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American Newspaper Enterprise

The great journals of the United States of America do not confine their activities to purely journalistic enterprises. Mr. John R. Rathom, editor of the famous Providence Journal, was recently the guest of honour at the Convention of the Canadian Press Association in Toronto. In the course of the evening he made some astonishing revelations as to the part played by his paper in "running to earth" the foxy plots of the Germans against the peace and security of the United States. For ten years or so before the war the Journal had what Americans know as a "cinch" on a wireless telegraph installation, the paper having maintained two radiotelegraphic plants at Point Judith and at Block Island.

As soon as the European War broke out the newspaper management decided to establish a system of "listening in" on the messages crossing the Atlantic. For five months they kept up a record of these messages and then set experts to decipher the codes used. The Brooklyn Naval Yard had received official instructions to keep close watch on the U.S.A. wireless installations at Sayville and Nantucket, but nothing suspicious was ever reported, until Mr. Rathom took some of the messages which he had received from his own newspaper operators to the State Department. The enquiries then set on foot showed that the Naval Yard operators had been in the pay of German agents in America, and had received instructions not to hear too much. The codes employed were of an extremely ingenious nature. Many of them professed to be stock quotations, and some were even done up as directions for funerals. 1

All Lies?

Rathom's own newspaper years later reported that most of what their former editor said was a lie!

WWI 100 Years: Journal editor Rathom lied about personal, paper's role in exposing German spies

While Europe was struggling in a world war that America was reluctant to enter, Rathom traveled as an after-dinner speaker, spinning fantastic fabrications about his newspaper's role in uncovering the activities of German spies.

No lie was too outrageous for Providence Journal editor John R. Rathom.

While Europe was struggling in a world war that America was reluctant to enter, Rathom traveled as an after-dinner speaker, spinning fantastic fabrications about his newspaper's role in uncovering the activities of German spies.

He claimed the paper's wireless station had intercepted secret German communications. He suggested that The Journal had planted agents in foreign embassies. He claimed he had barely escaped an assassination attempt orchestrated by a German diplomat.

All lies.

This was far from the only thing Rathom lied about - including, apparently, his name, birth date, education and experience. Rathom always maintained that he was born July 4, 1868, in Melbourne, Australia. Private investigators later found no trace of such a person, though they did find a John Solomon born to similarly named parents in that city on that date.

He claimed to have been educated at Harrow in England and Scotch College in Melbourne; the schools never heard of him. He also said he was wounded while a war correspondent in the Sudan and had served in the Chinese customs service; no records exist.

But he landed in Providence in 1906 during a newspaper war that started when Col. Samuel P. Colt, who owned The Pawtucket Times and wanted to be a U.S. senator, was thwarted in his attempts to buy The Journal. So Colt bought the Evening and Sunday Telegrams and hired away as many Journal employees as he could. When Rathom walked into The Journal's nearly empty newsroom, he was quickly hired as managing editor.

Rathom's World War I "exposes" of German subversive activities in this country came when German activities in the United States were a touchy topic. Many thousands of new Americans had recently come from Germany, and some were sympathetic to the Kaiser; the question of German loyalty was debated loudly and often.

The Journal's inside scoops on German activities made a national name for the newspaper, but they were mostly acquired from British intelligence sources who were using Rathom to plant anti-German stories in the American media. Newspapers across the country reprinted The Journal's exclusives, magnifying Rathom's myth that he was directing a cadre of counterspies.

The pinnacle of Rathom's deceptions may have been a year-long series of articles he agreed to write for World's Work, a national magazine of the early 20th century.

The series was advertised this way:

"More thrilling than fiction - it is the modestly told story of a brave editor and resourceful reporters who beat the Germans at their own game."

In the first installment, February 1918, Rathom identified a German military attache "who conceived the plot to stop The Providence Journal's exposures by blowing up its editor with a bomb placed in his office. The bomb was exploded and almost achieved its purpose." He claimed to have escaped with "slight burns."

It wasn't the first time Rathom had said the Germans tried to blow him up. In a speech in June 1917 before the Empire Club in Toronto, he had claimed: "In spite of the fact that we have had our own building guarded night and day, we were blown up, the front of our entire building was blown out. "He claimed "positive knowledge" that the bomb had been "German propaganda work."

Of course, the walls of the Journal building had not been "blown out." There had been a fire on the building's third floor on March 2, 1916. A five-paragraph report in the paper the next day said the "fire and explosion" caused $3,000 in damage and that its origin was "a mystery."

After World's Work published the first installment of Rathom's series, the U.S. Department of Justice contacted the magazine's editor and offered to show him the true "evidence" of Rathom's wartime activities, according to a summary of a New York Times story on Rathom that appeared in The Chronicle magazine in 1920.

After visiting the Justice Department, World's Work canceled the rest of the Rathom series, and substituted its own staff-written series, "Fighting Germany's Spies." According to The Chronicle, Rathom was called before a federal grand jury in New York in 1918 to testify under oath about the stories the newspaper had been publishing about German plots.

To get out of testifying, Rathom agreed to write a letter confessing that many of his claims had been grossly exaggerated or invented:

"The Providence Journal's sources of information have given us valuable knowledge of a great many matters we have felt compelled to cover them up by intentionally suggesting sources which did not actually exist. One specific illustration of this is the statement that the Providence Journal's own representatives were placed in the German and Austrian Embassies and in several of the foreign consular offices throughout the country. It is not true that the Providence Journal's own representatives ever occupied positions of this kind."

The letter went on that way for several pages.

The government kept Rathom's letter secret for two years, and then released it to the press in 1920 after Rathom attacked then-Navy Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt in print.

The Nation magazine in 1920 summed up Rathom's confession: 'The vaunted exploits of his editors and reporters he has now admitted were myths, and what little information he did have as the basis for his sensations was supplied by British secret agents whose tool he was, and who used him for their own purposes."

This story, written by former staff writer Mark Arsenault, originally appeared in The Providence Journal on July 21, 2004, as part of a look back at the newspaper's then-175-year history. Some material has been added from a story by Scott MacKay and Jody McPhillips looking back at the 20th century, published March 28, 1999.

1910 - 1919
Providence Journal
July 21, 2004 - page H-23

Click to enlarge
The Wakefield News
June 20th, 1917

Click to enlarge
The Chatham Press
December 8th, 1917

1 American Newspaper Enterprise