Henry Livingston Thomas

Henry Livingston Thomas

Henry L. Thomas to Abraham Lansing
Thomas argues with Moore descendant
Begging in Foreign Tongues
A Man of Many Tongues
Death of Henry L. Thomas

Henry Livingston Thomas
(27 Feb 1835, Philadelphia PA)
(01 Feb 1944, Poughkeepsie NY)
(son of Henry Livingston Thomas)
(son of Jane Patterson Livingston + Rev. William Barber Thomas)
+ Alice Rebecca Phinney 1870
(1897, Poughkeepsie NY)

    William Sturges Thomas[married Emma Rhein (Ellsie) Frank]
    Alice Louisa Thomas[married Stephen Wakeman]

From 16 year old Henry Livingston Thomas
to Abraham Lansing (1835-1899)
December 15, 1851

As I look from my window just now the sky looks rather lowering, as if the white masses of snow were preparing themselves for a sally through their cloudy barriers. I trust they will act in accordance with present appearances, at least in order to allow an easy passage to Santa Claus with his "eight tiny reindeer," for my sympathy is enlisted on the side of such juveniles as those whom his visits gladden.

Henry Livingston Thomas told his sister Gertrude an anecdote of his having an argument with one of his students at Churchill's Academy at Sing Sing (now Ossining NY), while he was teaching there. One of his students was a grandson of Clement Moore, as Thomas was a grandson of Henry Livingston. Gertrude recalls the anecdote:

Aunt Gertrude Thomas to William S. Thomas - 13 Oct 1920

61 Sparks St
Cambridge [MA]

Oct 13th 1920

H.L.T. told me that little incident himself. He was teaching at Mr. Churchill's school Sing sing. One day - The Night Before Christmas was spoken of, and Henry said- "My Grandfather wrote that." "No said a boy- my Grandfather did." "No my Grandfather did-" "No mine did-" And so it went back and forth - amounting to nothing - but each one sure that he was right. This boy was a grandson of Clement C. Moore. I was the culprit who told you the little story.

That little story snowballed into a series of actions and reactions and, ultimately, into a potentially smoking gun for Henry.

Begging in Foreign Tongues
Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 Jan 1888, p6

Perhaps the most curious begging letters to the President are those in foreign languages. The President never sees these in the original. They are sent in batches of nine or ten to Henry L. Thomas, the official translator for the State department. Mr. Cleveland rarely sees the whole of any of these letters, and seldom any part of them. Translator Thomas runs his learned ey over them, find sout what the request and who the beggar is, and makes a brief note in abstract of each one of the missives. These then go over to the White House to be looked over by the correspondence clerk, and, as the requests are usually even more absurd than those which come written in the English tongue, they are never shown to Mr. Cleveland, except, perhaps, when a particularly funny one drops in and the clerk or Col. Lamont thinks it would be enjoyed all round. The letters from people who beg in foreign languages average about one a day the year through, but oftener run up to forty a month then fall to twenty-five. They come both from Europe and America, and are most commonly written in German. Those which come from abroad are the funniest, because the writers usually display not only their own cranky notions but the most eccentric ideas of the way in which the Government of this country is managed. The authors are frequently foreigns who have had some residence in this country, but also come from persons who have apparenly never been here, even on an imaginary geographical trip.

One came only recently from an inventor in France. He wrote to inform the President that he had discovered a new method of faciliating 'travel' by canal. He was sure that his method would make the United States a great deal of money, and he was only waiting to receive the necessary funds for his voyage over. A man in Switzerland wrote asking for money in an imperative way. He put his plea on the grounds that the President had once been very kind to his mother, and that on this ground he should take particular pains that her children did not suffer. This letter is like the majority in two respects. It demands money and in a considerable sum, asking $3,000 for the purchase of a house. It evidently came from a man who had lost his wits. Translator Thomas does not like the reading of the epistles when they turn out to be in a large per cent from crazy writers. He finds that it has a tendency to make him melancholy.

Of a more laughable sort are the letters from writers who imagine the President has a minute knowledge of the whole country and its people, like a Postmaster in a country town. The man in Spain, whose letter, received last week, asked Mr. Cleveland if he knew whether his second cousin, who came to this country nearly ten years ago, was still here is a fair sample of its class. A german woman in New York wrote in sober earnest a fortnight ago, saying that she understood from the President's message that he had the disposing of a very large surplus of money in the Nation's Treasury, and as she was poor and deserving she thought that in all justice she should have some.

The Western Germans write queer letters. A man who signed himself Krausskopf and dated his letter Allegan County, Michigan, has been a persistent correspondent of the President ever since he came into office. In spite of never receiving a reply, he has written again and again in ungrammatical misspelled German demanding a part of the President's salary. He never mentions any particular sum, but is always holding out his hand for a share of it. A boy, evidently a Norwegian from his name, wrote from Minnesota not long ago. He said that he lived by the shore of a lake and was poor. He needed to earn money and was trying to do it by shooting ducks on the lake. He had only an old gun and wished, if it were possible, that the President would send him a rifle.

A curious letter lies now on Mr. Thomas' desk. It consists of twelve closely-written pages of Hebrew, and, what is more, is written in the pure Hebrew language. Most of the letters from Hebrews which come into the hands of the official translator are in the Hebrew character, but in German. This long address comes from Joseph Rubin, Dallas, Tex. Mr. Rubin incloses a card, which announces him as "Mochet and rahel Hebrew, orthodox minister of perushim." Perushim means "interpretation," but just what Rabbi Rubin is has not yet been determined.

Mr. Thomas does not always get free from the petitioning foreigner when he leaves his office. It is not long since he was besouth fervently by a German then staying in the city to bring it about in the State Department that a fine estate in Greece, which he declared belonged to him, should come into his possession. There was not any evidence beyond his own statement, but he assured Mr. Thomas that if the State Department could ionly secure the property Mr. Bayard should have a clear $2,000 for his services. After many assurances that nothing could be done for him, he began to write to the Senators entreating them to interfere in his behalf. There is no satisfaction there, and he tried the same method on the House, asking this body to compel Mr. Bayard to act for him. Rebuffed again, he turned to the Supreme Court. He visited Chief Justice Waite. "What did he say?" was asked of the crank as he returned from this mission. "He would not say a word," was the despairing reply.

Mr. Thomas has held his present position twenty-three years. He is a short, thickset man, with good-humored face, gray beard, and gray hair closely cropped.

A Man of Many Tongues
The Coffeyville Daily Journal, 27 Apr 1895, p3
A Talk with the State Department Translator
How its Correspondence is Carried On.

Mr. Henry L. Thomas, translator of the state department in Washington, is visiting his brother, Mr. John Thomas, general superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad company, at his home on Locust avenue, Allegheny, says The Pittsburgh Chronicle.

Mr. Thomas has had quite a varied experience, and now, after traveling over a greater part of the globe and devoting a large portion of his life to the study of languages, is one of the most widely-posted and cultured gentleman it is one's good fortune to meet. For sixteen years he has been connected with the state department, and in that time has kept up his study of languages till to-day he can speak fluently some eight or nine, and is able to make himself understood in as many more. When a boy he took but little interest in the study of languages, but starting out in life as a printer he found his first start, and used to employ himself all his leisure hours with pouring over the grammar of some foreign tongue. Along in the "fifties" he started on his travels, and was professor in a college in one of the West India islands for several years. He became tired of this kind of life, however, and during the "sixties" returned to this country. In 1866 he was appointed translator in the state department by Mr. Hamilton Fish, then secretary of state. He has served constantly ever since during all the changes of administrations.

To a representative of this paper he said last night: "My duties are sometimes very light, and sometimes very arduous. It is hard to average the work, as some days there will be a rush of matter, and on others but little. My duties are confined largely to official correspondence, though often letters addressed to the president or some of the cabinet officers are handed to me for translation. Most of the countries represented at our courts use their own language or French in their diplomatic correspondence. Some, however, use English.

"Austria, for instance, used its own language up till about six years ago, when it changed, and now all its official correspondence is carried on in English. Italy and some of the other European countries use French. So did Germany until the antipathy between her and France became so bitter. Since then her correspondence has been in pure, hard German. The South American countries all use Spanish, and their official correspondence must all be translated."

"In what language are the treaties written?"

"In the language of the country with which the treaty is made and in English. Some of the old treaties have been rather loosely translated, though there have been no serious errors. Once in a while I have to go back to the old correspondence and treaties of years ago. In this way I can see how the translations were made. Some times since I had to go back thirty years to the official correspondence between this country and the Argentine Confederation. A great many references were made in the correspondence to those old days."

"Does the department ever receive personal letters?"

"Yes, quite often, and from all over the world. Every president who has occupied the white house since I have been in Washington has received more or less letters containing advice or begging for something. Subjects of other countries often write and tell the president how he should act. Many of the foreign letters come from Germany asking the president to send the writer a passage ticket across the ocean, as he wishes to become a citizen of this country. Another man wrote from Holland the other day advising President Cleveland to pay off the confederate bonds.

"But a puzzler was received some months ago from Samoa. No one could read it, and we had about given it up when an English translation was discovered. It was pretty fair English, too. I have to make an abstract of tyhe letter, which are sent to the persons to whom they were directed. Some of them are answered and some are not. We get a good many letters from Germans living in this country. They are mostly filled with grievances of some kind. During President Arthur's administration an old German out west wrote to him asking the president to pay off a mortgage on his farm. He had got into difficulty, so he said, though no fault of his own, and he wanted it fixed up. The second letter was filled with threats, and the third was filled with abuse. After President Cleveland ws inaugurated he wrote to him, but since no attention was paid to it he has stopped.

"During President Hayes' administration he received a letter written in Hebrew. It was in poetry, and I made a loose rhyming translation. I can only remember the first verse. It ran like this:

Ring out the sounds of joyous mirth,
  Up and down throughout the earth,
For the man who's pure of hand
  Has chosen been to rule the land.

"During Gen. Grant's administration some funny letters were received. One of them was from a German woman who claimed that her neighbor threw slop over her back yard and she wanted it stopped. The slop-throwing may be going on yet for all I know. There are so many incidents of this kind that I forget all of them. But the letters come from everywhere. One came from Palestine the other day written in Hebrew. The Turkish language stumps all of us, though. But fortunately an English translation accompanies it."


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