Submitted anonymously and published in the "Troy Sentinel" newspaper on December 23, 1823, the famous poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," also known as "T’was the Night Before Christmas," will be the subject of litigation on Wednesday, December 18 at the Rensselaer County Courthouse.
Two local attorneys will argue for the families that claim their ancestor wrote it – either a wealthy Biblical scholar from Manhattan, Clement Clarke Moore, or a gentlemen farmer from the Hudson Valley, Henry Livingston Jr.
The Rensselaer County Historical Society and Duncan Crary Communications of Troy have set up a mock trial between two families. The Moores will be defended by E. Stewart Jones and the Livingstons will be represented by Jack Casey and his daughter Molly Casey.
"We're giving this literary whodunit a full-blown mock trial that's a bit like a real life 'Miracle on 34th Street,'" said Crary, an author and public relations consultant. "Even the court officers will be on duty to complete the authentic trial experience."
The trial is Wednesday, Dec. 18, at 6 p.m., with Jones, Casey, a retired NYS Supreme Court Justice Bernard J. “Bud” Malone will hear the trial and a jury made up of spectators at the Rensselaer County Courthouse.
Clement Clarke Moore, a wealthy biblical scholar of Manhattan, later claimed authorship and has been officially credited ever since.
Henry Livingston Jr., a gentleman farmer of the Hudson Valley, may have been the true, unrecognized author, according to his descendants. Backing their assertions is Vassar College professor and literary forensics expert Don Foster, whose 2000 book "Author Unknown" presented a strong case for Livingston.
On the other hand, Dr. Joe Nickell thoroughly refuted those claims in his book "Pen, Ink and Evidence," also published in 2000. Both works served as inspiration for the upcoming courtroom showdown.
Jones is a third-generation lawyer. His grandfather, Abbott Jones, founded the firm in 1898 and famously defended Prohibition gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond in an infamous Dec. 17, 1931 trial in the same courtroom where "Livingston v. Moore" will be tried.
The courtroom is named The John T. Casey Ceremonial Court, named for Jack Casey's father who served there as State Supreme Court Justice.
Real court officers, providing security, will give mock trial goers an authentic experience. But the spirit will be fun and lively, Crary said, noting that a saxophone playing Santa Claus is expected to entertain the audience during a brief jury deliberation.
PLAYING FOR THE WIN, FOR LAUGHS
Casey is taking seriously his chance to defeat his formidable opponent in court. "We're representing the underdog, Henry Livingston," Casey said. "But Troy folks like the underdog."
Jones said he plans to play for laughs. "This is the most frivolous litigation ever brought before a judge in this illustrious courthouse," Jones joked. "I will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt in court that Moore was the author."
Actors playing the spirits of Livingston and Moore will take the stand under the direction of David Baecker, an assistant professor of Theatre at Russell Sage College. Rensselaer County Historian Kathryn Sheehan will give expert testimony.
"I think the evidence on both sides is compelling," said Sheehan, who assisted Foster with research for the chapter of his book dedicated to the poem's authorship controversy. "I'll leave it up to the jury as to who really wrote the poem."
Admission is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-seated basis.
There will be a post-trial party at the nearby Rensselaer County Historical Society, with a $5 suggested donation to benefit that organization. For information about this event, contact Duncan Crary at 518-274-2723 or visit: DuncanCrary.com.
Sponsoring the event is Gramercy Communications, a public relations firm headquartered in the historic Troy Sentinel building at 225 River Street. A bronze plaque commemorating the site where "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" was first published is affixed to the building's exterior wall, crediting Moore as the author.
"The jury might order us to include an asterisk with that plaque," said Tom Nardacci, founder and president of Gramercy Communications. Nardacci paid to have the Sentinel newspaper's archives digitized, including the edition featuring the poem, and donated them to the Troy Public Library.
"Regardless of this trial's outcome, Troy, New York will remain the undisputed place that first shared this holiday treasure with the world," said Crary, 35, who promotes the city's history and culture as an author and public relations consultant. "'A Visit From Saint Nicholas' first introduced the classic imagery we now associate with Santa Claus. This little city gave America two endearing symbols of our nation’s ideals: Uncle Sam, our nation's personification based on a Troy meatpacker Samuel Wilson, and that jolly old elf, Santa Claus."