"A role model for those of us living in the age of Trump"Dorothy Allison
Longlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
Anne Royall was an American original, a stranger to fear who defied 19th century skeptics as a prolific literary force, satirist and social critic.
Drawing from Royall's largely overlooked literary works, Jeff Biggers's Trials of a Scold is a groundbreaking and passionate biography of Anne Royall, America's first female muckraker, who was convicted as a "common scold" in 1829 in one of the most bizarre trials in the nation's history.
Publishing her first book in 1826 at the age of 57, Royall reinvented herself as a “women politico” a generation before the Women's Suffrage Movement. She was a pioneering travel writer and satirist who broke ground on the wagon trails a generation before Mark Twain, and an investigative journalist who took on bankers and prison conditions a half century before muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Nellie Bly. She was the author of 10 original books, and publisher of a newspaper in Washington, DC for 25 years until the age of 85.
One of the most famous, sharp-witted and controversial women of her times, Royall was raised in the backwoods of the South but educated herself in one of the great libraries in the region. She openly cohabitated with her husband prior to their wedding, but was then left widowed and destitute after her husband’s family declared their marriage invalid. Turning to writing, Royall acquired fame and then enemies for her scathing and hilarious denouncements of corruption, incompetence and the blurry lines between church and state.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
JEFF BIGGERS is an American Book Award-winning journalist, cultural historian and playwright. He is the author of several works of memoir and history, including Reckoning at Eagle Creek, which was the recipient of the David Brower Award for Environmental Reporting. His award-winning stories have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and on National Public Radio. Biggers is a regulator contributor to Al Jazeera America, Huffington Post, and Salon.
Read an Excerpt
Her Mother's Daughter
Mrs. Royall has again appeared before the public, in her character of authoress. We know of no American lady of the present day, whose writings attract so great attention, or evince so close an observance of men and manners. The mother and a brother of Mrs. Royall live near us, with whom we have been acquainted several years — with the brother very intimately so. They are both persons of intelligence, and the old lady, apparently 90 years of age, retains a distinct recollection of the principal characters of the Revolution — particularly those of Virginia, her native state.
— Centreville (Indiana) Western Times, June 27, 1829
In the spring of 1772, departing with the tides of migrants crossing the Allegheny Mountains into southwestern Pennsylvania for new land opportunities, Mary and William Newport packed up a three-year-old Anne and her baby sister, Mary, and left their native Baltimore, Maryland.
"I am genuine backwoods," Anne declared upon her return to southwestern Pennsylvania in her late fifties. "A literary wild-cat from the backwoods," a newspaper had responded. Anne shrugged at the lack of an available carriage or stagecoach to take her to her childhood home on Mount Pisgah in Westmoreland County and saddled up an old family friend's horse, Fly, before setting off with great excitement into the rugged country for a rendezvous with her past.
Much that we know of Anne Royall's early life, in fact, is based on her insightful yet often contradictory notes — written when she revisited an area or encountered a member of the family or an old friend — that peppered various books.
Ye who have been torn from the haunts of your childhood, and after a separation of half a century to enjoy the felicity of seeing those sacred spots, endeared by innocence and a thousand recollections, will know what I felt! To be borne on the stormy sea of life almost an age, far from the scenes of youthful innocence, to which your heart was wended, and would give worlds to see! Thus, on a sudden, to hail those dear and "long between" but never forgotten shades, where often I used to sit and weave the many colored leaves, and stray after a Mayapple, was joy unutterable!
While the joys of nature on the Newports' family farm on the slopes of Mount Pisgah didn't last long, they provided the background in Royall's writings of some of the earliest American descriptions of the area. Anne recalled witnessing wolves and other predators trotting by her well; she penned portraits of traders who emerged from the forest, writing about her first look at a cube of sugar; she chronicled the life of a German hermit, draped in gourds, who lived peacefully among the various indigenous tribes that had continued to push back against the encroachment of the unyielding settlers.
Such experiences in nature, and her place in it, shaped much of Anne's literary form and identity as a self-described "backwoods westerner." The imprint of this backwoods upbringing defined much of Anne's relationship with the rest of the world: at once in denial and defensive, and also haughty and defiant. Years later, feeling snubbed by the famed Noah Webster, the eminent Federalist editor and author of An American Dictionary of the English Language, who once eyed Anne with "ineffable scorn," she quipped to her readers that "we backwoods folks are not learned ourselves," but "we have a warm liking for learned people."
Anne, of course, wasn't the first to invoke the backwoods badge of courage. In 1827, Tennessee pioneer Davy Crockett had already taken Washington by storm, "fresh from the backwoods, half horse, half alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle."
Nor did literary endeavors take it on the lam in the backwoods. Anne excitedly pointed out where the log cabin schoolhouse once stood. Describing how her father taught her to read at an early age, Anne recalled sitting alone on a stump before the cabin door and reading until nightfall, in the backdrop of nature's immense arena.
But the beauty inimitable of the scenery arises from a happy combination of images: like a well woven wreath, every thing is in its place — every shade and attitude is happily matched. The Loyalhannah, rough and foaming, but straight, the Connemaugh, winding in a smooth serpentine; the Kiskaminitas, flowing in a broad, smooth stream; the symmetry of the canal; the rural village; the sealike meadows, all intermingled with a towering foliage in nature's richest dress. Imagine yourself raised to the sudden height of from three to four hundred feet, and embracing an extent of three counties, in harmonious stillness, while you are seated aloft upon an even green, which seems to sit smiling at the rolling streams, and all the airy gems of polished nature. Such is the view from Mount Pisgah: but chiefly I loved to dwell upon the Loyalhannah. It was the only image of the whole I recollected....
When I took my last look of this, I seemed to leave my soul behind! The spring, where the wolves passed the dim path, where lay the snake — the slope, up which the hermit Stephen used to come. But how shall I bring my swelling heart — yes, how — to touch the tender string which, and forever, binds me to the small tranquil spot, where waves a small sugartree, as if to perpetuate the day, when surrounded by the lords of the forest, I sat upon the low stump at the cabin-door and learned to read.
The so-called lords of the forest did not accept the infringement of Anne's settlers. Requiring more protection from indigenous attacks, the family moved from Mount Pisgah to the far western margins of Pennsylvania, near the Hanna's Town settlement, where the first English court had been founded west of the Allegheny mountain chain. By 1775, Anne's father vanished from the narrative, and her mother remarried another settler named Butler, had a son, and soon lost her second husband. The worst tragedy, however, took place on July 13, 1782.
Despite the surrender of the British in the fall of 1781 and the authorization of peace treaty negotiations by the British crown in the spring of 1782, battles of vendetta continued to rage across the Ohio River Valley and into southwestern Pennsylvania.
Considered by some historians as one of the last acts of the American Revolution, British troops joined Seneca leader Sayenqueraghta in a full-scale attack on the settlement of Hanna's Town in the summer of 1782. Given its historic importance as the county seat and courthouse for Westmoreland County, a rival to Pittsburgh, and in retribution for the earlier Patriot burning of Sayenqueraghta's village, the community was leveled by the joint forces, who torched 30 cabins and all the buildings with the exception of the fort, where town residents, including Anne Royall and her mother and siblings, took refuge. Only two people were killed. The attack, though, left nothing but charred ruins, which nature soon reclaimed. Hanna's Town disappeared from the map.
Anne never forgot the traumatic experience; it informed her sense of survival and, strangely enough, provided a context for much of her longtime defense of Native American rights. "The present generation have scarcely any idea of the privations and trouble of settling the country," she wrote in her chronicles. She saw the American flag for the first time in Hanna's Town, she noted in a letter, and forever returned to that moment when she viewed the flag in other places. "And with it all the sufferings of those trying times. I suffered all that human nature could bear, both with cold and hunger. Oh, ye wealthy of those times, little idea had ye of what the poor frontier settlers suffered."
Perhaps that last line could have been aimed at her future husband, William Royall, and the sneering Sweet Springs inhabitants in western Virginia who doubted her pedigree. "On that day," she added, referring to the attack on Hanna's Town, "my heart first learned the nature of care."
Later in her life, newspapers and historical accounts went off the edge of romance in recasting Anne's fate in the frontier attack with her eventual rendezvous with William Royall. Placing her into the pages of the novel The Last of the Mohicans, which was published in 1826 — the same year as her first book — one writer described Anne as a larger-than-life "Indian captive" who "remained with the savage tribe until she reached womanhood." Another magazine finished the story: "Captain Royal [sic], an officer in the Continental Army and one of the heroes of Valley Forge, hearing that a young white girl was a prisoner of the Indians on the banks of the Ohio River, resolved to rescue her." The dashing young soldier married the girl, who, "save in color and the Anglo-Saxon mold of her features, was of Indian blood."
In reality, Anne and her mother and her half-brother James packed up their few belongings and joined a wagon party to Staunton, Virginia, in 1782, where a family relative resided. A single woman who hired herself off as a laborer, Anne's mother fell from the status of a pioneer farmer to the indigent lower class, taking her children down with her. Anne's first biographer, Sarah Harvey Porter, wrote that Anne winced at the fact that she had to sit in a different place in church on Sunday, separate from her upper-class school friends. However, in visiting Staunton in her later writings, Anne noted the "mingled emotions" of joy and sorrow, pleasure and regret, and the "thousand (nay, ten thousand) vicissitudes [that] rendered those objects melancholy pleasing." Her most painful memory of their short residence in Staunton, though, involved another woman, who had sought to cross a river by ferry. "She looked tired, hungry, miserable," Anne wrote, perhaps recalling her mother's desperation or foreshadowing her future as a penniless traveler. The ferryman, who Anne identified as a local Presbyterian, refused to accept the woman's few coins as payment, despite her cries that she urgently needed to cross the river. As he readied to leave without her, the desperate woman tore a handkerchief from around her neck and offered it. The ferryman took her coins and scarf and departed, leaving her in tears.
Such brutality and contempt for aggrieved women should have hardened Anne's heart for her introduction to Sweet Springs, in western Virginia, her next stop on the road. Despite the kind entreaties to stay from family friends in the Staunton area, Anne and her mother understood their bottom rung in society.
Perched alone on a plantation on Peters Mountain in Sweet Springs, the eccentric William Royall adhered to a different order.
In the mid-1700s, Royall carried the mantle of one of the most aristocratic families in the Tidewater. The first Royall had arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, aboard the Charitie from England in 1622, when European inhabitants numbered in the thousands on the eastern shores of North America. A Powhatan uprising that year added to the precariousness of the unrelenting colonists' survival. Within a generation, the Royall family possessed a prime thousand-acre plantation along the James River. The settlements grew and continued to push further west.
The second son of the county court justice, sheriff, and vestry for the local Anglican church, William Royall spent more time with his dogs and guns along the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers than among the circles of the wealthy planters.
Failing to finish his legal studies, Royall preferred the beguiling works of writers from the French Enlightenment, especially Voltaire, another aristocrat who had spurned his father's career plans and dedicated himself to the defense of reason, religious tolerance, and civil liberties in an age of an absolute monarchy. Shipped off to run a tobacco plantation in Amelia County in western Virginia, the 20-something Royall suddenly found himself heir to the family fortune when his older brother and father both died in 1774.
Far from settling among the idle rich, Royall set out to use his wealth to provide supplies to Massachusetts after the English blockade of the Port of Boston cut off provisions under the Intolerable Acts. The young heir joined the Virginia militia, serving as both an officer and donor to the revolutionary cause, often outfitting his soldiers and contributing horses. By 1776, Royall rose to the rank of captain of the 2nd Virginia Regiment in the Continental Army, heading forays into some of the worst battles in the Carolinas. In a memorial filed right before his death, Royall chronicled his seven years of service in the revolutionary forces, from which he declined any pay or reimbursement of his expenses. Surrounded at one point by the British army, Royall barely escaped his death, fleeing on a horse as he assisted the Marquis de Lafayette against Lord Cornwallis in Virginia in the final days of the American Revolution. The tide turned, of course, and the Patriots, thanks to their French allies, rebounded in Virginia.
In the aftermath of Cornwallis's surrender to George Washington at Yorktown in the fall of 1781, Royall took his rightful place as a House delegate from Amelia County in the Virginia General Assembly. But the allure of political power and its intrigues had little sway over his passions, and he disappeared without a word. One of his French Enlightenment heroes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had earlier admonished his fellow human beings in his "Discourse on Inequality" to be true to one's "state of nature."
Now in his early thirties, William Royall removed himself to the far reaches of Appalachia, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains, slowly fording a succession of saddled ridges toward a small valley settlement near the mineral waters of Sweet Springs. He secured a plantation along Peters Mountain in today's West Virginia. The hemlock, white pine, and red oak, the drapes of spring flowers, the basins of streams inhabited by ruffed grouse, black bear, and bobcats — these would have all fascinated a naturalist like Royall, though he was hardly a stranger to the mountains.
Anne loved to recount the story of why her husband had abandoned the Tidewater elite for the rugged hill folk of her "Grison Republic," which she nicknamed after the independent canton in Switzerland. Back in the summer of 1781, when the British forces moved across Virginia with little pushback, the General Assembly fled across the Blue Ridge to establish their temporary capital in the town of Staunton. Receiving word of the quick advance by the notorious British commander Banastre Tarleton, who carried out the infamous Waxhaw massacre of American Patriots, the General Assembly and militia members scattered from Staunton in all directions — with the exception of William Royall and, according to his wife, a gaggle of "old gray-headed men, and little boys, with their guns and shot-pouches on their shoulders, marching cheerfully on to meet the foe." Tarleton's attack never came, though, as the British leader returned to Yorktown. Outraged by the lack of courage by the elite legislators, Royall declared to the mountain folk, "You are fine fellows — I will disown my country, (meaning East Virginia) and come and live among you."
Staking out his libertarian claim on Peters Mountain, Royall mingled among the constant influx of travelers to the valley, which was well known among the indigenous and colonists as a curative station, and earned the respect of the small community, including the Lewis family, who had designs on fashioning Sweet Springs into a resort town and area courthouse. He kept his door open to visitors, especially to his brethren in the Masonic Lodge. When a temporary courthouse was finally appointed in Sweet Springs, Royall served on the juries for the first few years before stepping away.
Author Van Wyck Brooks, in The World of Washington Irving, referred to the fledgling mountain resort as the "marriage market of the South," where old men discussed politics as "invalids rejoiced in the breeze and healing waters," and "young men and girls danced and flirted."
While far from being a hermit, Royall clearly retreated from post–American Revolution society, which was undergirded by the rising merchant class and land speculators; instead, he wanted to replant the benevolent seeds of his eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers among the nature-bound mountaineers. He brought his library from Amelia County, and it included works by political radicals like Thomas Paine, the volumes of natural history by French writer Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, the satires and plays by Voltaire, and the works of English philosopher John Locke, who stressed the separation of church and state.
Excerpted from "The Trials of a Scold"
Copyright © 2017 Jeff Biggers.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE Her Mother's Daughter,
TWO Flaying the Saucy Rogues,
THREE A Female of Respectability,
FOUR The Black Book,
FIVE The Last American Witch Trial,
SIX The Huntress in the Den of Vipers,
EPILOGUE The Trial of Public Opinion,
Also by Jeff Biggers,
About the Author,