Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Mystery of Serena

There are lots of Livingstons, and each one has a story.  There are so many different Livingston lives in the family tree that even after eight years, I am often surprised when a new one lands in my lap.

That was the way when I received this mysterious letter from Brian Cushing at a Kentucky historic house called Locust Grove:

"I work with Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky. One of the first generation to grow up here, George Croghan, married Serena Livingston, daughter of JR Livingston, ca. 1816-17. I am currently designing a special exhibit on George Croghan's life and, while he is incredibly well documented in extant correspondence, etc, we have very few letters and comparatively little specific information on Serena. We know that the marriage was very troubled, three of their seven children survived, her property was officialy secured as hers in 1844 so that George could not make use of it to pay debts, etc., and that she wound up in San Francisco sometime after George left for the Mexican War in 1846. Does Clermont have any documentation on Serena that may help us paint a more complete picture of her life and side of the story?"

Well then!  I have to admit, the notion of a "troubled marriage" had me curious.  I went to my usual "first source," A Portrait of Livingston Manor, and here is what I found:

Serena was Chancellor Robert R. Livingston's niece.  According to the Livingston Genealogy, Serena was born in 1804, the daughter of Robert's brother John R. (at left) and his delightfully pretty second wife Eliza (below at right).

Serena grew up in New York City and likely spent time in the Hudson Valley with her Livingston family as well.  Her uncle the Chancellor was firmly ensconced at Arryl House; her aunt Janet was all set up in Montgomery Place by 1805.  Other aunts, uncles and distant cousins were scattered around the area as well. 

Portrait also mentions Serena's marriage to George Croghan (pronounced "Crawn"--I've apparently been mispronouncing it for years), but nothing of interest beyond that.  Case closed.  Mystery of the "troubled marriage" yet unsolved.

But then I received a message back from Brian at Locust Grove, and the story got even more interesting:

George, born in 1791, was a hero of the War of 1812.  Apparently he'd shown great promise in the military and was a bit of a celebrity.  He and Serena were married were married in 1816 or 17.

Wait--what?  Do the math.  George was about 24.  He was established financially and appeared to have a good career ahead of him. 

But Serena, SERENA was born in 1804.  That would make her as young as 12 when she got married.  That's seems very young, especially amongst the Livingstons who usually let their girls mature a bit before marrying them off.  Her cousins, Margaret Maria and Betsy, were married when they were about 17 and 18.  Her uncle's wife Nancy Shippen was 18.  Her aunt Gertrude was 22.  Cousin Harriet Livingston Fulton was also 22.  Her aunt Janet (who admittedly married late) was 30.

You get the idea.  Either someone got a date wrong somewhere (see updated post about Serena's age here), or Serena was the youngest Livingston marriage I've yet encountered.  Let's be charitable and say that was born early in 1804 and married late in 1817, making her almost 14 (the image at left shows Serena in her early teens, possibly around the time of her marriage).

At any rate they stayed in the Hudson Valley for as much as a year or two, where young Serena would continue to have the support of her family.  And then they moved to New Orleans and bought a plantation:

"They had the plantation by 1819; supposedly the climate and circumstances did not agree with Serena. We can't be sure what she knew of George's activities beforehand but when he attempted to sell the plantation to a Mr. Bell from New York in 1824, it slowly became apparent to everyone how badly George had been managing his affairs. The horses were dying and emaciated and the sugar works had never been completed because George never payed the workers; one had even gone to debtor's prison for his inability to pay his own debts because of having not been paid by George. By Louisiana state law, there was a lien on the property due to George's non-payment. Caroline Bell described George and Serena as leaving the area by night by boat to escape the sheriff. They went to Kentucky, where a militia captain guaranteed George's safety (apparently against extradition).  George was still a celebrity due to his August, 1813 defense of Ft. Stephenson. It's no wonder Serena was impressed when he showed up in New York in ca. 1816."

So let me get this straight.  Serena, now at the ripe-old age of 20, and responsible for two young children (she had already lost 4 in infancy), escaped with her husband in the dark of night.  Did the children go with them on this daring escape?

I'm willing to bet that this is not what Serena had bargained for--or what her parents had expected when they married her off to a prominent war veteran.  It took only five years for George to run the plantation into the ground.  For the first three years, her uncle Edward was not too far away at a plantation in New Orleans.  Had anyone known?  Surely dieing horses would be visible.  Had George ever let on about the state of things?  Did Serena ever write of these troubles to her family?  If she did, the papers were surely burned to maintain privacy.

And the story continues.  George somehow managed to go back--though Serena didn't or wouldn't join him:

"Against his older brother's advice and with the help of Andrew Jackson, George was Postmaster of New Orleans beginning as early as 1824 but certainly by 25. Somehow, he was able to go back without facing the consequences he fled from but he was struggling to settle the financial catastrophe left by the plantation deal. Serena eventually joined him in New Orleans; this time, they got to live in the city in a house provided by the Post Office.

It was during this time that George was wrangling with William Henry Harrison over what he felt was insufficient recognition for his actions at Ft. Stephenson. He was also looking for a way into a high ranking position in the army and accepted the office of Inspector General in February 1826; his reputation seems to have suffered by this point. Before he could leave New Orleans, however, there was an audit of the Post Office which revealed that George had been embezzling funds.

Here George's life seems to take a serious nosedive.  Not knowing his status or how on earth he ever got to this state of affairs (and maybe he didn't either), I can only view the next chapter of his life with compassion for both him and Serena:

Correspondences at that point seem to indicate that George attempted suicide but references to it are often vague.  By December of 1826, Serena was caring for George in Philadelphia and referred to him recovering from the "wounds" on his arms. Since she referred to plural wounds, I believe this indicates he attempted to cut his wrists. Serena seems to have been instrumental in keeping the whole thing quiet and George got to keep his job with the army.

What followed was years of struggling with money, borrowing from others, relatives doing whatever they could to help George financially, while he just spiraled deeper into debt. Reports eventually circulated that revealed whenever George was on tour with the army out of the site of Serena or family members, he was drinking heavily (described as "beastly drunk") and gambling. He was even described in one letter as having become an "object of disgust" in one location. His brother in law, Thomas Jesup, could not send his own daughters to school one season because of all of the money he had given to George. George and Serena were unable to send their own son, St. George, to school at one point. George narrowly escaped court martial but in May 1841, Serena confided in George's brother John about George's behavior to which John responded that he was afraid of George committing a "shocking act."

...By 1842, some sort of separation seems to have taken place, as George was mostly living with his brother John at Locust Grove [at right] ... but Serena was not. She did come and go, however, and [she] and George did spend time together."
Where were the children during all of this?  Her son St. George was 20 in 1842, and his older sister was likely married, but his younger sister Serena Eliza was only 10.  I assume she with Serena (the mother), who was traveling between her Livingston family and her husband.  And what was the effect of all of this on the children?
"George had stopped drinking during this period and even joined a temperance society in Louisville. The repercussions of George's past actions loomed but he did not loose his rank. In October 1844, one of the Livingstons helped secure Serena's property for her so that George would have no control over it. He left for the Mexican War in 1846 and died of cholera in New Orleans in 1849, three days before his brother John."
This seems like a hard tale of a life that got out of control: gambling, drinking, and failure to maintain household after household.  I see repeated "do overs"--times when George tried to start again as the Post Master of new Orleans, by returning to the army, financial help from family members, even joining a temperance society to find an end to his drinking.  But these "do overs" seem to have only been short-term fixes for a long-term problem in his life that may never have been solved.

And what was Serena's take on all this?  Initially, at least, she was dragged along--a young woman racing along through the dark to escape her husband's mistakes.  As a woman, her rights were few.  She could not take over the finances, and divorce would mean that her children would be left with a man she clearly felt she couldn't trust.

Later she tried to resist being pulled down with him.  This began when she tried not to more with George back to New Orleans in 1825.  By the time she was 40, Serena was building walls around herself to protect her from George's continuing downward spiral.  She used family assistant to separate her money from his in 1844.  She found safety in distance by staying with her family in New York--but still she visited him in Kentucky, and they even conceived another child as late as 1832.  Was this wifely duty?  Or was it a woman conflicted and powerless to help a man she loved when he was bent on self-destruction?

Even the last image we have of her is in question.  It was painted in the 1840s, when Serena was around 40 years old.  With its harp and music, even the slightly out-of-date hair style, it is a reference to Serena's earlier portrait in the red dress (see above).  Nevertheless, the hair is blonde, and the face seems ageless--it could be either Serena or her daughter Serena Eliza, now 20.

Without Serena's own words, the answers may never be known.  The scandals of alcoholism and debt and suicide attempts were concealed, and along with them we've lost any hope of reassembling a full picture of the story.  Much of Serena's life will remain a mystery.


  1. In the 80's my mom was a docent at Locust Grove. I remember they told stories of a ghost there which they referred to as Lady Serena. They said she tried to push people down the stairs. Sounds like just a story since Serena didn't really live there full time but I was always fascinated back then.

  2. That IS a fun story! I do hope that if she did have a ghost, it would be so angry as all that though... :)