Anne Royall: America's First Professional Female Journalist?
Rick Brown, Editor-in-chief
One of the more embarrassing interviews of history was obtained from a President of the United States by a newspaper woman who sat on his clothes as he bathed in the Potomac and refused to budge until he answered her questions.
The President was John Quincy Adams and his interviewer was Anne Royall, who used to rampage up and down the country under her own steam, a virago in a calico gown with mutton sleeves and a poke bonnet. Women covered themselves with veils as she hove in sight; men held their hats before their faces lest her demon blue eyes burn them up. Anne was a legend and a holy terror, convicted ultimately as a common scold.
Her immoderation made the nation laugh. There was something farcical about a cracked old woman belaboring the government of the country and pursuing a President to his morning plunge.
Anne Royall turned to writing late in life. Her childhood was spent in Maryland, where she ran about wild, quite unlettered knowing nothing except Indian lore. He family moved from place to place, and finally settled in Virginia, attaching themselves to the eccentric household of William Royall, who had served as a general under Washington and Lafayette.
In 1797, Royall married Anne and she became the mistress of a plantation with great acreage and many slaves. Her husband was her schoolmaster as well as a drill sergeant. He took her in hand, drilled her in the classics, made her read Voltaire and Jefferson, and stuffed her head with the ideals of Free Masonry.
They remained married for sixteen years until her husband died. She took three of her slaves, hitched up her coach and started on a tour of the South, scribbling down her impressions as she traveled. Nothing escaped her. She became a national gossip. Her notes were tinged with malice; she beat the drum for her pet causes. Soon she became known as the "widow with a serpent's tongue."
Her wanderings continued for ten years. She pried with deadly insistence into the affairs of all kinds of people, writing maliciously about her discoveries. She marched on Washington in 1824, shortly after her husband's will had been broken, leaving her penniless. She applied for a pension as the widow of a prominent Revolutionary general, and this started a contest that would continue for years. By crashing tactics she enlisted the aid of government heads from John Quincy Adams down. He found her a pest but liked her. He forgave her for the river interview and dubbed her "the virago errant in enchanted armour."
Having stormed Washington and dined at the White House, Anne set out on her second pilgrimage -- this time to sell subscriptions for the book of her impressions she had written on her first tour. She still found humanity weak and sinful. She raged and scolded and waved her ragged banners. For seven years she stampeded up and down the country, by coach and on foot, interviewing everyone who would speak to her, invading convents, smoking the pipe of peace with Cherokee Indians, ransacking the garret of Thomas Jefferson's house at Monticello.
This strange wayfarer was small and stout. Her eyes were an astounding blue but no one liked their prying glitter. She had dazzling teeth, which were always visible, for she laughed even when she raged. But it wasn't the laughter of good humor. She was persistent, ruthless, fussy and bad-tempered. She wrote in a chatty style, venting her hates, condemning most of the places she visited and the things she saw. Her local allusions brought trouble on her head. Even children were warned to get out of the way when Anne Royall came to town. Her shadow preceded her. Shutters went up against her invasion. One of her victims whacked her on the head; another knocked her down a flight of stairs. She was always in the thick of battle and she loved it.
In 1829 she was arrested and charged with being a common scold. Her trial caused thousands to roar with laughter. She was found guilty, but because she was sixty, poor and thwarted, they spared her the ducking stool and let her off with a $10 fine. This failed to silence her. It merely gave her a new idea. In 1831 she published her first issue of an oddity newspaper "Paul Pry." She had bought a second hand ramshackle Ramage press, made room for it by taking the sink out of the kitchen of a house she rented behind the Capitol, hired a printer, took two small boys from a Catholic orphanage to act as printer's devils, and launched her first issue.
It was a four-page newspaper, spiced with insults and curses. The inside pages carried editorials, political and local news. The front page was devoted chiefly to advertising. In her first issue, Anne announced her policy flatly: "No party, the welfare and happiness of our country is our politics." Her obsessions were Free Masonry, which she advocated fiercely; Evangelicisim, which she fought tooth and nail; her pension.
Occasionally, a gleam of common sense sifted through the thick layers of fanatical upbraiding. Her criticism was sometimes acute; her attacks on public corruption often valid. She pounced on public grafters with witch-like intuition. She couldn't be bought or squelched or intimidated. When offered a $2000 bribe to hold her peace, she promptly squealed the loudest. She hammered at corrupt officials, sometimes to good effect. She campaigned for the complete dissociation of church and state. She battled for sound money and waged war on the Bank of the United States. This was the subject on which she interviewed President Adams as he bathed in the Potomac. She backed liberal immigration and tariff laws, the abolition of flogging in the Navy, better conditions for the wage-earner, and free thought, free speech and a free press.
She was liberal in her interpretation of a free press and sometimes confused candor with abuse. But in spite of poor printing and proofreading, "Paul Fry" had a national circulation was was read with some degree of interest in Washington, the focal point of attack. Within a year she had agents all over the country handling her paper. She published the names of subscribers who failed to pay up. She stopped short at nothing. Her venture into publishing was hard work. Snow sometimes covered the floor where her paper was printed and the ink froze before it could record her blistering phrases. Anne stopped publishing "Paul Fry" in November, 1836, as suddenly as she had launched it, and almost at once published a successor, "The Huntress," which was less rancorous, better printed and more literate than its forerunner. This time she made some effort to keep up with the current style in journalism by printing stories, verse, anecdotes, and some balanced editorial comment. She confided her own rambling thoughts into her column, which always retained the flavor of her strong eccentric personality.
She died on October 4, 1854, and was buried in the Congressional Cemetery. Her gravesite is on the tour of the Congressional Cemetery. The other newspapers of the day gave short obituaries when she died. She was a freak, who might have been born in any era.