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Henry Livingston, Jr.
Reproduced below are two web sites which bear on the issue of the true authorship of the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas."
Elizabeth Davenport Livingston Thompson Lansing
For thirty-five years after Clement Moore claimed authorship of the Christmas poem, we have no first-hand accounts of the Livingston family's objection to his claim. Object they did, but not on paper that has come to light to date. The first written record we have is a first hand statement by Henry's daughter Eliza. In Blithe Dutchess, Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken quotes an 1879 letter written by Eliza to her cousin, Mrs. Annie Thomas, in response to Annie's questions about Henry's authorship.
Elizabeth was twenty-three years old when her father died. Seven years later, she married the widowed Judge Smith Thompson, a former Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court, had accepted the position of Secretary of the Navy under President Monroe. In 1824, he had been considering a run for President of the United States, but when Monroe nominated him to the Supreme Court, Monroe gave up the idea. Justice Thompson's first wife had been Eliza's uncle Gilbert's daughter.
After the death of Eliza's husband, she married Judge Richard Ray Lansing, a connection by marriage for whom Lansing MI was named.
Cornelia Griswold Goodrich
The first researcher we can identify as searching for proof of Henry Livingston's authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas was Cornelia Griswold Goodrich, Henry's great great granddaughter.
It's important to know what a person knows by first or by second hand information. To determine that, you have to compare lifetimes of the various people. Because Henry lived to be 79, and because he had two families of children so far apart in ages, it's not so simple as saying most of his grandchildren knew Henry by first-hand knowledge. Henry's grandchildren by his first wife were of the same ages as Henry's children by his second wife. And those grandchildren married younger than did Henry's second family, so that, when Henry died, his oldest great grandchildren were already eleven and twelve years old.
Of Henry's second family, only his son Charles was married with infant children at the time of Henry's death.
The end result of this analysis is that a descendant of Henry, possibly having first hand information about him, was still alive in 1902, Catherine Breese. By that time, his great grandchildren through Catherine were about eleven and twelve years old. Henry stayed mentally alert throughout his life, testifying in an important NYC trial just a few months before his death, as he reported in a letter to his son, Charles. He was still writing poetry in the last year of his life that had the same liveliness and quality as much earlier pieces. He also stayed in close touch with his descendants in long and loving letters.
Henry's second wife, Jane McLean Patterson, was related to his next door neighbor, whose daughter married Henry's son, Charles Patterson Livingston. Henry's first wife's great granddaughter, Cornelia Griswold, married William McLean Goodrich. Let it never be said that Livingston descendants ever saw a cousin they couldn't love!
Cornelia's mother was 8 years old when Henry died, and died herself in 1902. Cornelia's grandmother was 30 years old when Henry died, and died herself in 1886. Cornelia was 33 when her grandmother died.
The purpose of these dates is to show that first hand information on Henry Livingston was available at least to 1902, and that second hand information was available at least to 1927, at Cornelia Griswold Goodrich's death.
In 1886, Cornelia engaged in an interchange of letters with Dutchess County historian Benson Lossing. Although she interested Lossing in the authorship issue, she didn't have the types of direct proofs to keep his interest. Cornelia began to contact other descendants, hoping to get better proof.
On January 10, 1900, Cornelia received a letter from Henry Livingston of Babylon Long Island, the editor of a local paper, The Signal. Henry was her cousin, and a grandson of their joint ancestor, Henry Livingston, Jr. In the letter, Long Island Henry said that his father, Sidney Montgomery Livingston, "as long ago as I can remember," claimed that his father (Henry, Jr.) was the author, that it was first read to the children at the old homestead below Poughkeepsie, when he was about eight years old, which would be about 1804 or 1805: He had the original manuscript, with many corrections, in his possession, for a long time, Sidney told his son that he gave the manuscript to his brother, Edwin Livingston, who prized it very highly, but the manuscript was destroyed in a fire when Edwin was living in Wisconsin with Sidney and Edwin's sister, Susan and her husband, Abram Gifford Gurney.
McCracken also describes a letter written on December 23, 1918 from Mrs. Jeanne Livingston Denig (a second hand source) to Long Island Henry (a second hand source). Jeanne's mother, Jane Patterson Livingston, was Henry's granddaughter through his son Charles and Elizabeth Clement Brewer. Jeanne's grandmother died when Jeanne was 22.
William Sturges Thomas
Sometime before the first world war, a great grandson of Henry Livingston, William Sturges Thomas, became interested in the search. When the war was over, he took up the quest himself and found Cornelia Griswold Goodrich through Cornelia's cousin, Edward Lind Morse, the son of S.F.B. Morse and another descendant of Henry.
Thomas's papers in the New York Historical Society show that he and Mr. Tryon, a gentleman who planned to publish the information in the Christian Science newspaper, came to visit Cornelia in 1920 and try to get a brain dump of her information so that they could look for potentially missed clues. But the interview didn't go as planned. Enthusiastic before the interview and anxious to see Henry identified as the author (The right & truth does not always come out in this life but it surely will in the next, and then woe to Clement Moore!), Cornelia came out of the interview absolutely hysterical with the thought that contradicting an American icon, Clement Clarke Moore, would end up in some material hitting the proverbial fan that would not increase the fragrance of the immediate environment. She begged him not to continue, or to only publicize Henry Livingston for his other writing.
Her panic did have the effect of softening Tryon's article, as well as the one that Thomas published in the 1919 Yearbook of the Dutchess County Historical Society [the article was written in 1920.]
Cornelia calmed down enough later to prepare a talk for the Poughkeepsie Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Her reason for giving the talk was to make it clear that her uncle, S.F.B. Morse, was the owner of Henry's Locust Grove property during Cornelia's childhood, a fact she thought Thomas had ignored in his article.
William Sturges Thomas says in the 1919 Yearbook of the Dutchess County Historical Society that Henry's grandson, Henry Livingston of Long Island, wrote in 1900 that his father, Sidney Montgomery Livingston, the son of Henry and Jane Patterson, told him that when he [Sidney] was about ten years old, he heard the Major read the poem to their family.
Thomas spent between twenty and thirty years searching for information on the authorship of A Visit from St. Nicholas. Much of his information is in the New York Historical Society, and some is still in the hands of his son and grandson. But other information, once clearly identified as being in his possession, have disappeared. It's hoped that the renewed attention to Henry's authorship will cause other descendants to come forward to share their own information.
W. Stephen Thomas
With the death of his father in 1941, W. Stephen Thomas took up the quest to prove Henry's authorship as his own. Where his father mostly searched for the poem, W. Stephen concentrated more on publicizing the issue. And he was quite successful in that goal, if you look at the enthusiasm of his convert, Vassar President MacCracken. It was also undoubtedly due to his efforts that Unicover came out with a First Day Cover in 1977 that identifies Henry as believed by scholars to be the author of the prime.
W. Stephen Thomas, in a 1977 talk he gave at the Dutchess County Historical Society, reports that a granddaughter of Livingston, and his own aunt, Miss Gertrude F. Thomas, wrotein a letter in the early 1900's that her uncle, Dr. Charles P. Livingston, the eldest child of Henry and Jane, remembered perfectly when his father wrote the poem and showed his children the old Poughkeepsie newspaper in which it first appeared. He added that several persons over the years had made searches of files of these newspapers of the period in question, but no issue containing the poem had been located.
But through all the years that W. Stephen Thomas worked to find that smoking gun, his search, too, came to nothing in the end.
The Searchers of Today
Mother left father when I was six weeks old, he was an alcoholic, and she managed to lose almost every trace of him as well. By the time I was old enough to want to learn more about him, he was already dead. I discovered that mother had been sent some file folders after his death In those folders were photographs of father, and an obituary for his mother. I also found some letters that father had written mother trying to convince her to return. It was one of those letters that started me off on my quest. In it, father replied to mother's question with the information that he had burned his manuscripts and that he had quit. The future, he said, could do without him. As I looked into father's eyes, I promised myself that it wouldn't.
I knew from mother that he had published some of his poetry in the college newspaper where they had met. I searched through the newspaper but failed. The books of poetry that she had given to Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Frost during college interviews turned out also to be dead ends. They must have been privately published, and there was no trace that I could find at all.
I wanted to understand father and, in desperation, I decided to search for his family in the hopes that one of them might have the poetic key to father's soul. My starting point was his mother's obituary. In that, I learned that she was the daughter of Henry Burnett and descended from Henry B. Gibson of Canandaigua NY. That and the fact that her pallbearers were the governor of Colorado and three generals! I figured I had a chance.
My husband Paul suggested that we go to Canandaigua, and it was there that I had my first genealogical shock. Henry B. Gibson turned out to be one of the richest men in western New York, and my 3rd great grandfather. He was Gibson Street in Canandaigua, Port Gibson NY, a canal company (which never built anything), a bank and two railroads, the latter of which was merged with several others to form the New York Central.
A family tree in the Ontario Historical Society showed that Henry Burnett was a general. Given grandmother's pallbearers, that did make sense. Finding him wasn't straightforward because, as it turned out, he wasn't a battlefield general but, rather, a political one. He was, second genealogical shock, one of the special judge advocates at the Lincoln Assassination Trial, that is, one of the prosecutors! I sat down for awhile over that one.
In Goshen New York, where he lived toward the end of his life, I discovered a 40 page paper on his memories of the trial. I also found his grave high up on a hill overlooking what turned out to be his horse farm. It was a huge monument, built so that he would be remembered. But the only thing carved into the stone was the surname BURNETT. The details of who he was were gone, stolen along with the plaque which had been attached to the stone. And so great grandfather, like father, was lost to the future.
By now I was adopting ancestors like stray puppies. I hurt for great grandfather disappearing, and tried to find some way to bring him back. I put his paper onto the Internet, and I found a local historian who thought that we could get a grant to have the plaque remade -- if we could find out what it said. But when I tried to find out, I failed there, too.
I kept scratching on father's tree, hoping to shake something loose. I discovered that Henry B. Gibson's daughter, Catharine, had married Henry Livingston Lansing, later discovered to be yet another Brigadier General, as was his brother, Henry Seymour Lansing. Old New York Dutch families, I was discovering, are severely name-challenged.
Henry Livingston Lansing, a banker, turned out to be the son of another banker, Barent Bleecker Lansing. And his mother, I learned, was Sarah Breese. Sarah, I was able to trace to Arthur Breese and Catharine Livingston, and there I was stuck. By now I was learning enough about these Dutch families to not be terribly surprised that all girls were named Catherine, and all boys were Philip or Robert or Gilbert or Henry. Though not in my direct line, I did discover a Livingston Livingston.
But back to my problem. There were so many Catherine Livingstons that I had no idea how to find out which one was mine. So I did what I tend to do when stuck, I reached out and touched someone. Bless AT&T. Well, in this case, the Internet. I sent mail to Bob Livingston, a U.S. Representative in D.C., asking whether he knew of any Livingston family associations. A day later the phone rang and a deep male voice announced, "Hi, this is Bob Livingston. Welcome to the Livingston family!" That had to count as shock number three.
From Bob I got a pointer to the Clermont estate on the Hudson River, and to the Friends of Clermont. And from them I got Catherine's parents - Henry Livingston, Jr. and Sarah Welles. I also got a very deep respect for a politician who reaches out to people not for what they can do for him, but because he genuinely loves people. A rare quality in any politician.
Armed with my new information, I began to research Henry Livingston, Jr. on the Internet. And that's when I discovered a webpage describing him as the actual author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas." I'd count this as genealogical shock number four if I had believed it. But I didn't, so I won't. I did decide to go to Poughkeepsie to learn more about Henry.
It was at the Dutchess County Historical Society that I found a transcript of Henry's poetry manuscript book. It was funny and charming and, in some way, it was compelling. One of the poems, actually a letter to his youngest brother, Beekman Livingston, sounded amazingly like the Christmas poem. That's when my nose started twitching. But I was still a Missouri skeptic. I had to be shown. I decided it was worth the effort to search out Moore's poetry. Little did I realize what effort I was getting myself into.
Three weeks later I was in the library at Brown University printing out pages from a microfilm copy of Moore's 200 page book called Poems. I had found not a single reprint of the book, something that had surprised me until I sat watching the pages slowly print out. Then it was obvious. There was no reprint because no one would have bought it! This was terrible poetry. It was self-absorbed, egotistical, and moralizing. And it was remarkably consistent.
As a writer myself, I believe that who we are shines out of every paragraph we write. Styles can be changed, pace and pattern can be varied, but psychology usually stays the same. I could feel Clement Clarke Moore in every word he wrote. And I wouldn't have gone to lunch with him if he'd ever have asked.
Now Livingston I had already gotten to know. His work had been consistent with the Christmas poem all along. But with Moore feeding out page after page, I became convinced that the argument was right. Henry Livingston, Jr. was the true author of Night Before Christmas. Now I could sit back and enjoy genealogical shock number four.
On October 26, 2000, Don Foster's book, Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous, hit the street hard with an appearance by Don on the Today show, and a one and a half page article starting above the fold on the front page of the Arts Section of the New York Times.
What all the fuss was about was Don's literary sleuthing into the authorship of various mysterious letters, poems, and books. But the reason why you're finding this here is because one of those chapters is about my 5th great grandfather, Henry Livingston, Jr., whose case Don has made as the actual author of Night Before Christmas.
You can bet it's been pretty exciting around here. The People Magazine article (p.215, 216) was amazing, but best of all has been getting to know and love Henry, finding wonderful cousins, and working with Don and another newly found cousin and friend, Steve Thomas.
You'll find some of the story here, including why I found Henry while trying to find father. There's also some of Henry's poetry, as well as some of the poetry of Clement Clarke Moore, who claimed credit for the poem. Read them both, and see for yourself. We know we don't have all the pieces of the puzzle, but we're hoping that more cousins will come forward with more of the pieces.
But whether you're cousin, or lover of the Christmas poem, or lover of Henry, once you get to know him, I'd love to hear from you. Sharing him just makes it better!
Henry Livingston, Jr. was born in Poughkeepsie New York in 1748, the third child of Henry Livingston and Susannah Conklin. Henry's older brothers, Gilbert and John Henry, were educated in Fishkill with the Reverend Chauncey Graham, and it's likely that Henry was sent there as well. John Henry was the scholar of the family, and at the age of 12 he entered Yale University, from which he graduated at the age of 16.
Though his father was well-educated, and his older brothers both aimed toward careers in the law, Henry's love was the land. Given a farm by his father, which Henry called Locust Grove, he settled down to the life of a farmer. But a few years later, Henry recognized just what the property he loved so much was missing - Sally Welles. In 1774, Henry went to Stamford Connecticut to be married to Sally by her father, Reverend Dr. Noah Welles, a Congregational Minister and friend of Henry's cousin, Governor William Livingston.
It wasn't long before the sounds of war interrupted their happiness and in 1775, as Henry and Sally's first baby was born, Henry was called away to join his cousin's husband, General Montgomery, as an army Major in an expedition to capture Montreal and Quebec. In a letter he wrote back from army camp, Henry penned the first poem that we currently have record of, On My Little Catherine Sleeping.
As one of the earliest units formed in the war, Henry and his men had enlisted for only six months. With the capture of Montreal, many of the men, including Henry, returned home. Montgomery continued on to Quebec, and it was there that he died in an unsuccessful assault on the city. Henry's army journal contains fascinating descriptions of the people and the culture in the areas through which they marched. One particularly interesting account describes a banquet which Henry gave for the leading chiefs of the Six Nations, a group which Henry held in great respect.
Although Henry retired from the army to stay with his family, he continued working for the war effort as a Commissioner of Confiscation, responsible for taking and selling the property of British supporters to aid the patriotic cause. One of those whose property was confiscated was the father-in-law of Henry's brother Gilbert.
Sally, as Henry called her, was said to be one of the most beautiful women in Connecticut. John Jay, writing to a friend about Jay's young son, called Sally a rara avis terra - a rare bird on earth. His high opinion of Harry and Sally led Jay to ask his friend to get the couple to take in his son while he and his wife were in Spain.
During the next few years, Henry's family grew. But there was tragedy as well when Henry's first son, Henry Welles Livingston, died from burns in an accident at the age of a year. It was Henry's deep religious faith that helped him through his son's death.
But there was worse to come when, in 1783, Sally died at the home of her widowed mother in Connecticut. For a month, Henry's financial journal was silent. When he picked up his pen again, Henry wrote:
Henry filled the years after Sally with a flurry of activity. There was his farm, his surveying work, the boat landing and store, and various jobs for the County. And there was his writing.
The first published piece that we see of Henry's, and there may be many that we haven't yet found, is A new year's address of Richard & George, two boys of the printer N. Power, published in the Political Barometer of January 1, 1787. A carrier's address was usually a one page broadsheet that the newsboys gave away on New Year's Day in the hope of receiving a tip.
It must have opened something inside of Henry because after that the poetry and prose just flooded out. There were humorous poems and prose pieces, religious pieces and elegies. Using a transcript of Henry's poetry manuscript as a Rosetta stone, we can see that Henry published anonymously AND under the pseudonym of R. Frequent publications in which he published include the Poughkeepsie Journal and the New-York Magazine or Literary Repository. Don Foster and I plan to publish a list of poetry and prose that we believe to be by Henry. But I believe that mining his work will be a fertile research area for quite some time.
By 1791, Henry's title had changed. Instead of Major Henry, he had become Judge Henry Livingston, although he was only a Justice of the Peace. New York politics was strange from the start. Political appointments were suggested by the Governor and voted on by a small committee which included the governor and four legislators nominated by the NY Congress. In Henry's case, he had quite a few connections into the state Judiciary, as well as to the Legislature.
Henry's father's uncle, General Pierre Van Cortlandt, had become New York's Lieutenant Governor. The Governor, George Clinton, was connected through somewhat complicated, but still binding, family ties with Henry's brother, Gilbert. It was under George Clinton's governorship that Henry first became a judge. Governor Clinton was also the brother of Henry's commander in the Canadian campaign, Colonel James Clinton. Years later, it would be James Clinton's son, De Witt Clinton, who would again became New York's governor.
It was as Judge Livingston, that Henry began to court Jane Patterson, the daughter of Matthew Patterson, a New York state politician, and the sister of Henry's next door neighbor. In 1793, ten years to the day after the death of Henry's first wife, Henry and Jane were married.
It was only a few months later that daughter Catherine married Arthur Breese and began her own family of Henry's grandchildren, who would be exactly the same ages as this second family of Henry's. Catherine's son, Sidney, became a lawyer and moved to Illinois. In a series of letters to the new lawyer, Henry sent a continuous stream of love, and encouragement, and advice about how to be a good lawyer whose future was wide open.
Henry's instincts were good. Sidney Breese became a U.S. Senator and, eventually, Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. As you walk into the rotunda of the Illinois capitol, you look up at a life-sized statue of Sidney. Apparently, he took well the advice of his grandfather.
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