STARRED REVIEW
November 07, 2017

A journalist fighting against the status quo

By Jeff Biggers
Did you know that “common scold” was once a legal term, applicable only to women, punishable by ducking the scold into water? In fact, in 1829, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court convicted writer and gadfly Anne Royall as a common scold, sentencing her to a fine rather than the ducking stool. This bizarre trial is just one aspect of Royall’s larger-than-life story that Jeff Biggers delves into in his biography, The Trials of a Scold.
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Did you know that “common scold” was once a legal term, applicable only to women, punishable by ducking the scold into water? In fact, in 1829, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court convicted writer and gadfly Anne Royall as a common scold, sentencing her to a fine rather than the ducking stool. This bizarre trial is just one aspect of Royall’s larger-than-life story that Jeff Biggers delves into in his biography, The Trials of a Scold.

Growing up impoverished on the frontier, young Anne Royall managed to educate herself and to marry Revolutionary War veteran William Royall—a Jane Eyre situation, since Anne worked as a servant for the aristocratic William, and she was 20 years his junior. Widowed at 43 and cut out of her husband’s will, Anne Royall soon headed south, where she wrote a novel, The Tennessean, and then published a collection of letters sketching out life in the new Alabama territory.

Royall eventually landed in Washington, D.C., finding her voice in satirical writing. An ardent defender of the separation of church and state, Royall ridiculed Presbyterian leaders who sought to make government explicitly Christian, and these Presbyterians orchestrated her indictment for being a scold, “a common slanderer and brawler.” But Royall pressed on, publishing a newspaper out of her Capitol Hill house, often setting the type herself. She kept publishing for almost 25 years.

As Biggers illuminates Royall’s place in Jacksonian America, you can’t help but notice the parallels between then and now: Jacksonian populists sparred with Eastern establishment types, a growing Evangelical movement aspired to power, and petty gossip dominated Washington. (Jackson’s administration was almost undone by a minor scandal about his Secretary of State’s wife’s reputation.) Drawing on an array of primary and secondary sources, Biggers’ narrative is occasionally choppy, but The Trials of a Scold reveals Anne Royall’s eccentricities, her peppery writing and her remarkable, brave life.

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The Trials of a Scold

The Trials of a Scold

By Jeff Biggers
Thomas Dunne
ISBN 9781250065124

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