John Revelstoke Rathom

Inducted: 1973
Born: 07/04/1868
Died: 12/16/1923

John R. Rathom was an Australian-born American journalist, editor, and writer based in Rhode Island and employed as the editor of The Providence Journal and The Evening Bulletin at the height of his career. In 1906, Rathom applied for work at The Providence Journal and won the post of managing editor. Stephen Olney Metcalf, publisher of The Providence Journal, hired Rathom in desperation. Metcalf had just lost most of his reporters to The Evening Star, owned by his competitor, Samuel Colt. Metcalf did not spend much time checking Rathom’s references or his murky employment history. In 1912, Rathom became editor and general manager of the Journal and its afternoon edition, The Evening Bulletin.

Rathom campaigned for the U.S. to enter World War I to support the British Empire. Under his management, The Providence Journal produced a series of exposés of alleged German espionage and propaganda in the U.S. Duped or willingly misled by British Intelligence sources whose information confirmed his own Anglophilia and Germanophobia, Rathom then exaggerated his role in uncovering supposed plots. In speeches at pro-British assemblies, he amplified the Journal’s articles with breathless accounts of his journalists running undercover operations and thwarting German intrigues. Newspapers across the United States reprinted Providence Journal exclusives, further magnifying Rathom’s myth that he was directing a counterespionage cadre. The national press turned Rathom and Journal reporters into national heroes, naming both the editor and the paper in headlines. 

In the years before America entered World War I, Rathom assisted British Intelligence at Wellington House as an agent of influence by publishing British propaganda, including false or exaggerated allegations of German war crimes, as articles in The Providence Journal. These articles were widely republished by other American newspapers and helped ensure American entry as an ally of the British Empire in the war against Imperial Germany. Rathom’s claims that his newspaper routinely uncovered German espionage plots were later revealed as fraudulent, although his reputation as a heroic anti-German crusader endured. 

Many of Rathom’s reports attacked U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration for failing to recognize and defend against supposed German espionage efforts, using phrases like “almost criminal negligence” to characterize the federal government’s response. Meanwhile, the real-world consequences of Rathom’s demagoguery, fake news, and shameless self-promotion were no laughing matter. In 1917, the U.S. Department of Justice made it clear to Rathom that the government was concerned about his claims, criticisms, defaming the President, and taking credit for fictitious counterintelligence 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 subpoena Rathom to testify under oath and name his sources before a grand jury, which would mean facing charges for perjury or contempt of court or revealing how much of what appeared in the Journal was fabricated by British Intelligence propagandists at Wellington House. Rather than testify, Rathom negotiated and, on February 12, 1918, signed a lengthy statement in the form of a letter to U.S. Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory. In essence, he admitted that the bulk of his sensational stories came not from the investigations of his newspaper staff but from British intelligence agents and propaganda operatives. He also pleaded that he had been misquoted or the implications of his remarks misunderstood. 

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. He condemned those with divided loyalties at a “patriotic mass meeting” in Carnegie Hall. The recently defeated Weimar Republic was an easy target. He chided English immigrants for failing to become American citizens. Still, he spared nothing in denouncing Irish Americans during the Irish War of Independence, whom he called “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.” 

Rathom later engaged in a lengthy public dispute with Franklin Delano Roosevelt early in the future President’s career. He became a prominent figure in the world of journalism and as a political spokesman advocating Anglophilia, White ethnic sentiments, and anti-communism while denouncing the League of Nations. Time Magazine described him as a firm believer in the old newspaper saying, “Raise hell and sell papers.” In 2004, The Providence Journal acknowledged that most 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.” Upon his death in 1923, Time magazine reported that Rathom’s newspapers were “said to be one of the most money-making combinations in the United States.

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 also fiction. His claim to have joined the Schwatka Expedition to Alaska in 1878–80 cannot 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, the Chronicle sent him to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In his ensuing adventures, all dubious, he was severely 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 until the general’s death in 1916 has been called “moonshine.” 

By his own account, in his next position as a staff correspondent for the Chicago Times-Herald (later the Chicago Record-Herald), he became “one of the best-known newspapers 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 in Chicago on March 25, 1906. 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 lived together as husband and wife, though no record of their marriage surfaced. The first Mrs. Rathom only sued for divorce in 1908, naming Campbell as co-respondent, and the marriage was dissolved in 1909. Rathom and Campbell represented themselves to Providence society as husband and wife for the previous three years. Evidence from family correspondence suggests that Campbell began to style herself as Mrs. Rathom in 1903. All of Rathom’s various biographical accounts omitted his first marriage.

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 entry into 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. 

Mark Arsenault, a former reporter for The Providence Journal, now an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe, wrote a book about Rathom in 2022. The title tells you all you need to know: The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America. 

The only positive associated with Rathom was his involvement with the Rhode Island Boy Scouts. 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 was named for him in 1929.

Rathom was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1973.

For additional reading:

1. “The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America, Mark Arsenault, Pegasus Books, 2022. 

2. “Germany’s Plot Exposed,” The World’s Work 35, February 1918.

3. Providence Journal: “1918: Fiction writer,” July 21, 2004 

4. New York Times: “Tells of Thwarting German Plotters,” November 13, 1917 

5. TIME: “The Press: John R. Rathom,” December 24, 1923. 

6. Thomas Williams Bicknell, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: The American Historical Society, Inc. 1920.

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