New book will reveal secret identity of notorious Providence Journal editor John Rathom

·4 min read

The Providence Journal was desperate.

Its publisher, Stephen Olney Metcalf, was locked in a political feud with Samuel Pomeroy Colt.

Colt had bought the rival Evening Telegram, and, on Feb. 3, 1906, offered everyone at The Journal more money to come work for him.

All but four reporters and three copy editors joined the exodus from The Journal to Colt's paper.

The Journal didn't have time to be choosy.

John R. Rathom, who served as managing editor and then executive editor of The Providence Journal from 1906 to 1923, is among the most colorful and controversial characters in the paper's first century.
John R. Rathom, who served as managing editor and then executive editor of The Providence Journal from 1906 to 1923, is among the most colorful and controversial characters in the paper's first century.

Even a man like John Revelstoke Rathom would do. Rathom had been born in Australia and had a West Coast journalism résumé. But he also came with a murky past.

A month after the exodus, Rathom took the helm as Journal managing editor, later ascending to the newsroom's top job, simply called "editor."

But Revelstoke wasn't his real middle name. It's the name of a place in British Columbia, Canada, near one of the first places the newsman had lived in North America.

And Rathom wasn't his real last name.

Journal editors would never know that during his lifetime. It would be more than a century before anyone in Providence learned the truth.

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First encounter with Rathom

I first became familiar with Rathom in 2004, when then-Journal reporter Mark Arsenault and I were tasked with writing a special section marking the paper's 175th anniversary.

We found a larger-than-life — and largely fictional — character who claimed to run an anti-German spy ring out of the newspaper's offices during the runup to World War I.

His spy stories were outlandish, almost daring listeners not to believe.

Arsenault and I yearned to uncover more about this man, but the truth was well veiled by history.

"Someone should write a book about this guy," we told each other more than once.

Well, 18 years later, Arsenault has.

"The Imposter's War: The Press, Propaganda and the Newsman Who Battled for the Minds of America" is set to be released April 5 by Pegasus Books.

"The Imposter's War," by former Journal reporter Mark Arsenault, chronicles the outrageous career of early-20th-century Providence Journal editor John Rathom and the mystery of his true identity. It will be published April 5 by Pegasus Books.
"The Imposter's War," by former Journal reporter Mark Arsenault, chronicles the outrageous career of early-20th-century Providence Journal editor John Rathom and the mystery of his true identity. It will be published April 5 by Pegasus Books.

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Big secret of his identity revealed

To cut to the chase, Arsenault reveals who Rathom actually was and why he had to hide his identity or risk losing everything.

(I won't be openly giving away that spoiler here.)

Arsenault is now an investigative reporter at The Boston Globe, where he was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering the Boston Marathon bombing. While at The Journal, he was part of the team recognized as a Pulitzer finalist for coverage of The Station nightclub fire. He rekindled his interest in Rathom as part of a small storytelling project sponsored by The Globe in 2018. Then he spent the next three years researching and writing "The Imposter's War."

(Full disclosure: Arsenault mentions me, and The Journal history project we worked on, in the acknowledgments in his book.)

Former Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault, author of "The Imposter's War."
Former Providence Journal reporter Mark Arsenault, author of "The Imposter's War."

Though Arsenault now lives in Easton, Massachusetts, he still holds an obvious love for the Ocean State and the flamboyant figures who make up its history.

"There's something about the DNA of Providence and Rhode Island that will allow a character of Rathom's unusual tangle of abilities to thrive," he said.

'The Imposter's War' is about more than Rathom's secret

In the years before World War I, Germany launched a propaganda campaign aimed at keeping the Unites States out of the war and American munitions out of the hands of Germany's European enemies.

Arsenault told me he sees similarities between the German propaganda campaign and Russia's interference with the 2016 U.S. election and the ongoing political aftermath.

"You can see that kind of gaslighting going on today. In some circles, it's uncontested fact," Arsenault said. "The things that are happening now in terms of the way people use media to try to influence what we think ... people were doing a hundred years ago."

Rathom saw himself as a counterbalancing force, spewing his own exaggerated tales to expose German tactics.

But Rathom drew a line between his journalism and his propaganda, saving the tall tales for the lecture circuit. His stories were picked up by the wire services, and all of America heard about his fabricated exploits against Germany.

'The most famous journalist in America'

"He was probably the most famous journalist in America at that time," Arsenault said. "From the smallest state, you could still wield tremendous power. Rhode Islanders always sort of punch above their weight."

Eventually, Rathom's exaggerations were exposed and he fell from grace, which is why most people today have never heard of him.

Historians were not kind.

"They punished him with the ultimate sentence," Arsenault said, "and left him out."

Arsenault has greater sympathy for his subject, a complex and fascinating man, living by the rules of a different time and hiding not only the secret that he wasn't a spymaster, but the secret of his true identity.

"I would challenge anyone to find a more fascinating Rhode Islander in history," Arsenault said. "He was an imposter. He was playing a character. He was an actor."

But, the author said, Rathom felt he was serving a larger good by combating the German propaganda machine.

"A collection of lies can speak a larger truth," Arsenault said. "Journalism that seeks fairness instead of truth is the wrong kind of journalism. In prior times, fairness was not the goal, it was truth."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Providence Journal editor John Rathom's secret identity revealed