The winter of 1804(1) was harsh and cold for New York but, in the town of Poughkeepsie,
a spirit of optimism filled the air. It was the Christmas season, a time for children's songs and
happy visits between friends and distant relatives. In the snug, stone house of Henry Livingston,
the smells of cooking and the sounds of laughter filled the air. At 56 years old, Henry was once
more the head of a growing family.
A metallic bang from the direction of the kitchen startled him. Helen! The little one was
into her mother's pots again. Henry put down his quill, stopped to dab at the drop of ink he had
splattered on the paper, then got up from the desk, ducking so as not to hit his head on the
stairway above him, his desk being tucked under the staircase, and started to hurry toward the
sounds that were getting louder by the minute. So loud, in fact, that they almost drowned out the
small tapping on the big front door. Pausing in midstride, Henry smiled broadly at the familiar,
tentative little sound, then turned around and headed to the door. Instead of pulling open the
whole Dutch door, he opened only the top half and leaned out into the cold wind, making sure
not to look down as he peered carefully this way and that.
"Who is at my door?" he shouted gruffly into the wind. A muffled giggle replied.
Shielding his eyes against the sun-bright snow, Henry grumbled loudly, "It must be elves.
Who but elves would disturb a man at his work?"
The giggle grew louder. Looking down in feigned surprise, Henry exclaimed, "Dunder
and blixem, it is an elf!"
The little multicolored pile of woolen scarves and shawls wiggled happily and a pink
happy mouth appeared beneath bright blue eyes. "It's not an elf, Mr. Livingston. It's too cold
for elves. They'd freeze their wings."
Henry pulled open the bottom part of the Dutch door and scooped the little girl into his
arms, correcting her as he did, "Elves don't have wings, sweetness. That's fairies." Hugging her
close in one arm, he closed the doors against the wind and set her back on the floor. Crouching
down, he looked seriously into her bright eyes. "Well," he continued, tapping the side of his
head and nodding, "if it's not an elf and it is Christmas eve," his own eyes grew suddenly wide
with his discovery, "then it must be Santa Claus!" Henry used the broad Dutch form of the
name, Sin' tur Claahhs.
Layers of woolens fell to the floor as the little bundle shook itself vigorously in denial.
"I'm not Santa Claus, Mr. Livingston. I'm Eliza!" The last of the shawls fell to the floor
revealing a seven year old girl with cherry pink cheeks, dressed in a snow-caked long dress.
Henry sat back on his heels. "Heavens, it is Eliza. And so bundled up I'd never know."
He looked closer at her pink little hands, then took them in his and lightly rubbed them. "But
you're so cold, child. Come with me." Henry rose to his feet and, one small hand still in his
larger one, began to lead her down the long hall toward the kitchen. The rich odors of breakfast
cooking made his stomach growl with anticipation. "What you need is a nice, warm fire to toast
you like a piece of bread. Your grandmother would toast me if I let you freeze."
The little feet dug into the carpet and stopped their progress cold. Eliza Brewer patted her
waist until she felt something and, from the folds of her skirt, triumphantly pulled out a small and
slightly dirty piece of paper that she presented to Henry. "Grandma gave me this," she explained.
Henry turned it over and saw that the scrap was blank. Putting back on his serious expression he
turned it around and around as the little girl anxiously watched their familiar game unfold.
Finally Henry nodded in decision. "Yes, it's a very good piece of paper. It's not big enough for
a poem," he warned, "but it's just big enough for a little picture." Eliza smiled in shy pleasure.
Like all the neighborhood children, she loved the fanciful creatures that Henry drew.
"What shall it be," Henry asked, "a mermaid perhaps?" Eliza shook her head. "What
about a tree filled with tulips and roses and lots of spring flowers to warm us up." The little girl
shook her head again. "Santa Claus," she said decisively. "I want a picture of Santa Claus."
Surprised by the request, but happy to please the child, Henry walked over to his desk and
laid down the little scrap of paper. Eliza followed and climbed familiarly up onto his chair to
peer at the black lines that filled the ink-blotted sheet on which he had been earlier writing.
Running her finger along a line she slowly read, "But, hark what a" At her pause, Henry nodded
and added "clatter." Eliza repeated the word and continued, "the jolly bells." She looked up
again. Henry smiled. "Ringing."
He put his own finger at the start of the line and read out for her, "But hark what a clatter,
the jolly bells ringing, the lads and lasses so jovially singing. 'Tis New Year's they shout and
then haul me along in the midst of their merry-make juvenile throng."
"But tomorrow's Christmas." Eliza corrected. "You can't write about New Year until
you write about Christmas." Before Henry could reply, a shout from ten year old Charlie
interrupted them, and Henry could see from the look that came over Eliza's face that their
conversation was over. From the time she could toddle, Eliza had adored this oldest son of his
newest family. "Go off with you then," Henry encouraged her down from the chair as she ran off
toward the kitchen with never a backward look.
Instead of following, he sank slowly onto his chair and looked at the poem, not really
seeing it. Thoughts of New Year paper boys were completely gone from his head, crowded out
by images of Santa Claus - a very small Santa Claus with very pink cheeks. Opening a drawer,
Henry swept the half done piece onto a pile of other writing fragments and shut it again. Before
pulling over a fresh sheet, though, he carefully filled his long clay pipe, lighted it with the small
ceremony that the moment deserved, and let the smoke drift along the stair-tread ceiling above
his head. Slowly and carefully he cut a new point onto his quill and dipped it into the glass
inkwell, tapping off the excess ink. He stared at the paper for another moment and then began to
write, "Twas the night before Christmas." He paused in indecision, pen raised, waiting for the
poem to rush from his mind into his fingers as the good ones always did. His concentration was
so deep that he almost didn't notice when something brushed his foot. Startled, he glanced down
in time to see a small brown mouse disappear into an almost invisible hole deep under the lowest
stair. A smile creased Henry's face and the pen returned to the paper, "And all thro' the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."
The mouse, as well as the rest of the above story, is pure fiction, of course.
But so, too, are many of the richly detailed stories of Clement Clark Moore, the son of an
Episcopalian bishop who was also rector of Trinity Church, going out on Christmas eve to buy a
turkey, seeing a rotund Dutchman, and composing the entire 56 lines of An Account of a Visit
from St. Nicholas in his head, then memorizing it while he was being driven home from the
market. The outline of the story was created by Moore,(2) and later embroidered by other writers.
The purpose of the stories was to explain why no one had ever seen an original, handwritten copy
of the poem with all the crossouts and corrections that writers invariably make while they're
composing. If there was no manuscript, then it must have sprung fully grown from Moore's
head, much like the Goddess Athena was born from one of Zeus's Excedrin headaches. No birth
pains, no crossouts. All the loose ends neatly stowed away. So much for The Case Of The
The poem as first published in the Troy Sentinel in 1823 came from the home of Clement
Moore by way of a visitor who took away a copy of the poem, which was later submitted to the
paper(3) for anonymous publication. The testimony of Moore's children is that their father read
them the poem as his own creation.
When the verse very quickly became popular, his proud children must have been crying,
"Father, father, tell them you wrote it." But Father Moore was cornered. If he told his children
that he hadn't really written it, it would dampen the light in their eyes, as well as shake his own
position as their moral guide. If he took credit for the piece, the real poet might step forward and
then it would really hit the fan. And then there was the third option. He could just sit and do
nothing, leaving his dearly loved children frustrated but proud, and his reputation intact. And
that was the path Moore chose. In a moment of weakness and love he cornered himself, and as
an only child who never had to learn how to get out of embarrassing situations that siblings got
each other into, Moore found himself, as an adult, not knowing how to get out either.
When the poem was published in 1823, Moore didn't step forward to claim it, but then
neither did Henry Livingston. For Henry, it would have been out of character. None of his
poetry or prose, going back to 1787, had been published under his name. Instead, his writing
appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym. Drawings were the only works that Henry signed,
so there was no reason for him to treat the Christmas poem's appearance any differently.
The story of what Henry's children knew and when they knew it was shared between his
descendants in visits and letters. Once they knew that someone else was claiming their father's
poem, which wasn't until after 1859, the descendants compared their memories in the hope of
finding some proof so strong that it would explode Moore's false claim.
The first exchange of letters occurred in 1879, the women of the family being the first to
attempt to make Henry's case. At that time, only two of Henry's children were still alive, Eliza
Livingston Thompson Lansing and Susan Livingston Gurney. Both girls had been too young to
hear their father read the poem, but both grew up with the understanding from their brothers and
sisters that their father had, indeed, written it. Eliza explained this in a letter to Henry's great-great granddaughter, Anne Livingston Goodrich.
Your letter has just reached me, and I hasten to tell you all I
know about the poem 'Night Before Christmas.' It was approved
and believed in our family to be Father's, and I well remember our
astonishment when we saw it claimed as Clement C. Moore's. My
father had a fine poetical taste, and wrote a great deal both prose
and poetry, but not for publication, but for his own and our
amusement; he also had a great taste for drawing and painting.
When we were children he used to entertain us on winter evenings
by getting down the paint box, we seated around the table, first he
would portray something very pathetic, which would melt us to
tears, the next thing would be so comic, that we would be almost
wild with laughter. And this dear good man was your
Many years after my father's decease, which took place
more than fifty years ago; at that time my brother [Sidney] in
looking over his papers found the original in his own handwriting,
with his many fugitive pieces which he had preserved.
And then, too, the style was so exactly his, when he felt
in a humorous mood. We have often said, could it be possible that
another could express the same originality of thought and use the
same phrases so familiar to us, as Father's!(4)
It's rather shocking to realize that the poem wasn't read to the children year after year,
that the poem didn't have the same status within the Livingston family when it was first written
that it had later when it became so famous. But, to the family, it was just another of the
wonderful pieces that poured from Henry's pen. The appearance of the poem in the Moore and
Livingston families are mirror images of one another. Within the Moore family, the poem leaped
out from the background because its joyous charm was such a contrast to Moore's poetic
morality lessons. But, for the Livingston family, that same wonderful piece had only blended
into the body of Henry's other joyous works, such as his sugarplum vision of a baby house.
DESCRIPTION of the Baby House, &c. of Miss Biddy
Puerilla, intended to be constructed in the southwest corner of her
Mamma's garden By Seignior Whimsicallo Pomposo.
The whole ground to be improved, is 16 feet from north to
south, and 11 1-2 feet from east to west. On an eminence, made by
one of nature's pioneers, a mole, is to be erected the principal
edifice, for the accommodation of Miss Biddy's doll Fanny. The
five architectural orders are to be stripped of their choicest beauties
to decorate it; and obelisks, statues, and columns, are to stand
sentinels all around.
The principal street leading from Miss Fanny's palace to
that of Miss Clarinda, the next doll in favor; is to be 7 inches wide:
and all the diverging lanes 4 1-2 inches broad.
Gigantic trees, of the whortle berry and current tribes, are to
shed a pleasing gloom over the most important avenues: while the
river before mentioned, enriched with delightful tadpoles, is to meander thro' every part of the paradise.
Melodious wrens are engaged to warble from a
gooseberrybush, and several well-instructed frogs are to croak the bass. Two elegant kittens will bound along the streets,and Miss
Biddy's pied lap-dog Cupie, is to stalk the mammoth of this new
Upon the whole, Miss Biddy is determined, that her
improvements shall be so stupendous; as would overwhelm the
builders of Palmyra, the constructors of the appian way, and William Penn, himself, with shame and confusion were they
present to behold them.
There are not wanting however some captious carping
people, who arraign the economy and prudence of Miss Biddy's
mamma, for going to such enormous expense to gratify a capricious little minx. This, they observe is to be her third baby
house; into a fourth. Besides say they, the old lady should
consider, that at the very moment she is fostering these dreams of
puny splendor, the garden fence itself is by no means secure; for
twice has the great black bull broke through, near the very spot
where Miss Biddy is to be indulged in this wonderful wonder: and,
add they, should he rush thro when the plan is perfected; adieu in a
moment to the palaces, the temples, the obelisks, the naval pillar,
the statues, the triumphal arches -- and -- the unfortunate
gooseberry bush. R(5).
Eliza wrote again(6) to Anne Goodrich on March 28, 1879 to report that sister Susan had
replied to Eliza's letter with the information that while Susan had no first hand knowledge of the
matter either, she agreed that her older brothers had all taught her that the poem was Henry's.
Susan was only a year old, and Eliza about three, when Henry most likely wrote the poem.
Eliza's letter refers to two other members of their correspondence circle, Gertrude Thomas, the
daughter of Henry's daughter Jane, and Jane Livingston Hubbard, the daughter of Henry's son
Charles. Since Anne was the great granddaughter of Henry's daughter Catharine(7) ( twenty-four
years older than Henry's other children), with daughters Eliza and Susan this makes five different
lines of Henry's descendants all sharing a belief in Henry's authorship. We can add two more
lines to that with the addition of the stories of Henry's sons Sidney and Edwin.
In 1900, Cornelia Griswold Goodrich, Anne's sister, wrote to a Henry Livingston whom
she had read was contesting Clement Moore's claim. Her introduction makes clear that she
didn't know his relationship to her, though his name must have been very familiar
In the "Sun" of December 29th 1899 Mr. S.W. Cooper
asks for a solution of the claim of Clement C. Moore to the
authorship of "The Night before Xmas" and cites you as contesting
I am a great-great-granddaughter of Major Henry
Livingston of Po'keepsie, N.Y. and it is a long established belief in
our family that our great g. grandfather was the author. We have
many similar poems of his written in that vein, or rather my cousin,
Miss Gertrude Thomas has, whose Mother was a daughter by the
second wife of the said Henry Livingston. His son Edwin
Livingston had the original poem in manuscript and prized it very
highly but it was destroyed in a fire when out West with all his
Cornelia must have been thrilled when she realized that she had found the son of her
ancestor Henry Livingston's son Sidney!
My father as long ago as I can remember, claimed that his
father 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, or1805. He had the original
manuscript, with many corrections in his possession, for a long
time, and by him was given to his brother Edwin. Edwin's personal
effects were destroyed when his sister Susan's home was burned at
Kaskaskia, Wis., about 1847 or 8.(9)
So now there were seven different lines of Henry's children who believed that their father
was the author of the poem. There were only two other children of Henry's who grew to
adulthood, but neither of those had children to whom the story would have been related, and both
were long dead. From the fact that Cornelia didn't know her cousin Henry, Sidney's son, it's
also clear that the family stories went down the lines of descendants mostly independently of one
another, that is, not all the stories originated with a single story told by a single child.
There were, in fact, three different people who had first-hand memories of Henry reading
the poem - Sidney, Charles, and Charles's wife, Eliza Clement Brewer, the little girl of the
fictional story above. Charles's daughter, Jane Paterson Livingston Hubbard, wrote to Sidney's
son Henry in 1895 to compare their fathers' stories.
Your Father's story of the Christmas poem tallies with mine
except my Father heard it read in the evening. Being older, he was
probably allowed up later, but he had the newspaper in which it
was printed and used to occasionally read it to guests. I am
sixty-six years old and it was one of my earliest remembrances.
Yes, there is no doubt that Grandfather wrote the now famous
Jane's daughter, Jeanne Hubbard Denig, agreed.
My grandmother, Eliza Livingston, lived as a child with her
grandparents Mitchell in their home Russ Plass on the banks of the
Hudson, near Poughkeepsie. The Mitchell property was near the
Livingston property. The two families were on friendly & visiting
terms. ... One Christmas she was present at the Livingston home as
a guest, & heard Henry Livingston read aloud "The Night Before
Xmas" which he had written the night before. ...
My mother, Jane Patterson(11) Livingston, their child, said
all during her early childhood she often listened to "The Night
before Xmas" recited to her by both her parents, who individually
told her that her grandfather Livingston had written the verses.(12)
Because the first attribution of the poem to Moore in 1837(13), and Moore's implied claim
of the poem by including it in his own book(14) in 1844, have such historical importance today, it's
hard to remember that this wasn't big news in New York. The story of Moore having written the
poem wasn't on the evening news, and it wasn't printed in the morning paper. The
Cosmopolitan Art Journal, for example, was still publishing the poem anonymously in 1858(15).
The first time the Livingston family learned that the poem was being attributed to Moore
was, in fact, in 1859 when Jane Livingston Hubbard brought the poem to her mother Eliza,
Charles Livingston's wife.
In 1859 a paper covered edition of it was put upon the
market & it was then grandmother Livingston saw it & was
indignant that it was not attributed to its author, Henry
My mother was greatly excited when the first edition of the
"Night Before Christmas" was published in the name of Clement
C. Moore. She bought a copy & brought it to my grandmother,
who calmly said 'Some one has made a mistake. Clement Moore
did not write the "Night Before Christmas." Your grandfather
Henry Livingston wrote it.'(17)
Sidney's son, Henry Livingston of Babylon, Long Island, said that his side of the family
didn't know of Moore's claim:
... until after 1862, when it was published and credited to
Clement C. Moore. Moore was then a very old man, and died the
same year. It does not appear, however, that he ever laid claim to
the authorship, and it is said he was displeased at first when it was
attributed to him!(18)
What Henry's descendants were doing was coming up with excuses for Clement Moore.
They had trouble believing someone so rich and so prominent would have laid claim to work that
wasn't his. The story of Moore's displeasure with being named as author probably stems from a
commonly told anecdote of Moore being displeased with the poem leaving his household.
By 1859 Moore was eighty years old and well-known in the Episcopal church. Sidney's
granddaughter Julia Livingston had a more cynical explanation for the family's not coming
forward to contradict Moore's claim.
Curious, is it not, that the fame of a great theologian should
rest upon a few rhymes that he probably did not write. It seems
strange, too, that when the lines first appeared in print over
Clement Moore's name, the children of Major Henry Livingston
did not enter a protest. It has been said, however, that they felt
sensitive about disputing any claim made by Mr. Moore. He was in
the Episcopate. They were all loyal to the Church.(19)
It's probably more accurate to say that many of the family were getting their bread and
butter from the church. Daughter Catharine's daughter Susan Breese became the wife of Rev.
Dr. Pierre Alexis Proal, the rector of Utica's Trinity Church. Daughter Jane's husband was Rev.
William Barber Thomas and her son, William Reed Thomas, rose to the level of Episcopalian
Archdeacon. Calling the son of the Bishop of New York's Trinity Church a liar, himself a part-time professor at the Divinity School, was probably not the best way for family members to stay
in good with the church hierarchy.
When Henry Livingston's descendants compared explanations of how the poem moved
from the Livingston household to that of the Moore's, they found similar explanations in the
various descendant lines. The story was that a friend of the Livingstons was traveling south to
become a governess in a Moore household, not necessarily Clement Moore's, and was stopping
off first to spend the Christmas holidays with the Livingstons. When Henry read his poem, the
woman was so pleased that she asked for a copy, which Henry was happy to provide(20). One line
of descendants remembered that she was heading south of New York City(21), and another that she
was Canadian or English(22). Still another version of the story again relieved Moore of any blame
by explaining that its attribution to Moore was a mistake that Moore would have corrected had he
learned of it(23). In this version, the governess visited Moore's home while he was away, and left a
copy of the poem on his desk for his later amusement. Then, someone who assumed that
anything on Moore's desk must be his, picked up the poem and passed it on to the Troy Sentinel.
Its presence in Moore's book of poems was explained away by the incorrect assumption that the
book was published by Moore's family after his death.
Gertrude Thomas, the daughter of Henry's daughter Jane, related an anecdote about one
of the governesses who were always part of the Livingston household when the children were
young. One of these women who had left when the children had grown past the need for a
governess, developed consumption. When the family learned of this, they had her return to
Locust Grove so that they could take care of her, which they did until her death.(24)
But even if Henry's family had been willing to publicly accuse Moore of falsely claiming
Henry's poem, what could they bring forward as proof? The original, corrected manuscript of
the poem was ashes. Gradually, the letters among Henry's descendants died away, and for
awhile it seemed as though the quest to prove Henry's authorship was over.
But into the hole that age was punching through Henry's descendants, another generation
was growing up. Coming back from his military service in WWI, Dr. William Sturges Thomas
picked up the pieces of his civilian life, and took over from the previous generation the
Livingston family quest to prove Henry's case. Embued with an intelligence and passion that
could have come from Henry, himself, Will threw himself into the search for proofs. The family
stories and witness statements had been mostly gathered before his time, but he went back to the
descendants of Henry's children looking for some new thread that might have been missed.
A noted specialist in allergies, Will worked his research passion around his patients and
his family, while fitting in a book on mushrooms, and an article on Revolutionary War
encampments. But it was the search for the Christmas poem proof that fired his soul. Will began
pushing into the corners that no one in the family had yet explored. He haunted libraries and
archives looking for newspapers that might have published the poem before 1823. He corralled
journalists and spread his case out before them, publishing an article on Henry in 1919, which
inspired Cornelia Griswold Goodrich to give a talk on their ancestor to the Poughkeepsie DAR.(25)
But, in the end, what he had just wasn't enough.
Jeannie Denig spoke for all of the Livingston family when she wrote,
Of course Henry Livingston wrote the 'Night Before
Christmas.' Grandmother said he did & others Knew, remembered
all about it. ... This is my only proof. The word of my stately,
truthful, dependable grandmother, Eliza Clement Brewer
But the word of Jeannie's grandmother was not going to count as public proof against
Clement Moore's claim, even if the circumstantial evidence was, in Dutchess County historian
Benson Lossing's words to Cornelia Griswold Goodrich, "as conclusive as that which has taken
innocent men to the gallows."(27) If the case was ever going to be made for Henry Livingston, it
was going to take an entirely different approach to the problem.
Enter literary sleuth Don Foster.
Chapter 2: The Sugar Plums of Henry's Life - Sarah and the Children