Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Belsnickel: The Furry Palatine Giftgiver

Today we have Santa Claus. The English had St. Nicholas and the Dutch had Sinterklaas. But what did the Palatine children  of the Hudson Valley believe in during the 18th and 19th century?

The answer in a word, Belsnickel.

The answer in a photo:

There are several variations of the spelling including Pelznickel, which would seem the most likely as "Pelz" in German means fur and Nickel is probably related to Nicholas.

Nevertheless Belsnickel is a  crotchety man dressed in dirty clothes and furs, usually with his face disguised, who is both the gift bringer and the child punisher in the Palatine region of Germany. The legend originated sometime in the middle ages and sometimes his fur hat has deer antlers which allude to a pagan origin to the character. He is also different from other variations of Christmas characters in that he combines the threatening and benign aspects of a Christmas spirit.
The basic tradition is thus; sometime between St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve, Palatine children would hear a tapping at their window at night and suddenly Belsnickel would burst through the door. He would be carrying a sack of presents and a switch. (Belsnickel was the first of the Christmas characters to distinguish between good and bad children) The children of the house would be lined up and asked if they were good that year, in some cases they would be asked to recite something from school or a passage from the bible. If they succeeded they got a present from the sack. If they lied about being good or couldn't do their recitation they got a whack from the switch. 

In another variation, Belsnickel would scatter presents on the floor. If the children waited for permission they could dive in a grab the presents. If they dove in greedily without permission then Belsnickel walloped them all with his switch.  

It has been difficult to find traces of Belsnickel in the Hudson Valley but his legend lived on, particularly in the Pennsylvania Dutch. Perhaps in the Hudson Valley the Dutch and English influence drove him out earlier. Belsnickel all but disappeared in the first half of the 20th century thanks to two world wars where Germany was the bad guy. Suddenly many people of Deutch descent became Dutch and many German traditions were quietly swept under the rug. 

Belsnickel has seen a resurgence in recent years. He now features in several holiday festivals in Pennsylvania and  even appeared in an episode of "The Office" a few years ago. 

So perhaps this year as children in the Hudson Valley prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus they should listen carefully for a tapping on their window. It just may be Belsnickel checking to see if they have been naughty or nice. 

POST SCRIPT
At a birthday party on New Year's Day I spoke to my great-aunt about this Belsnickel blog. She was raised in Elizaville, outside of Germantown. She like many of her neighbors is a Palatine descendant. She did not know of Belsnickel but remembers as a young girl in the late 1930's and '40s a neighbor coming to their house on Christmas Eve, first tapping on the windows with a stick and then coming in dressed in furs with his stick and bag of presents. He wore something on his head but she could not remember what it looked like exactly. She did remember it "scared the hell" out of her. When she was about 7 she decided to confront him to prove she wasn't scared of him but as soon as the door opened and he stood there in his dirty furs she ran and leaped into the lap of her aunt, who though the whole thing was hilarious. 

To make a long story short this is a great example of the Belsnickel legend being kept alive in the Hudson Valley well into the Twentieth Century even though the name wasn't used after World War I. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Warts and All: How "That" Uncle At Your Holiday Dinner Is More Like A Livingston Than You Might Think

         
    
       The upcoming holidays have me thinking a lot about the complicated relationships we have with other people. Most people love their families, but we can all think of that one cousin or uncle who always says something weird that makes us uncomfortable during dinner, the family member whose opinions are completely out of touch with those of everyone around them. It does not make us hate them completely although it may make us want to throw yams at them. We accept family warts and all.

By the way, if you can’t think of "that" family member then I’ve got some bad news for you.
Especially if your facial hair looks anything like this



Anyway, we have a similar situation when looking at historical figures. They can be held as paragons in one hand and terrible people
in the other.  The classic examples that are always brought up are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, leaders in American freedom, held enslaved people. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston also held enslaved people over the course of his life. When he traveled to Philadelphia to attend Congress, he always brought at least one enslaved man who would act as his body man. At the same time the Chancellor was also an early member of the New York Manumission Society, which worked to end slavery in New York. He even waffled a bit on the issue in his will, which called for his enslaved people to be freed but only if it was convenient for his wife Mary.
          
       We see more biases pop up from other members of the family as well.Margaret Beekman Livingston was a highly respectable woman. She ran a highly successful estate for twenty-five years following the
death of her husband, including rebuilding it from almost nothing following its destruction by the British. She raised ten highly successful children. Yet when her daughter Catherine wanted to get married Margaret refused to give her consent for years. She had no objections to the character of the man in question or his ability to support her daughter. She objected to the fact that he was a Methodist.
         
      Perhaps the most controversial character in the family’s history is Henry Beekman Livingston. No one disputes that Henry was a successful army officer from the time he joined the army in 1775 until he resigned in 1779. It’s after his marriage to Nancy Shippen that he became controversial. In her journal Nancy accused Henry of being a violent tempered paranoid who ruthlessly and systematically ruined her life. Some historians have even inferred from the journal that there may have some abuse in the relationship.
         
       On the other hand, there are documents that show that after
Nancy left him that Henry met Maria Van Clief. Henry and Maria had three children, John, Harriet and Charles. Although Henry and Maria never married Henry never denied the children were his. Maria died in 1809. During both the Jefferson and Madison administrations, Henry tried to get John an appointment in the army by writing directly to the presidents. Failing that he sent him to law school. Harriet never married and lived with Henry until his death. Charles was described by his uncle, Freeborn Garretson, as having an “imbecile mind.” From what we know Charles was in some way developmentally disabled, but Henry took care of him until he died. Sadly, Charles died only a month after his father.
          
        So, what does the hypocrisy, bias and other family problems tell us about the Livingston and about the other founders? It tells us they were people. Real people. They were not merely the marble statues and Gilbert Stuart paintings we are left with today. They were real people with problems, complicated thought processes, changing opinions and feelings. They did not do the things they did so that we could deify and worship them 250 years later but so that they could live the best lives they could in their own time. Sometimes they did things right and sometimes they did things wrong.
         
       It’s important to remember this as we enter into the season of family gatherings. Remember that we accept our family warts and all and most importantly refrain from throwing the yams. 
Do Not Disrespect The Yams

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Honneur Aux Armes: A Livingston's Skill With the Sword

Usually when we talk about swashbuckling sword wielding adventures on this blog we are talking about Henry Beekman Livingston or Richard Montgomery in the Revolutionary War or Captain William Kidd the pirate. But none of them could hold a candle to the greatest swordsman, or should I say swordswoman, the family ever had.


She will cut you
That's right, Janet Cornelia Livingston.

The younger daughter of John Henry and Alice Livingston. Born in 1910, Janet was always a bit different than her sister Honoria. A little more tomboyish.

When the family moved to Italy in 1921 so the girls could receive a European education and finishing, Alice probably envisioned the girls learning the classics, art and languages. 

Eleven year old Janet liked swords. 

Luckily the family indulged her and allowed her to take lessons with a fencing master. A year later she earned her diploma from that instructor.

Janet's fencing diploma



Janet was a really good fencer though. Her instructor happened to be an officer in the French army so he put her through some more rigorous training which she handled with skill and grace.

This is the part where he asks her not to hurt him

Seriously this guy was either brave or stupid to fence without a mask

I mean she is clearly going for his eyes here

She passed with flying colors and earned another certificate.

He's standing in profile so you cant see his new eye patch

One of the most amazing parts about this is clearly Janet's hat, which never moved during all the fencing


This one certified that she had met the fencing qualifications for the French Army Regiment stationed at the Armory of Saint-Raphael


Oddly enough Janet's interests changed and though she probably could have pursued fencing, as it was added to the Olympics as a women's sport just two years later in 1924 she chose not to. She went on to become an accomplished horsewoman, learned to drive and in later years even learned to fly and got her pilots license.

Yet the swords were never far away and the pair used in the above photos, or at least a pair of foils extremely similar to those above are in Clermont's collection today, having been given to the museum by the Livingston family when the house became a historic site. 


Sunday, July 21, 2019

Edward Livingston and the Alien and Sedition Acts

John Adams’ term as President is not a high point of American history. In fact, with the Alien and Sedition Acts, he and the Federalists managed to pass some of the most un-American legislation in history. Forget four score and seven years, the Federalists could not wait twenty years before they tried to create a dictatorship.
          The Alien and Sedition Acts essentially allowed John Adams to imprison or fine any one he wanted. Specifically, the Sedition Act allowed the President to imprison or fine anyone who criticized the government. The Alien Acts allowed for the imprisonment or fining of anyone born in another country. The Naturalization Act, which is also lumped in with this other nonsense, raised the years of residency from five to fourteen in order to become a citizen of the country.
          The Federalists claimed that new immigrants were harming the country. European radicals were coming to America to start the next French Revolution! Harrison Gray Otis, a Massachusetts Federalist congressman, exclaimed that there was no need to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, not the turbulent and disorderly of all the world to come here with a basic view to distract our tranquility.”[i] The truth of course was that new immigrants had proven more likely to vote for the Democratic-Republican party and the Federalists had to do something about the erosion of their power.
          So why was this attempt to discourage immigration so un-American? Let’s take a look at the Declaration of Independence. You know the document that John Adams supposedly helped to write? Although the fact that he signed these Acts into law makes one wonder if he ever even read it. After you get past the Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness part, the Declaration becomes a list of complaints against King George III. One of them reads as follows:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
To put it simply, the idea the immigrants are welcome here, necessary here, is one of the founding principles of the United States of America. Unanimous, indisputable, right there on the parchment.
When the Alien Friends Act was read before Congress in May of1798, Edward Livingston gave it a stinging, three-hour long rebuke on the floor. Newspaper accounts of his speech would take up ten full columns. This earned him the scorn of Abigail Adams who wrote; “we want more Men of Deeds, and fewer of Words.”[ii] Of course the Adams had hated the Livingstons for more than two decades at this point and Abigail was always quick to defend her husband.
         
And he did need defending. In the speech Edward Livingston called out the Federalist party for trying to “complete the picture of tyranny” by giving John Adams the power to dispose of his enemies with no oversight. Several journalists were imprisoned or fined under the Sedition Act for criticizing Adams’ administration. The Alien Act would allow him to do the same to others based solely on their place of birth and the President’s “present interest or passion”
          Having shown over the course of his three-hour lecture that the bill was “at war with the fundamental principles of our government” Livingston and the other Democratic-Republicans could only hope they had swayed enough of the majority Federalists that the bill would not move forward. They had not and the bill moved on and was eventually signed into law.
          What were the implications of this? In the short term, John Adams lost his
reelection bid in 1800 making him the first president voted out of office for attempted despotism. Thomas Jefferson became president and most of the acts were allowed to expire. The imprisoned were released and fines were eventually returned.
          The Alien Enemies Act languished on the books for more than a century. Then another particularly virulent cycle of xenophobia hit, and the Act was dusted off by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II. He used it to round up Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants and put them in concentration camps. This action has been almost universally condemned.
          It is a sad fact that throughout the history of the United States of America fearmongers have used the threat of a dangerous “other” to garner more power for themselves. America has always been fortunate though that there have been good people to stand up and fight when xenophobes try to seize power.




[i] Morison, Samuel Eliot Harrison Gray Otis 1765-1848 The Urbane Federalist Houghton Mifflin Company Boston 1969 p 108
[ii] “Abigail Adams to William Smith, 10 June 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-12-02-0095. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Adams Family Correspondence, vol. 12, March 1797 – April 1798, ed. Sara Martin, C. James Taylor, Neal E. Millikan, Amanda A. Mathews, Hobson Woodward, Sara B. Sikes, Gregg L. Lint, and Sara Georgini. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015, pp. 154–156.]

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Livingston Connection

The former historian of the town of Hyde Park
The Livingstons and the Roosevelts had various connections through blood and marriage. They also have much in common with regards to our nation’s history. Both families had ventured over from the Netherlands in the 17th century and formed a life in the colony’s early beginnings. They both worked their way up in society through a mixture of hard work, good luck, and smart marriages. They both worked in some way with the birth of our nation during the years of the Revolution. Like all families, they each had their share of ups and downs which included everything from triumphant political careers, to dubious business methods, and from happy romances, to heartbreaking battles with addiction. And of course, who can forget, they both had a tendency to marry their cousins.

The Livingstons and Roosevelts were incredibly proud of their history, and some of them even went on to become historians and genealogists in their own right. Edwin Brockholst Livingston wrote a lengthy history of the family in 1910. Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped create the Dutchess County Historical Society in 1914 and served at the Historian of his native Hyde Park. John Henry and Alice Livingston endeavored to bring together as much of the family history as possible at Clermont with portraits, furnishings, and artifacts of all sorts. They filled the oldest and longest lasting of all the family’s homes, with historic treasures almost as if they were preparing the home to become some sort of museum. (Hmm)

Mrs. Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt was aware of that history, at least the gist of it. She happened to be both a Roosevelt (on her father’s side) and a Livingston (on her mother’s side). In 1950 she attended the funeral of a family member at St. Paul’s church in Tivoli where she wandered around to look at the memorials on the walls,

St. Paul's in Tivoli
“There is one to Chancellor Livingston and one to his brother, Edward P. Livingston. As you looked at the tablets and wandered around the churchyard you realized how very largely this community represented one family with its branches extending out to many communities.” – My Day July 13th, 1950

Eleanor was the Great-great-great granddaughter of Robert the Chancellor and she wanted to share that history (at least the better parts of the history) with the next generation. She also shared it with the nation in her My Day columns which she published 6 days a week. In this particular column she mentioned that when she got home from the funeral later on that day he thought of her grandchildren who were swimming in the pool,

“it seemed very fitting to see the end of life and the beginning of life so closely brought together in a day. Here are the children who come from the background of those who lie in the peaceful churchyard. God grant they acquit themselves as well as the best of the ancestors, and are spared the weaknesses of some of the others. A heritage of charm and beauty certainly existed in the Livingston, Ludlow, Tonnele, and Hall families, and that one can hope the younger generation will have in plenty.” – My Day July 13th, 1950

Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston in her garden c1960
However, Eleanor didn’t always have her basic history facts straight. In August of 1936, she wrote about her drive through Livingston land, “There is nothing like revisiting the haunts of one's childhood to bring back floods of memories. Yesterday I drove to Tivoli, N.Y. past Claremont, built in 1730 by Chancellor Livingston.” She got the year right, but the wrong Robert. As we know the house was built by Robert of Clermont, not the Chancellor. In 1949 she wanted to take the family to a historic house on the Fourth of July and brought some of her grandchildren to Clermont,

“I thought it would interest the family to drive in and call on our cousin, Mrs. John Henry Livingston, who lives in the old Clermont house which belonged to Chancellor Livingston. Fortunately, we met her on the road, and she turned back and was kind enough to invite us in and show us the old family portraits and the interesting things in the house. There is one portrait of the early West showing Philip Livingston and there are portraits of the First, Second and Third Lords of the Manor. They were granted 14 miles of river front and an acreage back of the river which spread far into what must be now Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Alice and Eleanor were very distant cousins, Alice was the Great-great-granddaughter of the Chancellor.

“The house was burned by the British in 1776 in the Revolutionary War and there is an old tree that for years, when I was a child, we were shown because you could see a cannon ball imbedded in it. The present house was rebuilt immediately along the lines of the old house and has stood ever since, with the addition, in 1830, of one large room. – My Day July 6th, 1949

In this case, she got the wrong year. The house was of course burned by the British but in 1777. Regardless of how accurate her facts are, it is clear that the woman who went on to be known as “The First Lady of the World” was interested in sharing her family’s long and interesting history with the next generation as well as the rest of us.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Richard Montgomery and His "Disagreeable Companion"

Just to be upfront, this particular post is not going to have a lot of pictures. You’ll see why.

Richard Montgomery is best known as a hero of the Revolutionary War. The former British army officer who gave his life leading his men in a heroic charge against the walls of Quebec. His wife, Janet Livingston Montgomery, was left a saintly widow the keeper of her husband’s memory.  
But this post isn’t about that.
The much romanticized Death of Montgomery 

Richard Montgomery 
This post is about Montgomery the man. The Montgomery, who after experiencing some of the worst fighting and conditions imaginable in the French and Indian War returned to Ireland to recover his health. There he met a woman who struck his fancy. They engaged in a relationship in which they enjoyed connubial bliss without actually marrying.

That is until 1769. I’ll let Montgomery tell you what happened next with a passage from a letter he wrote to a friend; “in short she has clapped me” She gave him the clap.

Gonorrhea.

Montgomery was understandably upset. He wrote, “I have touched no other woman” which seems to indicate this mystery lady was less inclined to monogamy than he was . His “indignation and rage” were so great that he considered abandoning the woman with pocket change but instead as “the flames of my passion have subsided with those of my urine” he settled her with seventy pounds a year.

The end of this story brings up a great many questions. Who was this woman? Had Montgomery intended to marry her? Why did he feel the need to pay her so much money? Was there a child involved?  These questions may never be answered.

Neisseria gonorrhoeae 
What is known is that Gonorrhea had no cure in the 18th century. According to the CDC Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a bacterium that infects the mucus membranes of the reproductive tract. Its symptoms include pain, discharge from the urethra, painful or burning urination (which Montgomery clearly had) and cysts on the skin of the effected area. Untreated it could lead to sterility in both men and women. Today Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotics. In Montgomery’s time treatments were few. Mercury injected into the urethra was used for both Gonorrhea and Syphilis. For men, the French were known to “clap” or hit from both sides an appendage with a cyst to get rid of it. (This is one possible source for Gonorrhea’s nickname “the clap” and really, really horrible to think about)
This syringe for injecting mercury into the Urethra
was found in Blackbeard's wrecked ship

Since there was no way that Montgomery could have gotten rid of his Gonorrhea by the time he married Janet Livingston in the drawing room at Clermont in 1773 and there is no indication that they did not conjugate their marriage, it stands to reason that he passed the clap on to his wife. 

This may have been a part of why she never married again. Without dismissing the affection, she felt for Montgomery remarrying would also have led to humiliation for her and him. A new husband on discovering that he had been “clapped” could only come to two conclusions; that Janet was loose in her morals and we can see that type of reaction from Montgomery to his initial infection or that Richard Montgomery had been a bit free with himself and infected not only himself but his wife. This would surely have caused a scandal because immediately after his death Montgomery was so lionized by the colonies. The first monument that Congress ever voted to build was a monument to Montgomery and later editions of Common Sense by Thomas Paine featured an appearance by Montgomery’s very patriotic ghost.

Richard Montgomery is remembered today as the leader of the invasion of Canada and a hero of the Revolution, but he was a man. A man with a “disagreeable companion” which affected his life and Janet’s since; perhaps, had he not gotten the clap he would have married his mystery woman and stayed in England,. Her decisions about love and marriage after Montgomery’s death were probably at least partially influenced by the condition that her husband had shared with her and a need to protect both her reputation and his. [i]

Now aren't you glad I didn't add more pictures?




[i] The letter in which Richard Montgomery talks about his venereal disease belongs to the Montgomery Collection at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

I should also give credit to Rick Atkinson’s excellent book The British are Coming which was the means by which I became aware of the existence of the letter this blog is based on. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Rebel Livingston: St. George Croghan in the Confederate Army

Long time readers will no doubt remember the story of Serena Livingston (If you need to refresh your memory you can read about her here ). To make a long story short though, Serena, the daughter of
Serena Livingston Croghan
John R. Livingston, married George Croghan. George was a hero of the War of 1812 but alcoholism and gambling problems led to a tumultuous life and eventually a separation from Serena.

Serena and George's only surviving son, St. George Louis Livingston Croghan, had his own tumultuous life. Born while the family was living at the Croghan estate, Locust Grove, in Kentucky St. George spent much of his youth on the move. Eventually Serena brought her kids, including St. George back to the Hudson Valley to be supported by her family. Some sources report that St. George attended West Point but no record of this exists.

By 1847 St. George had married his cousin Cornelia Adelaide Ridgely, who was a great- granddaughter of Chancellor Livingston. They produced four children between their marriage and her death in 1857 at the age of 30.  She is buried in Rhinebeck.

At some point during the next four years St. George abandoned his motherless young children with family and returned to the south. When war broke out he decided to turn traitor and join the confederacy. His motivations are unclear at best. Perhaps he was seeking adventure? Perhaps he believed in slavery so strongly that he was willing to fight for it? Unlike some confederate soldiers St. George could not claim loyalty to a state as his excuse as he joined a Virginia unit rather than a unit from Kentucky where he had been born and where his family had land.

St. George Croghan was made a lieutenant colonel in the 1 Cavalry, Wise Legion having joined "soon after the commencement of Lincoln's war of subjugation" as one Richmond newspaper put it. For
Two soldiers of the 10 Virginia Cavalry
those interested after reorganization of the Confederate Army this became the 10 Virginia Cavalry. So for the Livingstons the Civil War was not brother against brother but it certainly was cousin against cousin (you can read about a Livingston who joined the right side of the war here).

In the early days of the war St. George was assigned mainly to move supplies between North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Soon though he was sent into western Virginia which was strongly opposed to Virginia's secession. This led to many fierce battles and skirmishes. After one such battle at Hawk's Nest he reported killing one union soldier and capturing two more. He encouraged his commanding officers to push forward but it was not to be.

West Virginia seceded from Virginia in August of 1861 and several set backs caused the rebels to begin falling back from the state. On November 14th St. George was leading a scouting party of about 40 men at McCoy's Mill in West Virginia, covering the rearguard of the rebel forces when they were confronted by the 12 and 13 Ohio regiments early in the morning. During the ensuing fight a bullet hit St. George in his waist belt, passed through his body and exited through the belt on his back. His belt broke and his sword fell to the ground where he was hit.
McCoy Mill in West Virginia 

His men retreated but the mortally wounded St. George was captured by the Union. He was treated by the 13 Ohio's assistant surgeon, Dr. Chase, but died at 2:00 in the afternoon.

Southern sources claim that his men tried to recover his body under a flag of truce but that the Union soldiers refused. This interaction was not recorded in Union sources. There is no record of what happened to St. George's body. A Richmond newspaper mourned him saying there was not a "better rider on the continent, whether Texas Ranger or Carmanche [sp] Indian" and that "his loss to the confederate army is like that of a regiment..."


Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Poetry She Made Herself


100 years ago this summer, a little girl received a lovely present from her grandmother.
A leather-bound notebook, perfectly sized for small hands. The paper was heavy, to thwart ink from pooling and bleeding through. The pages were lined, to keep unsteady handwriting neat. The gilded edges indicate the importance and timeless elegance of its owner, a daughter of one of New York’s first families. Her name was emblazoned on the cover--- Honoria Alice Livingston.


Honoria was the eldest daughter of John Henry Livingston and Alice Delafield Clarkson Livingston. She lived in the mansion at Clermont with her parents, her younger sister Janet, their beloved nurse Ollie, a dozen or so servants, and a menagerie of pets.
Her maternal grandparents, Howard and Alice Clarkson, lived just up the road and visited often. Grannie Alice and Mom Alice were both prolific poets and journal writers in their own right, so it’s no surprise that young Honoria was showing an interest and a talent for creative writing herself. Grannie christened the notebook with a special poem for her young granddaughter.
To Honoria.

When Grannie was a little girl
She made a little book,
And many times with joy and pride,
Did in its pages look.

And here she wrote her little tales,

And sometimes verses too;
For airy fondness came to her
Just as they come to you.

And now you write such pretty tales,

And little verses too;
So Grannie thought perhaps this book
To hold them all, would do.

The very day she received the book, Honoria took to work. On the next page, in her very best 10-year-old handwriting, she titled the contents “The Poetry I Made My-Self.” She wrote three poems that day and several more throughout the week.
Comb and brush

I hear a thrush.
Comb and brush
I want to wash.
Brush and comb
Gobi is home
Brush and comb
Away I rome.

Honoria A. Livingston. Aug 3rd 1919
Early poems reference her family, her beloved dog Gobi, and strict rhyming schemes, even if she had to bend the rules a bit to make it work. The following year, the little notebook traveled with the Livingston family as they moved abroad to continue their daughters’ education. Honoria’s repertoire of subject matter grew beyond family life at Clermont and started to include the French countryside, German soldiers, English fairies, and Italian friends.

The Livingstons lived in Europe for the next 6 years. Honoria became a teenager and her subjects became more mature and dramatic:
There’s a road that leads to nowhere good,

There’s a road that leads to Hell;
But there’s also a road to Paradise,
and on that road I dwell.

-Honoria A. Livingston Oct. 5th 1924

Guicciardini, Florence.

Her structures became more experimental and modern:
Of the Universe!

Tell us, I pray thee
Where do the sunsets go when dead?

-Honoria A. Livingston December 2nd 1924

Guicciardini, Florence.

But even so, more than half of her poems are about her beloved pets and many about the comings and goings of her family and friends. Some of her poems are even in French and Italian! She loved to write about the moon and sunsets over Florence, where the family called home for her teenage years.
A week before her 17th birthday in 1926, she wrote a poem to herself, remarking on the occasion and how much she had grown since starting the notebook:
Almost Seventeen!

From a very little child
Into a stately maiden dark,
she has grown.
Guicciardini, Florence. January 25th 1926

The rest of her poems in 1926 play out as her previous years in Italy had--- pets, family, and beautiful evenings at the family’s Villa. But in November, something happens. The family suddenly rushes back to the States, leaving precious friends and belongings behind. Honoria’s handwriting becomes rushed, the ink is half washed away is big drips, and pages are torn out. The end of 1926 and the beginning of 1927 do not exist.


This is when Honoria’s father, John Henry, passed away.
After JH’s passing, the family settled back in at Clermont. Honoria writes in the notebook for another year and then sets it aside--- a memento of her childhood and teenage years. She grew up, had her debut in New York City, and married a charming Irishman named Rex McVitty.


They spent their lives at Clermont in Sylvan cottage, even after the mansion and grounds were deeded to The People of the State of New York. They enjoyed meeting park visitors and actively took part in site events. Honoria lived in the cottage until her passing in 2000--- her tin mailbox and Poughkeepsie Journal newspaper box were only recently removed from the driveway.


But even as Honoria grew up, from a 10-year-old girl with her first important grown-up possession, to a beautiful debutant, to an accomplished writer, golfer, gardener, and the Lady of the Estate, she never forgot about her notebook. She came back to it “many times with joy and pride,” just as her Grandmother had before her. As an adult, she even edited and typed some of her early work.


From a historian’s perspective, Honoria’s poetry journal is a fascinating artifact. Not just a chronical of a young girl growing up, but a chronical of life for an American family looking in at post WWI Europe. Not just flights of fancy, but a collection of popular culture influences of the time. Not just cute pets, but little family moments that tell us so much about the last generation of Livingstons of Clermont. It’s a lovely little book, a scrapbook of experiences, and we are lucky to have it.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

“Why the -bleep- is there a picture of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Dining Room?"

People come to Clermont from all over the world. Perhaps the most common question amongst all these people of different races and creeds is “Why the -bleep- is there a picture of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Dining Room?”
Beau Ned
 First, we say “That -bleeping- painting is by Thomas Sulley.” Then we often use it to start a conversation about Edward Livingston. “You see Beau Ned served with Jackson at New Orleans and was his Secretary of State.” says we. But the real story involves far less politics and more theft and questionable marriages.
Montgomery Livingston was married to Mary Colden Swartout. She was the daughter of Samuel Swartout. Samuel was an ambitious man. So ambitious he was charged as part of the Burr Conspiracy to set up a separate country in the west though his charges were later dropped. He was also an ardent supporter of Andrew Jackson during his campaign for president. Samuel was rewarded with the position of Collector of Customs for the Port of New York, a position he held until 1839.
Montgomery Livingston
When his term expired and the books were checked Samuel had embezzled $1,225,705.69. He fled the country. Over the years by blaming other people and working out a deal with the government he was able to pay back $181,127.77 and return to the United States with no charges against him. And by over the years I mean two years. He was back in 1841. Some people at the time vacationed longer than he was a fugitive.
He came back and lived a life of relative comfort with his wife until he died in 1856.
In the meantime, Montgomery Livingston, had died in 1855 deeply in debt. His house, the Chancellor’s former house, had to be auctioned. Mary his wife soon moved down the hill to Clermont to marry her dead husband’s cousin Clermont, whose wife Cornelia had died in 1851. He had two children from that first marriage, John Henry and Mary. Unfortunately for Clermont Mary only lived a short while longer before she too died.
Clermont Livingston (seated) and Mary Colden Swartout Livingston Livingston (Standing)
Flash forward twenty years to 1876 and Mary Swartout’s widowed mother Alice is preparing for her own death by giving away possessions. She gives her former step grandson John Henry Livingston a portrait of Andrew Jackson that her husband had purchased because John Henry “liked history.” He hung it in the dining room and the rest is, well, history.
And that, dear reader, is the story of how a portrait of Andrew Jackson, probably bought with embezzled money came to hang in Clermont’s dining room.