Here’s some advice for reporters who are seeking an interview with the president of the United States. Try to catch him when he is swimming naked in the river and sit on his clothes until he agrees to an interview. If the stories are to be believed, it worked for Anne Royall in the late 1820s when she was seeking an interview with John Quincy Adams.
He had a habit of swimming in Washington’s Potomac river. In fairness to him, bathing suits were not yet commonplace, so swimming in the nip wasn’t a weird peccadillo.
According to folklore, the pioneering journalist sought him out early one morning and fired the questions at him as he remained in the water, with only his head on view.
The story may be apocryphal but interviewing the president while he was skinny dipping does sound like something Anne Royall would relish. Her life consisted of one good story after another.
She was said to be one of the first female journalists in Washington and she talked to every US president in her lifetime, from George Washington onwards. How she arrived in Washington is a story in itself. She was born Anne Newport, in Maryland in 1769 and had Irish ancestry. A 1908 biography – The Life and Times of Anne Royall – quotes a toast she gave which she said came from her Irish ancestors. It went: Health to the sick, wealth to the brave, a husband to the widow and freedom to the slave. It also mentioned her Irish aunt Molly Carrahan and spoke about books she read as a child, such as Paddy from Cork.
After her father died, she and her mother worked as servants in the home of Captain William Royall who fought in the American Revolution. He noticed her voracious appetite for books and gave her access to his vast library. They later married, scandalising his family because of her lowly status and the age difference of more than 20 years.
After he died and left his estate to her, his nephew challenged the will. It was eventually overturned, leaving her almost penniless. She fought for, and won a pension, as he was a war veteran, but the relatives also came after that and won a sizeable chunk of it.
She had moved to Washington to petition Congress for the pension, which is where she first met John Quincy Adams. In her 50s she became a travel writer and a campaigning journalist, known for outspoken views and fearless criticism of politicians. John Quincy Adams admiringly described her as the “terror of politicians” and a “virago errant in enchanted armor” while the Washington Post said her pen was as “venomous as a rattlesnake’s fangs”.
She also had a passion for keeping religion out of state affairs. After she complained about a Presbyterian group that had been holding services in her local firehouse, she was taken to court and convicted of being a common scold. She avoided the traditional punishment of ducking and instead was fined $10, which was paid by Washington journalists.
Her newspapers, Paul Pry, and The Huntress aimed to expose corruption, scandal and religious fraud.
One of her travel books noted the plight of Irish labourers working on the construction of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Canal. She had seen the conditions during a stagecoach trip and wrote that the Irish canal diggers died quickly and were often buried six at a time.
However, some of her other writings did not show as much affinity for the Irish, whom she called “Pats” and “Teagues”. She complained about the impudence of some Irish passengers on one stagecoach journey and noted that “nothing but whiskey and a rope can cure Irish impudence”. However, she also conceded that “this impudence is confined to certain portions of Ireland and this I believe as I have met with many worthy Irishmen”. And on another occasion she wrote: “When they are gentlemen the Irish are not surpassed by any people on the earth.”
She is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, beside many notable people including the first FBI director J Edgar Hoover.
Another trailblazing Irish American political journalist is buried a few miles away, in Arlington Cemetery. Doris Fleeson, whose father William came from Delvin, Co Westmeath, was the first woman to have a nationally syndicated political column in the US.
She had the special talent of criticising politicians while not making mortal enemies of them. In fact, Carolyn Sayler’s biography of the journalist says her friends included Harry Truman, John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
So unlike Anne Royall, she would never have needed to withhold their clothes to secure an interview.