John R. Rathom
John R. Rathom (1868–1923) was a journalist, editor, and author based in Rhode Island at the height of his career. In the years before World War I, he was a prominent advocate of American participation in the war against Germany. His claims that his newspaper staff uncovered foreign espionage plots were eventually revealed as largely fraudulent, though his reputation as an heroic anti-German crusader endured. He later engaged in a long public dispute with Franklin Delano Roosevelt early in the future president's career. He cut a large figure in the world of journalism and as a conservative spokesman on such issues as anti-Bolshevism and the League of Nations.
Early years and career in journalism
The man who called himself John Revelstoke Rathom was probably born John Solomon in Melbourne, Australia, on July 4, 1868. The story he told of his early years is at many points unverifiable, at others questionable, and at others demonstrably false. An exhaustive review of Rathom's accounts by the staff of the Providence Journal, the paper where he gained national notoriety, documents the problems in the historical record.
Rathom did not attend Harrow in England as he claimed. Nor did he report on the British military campaign in the Sudan in 1886 for the Melbourne Argus. His tales of adventures in China, including service in the Chinese Navy, are likely fictions as well. His claim to have joined the Schwatka Expedition to Alaska in 1878–80 can not be verified. He probably arrived in the U.S. in 1889—he provided various dates—and then worked for short periods at several Canadian and American newspapers on the West Coast.
He joined the San Francisco Chronicle as a staff correspondent in 1896. Two years later, during the Spanish–American War, the Chronicle sent him to Cuba. In his ensuing adventures, all dubious, he was badly wounded, returned to the U.S. with yellow fever or malaria, and escaped from a medical isolation camp. He sailed to South Africa, he later said, to cover the Boer War, but no evidence supports him. His claim that he was twice wounded there is equally suspect. His boast that he counted General Kitchener as a friend from that time until the general's death in 1916 has been called "moonshine."
By his own account, in his next position as staff correspondent for the Chicago Times-Herald (later the Chicago Record Herald) he became "one of the best known newspaper men in the country." He covered the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire with great distinction. Rathom himself called that story "a classic of deadline journalism."
Rathom became a naturalized American citizen on March 25, 1906, in Chicago. He later claimed that he cherished the congratulatory telegrams he received on that occasion from William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley had died more than four and a half years earlier.
Rathom misrepresented his personal life as well. On July 5, 1890, he married Mary Harriet Crockford in Canada. In 1899, he began an affair with Florence Mildred Campbell in San Francisco. His wife returned home to Canada, ending their relationship. Soon Rathom and Campbell were living together as husband and wife, though no record of their marriage has surfaced. The first Mrs. Rathom only sued for divorce in 1908, naming Campbell as co-respondent, and the marriage was dissolved in 1909. For the previous three years Rathom and Campbell were representing themselves to Providence society as husband and wife. Evidence from family correspondence suggests that Campbell began to style herself Mrs. Rathom in 1903. All Rathom's various biographical accounts omitted his first marriage.
The Providence Journal
In 1906, Rathom applied for work at the Providence Journal and won the post of managing editor. In 1912, he became both editor and general manager at the Journal and its afternoon edition, the Evening Bulletin. Upon his death in 1923, Time magazine reported that the two newspapers were "said to be one of the most money-making magazine combinations in the U. S."
Reporting on German espionage
Rathom campaigned for the U.S. to enter World War I in support of the British. Under his management, the Providence Journal produced a series of exposés of German espionage and propaganda in the U.S. In 2004, that same newspaper reported that much of Rathom's coverage was a fraud: "In truth, the Providence Journal had acquired numerous inside scoops on German activities, mostly from British intelligence sources who used Rathom to plant anti-German stories in the American media."
Duped or willingly misled by sources whose information confirmed his own pro-British sympathies, Rathom then exaggerated his own organization's role in uncovering the supposed plots. In speeches at pro-British assemblies, he amplified the Journal's breathless accounts of journalists running undercover operations and thwarting foreign intrigues.
Newspapers across the United States reprinted the Providence Journal exclusives, magnifying Rathom's myth that he was directing a cadre of counterspies. The national press turned Rathom and the Journal into heroes, naming both the editor and the paper in headlines like these in the New York Times:
- November 13, 1917
- TELLS OF THWARTING GERMAN PLOTTERS
- John R. Rathom Reveals How Reporters Outwitted Teuton Secret Service
- January 20, 1918
- SAYS BAKER KEPT PACIFISTS ON GUARD
- John R. Rathom Tells Genesee Society Secretary [of War] Put Them In Important Posts
Many of Rathom's reports attacked members of the Wilson administration for failing to recognize and defend against the German efforts, using phrases like "almost criminal negligence" to characterize the federal government's response.
From late in 1917, the Department of Justice made it clear to Rathom that the government was concerned about his claims and criticisms, defaming the government, taking credit for fictitious achievements. Early in 1918, Rathom arranged to publish a series of articles called "Germany's Plots Exposed" in a monthly magazine, The World's Work. The first article appeared in February 1918. Just at this point the Department of Justice went on the offensive. First, they threatened to call Rathom before a grand jury to testify about his sources, which would mean revealing how much of what appeared in the Journal was fabricated or based on feeds from the British embassy and other partisans. Rather than testify, Rathom negotiated and on February 12, 1918, signed a lengthy statement in the form of a letter to Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory. In essence, he admitted that the bulk of his sensational stories came not from his staff but from British intelligence agents and propaganda operatives. He also pleaded that he had been misquoted or the implications of his remarks misunderstood.
Next the Department of Justice contacted The World's Work and revealed enough of Rathom's admissions to make that publication reconsider publishing the remainder of Rathom's articles. The World's Work immediately suspended the series and in its place proposed a series called "Fighting German Spies" authored by French Strother, one of its own editors, "by courtesy of the Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice". An editorial note in The World's Work left much unsaid and softened its impact by saying the suspension was by "mutual consent" of Rathom and the magazine, but it made an implied negative comparison with Rathom's work by saying of Strother's new series: "The facts and documents published in these articles are verified."
Despite the series' suspension, Rathom's reputation hardly suffered. The cancellation of the planned series was a short-term story, not one to compete with headline news. Such a minor incident could not undo the work of the blaring headlines and breathless revelations that had already appeared. Rathom did not lower his voice, but his spectacular claims and charges ended.
In the letter Rathom signed at the Department of Justice, he gave the Attorney General the right to reveal its contents in whole or in part to anyone of his choosing at any time. The Department of Justice waited almost two years before revealing the letter's contents to the public in the context of the Newport Sex Scandal.
Reporting on the Newport sex scandal
The Journal covered naval affairs on a regular basis and focused on the local base, Naval Station Newport. In January 1920, the paper took up the cause of Rhode Island's episcopal Bishop James DeWolf Perry and the local clergy who protested the Navy's failure to clean up the immoral establishments that provided sex and liquor to navy personnel. One action the Navy took, under the direction of Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future President of the United States) Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a campaign to infiltrate the gathering places of Newport's homosexual community. The operation resulted in the arrests of both military personnel and civilians.
Rathom's paper covered the Newport Sex Scandal trial proceedings daily, often with a critical eye toward the prosecution's case. When it transpired that the investigators had authorized sailors to entrap their targets and even to engage in sex in the course of their work, Rathom railed against those responsible up the chain of command to Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, an old Rathom foe for his lack of enthusiasm for early entry into the war. Rathom's campaign supported by the clergy resulted in two investigations, one behind closed doors by a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs and a public one by a naval court of inquiry. That meant more coverage and Rathom was a witness at both.
The battle was not confined to the two investigations and the columns of the Journal. Rathom and Roosevelt had what the New York Times characterized as a "tart exchange of telegrams" over the issue of who in Washington authorized the improper methods used at Newport. Roosevelt said Rathom's "attack on the navy was disingenuous and dishonorable." Rathom asserted his sole interest was "the protection of the honor of the United States Navy, which officials of the navy have sought to undermine by the most bestial and dishonorable methods known to man."
While Rathom waited months for the outcome of the investigations, events worked to his advantage. In July 1920, Roosevelt resigned his Navy post and accepted the nomination of the Democratic party for Vice President, making him an even more valuable target for a newspaperman looking to sell papers and keep his name before the public. Rathom waited until just ten days before the election to go public with new and outrageous charges against Roosevelt and another high-profile Navy official, Thomas Mott Osborne, Commandant of Portsmouth Naval Prison, former warden of Sing Sing and the most famous penal reformer of the era. Rathom charged that the Democratic candidate for Vice President had acted improperly while Assistant Secretary of the Navy in releasing sailors convicted on morals charges from Portsmouth Naval Prison and had destroyed documents relevant to those cases.
With the election just days away, events moved quickly. Rathom released his attack through the Republican National Committee on October 24, 1920. The next day Roosevelt countered with denials and called the charges "criminally libelous." His lawyer warned that "every newspaper giving currency to these charges will be held to full responsibility." He asked the U.S. District Attorney in New York Francis G. Caffey to consider a suit as well. Caffey found no grounds for a suit on behalf of the government. Instead, with the authorization of the Attorney General, he released Rathom's two-year-old letter admitting his exaggerations and frauds related to German espionage. The letter now became Rathom's "confession." Rathom defended himself at length, with what success is uncertain.
The Rathom-Roosevelt battle ended without drama. Roosevelt's attorney filed his libel suit on October 28, but never pursued it. Roosevelt's ticket lost badly on November 2. When the Senate subcommittee later censored Roosevelt, Rathom claimed vindication, but the national press took little notice.
Rathom continued to maintain a high profile, addressing public meetings and rallies, some patriotic in nature and others aligned with conservative causes. He joined the new Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, in warning against Bolshevik infiltration and violence. As an officer of the American Defense Society, he joined the campaign against President Wilson's proposed League of Nations, signing a statement of objections that pleaded for America to remain "aloof from all this pandemonium of tribal conflicts." It argued that the League's "impossible doctrines of the self-determination of races" directly contradicted the vision of America as a haven for "all the races of the earth."
Rathom's brand of nativism drew on his passionate isolationism and continued his pro-British stance. At a "patriotic mass meeting" in Carnegie Hall, he condemned those with divided loyalties. The recently defeated Germans were an easy target, and he chided English immigrants for failing to become citizens, but he spared nothing in denouncing the Irish, especially "that crew of hyphenates who seek to embroil us with Great Britain and who would be willing to see civilization totter and die if their hatred of England could thus be satisfied."
From 1917 to 1922, he was elected annually to serve as a director of the Associated Press. In 1922 he served as president of the New England Daily Newspapers Association. The governments of Belgium and Italy honored him for his advocacy on behalf of American intervention in World War I.
In August 1922 he underwent an operation from which he never fully recovered. He died at his home in Providence, Rhode Island on December 11, 1923 and was buried in Swan Point Cemetery where his grave is unmarked.
Rathom was deeply involved in the Boy Scout movement from its arrival in Rhode Island in 1910. He served as a Council Scout Commissioner for six years and was credited with giving scouting a big boost during its formative stages. Rathom Lodge at Yawgoog Scout Reservation was named for him in 1929.
- Two Chicago Sketches: When the City Wakes to Life; Lake Michigan in Calm and Storm. Providence: Livermore & Knight Co., 1910.
- "A Fight With a Muskallonge," Scribner's Magazine 31, May 1902.
- "Taps!," Scribner's Magazine 33, January/June 1903.
- "The Men in Control," Leslie's Monthly Magazine 58, May/October 1904.
- "New York's Great Subway," The Technical World, December 1904.
- "Germany's Plot Exposed," The World's Work 35, February 1918.
- TIME: "The Press: John R. Rathom," Dec. 24, 1923, accessed Dec, 10, 2009
- Garrett D. Byrnes and Charles H. Spilman, The Providence Journal 150 Years (Providence, RI: The Providence Journal Company, 1980), 261–301, 469–73. For Rathom's version, see Thomas Williams Bicknell, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical (NY: The American Historical Society, Inc. 1920), 400
- The Argonaut: "In a Yellow-Fever Camp," Aug. 14,1899, accessed Dec. 10, 2009. This reports Rathom's letter to the Chronicle recounting his yellow fever experience in Cuba.
- Byrnes and Spilman, 470
- Thomas Williams Bicknell, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical (NY: The American Historical Society, Inc. 1920), 400
- Providence Journal: "1918: Fiction writer," July 21, 2004 accessed December 10, 2009
- New York Times: "Tells of Thwarting German Plotters," November 13, 1917, accessed December 11, 2009
- New York Times: "Says Baker Kept Pacifists on Guard," January 20, 1918, accessed December 11, 2009
- Benjamin L. Miller, "The Primacy of the War Effort: Domestic Newspaper Coverage of the October Revolution of 1917" in Brown Journal of History Spring 2007, 84-103
- New York Times: "Caffey Reveals Rathom Admissions," October 28, 1920, accessed December 14, 2009
- New York Times: "Admissions Made to Escape Testifying; Department of Justice Reveals Inside Story of the Rathom Statement, October 28, 1920", accessed December 11, 2009
- "The Confession of John R. Rathom," The Nation, v. 111, no. 2899 (November 17, 1920) 557-559. 
- New York Times:"World's Work Stops Rathom Disclosures," February 27, 1918, accessed December 10, 2009
- Strother's articles were published in book form: Fighting Germany's Spies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Page and Company, 1919)
- New York Times: "Rathom Attacks; Roosevelt Replies," January 27, 1920, accessed December 14, 2009
- New York Times: "Assails Roosevelt on Naval Scandal," October 25, 1920, accessed December 14, 2009
- New York Times: "Roosevelt Charges Libel, Orders Suit," October 26, 1920, accessed December 14, 2009
- New York Times: "Brooklyn Gives $500,000 to the Fund," May 27, 1918, accessed December 11, 2009
- New York Times: "Sees Radicals Active Here, John R. Rathom Warns Against Bolshevist Propaganda," February 19, 1919, accessed December 11, 2009
- New York Times: "File 10 Objections to Nations' League," September 1, 1919, accessed December 11, 2009
- New York Times: "Lusk Would Eradicate Anarchy in Schools, Rathom in Carnegie Hall Meeting Denounces Hyphenates," May 2, 1921, accessed December 12, 2009
- New York Times: "John R. Rathom Dies after Long Illness," December 12, 1923, accessed November 17, 2010
- Camp Yawgoog.Org: "Rathom Lodge", accessed December 10, 2009
- Thomas Williams Bicknell, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: Biographical (NY: The American Historical Society, Inc. 1920). This fact-filled biography was based on information provided by Rathom himself.
- Garrett D. Byrnes and Charles H. Spilman, The Providence Journal 150 Years (Providence, RI: The Providence Journal Company, 1980)
- Benjamin L. Miller, "The Primacy of the War Effort: Domestic Newspaper Coverage of the October Revolution of 1917" in Brown Journal of History, Spring 2007
- Charles A. Collman, "The Mystery of John Revelstoke Rahom, President Wilson's Confidant," in The Fatherland: Fair Play for Germany and Austria-Hungary, edited by George Sylvester Viereck, vol. 3, no. 21, 363-5. A pro-German attack that details Rathom's anti-German stories and charges.
- David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents (NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007)
- TIME: "The Press: John R. Rathom," Dec. 24, 1923, accessed Dec, 10, 2009.
- TIME: "The Press: Conscience of New England," July 6, 1953. accessed Dec 10, 2009.