12 Oct 2015


Lost Capitol Hill: A Common Scold

tn2Last week, we looked at the life of the first interviewer: Anne Royall. Today, a little more about her time on Capitol Hill – and especially when she found herself on the wrong end of public opinion.

When Royall returned to Capitol Hill in January, 1829 to finish the third of her ‘Black Books’ she found herself in a cold house without her maid. Three weeks later, the maid returned, bearing a newborn. A newborn who looked suspiciously like the man Royall liked to call “Holy Willy.” This would not have been much of a problem, but Holy Willy’s real name was John Coyle, a clerk in the House of Reprentatives – and a member of the Presbyterian church just down the block from Royall’s house on B Street SE.

Royall had a number of institutions with whom she did not see eye-to-eye, and the Presbyterians were one of them. Even worse, they tended to be fairly noisy not just in their church, but the local fire station, which they used for their Sunday school, and which was even closer to Royall’s house. She did not endear herself to them by explaining exactly, at length, and at top volume, what she felt for them.

The Presbyterians retaliated, each in their own way. While the youth of the church (aided, presumably, by other boys in the neighborhood, such as James Tait) threw rocks at her windows at all hours of the day and night, the older members – led on by Holy Willy – prayed outside her home. Royall’s revenge came in her own way, including giving each of her tormentors a rude name. “Holy Willy, Young Mucklewrath, Pompey Poplarhead, Tom Oystertongs, Sally Smark, Hallelujah Holdfork, Miss Dina Dumpling, Miss Riggle, and the Miss Dismals” were all coined and hurled at them, according to an August 19, 1900, article in the Washington Times.

Eventually, the locals ratcheted up the fight by convincing Thomas Swann, U.S. Attorney for Washington, to arrest her and charge her. The actual charges were being a public nuisance, a common brawler, and a common scold. She was dragged into court and tried. The trial appears to have been a bit of a farce, as typified by the exchange with Henry Tims, a doorkeeper in the Senate. When Tims was asked “if he knew of Mrs. Royall slandering anybody” he replied “Yes, she has slandered me. She has said that I am a very exemplary man – now that’s a slander.”

Picture of a ducking-stool (or cucking-chair, as it was more accurately called) From an 1855 book "European historical collections" (HathiTrust)

Picture of a ducking-stool (or cucking-chair, as it was more accurately called) From an 1855 book “European historical collections” (HathiTrust)

In the end, only the charge of being a common scold stuck – which was a problem, as this was not really a crime in Washington, but had been under English law that had once been in force in the Province of Maryland. Even worse, the only punishment prescribed for this offense was a ducking, something that had not been carried out in England in several decades. Nonetheless, the good carpenters at the Washington Navy Yard built a model of a ducking chair and presented it to the court.

Before a full-sized version could be built, however, saner heads prevailed and Royall’s punishment was converted into a fine, which was paid by a number of her admirers. Royall went home to finish her book, and the Presbyterians presumably went back to praying.

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