Horace Vose, a poultry farmer in Rhode Island, began the tradition of giving presidents Thanksgiving turkeys in 1873 when he sent a 38-pound gobbler to President Ulysses S. Grant. Vose, known as the Turkey King, continued to send prize Thanksgiving turkeys to presidents through Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
The only hitch came in 1904 when the Boston Herald reported that President Theodore Roosevelt’s children had chased the gift turkey “all over the White House grounds, plucking at it and teasing it, and yelling and laughing, until the bird was well nigh exhausted, while the President looked on and laughed.” Roosevelt’s secretary, William S. Loeb Jr., fired back that the story was fake because the Vose turkey was delivered dead, dressed and ready to be roasted for Thanksgiving dinner.
After Vose died in late 1913, others rushed to gobble up the turkey publicity. In 1922, the girls’ club of Morris & Co., a Chicago meat packing company, for the third straight year sent a dressed turkey, named Supreme III, to President Warren G. Harding. Carrying this turkey was a General Motors truck that set a record for truck travel going nonstop from Chicago to the White House in 37 hours and 34 minutes.
After Harding died in office in August 1923, President Calvin Coolidge tried to discourage the turkey-giving that Thanksgiving, saying he would buy his own bird. But in later years Coolidge gave in after the White House was flooded with Thanksgiving offerings of everything from turkeys and ducks to deer and even a live raccoon. Coolidge opted for turkey and kept the raccoon as a pet named Rebecca.
President Harry S. Truman often is wrongly credited with being the first president to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey in 1947. Actually he was the first to receive a live turkey from the National Turkey Federation, an industry group that has presented the presidential bird ever since. Truman didn’t pardon the “National Turkey”; he ate it. As did presidents through Lyndon B. Johnson, except for John F. Kennedy.
At a White House Rose Garden ceremony on Nov. 19, 1963, Kennedy received a 55-pound live turkey with a sign around its neck reading: “Good Eating, Mr. President!” But JFK said, “We’ll just let this one grow.” He never said the bird was pardoned, though some newspaper reports did. Kennedy was assassinated three days later in Dallas.
President Richard M. Nixon began the practice of freeing the presidential turkey to petting farms. Nixon also didn’t mention the word pardon. That word was used later by his successor, President Gerald R. Ford, when he pardoned Nixon after Nixon resigned in 1974 during the Watergate scandal.
Presidents have continued to send the Thanksgiving turkeys to various petting farms, including those at Frying Pan Farm in Reston, Va.; Disneyland; and Mount Vernon. Most of the freed turkeys are so fattened for eating that they die a year or so after being freed.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” at the annual turkey presentation. But he was joking after reporters asked whether he planned to pardon aides Oliver North and Robert Poindexter, who were involved in the Iran-contra scandal. Reagan gestured at Charlie the turkey and quipped, “Maybe I’ll pardon him.”
It was President George H.W. Bush who officially started the turkey pardoning in 1989. As animal rights protesters shouted from behind the White House fence, Bush declared: “Let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy — he’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now.”
A tradition was born.
The turkey pardon is an annual photo op for presidents and the turkey industry. Actually, presidents pardon two turkeys because, as with the Miss America beauty pageant, a runner-up is picked in case the winner can’t perform its duties. President Barack Obama made lots of jokes not only about the turkeys but also about the ceremony itself. “In the office of the presidency,” he said in 2013, “the most powerful position in the world brings many awesome and solemn responsibilities — this is not one of them.” PETA has called the presidential pardoning a “sorely outdated event” that “makes light of the mass slaughter of some 45 million gentle, intelligent birds.”
President Trump picked up the tradition with gusto last year, pardoning Drumstick and Wishbone. This year’s chosen turkeys, which come from South Dakota, were picked from “the Presidential Flock” of turkeys that were acclimated from a young age to “sounds of a crowd” and “bright camera lights,” the Turkey Federation says.
Upon arrival in Washington, Peas and Carrots were put up at the Willard InterContinental Hotel. They now will live out their short lives at Gobbler’s Rest at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
It could be worse. By then many of their feathered friends back in South Dakota will have become turkey sandwiches.
Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor for the Wall Street Journal.