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Review: 'The Trials of a Scold' rescues 19th-century writer from obscurity

In early 19th century America, Anne Royall used the power of her pen to castigate those with whom she disagreed — most notably those who would use the cover of religion as a means to gain power and riches. Her acerbic writings eventually landed her in legal trouble. She was tried as a “common scold” and was convicted, narrowly avoiding the ignominy of the ducking stool, which would have seen her dunked in water as a punishment for her supposedly wicked ways.

Undaunted, Royall launched a newspaper in Washington, D.C., — the same city in which she was tried — and went right on writing scathing editorials on the issues of the day.

Iowa City author Jeff Biggers seeks to rescue Royall from obscurity in “The Trials of a Scold: The Incredible True Story of Writer Anne Royall.” Biggers convincingly makes the case that for far too long Royall’s conviction as a scold shaped the way she was remembered — when she was remembered at all — in American history.

He presents a woman who was a fierce advocate for freedom of speech and of the press as well as a tireless enemy of those who sought to blend church and state. Far from a common scold, Royall, in Biggers’ analysis, was uncommonly heroic and far ahead of her time.

Indeed, Biggers doesn’t shy away from suggesting that the forces against which Royall set herself have clear analogues in the current political and religious forces at work in the country.

The book suffers from a sense of haphazard organization. The narrative is often difficult to follow and sometimes doubles back on itself or wanders off on extended asides that leave the reader bereft of bearings. The book’s brevity (230 pages) may be part of the problem; Biggers doesn’t always give the reader a full sense of the context of his story. Nevertheless, Biggers has done readers a service by introducing contemporary readers to Royall.

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