“Poor Horace” was Portrait Subject
A Schoolmaster’s Caricature, Made in 1873, Preserved By Family
R. H. Clayton Still Lives

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, N.J.
published by the Hunterdon Co. Democrat, Dec. 10, 1931

“Poor Horace” was Horace Greeley (1811-1872), founder, publisher and editor of the New York Tribune, a very influential newspaper during Greeley’s lifetime. He was also one of the founders of the new Republican Party in 1854. He was a vigorous opponent of slavery, and promoted many idealistic causes. In 1872 he was the candidate of both the Liberal Republican party and the Democratic Party against Republican Ulysses S. Grant, who was running for a second term. Despite the corruption of Grant’s administration, Greeley lost the electoral college in a landslide.

Letter-Portrait of Horace Greeley by Robert H. Clayton

Letter-Portrait of Horace Greeley by Robert H. Clayton
click to enlarge

When Mr. Bush’s article was published, the letter he described was not shown. In the 1930s there was no easy way to duplicate images. Fortunately, the Williamson family preserved the letter and have made it available to me for this article.1

Mr. Barton H. Williamson of Sand Brook, came into my office recently, a very welcome visitor, with interesting old papers.2 One is a letter written in most unusual form, hard to read, but well worth the trouble. I think it will be of special interest to old pupils and other friends of the author, Robert H. Clayton, a prominent teacher in Hunterdon County sixty years ago. As put together by the writer of this sketch {by Mr. Bush, that is}, the letter reads as follows:

“Dear sister and brother, I herewith send you a portrait of our old friend to show you, not what I know about farming, but what I can do toward killing time.”

This introduction makes the top and the general outline of Horace Greeley’s disreputable old head-gear, the rim of the eye-glass at the left and the projection for a nose, and then runs down to form the upper lip and make a curve at the corner of the mouth. The clause, “What I know about farming,” is a humorous hit at a book by Horace Greeley, issued some time before with that title, and made the butt of no little ridicule by people who knew nothing about farming, and of still more by practical farmers themselves. For in those days the “book farmer” was ridiculed by everybody—by “dirt farmers” most of all.

Yes, I know this is a long break for the purpose of explaining a short sentence in an interesting letter; but that letter must submit to many breaks, if the portrait is to be visualized by the reader. It seems impossible to get a photograph of it now, because the letter is written in red ink and is somewhat faded besides.3

The Portrait “Continued”

“How would this do for a man’s nose?” This inquiry, together with the date, “Saturday, February 1, 1873,” completes the eye-glasses and the nose.

“My paths to school have drifted full twice this week, and I don’t like that. Last Thursday night was the coldest night to us this winter by a good bit.” This serves to represent the side of his hat, and also to show the wrinkles in his forehead. The phrase, “by a good bit,” very common in the old days, is seldom heard of late.

“This old man used to run a farm, then he ran the machine called the Tribune, then he ran for Congress, ran next for President, and ran himself into the ground in more ways than one. Poor Horace! I am sorry that a worse man than he got more votes, but perhaps it is all for the best.”

This paragraph deftly distributed, constitutes in a striking way the straggling hair of the old man, struggling out from under his hat and streaming backward. One disconnected strand says, “Died November 2, 1872.” Of course, this refers to political death. But Greeley’s actual death occurred so soon after the date of the letter as to make the expression “ran himself into the ground in more ways than one,” though a trifle slangy for a teacher of that day, almost a prophetic forecast. His death was generally said to have been hastened by worry over his late campaign and overwhelming defeat.4

“You must tell the boys to come down one of these days,” is a sentence making the right ear and a strand of hair below.5 Next come his chin and straggling whiskers as follows:  “Come down soon, as I want to have another game of checkers with you. Give my regards to your father’s folks.6 I hope your face is better, and that it has not broken out on the outside. Come down. And write soon.”

Under the portrait is written, “Photo from the old man himself.” The whole is signed, with many bewildering flourishes: “R. H. Clayton, Special Artist, Unionville, Hunterdon County, N. J., February 1, 1873.” Under this is the address: “To Asher [V.] Williamson, Sergeantsville, Hunterdon County, N. J.”

Well-Known Teacher

This joking “Special Artist,” Robert H. Clayton, is remembered as a man of rather striking appearance, tall, straight and carrying himself well; also as an active and energetic teacher in the lower part of the county for something like a decade. Among the schools in which he served acceptably, are mentioned Moore’s, Reileyville, Unionville where we find him by his letter in 1873, and Reading’s, at which school Superintendent Conkling reported him in 1876.7

Robert H. Clayton married Charity Hummer, a sister to Anna J. Hummer, who married Asher Williamson. Hence the salutation: “Dear sister and brother.”8 He came here as a “mystery man”; at least, he soon became such because he never told anything about himself, his family or whence he came. But mystery was not allowed to interfere with the esteem in which he was held by the communities in which he lived, and by the schools which he taught. I distinctly remember that Supt. Conkling, whose term covered a part of Clayton’s services here, always placed him among the best teachers in the county.

According to census records, Clayton was born in Virginia, March 1844, and fought in the Civil War in the Confederate Army. Perhaps he felt it was better not to mention that in a northern state, since the war had been over for not quite eight years. I can’t help but wonder if he had a southern accent that he managed to conceal.9

A Drifter

But Clayton grew tired of the slow ways of the East, and struck out for broader fields and better prospects. Leaving his wife and three children here for a time, he went to Nebraska, where his wife and children joined him in Nov., 1869.10 How long they remained in Nebraska is not known. But he was something of a drifter. With the evident ability to get along anywhere, he seemed to be carrying a continuous urge to be somewhere else. He spent some time with his family in Iowa. Then he landed in the vicinity of Shawnee, Oklahoma.11 There he taught school and did various other things along such lines for many years. He is said to have edited a local paper and been at one time mayor of the city of Shawnee. At last report he was still living there, nearing the age of ninety, and unable to carry on any kind of business, on account of failing sight and other infirmities of age.

Robert Clayton died at the age of 88 on November 15, 1932, and was buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Shawnee. His wife Charity outdid him; she was 100 years old when she died, on July 9, 1949. She was buried next to her husband.

An intimate acquaintance of Robert H. Clayton, wishing to show his prevailing habit in brief, laconically says of him: “Clayton always had a book in his hand.” We can readily accept this as no great exaggeration. He must have been a studious man and close observer. This unique “portrait” shows both artistic talent and power to reproduce what had been impressed upon his mind. Any person who ever saw Horace Greeley in his later days, would be sure to find a striking resemblance to “Poor Horace.”12 Clayton cannot read or study now. A letter from his wife some time ago said that he lay much of the time on his couch, whiling the tedious hours away by listening to the radio. We can all rejoice that this modem wonder may be a source of much comfort to people thus afflicted.

Complete transcription of the letter:

Hat, running down his profile:  “Dear Sister and brother. I herewith send you a portrait of our old friend to show you not what I know about farming but what I can do towards killing time  I hope your face has got better by this time and that it has not broken on the outside   goodbye and write soon  must tell the boys to come down one of these days”
Hat Brim: “My paths to school have twice drifted full this week and that I didn’t like much  Last Thursday night was the coldest night to us this winter  I wish it was time for grass”
Beard: “Come down soon as you conveniently can and I would like to have another game of checkers with you. Give my regards to your father’s folks.”
The hair underneath the hat, behind his head:  “This old man used to run a farm then he ran a machine called the Tribune  then he ran for Congress  ran next for President and ran himself in the ground in more ways than one. Poor Horace! I feel sorry that a worse man than he got more votes, but perhaps it is all for the best.”
Glasses: “How will this do for an eye? good, yet poor old Horace looks like famous pose”
Cheek: “February Saturday 1873”

“Photo from the old man himself”
“P. O. [?] Dayton, Special Artist”
“Unionville, Hunterdon County, N.J.”
“February 1st, 1873”
“To Asher V. Williamson.
“Sergeantsville. Hunterdon County. N.J.”

The Williamson family of Hunterdon County is a vast and complex one. There appear to have been two main branches, both in Amwell Township. One lived in the Delaware part of Amwell and the other in the East Amwell part. Williamson descendants have done such a vast amount of research on the family that now, to write about them would require not just a book but a set of several volumes.

Footnotes:

  1. Richard Williamson of Tuczon, AZ was given a scan of the original letter by descendants of Barton H. Williamson.
  2. Barton H. Williamson (1875-1956) was the son of Asher Voorhees Williamson (1841-1926) and Anna Jane Hummer (1842-1929). About 1899, Barton Williamson married Jennie I. Reed (1880-1950), daughter of Walter I. Reed (1850-aft 1910) and Anna R. Heath (1860-?).  Barton H. Williamson and wife were living with Asher V. and Anna J. Williamson in the 1900 census. This family was still living together, near Sand Brook, in the 1910 census, but by then Barton was considered the head of the household rather than Asher, who was then 69 years old. Barton and Jennie Williamson moved to South Bend, Indiana sometime after 1940, where Barton died. Jennie died in Tuczon, AZ.
  3. In this digital age, we can not only reproduce the original letter, but tone down the saturated color just a bit. As for the ink, the red color seems to be gone. The stain must have been made a very long time ago.
  4. Horace Greeley died November 29, 1872, only 27 days after his “political death.”
  5. “The boys” are a mystery to me. Asher and Anna Williamson only had one son, and he was not born until 1875.
  6. Asher V. Williamson’s father was Cornelius Williamson (1806-1890). I am not sure who the ”folks” were since the father of Cornelius had died in 1835. However, a few of his siblings were still around.
  7. I wrote a short history of Reading School not long ago, but did not know that Clayton was a teacher there.
  8. Charity Rockafellow Hummer (1849-1949) was the daughter of Elisha B. Hummer and Catherine Rockafellar (1819-1849). Catharine died only 12 days after Charity was born. In the 1870 census, she was living with her sister Anna, wife of Asher V. Williamson.
  9. I searched for Clayton in the 1850 federal census for Virginia and found three possible Robert Claytons, the most likely being Robert B. Clayton, born about 1832, and living in the Southern Division, Bedford, VA, son of Robert M. and Julia A. Clayton. However, the age difference is a problem.
  10. This must be a typographical error, since Clayton was counted in the Delaware Twp. census of 1870, with no wife or child living with him. He was a single 36-year-old school teacher residing with the family of Joseph Haines. He and Charity Rockafellow Hummer were married in Flemington on May 19, 1872 by Rev. E. Arthur Woods. The letter to Asher V. Williamson, dated February 1873, was sent from Unionville, Hunterdon, NJ, so clearly Robert Clayton had not yet departed for the west. But by 1880, the family had relocated St. Paul, Howard Co., Nebraska where they were counted in the census.
  11. Clayton and his family were counted in the 1900 census for Shawnee, Pottawatomie County, OK when he was 56 years old. His occupation was painter. The additional information about him must have been given to Mr. Bush by Barton Williamson.
  12. The Wikipedia entry for Horace Greeley displays a photograph of Greeley in his old age, but also a photograph of him taken by Mathew Brady, probably in the 1860s.