It was November 1915, and the Great War in Europe was in its second year. But the German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff, had a more immediate, local problem. For the past seven months, his diplomatic team in America had been savaged by a stream of sensational articles from a mysterious, Australian-born newsman in Providence, R.I., named John Revelstoke Rathom.
The stories by Providence Journal editor John Revelstoke Rathom [1868-1923] were transmitted over the news wires and republished in newspapers in every state in the nation. Though Rathom rarely named his sources, the influential New York Times gave front-page treatment to Rathom’s most sensational anti-German scoops. The sharp-tongued, rotund Providence newsman became a celebrity journalist and a household name. He was later nicknamed the “spy-hunter,” for his stories exposing German espionage and propaganda.
John Revelstoke Rathom
Among Rathom’s many dozens of greatest hits:
- He accused German diplomats in America of stirring up labor troubles and sponsoring sabotage against U.S. industry to disrupt the sale of U.S.-made arms to Germany’s enemies.
- He named a member of Germany’s diplomatic team, Military Attaché Franz von Papen, as the mastermind behind the bombing of an international railroad bridge connecting Maine and New Brunswick, Canada.
- Most outrageous of all, Rathom named another German official stationed in the U.S., Naval Attaché Karl Boy-Ed, as the point man in a plot to goad the United States and Mexico into a shooting war. He did it so America would have to hoard arms and ammunition, rather than selling the war supplies to Britain.
Much of what Rathom alleged at first sounded too shocking to be true. German diplomats publicly laughed off his charges, though many of Rathom’s news articles came closer to the truth than the diplomats cared to admit. The real power of Rathom’s work, and that of other influential journalists of the era, was in their cumulative effect on public opinion. In late 1915, America was officially neutral in the European war, but for how much longer? Rathom’s stories of German scheming were nationwide sensations. He intended to wear down America’s resistance to war and condition the U.S. public to see Germany as the enemy.
By mid-November, Bernstorff had had enough. He penned a pleading note to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, begging the government for relief from Rathom’s relentless charges.
“The continuation of the baseless attacks on myself and the colleagues of my embassy in the columns of the Providence Journal impels me to ask whether your excellency cannot see your way to make it clear that these attacks are not countenanced by the American government,” Count von Bernstorff wrote.
Lansing never replied. Instead, two weeks later, he informed the ambassador that Boy-Ed and Papen were no longer welcome in the United States. They would have to leave. It was a humiliating setback in international relations.
In retaliation, Germany’s supporters in the United States decided to chop Rathom down to size. They dug for dirt in his background to discredit his work. They found some inconsistencies in his biography. But not even Rathom’s sworn enemies could have imagined the depth and breadth of the newsman’s astonishing secret.
He was an imposter.
The Real Rathom
John R. Rathom was not even his real name. It was a stage name for an audacious character played by a gifted natural actor. The imposter was, in fact, a grifter, a fabulist, and a shapeshifter, pulling one of the great cons in journalism history. The details of his swashbuckling personal biography were mostly fake, cherrypicked to be as impressive as they were difficult to verify. He was a man desperate to escape who he really was. He knew that deception was the only path to fulfilling his obsession to be someone important in history.
However, in 1915, this ink-soaked rogue dedicated himself to a cause bigger than himself – the defeat of Germany and victory for the Allies in the Great War. Rathom allied himself with spies, foreign and domestic. He made it his mission to convince the U.S. population that Germany was an enemy worth confronting on the battlefield. In this redemptive work, Rathom saw the opportunity to become the very hero he was pretending to be.
Pursuing an Imposter
For the past several years I have pursued the imposter, metaphorically, across the earth and across time. I slowly unraveled his secrets for my new book, The Imposter’s War. While at the same time, I measured his influence on the American public in the critical years just before the U.S. joined the First World War in 1917. His larger story is about how the propagandist affects what we know and the way we think. Technology may have changed, but these techniques carry over from Rathom’s time to our own.
I was first exposed to Rathom at the Providence Journal, where I worked as a news reporter from 1998-2008. In 2004, much by chance, I was assigned to a small team to research and write a history of the newspaper as part of the celebration of the Journal’s 175th birthday. The first thing the team did was look back at similar work done in the late 1970s, for the newspaper’s 150th birthday. The journalists on that project had become obsessed with Rathom. They had convinced themselves that Rathom was probably not who he said he was. I soon fell into the same Rathom vortex.
For years, the idea of a Rathom biography sat in my head, occupying valuable brain space I could have used elsewhere. In 2018, I did a short piece on Rathom for “Globe Live,” a Boston Globe storytelling event before a live theater audience. The piece was a hit, and it reignited my pursuit of the Aussie imposter.
Rathom Runs Out of Luck
John Rathom had a remarkable talent for finding trouble and then squirming out of it – until he ran out of luck. When he grew too big to control, the United States Department of Justice in 1918 blackmailed him into silence. Rathom pushed back. But then in 1920 the government destroyed his reputation, to protect a rising political star by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Rathom died soon after, in 1923, a broken version of his former swaggering self. He was just 56.
Rathom’s remains – along with his many secrets – were buried in an unmarked grave in Providence. There they reposed undisturbed for decades. Now, 99 years after his death, the secret of the imposter’s true identity and the larger story of John Revelstoke Rathom raise vital questions about the corrosive effects of propaganda, about the freedom of speech and of thought, and whether a bound-up collection of bald-faced lies can in fact speak a larger truth.
Mark Arsenault is a reporter for the Boston Globe. He has worked there since 2010, starting in the newspaper’s Washington, D.C., news bureau. Mark then transferred back home to New England. He has covered national politics and gambling, written general assignment stories and Spotlight investigations. He also worked on the Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing. From 1998-2008, Arsenault was a news reporter at the Providence Journal. Earlier in his career he worked as a journalist in Lowell, Mass.
Images: Old Providence Journal Building by By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=55500562. Spy poster courtesy Library of Congress.