Updated: Feb 6, 2020
Every year, the President of the United States take some time around Thanksgiving to pardon a turkey or from being eaten at the dinner table. The pardoned turkeys are then sent to various farms and petting zoos including George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate to live in a wooden pen for the rest of their lives, which is usually less than 6 months after Thanksgiving. Turkeys that are sent to the White House to be pardoned have been bred and fed for consumption, not longevity. They are fed a high protein diet and they grow big breasts, but their organs can’t handle all that extra weight, with the average life expectancy being around 18 months.
It is believed that Abraham Lincoln was the first to give a presidential pardon to a turkey. According to Noah Brooks, a white house reporter and friend of Lincoln, the Lincolns received a turkey in 1863 that was meant for Christmas dinner. Lincoln’s son Tad loved the turkey and named his Jack. When it was time to prepare Jack for the Christmas meal, Tad burst into one of his father’s cabinet meetings and begged his father to spare Jack’s life. Lincoln was a big softie when it came to his children and he agreed to save Jack from the dinner table. On election day in 1864, Lincoln saw Jack the turkey at the polling place in the White House and asked his son Tad “What business has the turkey stalking about the polls in that way? Does he vote?” Tad replied “No, he’s not of age” which Lincoln thought was hilarious and he would retell that story all the time.
In 1865, the New York’s Union League Club bought a 47 pound turkey and sent it to President Andrew Johnson as a New Year’s gift. This started a practice of people from all around the country sending presidents turkeys for them to eat at Thanksgiving or Christmas. In 1912, President-elect Woodrow Wilson was sent a 43 pound turkey that had been fed sweet corn, celery, and pepper corns in order to improve it’s flavor. Wilson also received a turkey that was hand delivered by a Boy Scout from Texas. The boy scout also gave President Wilson an invitation from the governor of Texas to attend the Turkey Trot festivities in Cuero, Texas. President Wilson then asked the boy scout “Do you think I would make a good turkey?” Apparently his question confused everyone and it got really awkward. Wilson did not attend the Cuero Turkey Trot.
Warren G. Harding, the president that was the subject of last week’s episode, liked the turkeys he received so much so that he kept a pen of them at the White House. Of course, President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t need the turkeys that were given to him, he preferred to go hunt for his own for Thanksgiving dinner.
Turkeys weren’t the only animal that people would send presidents to eat for Thanksgiving dinner. In November 1926, Vinnie Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi sent a raccoon to the white house to be slaughtered for thanksgiving dinner. People knew that the president at the time, Calvin Coolidge, loved animals, so they would just send him unsolicited pets all the time. In his autobiography, Coolidge wrote that “We always had more dogs than we could take care of.” Just some of his dogs while he was president include, Peter Pan, a wire haired fox terrier, Paul Pry, the half-brother of Warren Harding’s Airedale terrier, Tiny Time, a red chow-chow puppy (his name was soon changed to Terrible Tim as he never liked the President) Calamity Jane, a white collie puppy, Blackberry, a black chow chow, Ruby Ruff, a brown and white collie, King Cole, a Belgian Gruenendahl, Beauty, another white collie, Palo a black and white English Setter, a Boston bulldog named Beans and Calvin’s favorite two dogs, white collies named Rob Roy and Prudence Prim. Grace especially loved Prudence Prim. She once made a hat for the dog that was adorned
with ferns and green ribbons. The dog wore the hat to a White House garden party.
On top of the large number of dogs, the Coolidges also had cats, birds, wombats, a black-haired bear from Mexico, an African pygmy hippopotamus, and a pair of lion cubs that he named “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.” It wasn’t all that uncommon for the first families to have a wide array of pets living at the white house. Theodore Roosevelt’s children had kept snakes, a baby bear, and a badger named Josiah all while living there.
Calvin Coolidge, was not an adventurous eater and he refused to eat the raccoon. The Washington Evening Star wrote about how strange it was that the president didn’t want to eat the raccoon declaring that raccoon meat was a delicacy, less fatty than possum meat, and that it tasted like chicken crossed with a suckling pig. Asking if the raccoon was edible, Calvin replied “That depends on your taste. I haven’t much of a taste for raccoon meat. Some people like it very much. I don’t think it’s quite grown yet. It is very playful, very interesting, and seems very well trained and well behaved.” Coolidge then not only pardoned the raccoon from being eaten but announced that the raccoon would join his family’s already large group of family pets.
The raccoon was named Rebecca and she went to live with the Coolidges at the White House, which the press had started to call the “Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo.” The Coolidge family loved their pets. Calvin Coolidge once said “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about, does not deserve to be in the White House.” Calvin was fond of the raccoon too, but his staff not so much.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Rebecca “proved to be the most obstreperous of all the recent White House pets.” Rebecca would rip up clothing and claw the upholstered furniture. Grace Coolidge, the first lady, wrote “We kept her chained when out of doors, but in the house she had her liberty. She was a mischievous, inquisitive party and we had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion, she would amuse herself for an hour or more.” White House staff tried placing her in cages or putting her in a harness to try to contain her, but she would always figure out how to escape. The staff started calling her Houdini and would regularly be seen chasing her around the White House. One time, Rebecca clawed her way us Grace Coolidge’s social secretary Mary Rudolph. Seeing Mary’s nervous face, Calvin simply said “I think that little coon could bite if she had a mind too.”
The Coolidges eventually built a wooden house for Rebecca in the boughs of a tree that was just outside the window of the president’s office. That Christmas, Calvin and Grace, gave Rebecca a collar with an official tag that read “Rebecca Raccoon of the White House.” Calvin and Grace also gifted their oldest son, John, a $500 raccoon coat so that’s awkward.
Calvin really grew attached to his pet raccoon. Calvin would put her on a leash and would take her on walks around the White House grounds. There are photos showing Rebecca draped around Calvin’s neck while he walked around the white house and Grace cradling her like a cat. At night, Rebecca would crawl onto Calvin’s lap and sleep while he would sit in front of the fireplace. Rebecca would eat all of her meals on the tiled floor of Grace’s bathroom. Her meals often consisted of green shrimp, chicken, persimmon, eggs, and cream.
In 1927, Calvin had grown tired of the white house roof always leaking and ordered a renovation of the white house. He decided to not only fix the leaks, but turn to attic space into a full third floor by constructing a steel frame story on top of the brick and mortar walls that were built in 1800. This would allow more living area for the first family. The renovation would take six months to complete, so during that time, the Coolidge family moved to the Patterson House, a mansion 1 mile away from the White House.
Rebecca did not make with the move with them, but it didn’t take long for Calvin to start missing his raccoon. Calvin went to the white house and brought Rebecca back to the mansion in his presidential limousine. The next morning, Calvin was seen leaving the mansion with his wrist bandaged up and declaring that Rebecca was banished to the national zoo in Rock Creek Park. The press questioned Calvin if the raccoon had bit him, but he refused to say anything about it, remaining true to his nickname “Silent Cal.” Less than a week later, it was reported that Rebecca was back from the zoo and quote “in good standing at the White House.”
In April, 1927, the first family held the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House. Grace Coolidge decided to bring Rebecca. The photographers and children loved her but as you can guess the raccoon didn’t enjoy being around 30,000 screaming kids or the bright lights of the cameras. Rebecca started to claw at the first lady and the children. A Washington Even Star reported said that Rebecca “plainly evidenced her dislike for the whole doings.” Grace quickly returned Rebecca to inside of the White House in everyone’s best interest.
That summer, the first family decided to go on a 3 month vacation. They would take their five canaries and two white collies, Rob Roy and Prudence Prim, and Rebecca the Raccoon on an 1,800 mile journey by train to the South Dakota Black Hills. Rebecca had the time of her life in South Dakota. She would often break out of her cage and climb up the tallest pine tree she could find. Secret Service would spend hours trying to get her down and back into her cage.
That next year, the Coolidge family adopted a male campanion for Rebecca. His name was Reuben the raccoon, but Rebecca hated him and they fought all the time. After he arrived, Rebecca began to escape from her enclosure even more often than before and would just roam around Washington D.C. After it became obvious that Rebecca wasn’t going to stop her escape attempts, the Coolidges donated her to the national zoo. It is now illegal to keep a raccoon as a pet in the District of Columbia.
After Coolidge and Rebecca left the white house, it still wasn’t an official tradition to pardon an animal from being eaten at Thanksgiving. Many presidents continued to eat the turkeys that were sent to them for the holiday. In 1963, John F. Kennedy was given a turkey wearing a sign the read “Good Eatin’ Mr. President.” Apparently this tugged at JFK’s heart and he said “Let’s just keep him.” Kennedy was assassinated just days later. I don’t know if that turkey got to keep his pardon, but presidential pardons for turkeys did not become tradition yet.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan and his administration were deeply embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair when they were caught illegally selling weapons to Iran in order to fund insurgent fighting forces in Nicaragua. There were rumors going around that Reagan was going to pardon Oliver North and John Poindexter, the military officials charged with facilitating the sale of weapons. During the annual thanksgiving turkey presentation
in front of the press, a reporter asked Reagan if he was going to hand out a Thanksgiving pardon. Reagan then pointed at the turkey and said “Him?” which created the first official turkey pardon.
“Where Pardoned Turkeys Go To Die” by Dan Merica
“The Thanksgiving Raccoon That Became A Presidential pet” by Christopher Klein
“The Turkey: An American Story” by Andrew F. Smith
“Calvin Coolidge Renovation: 1927” on the White House Museum website
“Turkey Pardons, The Stuffing of Historic Legend” by Monica Hesse
“Calvin Coolidge’s Pet Raccoon Rebecca” by Presidential Pet Museum
“First Lady Grace Coolidge Loved Her Raccoon, Rebecca” by Rebecca Onion
“Wombats and Such” by David Pietrusza