The naked truth about JQA and reporter Anne Royall.
Here’s the basic story you may have heard:
When John Quincy Adams was president, he liked to bathe in the Potomac River, nude. A feisty female reporter named Anne Royall desperately wanted to interview him, so she went to the river when he was bathing, sat on his clothes, and refused to move until he granted her an interview. This was said to be the first time a female journalist ever interviewed the president of the United States.
It’s been repeated in various versions in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and even in Time Magazine two months ago. Over time, the details of this apocryphal yarn have gotten mixed up like a hundred-year-long game of telephone. Not only does the timing vary wildly – sometimes the interview happened while JQA was president, sometimes it happened years later when he was a Congressman – but sometimes even the president varies; in one 1902 version, the president being ambushed by Royall is John Tyler.
The only true part of the story is that John Quincy Adams did, indeed, go skinny dipping in the Tiber Creek, a now enclosed tributary of the Potomac. Everything else is a fiction. Not only does the legend do a disservice to John Quincy Adams’s memory, but even worse, it perpetuates a sexist smear campaign against Anne Royall that her evangelical enemies started almost two hundred years ago.
Understanding who Anne Royall was and how this legend got started are the keys to stamping out its “true story” status.
The Trial Of Anne Royall
Anne Royall was a Revolutionary War widow who was left with nothing after her husband died and his family contested his will. At 57, she became a writer and traveled the country chronicling her journeys. Her books included scathing critiques that made her a lot of enemies – especially evangelicals. In her well-researched 2016 biography A Notorious Woman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America, Elizabeth J. Clapp wrote that Royall “saw their money-making activities as the preparation of a war chest to overturn American liberties and establish a religious tyranny.”
She felt those “blackcoats” had too much influence on politics and were collecting money that could otherwise be used for truly charitable causes – and she felt they were insidiously converting women to their cause. In 1828 Royall wrote:
“I am determined those blackcoats shall not hold my sex any longer in subjection. I will never have done until I banish priestcraft, religious tyranny, superstition and bigotry from amongst my sex – to be sure it is some thing like overturning a mountain, but this does not deter me, if I cannot turn the mountain over, I will cut through it. The impious frauds of those priests have too long disgraced the fairest part of creation. Dress woman up in the fair face of true religion, dealing charity and blessings around her, she is the most enviable of nature’s works – she would no longer be slighted by the other sex.”
In 1829 (months after John Quincy Adams left the presidency), Royall’s beef with evangelicals turned into a war between herself and a small Presbyterian congregation living next door. She claimed the congregation’s children threw rocks at her window and one of their men had a habit of praying for her soul right outside it. The 60-year-old Royall responded by yelling obscenities at them as they walked by. That’s all they needed to have her arrested.
The judge dropped all the charges against her except for one, and Anne Royall was prosecuted for being a “common scold.” Clapp says a common scold was defined in English law as “a troublesome and angry woman who, by her brawling and wrangling among her neighbors, doth break the public peace, and beget, cherish and increase public discord.” It was literally a way to outlaw being a nasty woman, and it’s still illegal in Washington, D.C.
Royall was found guilty, one of the few women convicted of being a common scold since the United States declared independence. Her sentence was ducking. Reserved only for women, ducking involved being tied to a chair, suspended over water, and submerged. The specifications of the submersion are unclear, but one newspaper joked that “In Mrs. Royall’s case, perhaps from two to four hours will be thought long enough to remain under water.”
Royall said a ducking chair was built just for her by the Marines, but it was never used. The judge conceded that the punishment was cruel and unusual and instead fined her ten dollars. In a show of solidarity from the press, two newspapermen from a rival newspaper paid the fine for her.
|Ducking chair, or cucking stool, used to punish women convicted of being scolds. Illustration from Chap-books of the 18th Century by John Ashton (1834).|
Tracing the Story
If there was any truth to Royall’s skinny dipping sabotoge, it would have come to light during her famous trial. But no version of it appears anywhere in print during the lifetimes of John Quincy Adams or Anne Royall. In fact, as Clapp points out, “Royall had no need to go to such lengths because Adams was a friend and would have gladly given her an interview.”
So where does the story come from?
Finding the original source of the rumor might be impossible. The earliest example Clapp cites is a 1909 Washington Post article called “Monument to Anne Royall: The Mother of Yellow Journalism.” I found an example from 23 years earlier: Seaton Donoho’s 1886 pseudo-memoir, “Stories and Memories of Washington.”
Donoho tries to present the anecdote with the authority of a firsthand account, by first claiming that he and his childhood friends joined John Quincy Adams for those morning dips: “my young companions and I encircled him as minnows may swim about a whale, but with no fear, for among children he was a child.” But then he launches into a clearly biased non-eyewitness story against Royall, whom he called a “vengeful madam.”
Donoho’s story seems to be the earliest version of the tale in print, but he sounds like he’s repeating something he heard a long time ago. So from the start, this legend seems to have a strong element of “Can you believe this broad?”
|This is not Anne Royall, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s website says it is. A quick reverse image search shows that it’s columnist Sara Payson Parton who wrote under the name “Fanny Fern.”|
We may never know the true origin of this fable, but there are some kernels of truth that may have been poorly popped.
In his diary, John Quincy Adams wrote about an incident where he and his servant got in a boat they found, but the boat started sinking. He had to remove some of his clothes because they were getting heavy, so he ended up waiting “half dressed” for a carriage ride home. As early as 1872, these events may have morphed into a legend that his clothes were stolen while he was bathing and he had to walk all the way back to the Executive Mansion nude.
That story may have become conflated with an even more likely seed, an unverified account that can at least be traced back to Adams’s and Royall’s lifetimes. Clapp recounts an 1829 report about Royall accosting a Massachusetts Congressman on a bridge and demanding an introduction to the president. He asked if she wanted to see the president now, and she agreed.
“[He] immediately took her towards the railing of the bridge and told her to look over. She did so, and in a few moments the chief of the Republic appeared in the waters of the Potomac, kicking and plunging from under the arch, where he was quietly enjoying the comforts of a cold bath, a refreshment of which he is said to be very fond. This was Mrs. Royal’s first formal introduction to the President Adams.”
However it started, the story became a D.C. legend, and a landmark. For years there was a rock next to the Potomac River that people referred to as “Anne Royall’s Rock” based on this tall tale. The New York Times reported that there were protests against its removal in 1913. Part of the story’s pervasiveness could be due to this local legend. You’re more inclined to believe something if someone shows you hard evidence, and it doesn’t get much harder than a rock.
Stopping Its Spread
This legend’s prevalence has only increased since the age of the internet, with one supposedly authoritative site like HarvardSquareLibrary.org (not affiliated with Harvard University) repeating the myth and another using that as a reference to spread it further. One such guilty party is Rick Brown, editor-in-chief of the official-sounding HistoryReference.org. Unbound by actual facts, he relishes in denigrating Royall:
“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.”
Who needs sources when it’s clear Rick saw Goody Royall with the devil?
Brown’s portrayal of Royall picks up on the sexism inherent in this bit of historical trivia. In his 1981 book Presidential Anecdotes, Paul F. Boller, Jr. retells a 1925 version of the story that’s a little darker. In this version, Royall tells Adams, “If you try to get out and get your clothes I’ll scream and I just saw three fishermen around the bend.” The successful “wily female journalist” the New York Times mentioned is elsewhere called a disrespectful, immoral “hussy” who would threaten to cry rape if she didn’t get her way.
It’s clear the roots of this old chestnut are not about remembering an intrepid female reporter; they’re about cutting an ambitious non-conformist woman down to size. Though most people repeating the story have no deceitful or sexist intent, they are perpetrating a falsehood that is based on antiquated and misogynistic beliefs. It’s time for that to stop.
If you see people spreading this story, point them here. In fact, let me know. Comment below or contact me on Twitter @plodwithme or Facebook and I’ll kindly alert them of their Royall mistake. We can’t make the legend disappear, but we can make more people know that it’s apocryphal and understand why it’s harmful to perpetuate.
Then we can begin to restore the reputation of a pioneer of journalism who should be known not for ambushing a naked John Quincy Adams, but for being a fearless and fascinating woman ahead of her time.
For more on Anne Royall’s life, check out The Trials of A Scold: Book Review.
A NotoriousWoman: Anne Royall in Jacksonian America by Elizabeth J. Clapp
John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul Nagel
The Diaries of John Quincy Adams: 1779 – 1848 (Library of America)