By Brad Dison
Just before Thanksgiving each year, a turkey receives a presidential pardon in a ceremony at the White House called the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation. Beginning in the 1870s, Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began sending turkeys to the White House for Thanksgiving dinner. Following Horace’s death in December of 1913, other poulterers sent turkeys to the White House and the tradition has continued. In the 1960s and 1970s, presidents occasionally pardoned a Thanksgiving turkey, but the presidential pardoning ceremony became a yearly tradition in 1984 when Ronal Reagan pardoned a 53-pound turkey called R.J., which was short for “Robust and Juicy.”
On November 26, 1926, Vinney Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi, sent his Thanksgiving “table delicacy” eventually named Rebecca to the White House chef. President Calvin Coolidge considered his thanksgiving meal as he eyed Rebecca. After a little consideration, Calvin decided to pardon Rebecca. At first, Rebecca was kept in a crate in the White House’s warm cellar. For some reason, Calvin was unable to stop thinking about the intended Thanksgiving entree. Within a short time, Calvin moved her from the cellar up to the living quarters of the White House. First Lady Grace Coolidge took to Rebecca as well. They found Rebecca to be tame, lively, cunning, and friendly.
Rebecca quickly became an official presidential pet. While the first family had dogs and a cat which were kept in the White House kennel, Rebecca had pens inside the White House and on the south lawn of the White House. The president, first lady, and Rebecca were almost inseparable. In the 1920s, radio was the most popular form of home entertainment. As the president sat listening to his favorite radio shows by the fireside, Rebecca sat comfortably on his lap. Within a couple of weeks, the president and first lady had trained Rebecca to walk on a leash. On her collar was inscribed, “Rebecca.” Calvin took Rebecca for daily walks. Grace took Rebecca to numerous events, especially where children were present to show off the pet. On Easter Sunday, 1927, the first lady took Rebecca to the annual Easter Egg Roll. The crowd of 30,000 shrieking children and clicking of the photographers’ cameras were too much for Rebecca, and she clawed at the first lady and a couple of the children. Once she was returned to the White House, Rebecca returned to her normally calm nature. Rebecca often accompanied the president and first lady in their limousine on rides throughout the capital. Rebecca even appeared in the president’s 1926 Christmas photo.
Having Rebecca as a presidential pet was sometimes trying. The White House staff nicknamed Rebecca “Houdini” due to her ability to escape any enclosure. Rebecca often scratched and damaged curtains, rugs, carpets, and furniture in the White House. On June 7, 1927, Rebecca was left unattended in her pen on the White House lawn. While no one was looking, Rebecca escaped and spent two hours stealthily exploring the neighborhood around the White House while attachés desperately searched for her. Finally, they located Rebecca hiding in a tree. They tried to coax her down from the tree, but Rebecca refused. Finally, a local electrician climbed the tree and retrieved Rebecca. Despite a few naughty incidents, Rebecca was still considered to be the president’s “most amiable pet,” and on those matters the smitten president remained true to his moniker, “Silent Cal.”
It is unlikely that we will ever see a White House pet that could capture national interest such as Rebecca did in the late 1920s. Unfortunately, laws in the District of Columbia prevent animals such as Rebecca from being kept as pets, even presidential pets. Rebecca, the intended Thanksgiving entrée which was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge and became a beloved presidential pet, was not a turkey, but a raccoon. Happy Thanksgiving!!!
1. Buffalo Evening News, November 27, 1926, p.1.
2. The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), November 27, 1926, p.9.
3. Buffalo Evening News, December 1, 1926, p.1.
4. Fort Worth Record-Telegram, December 25, 1926, p.7.
5. The Brooklyn Daily Times, June 8, 1927, p.2.
6. Betty C. Monkman, “Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey,” White House Historical Association, 2019. https://www.whitehousehistory.