Mike Groll, Associated Press
An edition of Troy Sentinel from 1823 displays the famous poem.

TROY, N.Y. — Printed partway down Page 3 of the Troy Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823, it was easy to miss.

Between beekeeping tips and a wedding announcement was a seasonal poem. Submitted anonymously, the poem charmed editors who published it anyway. It started like this:

"'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house. ... "

The rest is Christmas history.

"Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas" spread beyond this bustling, blooming Hudson River city as papers and almanacs elsewhere reprinted it. The poem helped cement the popular image of Santa as a "right jolly old elf" with a twinkle in his eye and eight reindeer (no Rudolph yet). Quoted by kids, co-opted by advertisers, celebrated in songs and shows, it is one of the most famous American poems.

And 184 years later, there are still dissenting views about who wrote it.

Clement Clarke Moore claimed credit 21 years after the poem appeared in the Troy paper. Moore was a wealthy Bible scholar, the sort of man that the phrase "pillar of society" was meant to describe — pious, accomplished, esteemed family — and the claim was universally accepted.

Or almost so.

Soon after Moore's name became linked to the poem, counterclaims were made that a Revolutionary War veteran from the Hudson Valley named Henry Livingston was the true author. Livingston's relatives claimed he read the poem aloud to his family years before the Troy publication. Livingston's champions maintain that Moore — that God-fearing pillar of rectitude — lied.

"This comes up every year," said Kathryn Sheehan of the Rensselaer County Historical Society as she pulled the old St. Nicholas file. The collection of copied articles, testimonies and letters provides no definitive answer on the poem's authorship, though it tells some good stories.

Moore taught at Columbia College and lived with his family in New York City on a big estate in Manhattan called Chelsea (it gave its name to the neighborhood). If not for the Christmas poem, his literary claim to fame likely would have been a two-volume Hebrew dictionary.

According to his descendants, Moore's muse struck while out sleigh riding to fetch a turkey on Christmas Eve in 1822 — maybe the moonlight on the snow gave the "lustre of midday to objects below." Moore later explained that the poem was a trifle, written only for the pleasure of his family. After years of rumors, he accepted authorship in 1844 upon publication of a book of poems.

Livingston is a more obscure historical figure. A gentleman farmer who lived midway between New York City and Troy in Poughkeepsie, he had many interests. One was writing light verse in anapest — two short syllables followed by a long stressed one. The famous example, of course, is: 'Twas the NIGHT before CHRISTmas.

Livingston's proponents believe he composed the poem before 1808 for his family. The big problem with their case is the lack of evidence that Livingston ever claimed credit before his death in 1828.

"I don't think Henry ever needed to be acknowledged," said Mary Van Deusen, a descendant of Livingston. "The more you read his work, the more you realize the man was so contented in himself."

Van Deusen drew fresh attention to her cause by persuading literary detective Don Foster to investigate. The Vassar College English professor examines texts for clues to authorship, most famously when he unmasked journalist Joe Klein as the author of "Primary Colors" during the Clinton administration.

Foster devotes a chapter to the debate in his 2000 book, "Author Unknown," and concludes that Moore was more Scrooge than jolly elf. Moore wrote poems, though often with a finger-wagging tone. Consider his take on fun-loving girls of Manhattan: "Shame! shame! heart-rending thought! deep-sinking stain ... arts first taught by prostitutes of France!"

By contrast, Foster sees Livingston as a jocular soul whose poems better match the spirit, meter and word usage of the "St. Nicholas" author. One example: Livingston favored the unusual salutation "Happy Christmas," as in "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night."

Foster did not convince everyone.

Historical document expert Joe Nickell disputes the notion that Moore was a joyless prig incapable of writing such a poem. In a study commissioned several years ago by a gallery that is currently offering a Moore-inscribed book, Nickell pointed to two anapestic poems written by Moore. He asks why neither Livingston nor his family tried to set the record straight before he died in 1828.

"There's no serious problem with the scenario that Moore is the author," Nickell said in a phone interview, "and we can't do that with Livingston."

Livingston's supporters make some intriguing arguments, but to their chagrin, historians are like NFL referees looking at a video replay of a disputed call: It's hard to overturn a ruling without definitive evidence.

Van Deusen said she has done what she could, which includes posting material on her Web site so people can make their own decisions. She insists she doesn't want to diminish Moore, whom she likens to Salieri — the conniving and mediocre composer who covets Mozart's genius — in "Amadeus."

"And in the end what must have it been like to live like that, and know what you're famous for is not what you did," she said.

And famous Moore remains. During a Victorian celebration on a recent snowy Sunday, Father Christmas pegged Moore as the author as he passed out copies of the poem. And hundreds walked past the plaque on the building that housed the Troy Sentinel ages ago. The stamped metal plaque celebrates the poem's publication and states: "Written in 1822 by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore."