The Trials of a Scold: Book Review


The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall

I first became interested in Anne Royall while researching the story about her ambushing a skinny-dipping John Quincy Adams for an interview. At first I was disappointed there was absolutely no truth to the tale (see my debunking here) but I soon found out the actual story of Royall’s life and her infamous trial for being a “common scold” far more interesting.

In a new book The Trials of a Scold: The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall out this month, Jeff Biggers tells Anne Royall’s story in a compelling narrative that helps restore her place in history.

Anne Royall was a fascinating woman. A “backwoods” Revolutionary War widow, she reinvented herself in her fifties as a travel writer and gained fame turning her sharp tongue on hypocrisy wherever she found it. She reveled in crusading against evangelical corruption, its influence on government, and its mistreatment of women.

In a letter to a Presbyterian church leader who challenged her views, she explained why she never read the Bible:

“I was raised, as I said, among the heathen, where I learned nothing but virtue and independence. When introduced among civilized people the Bible was put into my hands. But before I looked into it I watched the conduct of those who read it, and I found they committed murder, they robbed, they got drunk, they betrayed their friends and were guilty of all kinds of abominations, and I was afraid to read the Bible lest I might do so too.”

As Royall was careful to point out, she was not against religion itself – she counted honest reverends as her friends and praised church efforts she believed were truly charitable actions to help the poor and infirm. But no one believed in the separation between church and state more than Anne Royall, and she vehemently opposed a movement to create a national Christian party that sought to take over the government. Biggers quotes her:

“May the arms of the first member of Congress, who proposes a national religion, drop powerless from his shoulder,” she wrote, upping the pitch in her writing, “his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth and all the people say amen.”

Her crusade against religious tyranny made her a lot of enemies – especially among evangelical leaders. After an attempt to kill her by pushing her down a steep staircase, she still wasn’t silenced so her Presbyterian enemies found an archaic legal way to bring her down: charging her with being a “common scold,” the old equivalent to being a nasty woman.

Biggers adeptly relates the ludicrous events of her infamous D.C. trial, where even Andrew Jackson was called to testify on Royall’s behalf. (He sent his Secretary of War in his place.) He follows that courtroom drama (or farce) with the inspiring story of how she reinvented herself and became the editor and publisher of the first female-owned and operated newspaper in the nation’s capital.

The most depressing part of her story is how Anne Royall was erased from history. She was written off as an “old hag” and her remarkable accomplishments and influence on journalism were ignored by generations. It reminds me of the Hamilton song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” but Royall left behind no spouse or children to tell her story. When she died after over twenty years of publishing her newspapers Paul Pry and The Huntress, she was buried by charity workers in an unmarked grave.

A proper gravestone was finally dedicated to Anne Royall by Masons in 1911.

One reason for her consignment to the trash heap of history might be because of her fierce independence. In many ways she was a Jackson woman, in favor of expanding democracy and opposed to the national bank because she thought it was only helping rich speculators at the expense of the common man – but there were some important areas in which they clashed.

I reached out to the author Jeff Biggers and asked how much of a difference on Royall’s legacy it might have made if she embraced the Jacksonian party instead of remaining independent. He responded:

If Royall had simpy fallen in line with Jackson and his administration as a mouth piece for his policies, she would have lost the defining element of her writing: Watchdog journalism. To this end, Royall’s criticism of Jackson – over his policies on Native Americans, for example – was crucial in upholding her sense of integrity, and placing her a part from the sycophants of the times. Royall was a freethinking muckraker at heart, a rare and needed one.

I also asked Biggers about parallels between Royall’s battle and the current political landscape, and if there were particular findings that made him think “wow – this could be written about today!” He found several:

First, Royall was warned, convicted–but she persisted. Her brutal treatment as a freethinking satirist and muckraker – horsewhipped, thrown off a staircase and nearly killed, humiliated and convicted as a “scold” – who dared to challenge men and the political power structure, is a compelling history lesson of resistance and resiliency for our times; of the long struggle of women to call out discrimination, sexual harassment, injustice – and to relentlessly resist any efforts to silence her voice.

We tend to throw more controversial trailblazers on the heap pile of history. And women, especially, have been disregarded as minor or insignificant figures by subsequent historians, marginalized as “crazy.”

Biggers added, “We’ve entered a new period when our President refers to the media as ‘enemies of the people,’ when freedom of the press and free speech are now being questioned by those in power. Royall’s legacy as a muckraker and watchdog is as critical today as it was back in the 1830s.”

He went on to explain an aspect of Royall’s that hits closest to my heart:

One of the most overlooked elements of Royall’s legacy is her incredible use of satire and humor in her work. Royall made readers laugh–and laugh at men, a dangerous and effective talent in her period. I found that most journalists and historians overlooked the role of humor in Royall’s writing, dismissing such stories as crazy rants, refusing to allow women writers to be funny.

Humor is my favorite weapon, and Anne Royall’s writings are full of witty barbs and “oh snap!” clapbacks. Biggers shares some of the best bits of Royall’s books and decades of newspapers, and crafts an engaging narrative around her life. He does a commendable job restoring her place in history without lionizing her or ignoring the less admirable parts of her.

One of my only beefs with the book is the cover, which I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by. It stands out to me because Biggers strives for historical accuracy in his text, but the photograph the publisher chose to put on the cover is not Anne Royall.

A young woman who is not Anne Royall.

Not only was she never photographed to anyone’s knowledge, but no portraits or even sketches of her are known to exist. This photo, according to writer Robert Pohl is “just a picture of a 19th century woman in a calash” he used to illustrate his 2015 The Hill Is Home article on Royall. Whether an unknown photo of someone in period costume would be put on the cover of a biography of a man, I don’t know.

That marketing decision shouldn’t stop you from digging in to the intriguing story of a woman who was far ahead of her time, in a time that eerily mirrors our own.

 

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