As Women's History Month draws to a close, we're taking a moment to remember one of the most fascinating—and largely forgotten—women in American journalistic history: Anne Royall.
Royall was a pioneering muckraker, an unapologetically provocative writer and interviewer, and one of the first professional female journalists ever. A 1909 biography called her " the most widely known woman of her day and country," continuing:
During thirty years there was not a famous man or woman in the country whom Mrs. Royall did not interview. She met and talked with every man who became President of the United States from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln, inclusive. Many of her almost innumerable pen-portraits of noted Americans are of extreme historical value.
Royall was born Anne Newport in 1769, in Baltimore. She had the fortune to be employed as a servant for one William Royall, who allowed her access to his many books. They eventually married, but, when William died, Anne was caught up in legal battles with his family and began traveling around America. She soon became a published author of travel books. It was only when she was in her 60s, after she had moved to Washington, that she moved into journalism and newspaper publishing. She initially came to the capital to fight for her right to her husband's pension.
There is a story, most likely apocryphal, that she happened upon President John Quincy Adams skinny-dipping in the Potomac, and refused to give him his clothes back until he agreed to be interviewed by her, thus making her the first woman to interview a president.
She launched a broadsheet called Paul Pry in 1831, followed by The Huntress in 1836. She printed the papers from her house. One account sums up the paper:
Although she lived in an age of the partisan press, Mrs. Royall remained a staunch independent. She exposed graft and wrongdoing in office, fought against the Bank of the United States, stood for internal improvements, sound money and states' rights. She advocated separation of church and state free public education, free thought, free speech and justice to immigrants and Indians.
Part of one editorial written in Paul Pry in 1835 gives some of the flavor of her style:
"Ever since we have lived in this city, the work done one year about the Capitol, is pulled down and pulled up the next—merely to put money in the hands of the Contractors, who are nothing more than so many corrupt speculators and impostors."
Royall's uncompromising style was not welcomed by many people:
Her undiplomatic frankness and attacks on political movements that she opposed earned her many enemies. A storekeeper in Burlington, Vt., pushed her down a set of stairs. In Washington, D.C., she was tried and convicted of being a “common scold.” A Pittsburgh bookstore clerk beat her with a leather whip.
She died in 1854, at the age of 85, nearly broke. She left a long legacy, however.
In 1942, a radio play about Royall was produced as part of the "Cavalcade of America" series. The play begins in President Andrew Jackson's office. He's informed that Royall wants to see him, and, after he complains that he doesn't want to talk to her, is told, "This isn't just any old busy-body. This is Anne Royall!"