I came across Henry Livingston quite by accident, while searching for my father's poetry.
I was from one of the branches that had been chopped off the family tree. Few people know their
family trees back past their great grandparents. I have a theory about that. Most people lose their
grandparents when they're young, and the stories they remember are the ones most often told.
Since people speak more of their own parents, and less of their grandparents, the stories we
remember from our grandparents are those of our great grandparents. And there, for most of us,
our ancestry ends. But for me, it stopped with father.
Father was Major Bradley TenEyck Van Deusen, an ROTC rifle instructor and a happy
host for the Greenwich Village literarti of New York City. Tiger, as he had styled himself while
boxing for the army, was also a poet. Mother worked in a department store credit department.
Her other job was closing down father's party every evening after getting home from work.
Father was large and loud and happy. Unless he was drunk. And then he'd threaten to
fall on his sword. Her part in the drama was to take the sword away. Mother was the goddess of
father's life, the muse that he worshipped, and the woman of whom he wrote. Mother would
have preferred him to bring home bread with some regularity.
The world they shared was larger than life. It played out in bumbling misunderstandings
and glorious emotions -- at least, on father's side. When father left town for a rifle match, he
made arrangements with two gentlemen of Italian extraction to watch over mother, but forgot to
mention it to her. For three days she was followed around New York by large, silent men. When
father returned and explained, he was lucky she didn't shish-ka-bob him onto his sword.
During one of the constant parties that filled their apartment, the topic of prostitutes was
raised. Mother was forced to admit that she had never met a woman of that profession. Not very
long after, one of the partygoers slipped out. He returned with a young lady of bright lipstick and
nervous eyes. Mother was quietly furious. After serving the young woman tea and cookies, she
had the young man escort her back and, when he returned, reamed him up one side and down the
other for embarrassing the girl.
With my birth, mother decided that the party was over. At the tender age of 6 weeks,
Mother bundled me into my blue carrier and carried me home to her parents. Though father
didn't know it when he put us on the train, mother's intended destination was divorce court.
Father begged her to come back, but mother could never forgive him for being an
alcoholic. Over time and years apart, her anger with him grew until it became impossible for her
to talk of him. I was an adult before I learned that he had died in my childhood. What little I
knew of him came from letters he had written begging mother to come back. They were
tragically sad letters, written with a passion and a style that touched me deeply.
I remember the touch and the feel of you. I remember the
passion you had for cokes and mysteries and the look of you
coming down the street to meet me. I remember so much. I wish to
God I could forget it. You are the only woman I have ever loved --
there have been others, yes, but you are the only one who has been
of any importance to me. Oh Dearest, let's have our home and our
books and our quietness and the laughter over small things. Let's
go back and do all that we had planned.
Love me again, Jean, before I give up all that has been.(2)
In his despair, father confessed that he had destroyed his manuscripts.
I haven't written nor do I think I shall ever write again. I've
lost the touch and the desire. I don't give a damn if posterity ever
hears of me. I destroyed all my MSS several years ago. The future,
rough as it may be, can do without me. My dreams, my emotions
have all gone for nothing so why try again. So -- I'm a quitter. So
That despair lit a fire in me, and a determination that the future would not do without
him. Nor would I! I needed to make father live again, if only in my mind, and I knew the words
that would make it happen would be found in his book of poetry.
While in her last year of college, mother had interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert
Frost for the school paper, and had given both of them copies of father's poetry book. But it was
likely that whatever remained of those volumes was today buried deep beneath some landfill.
Visits to libraries turned up no reference to father, and hours spent staring at microfiche of The
Maroon, the University of Chicago newspaper where mother said father had published, brought
nothing but headaches.
It was desperation that turned me to genealogy -- the hope that father might have given a
copy of his book to a relative. I started my search having only the obituary of his mother,
Catharine Van Deusen, which explained that she was the daughter of Henry Burnett, and was
descended from Henry B. Gibson of Canandaigua NY. That and the fact that her pallbearers
were the Governor of Colorado and three generals!
New York being closer to our home in Boston, my husband and I went to Canandaigua to
start our search. As we drove down Gibson Street, I couldn't help but wonder.
Henry Bicker Gibson was one of the richest men in western New York, with a bank, a
canal company, the town of Port Gibson, and two railroads, the second of which had merged with
a number of others to form the New York Central. He put his train station in his backyard
because he enjoyed timing the trains going by. The church next door was less thrilled, since the
train went through Gibson's yard during Sunday services.
To say I was shocked by what I was learning is to put it mildly.
Henry Burnett was harder to track down. It took a children's book on Civil War generals(4)
to find the man. When President Lincoln had been assassinated, then Colonel Henry Lawrence
Burnett had been called to Washington to help organize the search for the assassins.
The gloom of that journey to Washington and the feeling of
vague terror and sorrow with which I traversed its streets, I cannot
adequately describe, and shall never forget. To this day, I never
visit that City without some shadow of that dark time settling over
my spirit. All the public buildings and a large portion of the private
houses were heavily draped in black. The people moved about the
streets with bowed heads and sorrow-stricken faces, as though some
Herod had robbed each home of its first born.
When men spoke to each other in the streets, there were
tremulous tones in their voices, and a quivering of the lips, as
though tears and violent expression of grief were held back only by
great effort. In the faces of those in authority -- Cabinet ministers,
officers of the army, -- there was an anxious expression of the eye
as though a dagger's gleam in a strange hand was to be expected;
and a pale determined expression, a set of the jaw that said: "The
truth about this conspiracy shall be made clear and the assassins
found and punished: we will stand guard and the Government shall
Once Lincoln's assassins were caught, great grandfather became one of the special judge
advocates for the trial and, afterwards, put together the records of the manhunt and trial.
The idea that history might have something to do with me had never entered my head.
History might be intellectually interesting, but it was musty and green with the mold of centuries,
and I saw no relevance to the past in my present. The gargoyles on the church were lovely, but the
call of lunch could erase them from my mind in a heartbeat. But now, suddenly, it was as though
the television show "You were there!" had become real.
Great grandfather was buried high on a hill overlooking his horse farm, beneath a huge
granite monument which he had had built himself. Several stairs lead up to a narrow walkway
backed with low walls adorned with carved rosettes. In the middle is a tall area on which is
carved the name BURNETT. Nothing else. Just some holes to show where once had been
attached a large bronze plaque that must have given his name, and something of his history. The
plaque had been stolen, and the stairs had become overgrown with years of dirt and leaves.
Great grandfather had wanted to be remembered but, like father, he had disappeared.
I clipped the trees, and cleaned the steps of the General's grave. I searched for anyone
who might have known what was written on the plaque, and I tried to find the company that had
cast it. In the end, all that I could do was stand by his grave and tell great grandfather that now
that I knew, at least there was someone who would remember him.
I'd given up by now the hope that I would find a copy of father's book, and had settled for
trying to see some distorted reflection of the man in his ancestors. From General Burnett I
traveled up the tree to his wife Sarah's father, Brig. General Henry Livingston Lansing. Henry
Lansing's parents were Barent Bleecker Lansing and Sarah Breese, and one branch higher took
me to Sarah's parents. And that's when I butted my head into Arthur Breese and Catharine
Livingston. In the world of Dutch New York, Catharine could just as well have been Jane Doe for
all the luck I had tracking her down.
As I do when I get stuck, I reached out for help. The person
to whom I reached was Bob Livingston, the Louisiana congressman. The day after I sent him
email asking about Livingston family associations, the phone rang. I answered it and a deep male
voice said, "Hello. Welcome to the Livingston family!" That was Bob Livingston. After that,
finding Catharine's father was easy.
Henry Livingston, like father, was a poet and a Major in the army. And, if you believed
the Internet, he was also, possibly, the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas.
For years, we've had a Christmas party with guests coming from halfway across the
country to join us in Boston. We always intend to get our tree up before company arrives, but
somehow there's always something else that needs doing. With all the comings and goings of the
gang, the next thing we know Christmas is over and the tree is still leaning against the back porch
door. No matter. We can almost always guarantee to get the tree up by New Year's Day. Of
course, by then, everyone else in the neighborhood is taking theirs down, but my husband and I
enjoy Christmas so much that we really don't want it to end. Luckily, Boston winters are long
enough, and cold enough, that the season doesn't have to. Because the tree sits in a room whose
heat can be turned on and off, we keep the tree fresh until April, and sometimes May, providing
months of pleasure for us, and endless amusement to our neighbors.
It was on a May day in 1999 that I found myself thinking about Henry Livingston as I
followed Rev. David R Jette, my guide and Trinity's Head Verger, through his New York City
churchyard. While we searched for another of my ancestral poets, Sidney Breese, I brought up the
story of Henry's possible authorship of the Christmas poem By coincidence, Clement Moore was
also buried there, and Rev. Jette was the very person in charge of the candlelight procession to
Moore's grave, a procession that ended with a reading of the famous poem. That conversation
reawakened my interest in Henry, and I decided to take a closer look at the poem's authorship.
An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas, the poem more commonly known as The Night
Before Christmas, has been a classic since its first appearance in the Troy Sentinel in 1823. The
poem was published anonymously and, as excitement over the verses grew, everyone wanted to
know the name of the author. In 1837, a biblical scholar in New York City, Clement Clarke
Moore, allowed his name to be attached as author. He included the piece in his own book,
Poems, apparently putting the issue to rest.
But there was a problem.
For at least fifteen years before the poem ever saw the light of a Troy New York day, a
group of children had heard Henry Livingston recite that very same poem. But over the next 180
years, the family voices would be drowned out by Moore's claim of authorship.
Henry was born on October 13, 1748 in Poughkeepsie New York, a small Dutch town on
the Hudson River. The great grandson of Robert Livingston, the first Lord of Livingston Manor,
Henry was from a family that was still at the center of New York politics. His own branch of the
family was not as well-to-do as several others, but it was a close family, tied together with bonds
of affection, as well as by deeply held religious beliefs. Someone who could always find a way to
call the glass half-full instead of half-empty, Henry relished his country existence and loved the
life he led on the banks of the Hudson. If there was information to be found on Henry, I knew
where I'd have to go to find it.
The Poughkeepsie Holiday Inn Express is located directly across Route 9 from the
Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery. Normally, this wouldn't be one of the qualities I'd look for in a
hotel, except that this particular cemetery used to be the farm of Henry's father, another Henry,
and it's where the Livingston clan is buried. Their section is located far from the entrance and
shielded from the rest of the cemetery by a stand of tall trees. There, in a small, secluded plot of
land, march the gravestones of over sixty of my ancestors, aunts, uncles and cousins.
When you stand in any church where your ancestors once worshiped, you can almost feel
those long dead men and women there beside you. Marriages, baptisms and funerals - the highs
and lows of their lives - all witnessed and preserved by the walls and stained glass windows of
that place. Sit quietly, and you can hear the murmur of their laughter and the sobs of their pain.
A graveyard is different. There are no walls to hold in the voices of the mourners and their
voices would be, anyway, blown away by the wind. And so you're left to listen, instead, to each
single voice beneath each separate stone. It was there at his grave, introducing myself, that my
relationship with Henry Livingston really began.
Within a few months I would be drawn by that relationship into a quest to prove that this
long dead ancestor of mine had really been the writer of a poem that I had read every year of my
life. The trail would take me back through two centuries, into a time when George Washington
was spoken of in the present tense! The trip, itself, was pure joy because I had company every
step of the way -- Don Foster, cousin Stephen Livingston Thomas, my husband Paul Kosinski,
cousin and fellow University of Chicago alumni Edward Nicholson (A.B. '33), Lyn Bates, Vicky
Clark, Gail Sabin, Tricia Deneault, Roger Lanny, cousins Pat Morse McNeely and Mary Keckhut,
and countless other friends and family who made the work easy and the time fly.
Research institutions have been limitless with their help and encouragement. The first one I visited, the Dutchess County Historical Society, contains simply massive information on the history of Poughkeepsie, neatly organized into an unbelievably detailed index, with staff and volunteers whose knowledge of the area is encyclopedic. Without their initial help, Henry Livingston would have remained unrecognized beyond Poughkeepsie. Also in Poughkeepsie is the Adriance Library, where was discovered an original copy of Henry's 1819 Carriers' Address from the Poughkeepsie Journal. Their Poughkeepsie newspaper microfilms are invaluable.
Carnegie Mellon's Anne Lyon Haight collection of Night Before Christmas information, in Pittsburgh PA, was extremely useful in finding early versions of the famous poem, and their staff was exceptional. The New York Historical Society, in New York City, is the repository of some of the William Sturges Thomas collection of papers, and also has Henry's original day book, a manuscript which gives insight into day to day life in the Livingston family. The American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester MA, has an excellent collection of early books and newspapers, as well as enthusiastic volunteers who really enjoy both research and researchers.
My thanks to all those who provided the foundations on which this work was built.
Without Don Foster's faith that he could discover the truth, the Livingston women's
attempts in the 1880's to gather proofs of Henry's authorship, William Sturges Thomas's lifetime
devotion to the search, W. Stephen Thomas's publicizing of the authorship conflict, and Steve
Thomas's carrying on of the family tradition and generous sharing of the witness letters and
writings of Henry that were donated to his father and grandfather by innumerable descendants of
Henry who wanted Henry's story to be told, this quest would never have succeeded.
As all good research must, each published fact generates a question to be answered, and
each splash of publicity brings forward someone with another piece of the puzzle that opens up
another path to take.
But that's for tomorrow. For today, there's the world of Henry and his writing to pull out
of Santa's pack and lay before you. I think you'll find Henry quite the jolly old elf, with points of
view as fresh as new fall'n snow and ideas as sweet as sugar plums. But keep a watch out for that
winking eye of his. Henry's writing is so often tongue-in-cheek, you'll wonder that his tongue
doesn't get stuck there!