Monday, May 16, 2016

Was John R. Livingston a Murderer?

John R. Livingston in later years
        Of Judge Robert R. Livingston’s four sons John R. Livingston is perhaps the most forgotten. His oldest brother Robert helped to found this country. His next brother Henry found success as a soldier. Even his younger brother was a famous politician, serving in congress and on Andrew Jackson’s cabinet. But John is typically known merely as a merchant.

          John was born in 1754. He was the third son of Judge Robert R. Livingston and Margaret Beekman Livingston, and their seventh child overall. When the Revolutionary War broke out John served briefly under his brother-in-law, Richard Montgomery’s command during the expedition against Canada in 1775. He also served briefly at Fort Edward during the summer of 1777.

          Most of John’s time during the war was spent as a merchant. In 1776 he took over his father’s gun powder mill and soon built a second to supply gunpowder to the army. He spent a great deal of time in Boston during the war, buying and selling various war materials.

          But what if there was more to young John? What if he had a cruel streak like his brother Henry?

In 1879 a nearly century old manuscript was published by the New-York Historical Society as A History of New York during the Revolutionary War, and of Leading Events in Other Colonies at That Period. It contained the following disturbing passage:
When the news of the unlucky affair at Trenton arrived at New York, Erasmus Phillips, Esq., Captain of Grenadiers in the 45th Regiment, was there. He immediately set off to join his regiment in Jersey. He was attended by a servant only. As he passed through Princeton he was observed by three persons who were concealed in a house at that place. The house stood upon the road. The Captain was to pass the door. When he came directly opposite, the three assassins fired, and lodged three bullets in his body. He instantly fell from his horse dead. The servant escaped. One of the party who committed the murder, his name shall be mentioned, was a John Livingston, one of the sons of Robert R. Livingston, late one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of the province of New York. This barbarian, in public company, in Middletown, in Connecticut, boasted of this murder as an act of heroism, a noble achievement; and so little remorse had he for his cruel act in which he had taken a principal part that he declared “That Captain Phillips made one of the handsomest corpses he had ever beheld. We stripped him “says he “of all of his clothes and left him naked in the street. I thought” added he “that I should have been obliged to have cut his head off, to get at his diamond stock buckle, but I effected my purpose by breaking his neck, and turning his head topsy-turvy.” This he concluded with a broad laugh, taking off his own stock, and saying, “Behold the buckle, it was worth the pains of breaking a dead man’s neck for.”

Let’s look first at the dead man. Captain Phillips was a captain in the 35th Regiment of Foot, not the 45th. In a history of the regiment compiled in 1873 he is listed as murdered on January 2, 1777 “by some of the country people apparently” although other sources list him as having died the next day at the Battle of Princeton. His will was executed in July of that year and is in the collection of New York Historical. So he definitely existed and died although the how is still in the air.

          As for John, while he would certainly not be called scrupulous, he does not seem to have been a killer. His business deals often trended toward shady but I could not find any contemporary evidence that he was accused of murder in 1777. He traveled to Rhode Island in late 1776 on a business trip but it seems unlikely that he would have been in Princeton, a British-held town, on January 2 in order to murder Phillips. Also, as Princeton was garrisoned by the British army it seems unlikely that the three shots that killed Phillips would have gone uninvestigated long enough to strip the dead man and break his neck.

A pleated neck stock without its buckle
         So where does this accusation come from? Thomas Jones, the author of A History of New York during the Revolutionary War, was a loyalist who prior to the war had been a Supreme Court Judge along with Judge Robert R. Livingston. In 1779 the Act of Attainder stripped Jones of all his land on Long Island and forced him to flee to England along with his wife. His wife, by the way, was Anna DeLancey of the DeLancey family who had been bitter political opponents of the Livingston family for years. So Jones is perhaps not the most unbiased source. In the same book he referred to Chancellor Robert R. Livingston as a “violent partisan”.

          There is one more twist in the publication of the manuscript. The editor in 1873 was Edward Floyd DeLancey, a descendant of the same rival family.

          Did John R. Livingston murder a British officer for his neck stock? Probably not. The rivalry between the Livingstons and the DeLancey family was well-known, possibly even bitter enough to merit a smear campaign of this nature.  But maybe it's John R.'s somewhat shady connections, both during the war and after, make him vulnerable to a story like this.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Well Served: 20th Century Servants at Clermont

Villa Camerata, one of the homes the
Livingstons rented in Italy.
In the early 1920s, the Livingston family spent some five years in Europe, enjoying travel and making sure the two daughters Honoria and Janet got a "Cultural Education."  While they were gone, the Livingstons on their staff to run Clermont's farming operations and care for the buildings.  It was not an uncommon situation.  Wealthy estate owners often had several properties that they traveled between, as well as occasional long vacations, meaning that trusted servants were in charge while they were away.  These estates housed small communities of trusted workers who each had their own lives and stories intimately connected with the property.
In 1926, when the Livingstons were ready to return to the United States, they were looking for a new farm manager.  That's how we meet John Rall. 

"My dear Rall," wrote John Henry Livingston on October 24th, 1926, "I was very glad indeed to hear from Miss Nelly that you are able to come to me."  And he immediately launched into the instructions: keep dry leaves away from the house (a fire hazard the Livingstons knew about all too well), fill the wood shed, and be sure to add "a great deal of kindling."  John Henry left specific instructions for filling the ice house without driving across the lawn so as to prevent damaging the grass.  He ordered an old horse--"Dan"--put down and then reiterated that no harm was to come to the lawn by driving across it while filling the ice house.  John Henry was feeling pretty serious about his grass.

Rall owned a farm in nearby Germantown and was an experienced farm manager.  He had worked for the Clarkson family in that capacity for some ten years before and was also apparently familiar with Clermont from past work.  So he would have been well-prepared to oversee the several hundred acres of Clermont estate that remained by the 20th century, including orchards, vegetable and flower gardens, livestock, hay fields, about five barns, and two or three cottages.  

By mid-November, he and his family had moved into Sylvan Cottage, near Clermont's west gate.  He was to earn $85 a month, plus coal, milk, and use of the cottage.  His wife raised chickens and ducks there for extra income.  She sold them for eggs and meat ($1 per bird in 1928) to neighbors, including other wealthy estate owners like the Clarksons and the Hawkins. 

Sylvan Cottage.  This photo was found in the Rall Collection
at Clermont and most likely shows his family.  note the enclosed yard
to the right, possibly where Mrs. Rall was raising fowl.
At Clermont, Rall joined a small staff.  This was not the old days with 6 or 7 house servants, plus outdoor workers.  The Livingston staff had shrunk over the past few decades, which was happening to a lot of households along the Hudson River and elsewhere.  Rall's closest neighbor on the estate was likely Clarence Jones, who by 1930 lived with his wife and two sons in Clermont Cottage (at right), just around the corner of a one-lane dirt road that lead down the mansion.  An African American man from South Carolina, Clarence was the butler, ultimately in charge of all responsibilities pertaining to the mansion.

John Rall immediately set about the winter duties of the estate.  Along with Floyd Smith, Brown, and Downing (?)--three other Clermont workers--he drained the water from the mansion's pipes in preparation for winter.  Even though the Livingstons were returning to America, they were headed straight to their Aiken, South Carolina house the Band Box, and Clermont's main house would remain unoccupied for the winter.  Clarence headed down south with the Livingstons with them as part of his duties. Floyd moved into Clermont Cottage while he was gone.  Rall hired day workers and cut ice off the little pond, bought some supplies for the horses, and everyone at Clermont presumably hunkered down for the winter.

But at the end of January, John Rall received word that his boss, Mr. Livingston had passed away suddenly from influenza.  Mrs. Livingston was in "shock," and Mr. Livingston's firm and experienced orders were replaced by a kind of flurry of confusion from his widow.  The letter is a particularly poignant one so I'm including a full transcript here:

Dear John,
     I enclose the cheque for you for [January] & the other bills.  The shock of Mr. Livingstons death is too dreadful for us--He was as nearly perfect as one could be.  There is only one thing that helps, & that is to know he was well & active & happy almost to the end, & was spared a long illness & suffering- I had flu, & he got it just as I was getting well, & at first we never dreamed it [would] go wrong, but suddenly, pnuemonioa developed & in a few hours he just stopped breathing, without pain & peacefully.  I dont know how we can go to Clermont without him, but he wanted us to, so we shall-- I hope so you can rent or sell you farm and stay with me--Mr Livingston wanted you- & it [would] be such a help to me if you could -
Yrs Sincerely
     A.D. Livingston

Mrs. Livingston began struggling to find the additional garden help that the estate would need when they returned, asking Rall's help since she was still in Aiken.  

I shall have another man for this summer and would take Raymond from April 1st if he wanted to come for the summer but I cannot have any one this year who wants high wages--$80 is all I could think.  Can Raymond [Rifenburg] drive a car?

A fireplace in the Sylvan
Cottage front room
Mrs. Livingston asked if Mrs. Rall would be able to take on some of the estate's other work: laundry, butter making, milk, raising the chickens and eggs.  She asked Rall to stay on, suggesting that he was already thinking of leaving.  Had this been a winter-only arrangement from the beginning or had the Rall family changed their mind when Mr. Livingston died?

Mrs. Livingston was trying to catch up on all of the little details her husband had always taken care of.  "Please get what help you need for the wood, so there is plenty--I did not know could not do it alone..."  "Can you start vegetable in the green house, & is it time to send you the seeds?  Do you know about planting things, I dont know anything!"  
It wasn't quite true that Mrs. Livingston didn't know anything; she was an avid flower gardener who wouldn't let anyone so much as prepare the beds before she returned from South Carolina.  She repeated this order several times, just to be sure.  It seems likely that her extensive experience with flower gardening made her particularly aware of the value of Rall's expertise with fruits and vegetables.

By the end of February, Rall had made his decision to leave.  "I am so sorry you think you cannot stay, but I understand how you cannot unless your farm is sold," wrote Mrs. Livingston.

"The Ford Car"
Nevertheless, Rall would help her find some staff to work the estate.  it was a flurry communications:  A chauffeur was still needed.  Raymond was almost taken on, but he wouldn't drive the car.  In March Raymond was instead being considered to care for the animals and barns, but he didn't know how to care for the vegetable gardens.  Mrs. Livingston engaged someone from South Carolina to come up and care for the building maintenance, but she still needed someone to drive the car for her.  Brown could move into Sylvan Cottage after Rall and his family moved out--but then that fell through for some reason.  Brown was out.

By March things were still not settled, and Mrs. Livingston was beginning to sound a little desperate.  Who was going to move into Sylvan Cottage?  She couldn't bear to have a stranger in the position.  What if Raymond moved in?  Even if she had to buy her vegetables, instead of growing them at Clermont, maybe that would be better.  She needed someone to care for the animals and the water pump and watch for fires...  The confusion had her "much upset."

Honoria's husband Rex, painting in the 1930s
A few days later, Rall had the situation straightened out for her.  A telegram arrived from Mrs. Livingston on March 26 or 27 that just said "Telegram received very glad to have Claude same terms as Brown."

And just like that, Rall was extricated from Clermont.  Claude moved into Sylvan Cottage.  Floyd had to move back out of Clermont Cottage so Clarence could move in.  There was still no one to drive the car or cut the lawn, but Rall seemed to be largely absolved of the responsibility of finding anyone.  By the end of March, he was back on his farm in Germantown.  Mrs. Livingston didn't even know the address.  She sent him a letter of gratitude, but had to simply send it to the Germantown post office and trust them to get it to him.

By 1931 Sylvan Cottage was empty again.  This time it was slated to become the home for Mrs. Livingston's newly-wed daughter Honoria and her husband.  Mrs. Livingston's other daughter Janet eventually took up mowing the lawn.  Apparently it was a bit of a family novelty; there are several photos of Janet on a lawn tractor.

The little archival box that houses the Rall Collection at Clermont provides an interesting window into life for non-Livingstons at Clermont.  Even though it's too bad that we don't have any of Rall's correspondence back to the Livingstons, we do get a picture of how boss and employee interacted, how tasks were divied up, and just how many men were caring for the property during the time.  Clermont and the other estates along the Hudson Valley were important on a daily basis, not just to the families who owned them, but the men and women who were there for work, building relationships with the people, animals, buildings, and grounds.

As someone who's been working at the site for ten years now, I can totally identify with those people.

Monday, May 9, 2016

From Our Fellow Bloggers: The Hidden Estates of Woods Road

Even though our mailing adress is "Clermont Avenue," Clermont is excellently situated on Woods Road, an enclave of the Livingston family for generations.  To our north and south, hidden behind the dense trees are homes built by the Livingston brothers and sisters.  Have you ever wondered what they look like?  Thanks to our friend--and fellow Woods Road resident--Conrad, now you can find out!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sheep & Wool Showcase at Clermont April 2016

On Saturday, April 23, the rolling hills and river views at Clermont State Historic Site will be alive with the sounds of music and laughter, the smells of hot food, and the brilliant colors of hand-dyed yarns.  The Chancellor’s Sheep & Wool Showcase will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are just $8 per car. Friends of Clermont members pay $6 per car.

The Showcase, one of the historic site’s oldest and most popular annual festivals, has become a springtime tradition for many in the area.  For the first time, the showcase will welcome the hip family band Dog OnFleasThis quirky band plays honest, loose, and ingenious music for kids and their adult counterparts.  Clermont’s music stage will also welcome back Tamarack, playing traditional folk and Celtic music all morning.

More than two dozen independent vendors have registered for the shopping concourse.  Shoppers will be able to find richly-colored knitted and felted shawls, sweaters, and mittens.  There will also be a vibrant array of yarns, roving and fiber supplies, along with clever and useful craft accessories.  Booths bursting with handmade jewelry, pottery, and soaps will tempt guests from every corner.

Clermont’s demonstrations are the centerpiece of the Showcase, illustrating how wool goes from sheep to shawl.  Gather around farmer Fred DePaul as he shears three sheep throughout the day, explaining the history and technique that goes into the task.  Herding demonstrations with the highly-trained border collies of Wild Goose Chase will take place on the historic sheep fold in the afternoon, and the members of the Elmendorf Spinners Guild will be at work all day long.

The Showcase is a great place for children, with stories and crafts happening all day long.  Children can print their own tee shirts with Indian wood blocks or sign their name to the 2016 Showcase Quilt project.  It’s also a great place for them to meet their first sheep!

For more information about the Sheep & Wool Showcase, to volunteer, or for other questions about the Clermont, please call (518) 537-4240 or email

Clermont State Historic Site features the mansion, formal gardens, scenic Hudson River views and miles of hiking trails.  The Friends of Clermont is a private, non-profit educational corporation, founded in 1977 to support and supplement the museum education and historic preservation programs at Clermont State Historic Site.  Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973, Clermont is one of six historic sites and 13 parks administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation in the Taconic Region.  For more information on New York State Parks, please visit our websites at or

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Katharine and Clermont: A Descendant Solves an Old Mystery

Katharine Livingston Timpson has been the subject of much discussion here at Clermont lately.  Katharine's split with her father, John Henry Livingston took her out of the country in 1905, where geography and time misted over many of the details of her life.

But ever since her great-grandson donated a collection of family portraits from England, and then we got reconnected with her grandson in America, we've been unearthing her nearly-lost history.  Most recently we were thrilled to have the inheritance of Clermont itself cleared up for us.

You see, Katharine's grandfather Clermont Livingston (at left) was the estate's owner during the latter half of the 19th century.  His will dictated that the estate be given to his only surviving child, John Henry.  At some point, however, he changed the will to pass the estate to his granddaughter Katharine, bypassing his son, but leaving him life tenancy and spawning a century-worth of rumors as to why.

After he died in 1895, Katharine gave Clermont back to her dad (okay--so actually she sold it to him for $1), but given the up-and-down nature of their relationship, the timing is everything.

If the relationship was in the rocky period of the 1920s, did John Henry push his oldest daughter--who was after 1900 well-established with her own house and a sizable trust fund--into returning the house to him so that it could go to his youngest girls?  Or if it was before 1905, was the relationship was in a good spot when Katharine (at right) sold her childhood home back to her father, and what was the motivation?

After Katharine's grandson found Grandfather Clermont Livingston's will, some of these questions could finally be answered.  Clermont's will did indeed first give the house to his son John Henry, but the will was changed just months after he married his second wife Emily (at left).  So it seems most likely that Emily was--as supposed--the sticking point between father and son.  As a non-Livingston, the possibility of her inheriting Clermont if John Henry pre-deceased her would have been unacceptable.

Looking further into the documents, our friend found us the answer: Katharine sold the mansion back to her father in 1897 "in consideration of love and affection."  A letter from Katharine's son reported that she did this over her father's "protests" so perhaps at the time John Henry had accepted his own father's decision.  Father and daughter had just spent several years together enjoying some international travel (at right in India) so you might imagine that their relationship was in a good place.

So it was after:
--the death of Emily, Katharine's "charming" step mother
--a whole bunch of international travel together
--Clermont was renovation with a new wing and a fancy veranda

And it was before:
--John Henry married his 3rd wife (whom Katharine did not like)
--John Henry's 2nd and 3rd daughters were born
--Katharine got married, had children, and moved away.
--Katharine's finances took a nosedive in the 1920s

Was this before or after John Henry refused his daughter's marriage to an Austrian navy man?  Now that, I just don't know.

Much later, after her father's death in 1927, Katharine (at right) attempted to get the sale of the estate reversed, saying that it had been made "under duress."  That's in direct conflict with the "consideration of love and affection," but after 30 years, Katharine's trust fund had practically run out, and she had five children's futures to secure.  It could be that the pressure lead her to remember the sale with different eyes.

I suppose not all the mysteries are cleared up, but at least now the chronology is clear.