaimed: “She was a Holy Terror: Her Pen was as Venomous as a Rattlesnake’s Fangs.” What journalist, now or then, would not want to be remembered as a holy terror?
Royall’s beginnings were humble. Born in Maryland in 1769, she moved with her family to the backwoods frontier of southwestern Pennsylvania. In 1782, she survived an attack by British and Seneca forces on the settlement of Hanna’s Town, Pa. She later wrote that “the present generation have scarcely any idea of the privations and trouble of settling the country. . . . I suffered all that human nature could bear, both with cold and hunger.”
By the time she was 18, her family had moved to what is now West Virginia. There her mother got a job as a maid working for William Royall, a member of the gentry. William took a liking to his maid’s intelligent daughter and opened his library to her. Anne soon moved in with the much older man, and the couple eventually married. After William’s death in 1812, Anne lost most of her inheritance in a legal dispute with William’s family that left her penniless. Mr. Biggers speculates that she spent time in debtors’ prison.
It was at this point in her life—widowed and destitute—that Royall set out to reinvent herself as a writer. She became an “itinerant storyteller,” Mr. Biggers writes, traveling first to the new state of Alabama, where she wrote the initial of her series of “Black Books.” These popular volumes were “informative but sardonic portraits of the elite and their denizens from Mississippi to Maine.” In an expanding nation, Royall’s incisive descriptions of American life and individual Americans from many walks of life were popular reading and a sharp contrast to the sentimental literature penned by other female writers. Her shabby demeanor, foul mouth and fearless attitude set her apart from the “respectable” women of the day and added to her notoriety.
This was the time of the Second Great Awakening, and one of Royall’s favorite targets were evangelicals, whom she dubbed “blue skins” and “blackcoats.” Politicians were in her sights too, and she “rattled the bones of Capitol Hill,” Mr. Biggers writes, as a “whistleblower of political corruption, fraudulent land schemes, and banking scandals.”
Royall’s biting portraits of public figures helped establish her reputation, but she also wrote sympathetically about the American underclass. In a dispatch from Baltimore, she described the public hanging of a black woman, excoriating the observers for their “eagerness.” “Who is said to have a soul at all,” she asked, “who can calmly stand by, and view the struggles of a fellow mortal in the pangs of such an exit?”
Mr. Biggers devotes a big chunk of his book to a chapter in Royall’s life that he oversells as “The Last American Witch Trial.” In the late 1820s, Royall moved to Washington, where she took up residence on Capitol Hill. Her windows overlooked a fire station where a Presbyterian congregation held nightly prayer meetings—a violation of the separation of church and state, she believed, since the fire station was a public building. She could hear the sermons and hymn singing next door, and she shouted profanity-laced catcalls out her window. One Presbyterian complained that she called him a “damned old bald headed son of a bitch.”
Royall soon found herself arrested under a federal indictment that charged her with being “an evil-disposed person and a common scold and disturber of the peace and happiness of her quiet and honest neighbors.” As the judge would explain, a common scold—communis rixatrix in Latin—was a common-law offense dating back to medieval times in England. It applied only to women, and the punishment was dunking. Royall was convicted, though spared a dunking, which the judge deemed barbaric.
The trial sparked a media circus that only enhanced Royall’s celebrity. Mr. Biggers provides a detailed (if sometimes confusing) examination of the trial along with an interesting history of American women accused of being “scolds.” After the trial, Royall went back on the road and then returned to Washington to launch a newspaper. Its mission statement read: “We shall expose all and every species of political evil, and religious fraud, without fear or affection.”
Mr. Biggers clearly admires his subject and can be forgiven for overstating Royall’s literary ability and political influence. He says that she offers “timely and timeless lessons” about freedom of speech and the separation of church and state. She was, he writes, a “bulwark against the entry of religious extremists into the corridors of power and education.” Perhaps so, but such claims feel a bit too grand. Royall is better understood as a minor literary figure—and a first-class American eccentric.