By Jay Roberts
The newspaper publishing industry owes a lot to their pioneers. Men like Benjamin Franklin come to mind.
Lost to history is the story of the early women publishers. According to the blog, History of American Women, Elizabeth Timothy (1702-1757) blazed ink trails, becoming what is believed to be America’s first female editor and publisher.
Anne Newport Royall (1769-1854) was also a brave pioneer. Flying in the face of strict social norms, she edited and published two newspapers in Washington, D.C., from 1831 to 1854.
Before becoming a publisher, Royall was an indefatigable travel writer. She earned her stripes and gained an audience by visiting and journaling many important villages, towns, and cities, more than 200 in all. Her canon fills six volumes.
Born near Baltimore and raised in a small log cabin in western Pennsylvania, Royall had a tough early childhood on the rugged frontier. She lost not only her father, but also her stepfather.
After a brief stay in the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, Virginia, she and her mother moved to Sweet Springs, West Virginia (then in Virginia). It was there Anne met and married Captain William Royall, who had served for seven long years with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Bathed in candlelight, Anne spent many hours reading books from her husband’s library, which included Shakespeare and Voltaire.
After Captain Royall died in 1812, the widowed Anne fought a long legal battle with unscrupulous relatives who eventually snatched away all of her inheritance. Down and out, and at times destitute, she beat the odds to become a travel author, journalist, and newspaper publisher in Washington.
The fact she did not pull any punches made Royall a cause célèbre. A man in Vermont assaulted her, an attack that broke her leg. An angry mob pelted her Capitol Hill home with stones. Browbeats were way too many to count.
Part of Royall’s story took place in Alexandria. Having had her inheritance taken away, she tried to get her pension approved in Washington. Taking a long journey to the federal capital in 1823, she arrived in Alexandria penniless.
Walking into the City Hotel (Gadsby’s Tavern), Royall met the innkeeper, Horatio Claggett. In one of her travel books, she describes him as, “the friend of the friendless and pride of mankind.”
Royall stayed in Alexandria from December 1823 to April 1824. She wrote part of her first book, Sketches of History, Life, and Manners in the United States, while living at the City Hotel.
In reading her account of Alexandria, we see not a bitter person as many described her, but a balanced observer. Even though the city was in decline economically, she praised it, writing:
“Alexandria is a very handsome town… The people are mild and unassuming… I met with a handsome patronage in Alexandria and much good feeling.”
She also wrote:
“The Virginia horses are beautiful. It is one of the greatest treats to see these beautiful animals, there is nothing like them in the North.”
Royall’s timing was good. She witnessed what was always one of the most anticipated events in Alexandria, the annual celebration of George Washington’s birthday:
“Yesterday, 22 Feb, the militia companies turned out, preceded by a band of music. The Artillery, the Blues, and the Independent Blues, were distinguished by very handsome uniforms. During Saturday, national flags were suspended from the east and west fronts of the market-house. These flags are of the richest deep blue silk, floating almost to the ground, the center being ornamented with a white eagle, with twenty-four stars of the same. They were trimmed with a border of brilliant deep red.”
There’s no question Royall did not sugarcoat what she wrote. She went on to denounce slavery in Alexandria and elsewhere.
Royall penned a half-dozen travel books, and a novel, The Tennessean. It’s worth pointing out the trips she and others took came before the arrival of the modern conveniences of the nineteenth century. Royall walked or rode a horse for countless miles and endured long, hard trips on rickety stagecoaches. Passengers were often packed in like sardines, and some reeked with the smell of whiskey. Sleeping on a cold, hard floor was not uncommon, and a good, hot meal was always a welcomed treat. Most remarkable, Royall was 63 years old when she completed her final travels.
Anne Royall was certainly caustic in some of her opinions and judgements, but she did not deserve what happened to her in 1829. On what was surely a hot summer day in the city, a grand jury in Washington indicted Royall on the antiquated charges of:
- Being an evil disposed person, and a common slanderer and disturber of the peace and happiness of her quiet and honest neighbors.
- Being a common scold and disturber of the peace.
- Being a common brawler and sower of discord.
Thomas Swann, who owned and lived in the magnificent urban mansion that still stands at the corner of S. Columbus and Prince Streets in Alexandria, was the prosecuting attorney. Although she was livid with the charges and the trial, Royall later wrote, “Swann deserves much credit for the gentlemanly manner he conducted the prosecution.”
In his recent biography of Royall, author Jeff Biggers details the trial. He tells us this was the first time in American history a citizen faced such a charge.
Royall walked into a packed Old City Hall in Washington wearing “a calico gown, white muslin ruffle and a silk bonnet.”
Judge William Cranch, who also lived in Alexandria, dismissed the first and third charges. He found Royall guilty of the second and ordered her to pay a fine of $10 and security of $250. Two newspapermen with The Washington National Intelligencer paid both, “for the honor of the press and the gallantry of the profession.”
After the trial, Royall settled down in her home near the Capitol and started a newspaper she called the Paul Pry. After a six-year run, Royall published a weekly called The Huntress from 1836-1854. The paper’s office was located near the corner of East Capitol and Second Avenue, N.E.
Across the top ran the motto, “Education, the main pillar in the temple of Liberty.” In her first issue she wrote that ladies “will always find a friend in The Huntress.”
Royall had a penchant for exposing corruption in the government and pointing the finger on waste and fraud. In her newspaper she also published “Pen Portraits,” articles she wrote which drew on her interviews with politicians and high-ranking officials.
In the decades following her death, writers continued to echo what many had written and said about Royall. One article in The Washington Post said she had been a “holy terror,” and her pen was as “venomous as a Rattlesnake’s Fang.”
Others began to strive for more balance and used a softer lens. A columnist with The Washington Evening Star (1936) wrote the truth “probably lies between someone eccentric and quarrelsome and a woman far ahead of her time.”
After the turn of the century, a number of women journalists wrote more favorable articles about her life. In 1906, at a meeting of the Columbia Historical Society, the forerunner of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., Sarah Harvey Porter lectured on the life of Royall. She later wrote a biography that included this summation:
“In overflowing measure, ridicule, injustice, and vilifying persecution were poured upon Anne Royall while she yet walked on earth.”
Love of country comes in all shapes and forms. After Royall took her last breath in October 1845, she was laid to rest in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. The epitaph etched on her headstone comes from her last printed words.
“We trust in Heaven for three things,” her swan song began in the last issue of The Huntress. Our third prayer is, “That the union of these states may be eternal.