How an Imposter Journalist Changed the Course of World War I

TA taxi from New York City bounced on streetcar tracks as it made its way through the streets to reach the 5th Street Pier, Hoboken. It was there that the Holland-America cruise ship Rotterdam, carrying the Dutch flag, prepared to cross the Atlantic to Europe. It carried a special fare: German diplomat Captain Karl Boy-Ed, a career military man and the German embassy’s naval attaché, one of the highest-ranking consular posts.

Boy-Ed returned home disgraced after nearly four years of being stationed in America. President Woodrow Wilson’s administration had ejected Boy-Ed from the United States, along with his colleague in the German diplomatic corps, military attaché Franz von Papen, due to a rising pile of evidence that the diplomats were engaged in sabotage and deceptive propaganda in brazen violation of America’s policy of neutrality in World War I.

It had been almost one year since the start of war in Europe. The United States, as a neutral country, maintained diplomatic relations each side with the main combatants, including Germany and Austria-Hungary, England, France and Russia. Germany was humiliated by the loss of Boy-Ed, and Papen in international relations.

The day was made worse by the intelligent and gentle Boy-Ed because he was chased out of America by a loudmouth editor at a small newspaper located in Providence, Rhode Island. The preceding six months had seen the following: Providence Journal—led by its flamboyant editor John Revelstoke Rathom—had printed dozens of exclusive stories exposing alleged German intrigue in America. American diplomats to Germany were shocked by this flurry. The articles cited them as being responsible for everything, from conspiracy to derail US industry and labor to sabotage.

In Rathom’s most outrageous story, he had named Boy-Ed as the point man in a German conspiracy to return the exiled Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta back to power in a coup, and to smuggle weapons to Huerta so that Mexico could attack the southwestern United States. This sounded far too absurd to be true. It was an attempt to get Mexico and the United States into a shooting conflict. Boy-Ed refuted every aspect of this. But the Germans understood that many people in the United States believed Rathom—too many. If enough Americans began to view Germany as a threat, they might join the war against Britain and its allies.

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Boy-Ed reached Hoboken’s pier, where it was borderline dangerous. An assortment of journalists and moviemakers stood by Boy-Ed at the dock entry. Cameras blazed. After a lengthy walk, forty journalists waited. They fired questions and requested interviews. Boy-Ed pulled his jacket from the coat pocket and took out a copy of his statement.

“Of course I refrain at the hour of my departure from again reciting all the stories which were told about me in the American papers and which, like the silly Huerta tale, were invented by the Providence Journal,” Boy-Ed’s statement raged. “[The paper] has done its utmost to create an almost hysterical suspicion throughout the country in order to prejudice public opinion against Germany.”

“We Germans do not understand what you call your free press,” the statement continued. “We do not permit the representatives of friendly governments to be insulted Ad libitum or our government to be embarrassed in its dealing with friendly nations, nor men’s reputations to be wantonly sacrificed by the wild and reckless utterances of irresponsible papers.”

Rathom wasn’t the only journalist who published damning reports about German spying in critical years when the United States was neutral prior to the war. These were the facts New York WorldFor instance, Rathom contributed numerous embassy-rattling stories on German economic sabotage and propaganda. But Rathom’s Providence JournalIt became the leading source for German plots & intrigue, with a circulation that was only one-tenth of those in the New York major rags.

The stories Rathom published confounded his readers’ imagination—and, at first, many of his scoops were dismissed as fantasies. Rathom exposed German plans to seize the U.S. weapon market and falsify evidence against President Wilson. He also illegally broadcast codes to Berlin, violating U.S. neutrality.

This and many other sensations almost overnight created a national reputation as the combative news editor. Even though Rathom never wrote in print about how Rhode Island’s modest conservative newspaper was getting these scoops, Rathom’s stories were reprinted in national, regional, and local newspapers and magazines, delivered to front stoops and coffee counters in every state in the country, each story starting with what would become a famous opening line: “The Providence Journal will say today…”

Most Americans wanted the United States to stay far away from the European conflict, but each blockbuster story about German scheming in America weakened the country’s resistance to war.

The German diplomatic staff in the United States was no longer a representative of the empire at the time of the war. Germany expected them all to win the battle. To manipulate American public opinion and funnel large amounts of money to the U.S., the German government used huge sums of money from its U.S. Staff. On top of the psychological warfare, in January 1915 the chief of the political section of the Imperial German General Staff transmitted authorization to German diplomats in the United States for sabotage against “factories for military supplies; railroads, dams, [and] bridges,” largely to interrupt the shipment of war supplies to Great Britain and its allies.

They thought they were patriots and not as diplomats. Although they were not trained as spy agents, their mistakes were often a surprise to the public. However, they couldn’t understand how each misstep would land them in the media spotlights.

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Rathom offered an explanation later. A 1917 U.S. speaking tour was launched by him in which he claimed to be the commander of a counterspy ring consisting of ordinary newspaper journalists who, undercover as employees, had infiltrated American consulates in Germany and Austria. They swiped documents, eavesdropped on secret phone calls, and even seduced a German diplomat—all in the name of getting the scoop. American journalists were stunned by the following: Newspaper German spy spies in their own espionage match?

German propagandists sought to denigrate Rathom by digging up dirt after Boy-Ed was expelled from the United States in 1915. The pro-German press found Rathom’s background like a dark forest full of fog, getting thicker the deeper they looked. They unearthed an embarrassing love triangle and bizarre poisoning plot from Rathom’s past, as well as a few questionable claims in his résumé, but not even Rathom’s most fearsome enemies could have imagined the breadth of his deception.

John Rathom, an imposter. He was an imposter. His identity was a fabrication based on a biography full of lies. It was embodied and created by an extraordinary actor who played the part of a lifetime.

He was undoubtedly brilliant. Also a conman, grifter, and extortionist, he was one of most skilled liars in his age and not ashamed. His 1920 biography to the a Who’s Who–type publication was an extraordinary salad of hyperbole, misdirection, and lies. Scotch College in Melbourne, Whinham College Adelaide, and Harrow School England claimed that he was educated there. He was never recorded at any of these institutions. He claimed he was a war correspondent. Melbourne Argusin Sudan in 1886. But the company holding the records of this newspaper confirmed that Rathom did not write for the newspaper. His boast was that he had accompanied Frederick Schwatka’s expedition to Alaska in 1890. This expedition never took place.

Rathom’s lies could be oddly specific. One of his most treasured possessions was, he claimed, a congratulatory Telegram from William McKinley that Rathom received the day he became an American citizen. That’s unlikely, unless McKinley sent it by Ouija board—the twenty-fifth president had been dead five years by the time Rathom took the oath of citizenship in 1906.

In normal circumstances someone with his dark talents might have found a job at a carnival making bribes. But in the midst of an unprecedented global conflict, this ink-stained rogue found redemption in dedicating his unusual skill set to a cause bigger than himself—the defeat of the Central Powers and allied victory in World War I. At great personal and professional risk, he volunteered his full support to the cause.

And nobody suspected, not then, that Rathom’s astonishing tales of commanding a counter-spy operation were not true. They were, at least, false as Rathom claimed. As Rathom’s reputation grew, the lies got bigger and more dangerous, until they consumed him. Through the lies is the way to the imposter’s truth.

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Rathom can be difficult to write about. Piercing his cocoon of lies is one problem—the other is the fact that he left almost no evidence of his unguarded thoughts. He wrote thousands upon thousands of letters and miles of news copy. But he checked every word for potential minefields through his mental selfcensor. He was never his true self, but the imposter kept him busy.

Rathom’s story is intertwined with America’s in World War I. The battlefields were in Europe, but the war was fought here, too, with printer’s ink, propaganda, and bombs. Russian agents copied the techniques used by the Germans to manipulate the United States of America in 1915. They continue this practice today. The power elite used the press during World War I to promote fear of foreigners. Even though the fear is now digital, some still use the press to spread their terror. In Rathom’s day, the U.S. government ruined the lives of people who dared to say unpopular things; now civilians do this to each other on social media. John Rathom’s human Rorschach test is for whether an assortment of lies can reveal a greater truth. This argument carries from Rathom’s era to ours.



This article was adapted from The Imposter’s War: The Press, Propaganda, and the Battle for the Minds of America Mark Arsenault. Copyright © 2022. Pegasus Books.

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