You did not want to cross Anne Royall, at least after she turned 50. Though she spent the first 50 years of her life uneventfully, all that changed in 1819. She began terrorizing politicians with her pen.
Royall was born Anne Newport on June 11, 1769 in Baltimore, then raised in Pennsylvania. Her impoverished family moved to the mountains of western Virginia. At 16, she and her widowed mother went to work as servants in the household of retired Maj. William Royall, an educated gentleman. He took an interest in her — a real interest. He married her in 1797, when she was about 28 and he neared 50.
They lived together for the next 15 years.When he died in 1812, her comfortable life began to crumble. Royall’s family challenged her right to his estate, and in 1819 a court ruling left her nearly broke. She then took to writing to earn her living.
She was both a travel writer and a newspaper publisher. Her newspapers, Paul Pry and The Huntress, focused on personal sketches of visitors to the city and members of Congress. Her offer was simple: subscribe to her newspaper and you could be assured of gentle treatment. Refuse a subscription, and watch out.
She was never short of opinions or invective. Among her favorite targets: evangelical missionaries and anyone she deemed ignorant. Her husband was a Freemason, and she respected and admired the fraternity, whose members often assisted her when she was in need.
She could paint glowing verbal portraits of people she admired and vicious depictions of those she did not. As a travel writer, she was equally mercurial. Fortunately for New England, she loved the place. And it showed in her continuous affection for Boston.
Other destinations did not measure up, she concluded, as with this description of Troy, N.Y.
I took a hasty sketch of Troy in my first travels and have little more to add. It advances slowly, taking into view its great advantages, and is inhabited by a narrow-minded bigoted people, the refuse of New England; as different from the inhabitants of New England, as knowledge from ignorance, or intelligence from bigotry; very little to the credit of Mr. H. and Mrs. W., both of whom stand at the head of improvements in society. The first of these edits the Centinel and the latter has long been engaged as a female teacher, and instead of improving the society, the people have degenerated into barbarous ignorance. A bigoted priest-ridden race, illiberal, fanatical, unsociable, and vulgar in their manners. It is the policy of the priesthood, since priests have been known, to take advantage of the ignorance of the people, and they have done it with a vengeance in Troy, which has become the laugh and scorn of its neighbors. I would suppose no gentleman who prized the morals or happiness of his daughters would send them to such a sink of ignorance.
It was definitely better to be on her good side. In her newspapering career, she terrorized Washingtonians into subscribing to her paper, all the while petitioning Congress for the pension her deceased husband was due.
It finally came to her in 1848, but it didn’t slow her down. She would prove a prolific writer through 1854 and a difficult critic for many a Congressman. Her own comeuppance came when she was convicted of being “a public scold” in 1829, earning her a $10 fine.
Her writing still entertains to this day. When she died in 1854, she had met every U.S. president from Washington to Lincoln. She had also interviewed many of them for her newspapers, most famously John Quincy Adams. She cornered him during his nude swim in the Potomac River.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Anne Royall headstone By Slashme – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20374554