In my hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, sits Locust Grove, the original estate of artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse. The estate was purchased in 1771 by Henry Livingston, Jr.
According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, “Livingston began to write poetry following the death of his wife, Sarah, in 1783. Livingston, remarried in 1793 and continuing to live at Locust Grove, wrote primarily for his family’s and friends’ enjoyment, although some of his work was published in local newspapers and in New York Magazine.“
Family records show that Livingston had written a special poem in 1808 for his family and guests. On Christmas morning, Livingston read to them, A Visit from St. Nicholas which began ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house …”
Livingston made a copy of the poem for a guest who was employed as a governess for Clement C. Moore, a wealthy scholar in New York City.
Then on Dec. 23, 1823, the poem was published anonymously in the Sentinel, a Troy, N.Y. newspaper.
Henry Livingston died in 1828 and 16 years later, Moore included A Visit from St. Nicholas in a published volume of his own poems.
Thus began a controversy that has existed for more than 165 years — much to the distress of Livingston’s descendants. But in 1999, Mary Van Deusen (Livingston’s seventh-generation descendant), sought help from Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar College and a scholar of authorial attribution.
In his book, Author Unknown, Foster accuses Moore of committing literary fraud with circumstantial evidence – the poem’s spirit and style are at odds with Moore’s other writings.
The New York Times published the entire case in its Arts section on Oct. 26, 2000 : Whose Jolly Old Elf Is That, Anyway? — Literary Sleuth Casts Doubt on Authorship of Iconic Christmas Poem
“It was determined that the style of ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ was completely consistent with Livingston’s work and really not typical for poetry written by Moore,” said Locust Grove Executive Director Kenneth Snodgrass [to the Poughkeepsie Journal].
“Having learned the great news about Henry Livingston and the poem, we launched our children’s holiday programming around it,” said Ursula Morgan, Locust Grove’s director of public programs.
Twas the night Before Christmas
When all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse
The stockings all hung
By the chimney with care
That St. Nicholas
Soon would be there
The children were nestled
All safe in their beds
While visions of sugarplums
Danced in their heads
And mom in her kerchief
And I in my cap,
Had just settled down
For a long winters nap
When out on the lawn
There arose such a clatter
I sprang from my bed
To see what was the matter
Away to the window
I flew like a flash
Tore open the shutters
And threw up the sash …
“HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!”