The Original Fake News
Hey there! Welcome back to Out of the Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.
Today's post features James Rivington, fake newsman turned "most excellent" Revolutionary Spy, and the collection of his papers in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library.
James Rivington arrived in New York in 1760. In 1773, he set up a press in Hanover Square and began publishing Rivington's New York Gazetteer, a broadsheet he described as "open and uninfluenced." Not quite. Even though he claimed neutrality, Rivington was not shy about taking sides. The New York Gazetteer started out with a pronounced loyalist bent.
The picture below shows a receipt for a year's subscription to the Gazetter, issued July 1774, but patriots throughout the tri-state (tri-colony?) area weren't buying it.
In a letter dated December 5, 1774, addressed to The Friends of America from The Committee of Observation for the Town of Hartford, concerned citizens did not mince words. They warned of a "Servile Wretch commonly known by the name of James Rivington, who is daily by his conversation, paper and pamphlets, insulting, reviling, and counteracting this whole continent...in the most rancorous and malevolent manner."
By 1775, Rivington's reputation had spread even further. His reporting had become so incendiary and lacking in factual basis that The Boston Gazette ran an add calling his work "dirty malicious paragraphs...and greatly misrepresenting."
Back in New York Rivington was equally unpopular. Patriot mobs hanged him in effigy, attacked his home and shop, smashed his presses and carried off his lead type to melt it down for bullets. Rivington took cover in British ships in New York Harbor, and eventually sailed for England.
Then as now, New York asserts a certain kind of pull, and by 1777 Rivington was back in town. The British had taken the city in August of 1776, following the Battle of Long Island, so the king's troops were pleased to have some glowingly favorable press. Happy to oblige, Rivington began publishing the Royal Gazette, dedicated to "The King's Most Excellent Majesty." To go with his new masthead, he opened up a stationary store and bookshop that catered to British officers.
It's not known why a man with such deep loyalist bonafides decided to become a revolutionary spy, or even exactly when he got involved in espionage. Current scholarship holds that he switched sides around 1780, and that he was one of the last people to join Washington's spy service.
As a spy, he did exactly what he had done as a civilian. He continued to publish the Royal Gazette, and to chat amicably with the British officers who frequented his shop. This time around, he just did a little more writing. He'd record relevant information he overheard, and bind his notes into books he sold in his shop. The right customers made sure those books made it to Washington.
Interestingly, as the Library's collection makes clear, Rivington's bookshop was much more than a front business. He continued to run the shop well after the war had ended. As a merchant, he was after a different kind of intelligence. Writing to a printer in Philadelphia on October 12, 1790 he was anxious for info. He wrote, "Sir, I sometime ago applied for intelligence respecting the time when I might positively rely on being furnished with a supply of the school bible you long ago intimated was nearly finished." Yeah, sir. How's a guy supposed to run a bookshop without books. Get. It. Together.
James Rivington, fake newsman, bookseller and spy died on July 4, 1802. His name lives on in Rivington Street on the Lower East Side.
You can learn more about Rivington and his role in covert ops on our walking tour Sympathetic Spies: George Washington's Eyes and Ears in Lower Manhattan. Sign up Here!!!
If you'd like to check out the Rivington Papers, or any other archival collections housed at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Branch of the New York Public Library (5th Avenue and 42nd Street), the Manuscripts and Archives Division is open to the public Monday-Saturday 10am-5:45pm.
Hope to see you on parade,