Historical Landmark of the Month (February, Part III): Presidential Cats

Denise made an interesting comment yesterday about the two latest blog posts. She expressed her surprise that I would blog about two dogs, because we are more of a cat family (I've been hauling Moses all around the country for the better part of a decade!). It's true--I generally do prefer the much more sophisticated and complex cat to the emotionally-immature dog, but you don't really find a lot of information about historically significant cats. For this final post of the month, I had to do some serious research.

I briefly considered telling the story of "Fred the Undercover Kitty", who in 2006 gained fame for his undercover work with the New York Police Department and the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office in the arrest of a suspect posing as a veterinary care provider.

Fred the Undercover Kitty, with his Letter of Citation at the press conference.

Or maybe the story of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914–17.

Mrs.Chippy on the shoulder of crew member Perce Blackborow; 1914

But since we are in DC, I thought that I needed something with a DC-orientation. I wound up examining the history of presidential pets in The White House (did you know there is a Presidential Pet Museum?) Specifically, I'm wondering what kind of cat presence has existed in the WH. Has any President ever let his cat loose in the West Wing? Can't you just see President Bill Clinton working at his desk in the Oval Office with "Socks" sitting on the edge of The Resolute Desk? We took Moses to work with us for years, and she loved to nap on the corner of the desk, or even better, to curl up on top of the printer, where it was nice and warm.

I should take a brief detour here to mention that cats have a long and distinguished history of associating with Heads of State. It has long been recorded that cats enjoyed an exalted place of honor in ancient Egypt (it was believed that “Bast”, the goddess of the home & protector of the fields and home from vermin infestations, took the form of a cat.)

Although there are no sacred species in Islam (and Mohammed wasn’t a Head of State), it is said by some writers that Mohammad had a favorite cat named Muezza. It is said Mohammed loved cats so much that "he would do without his cloak rather than disturb one that was sleeping on it".

Britain has Sybil, who serves as "The Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office", the title of the official resident cat of the Prime Minister who lives at 10 Downing Street. The UK has had an offical cat since the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547)!

Sybil, the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office

The United States has had 44 different Presidents. Not counting President Obama, who has publicly stated that his family is looking for a dog, there has only been ONE President who did not have pets at the White House. Only the 21st President, Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885), did not keep pets while he was in office.

Abraham Lincoln's portrait with Tabby, his son Tad's cat. Tabby may have been the first cat in The White House.

Who had the most bizarre pet while President? There’s some subjectivity here, but I’d like to nominate John Quincy Adams (an American Alligator), Martin Van Buren (two tiger cubs), Calvin Coolidge (a pygmy hippo named “Billy”—you can see his descendants at the Washington Zoo), or Harry Truman (a boa constrictor named “Monster Jungle X-ray”).

A pygmy hippo, probably one of Billy's ancestors.

Who had the most pets while President? John F. Kennedy had 21, Calvin Coolidge had 24, but the President with the most pets in office was Teddy Roosevelt, who had 25 pets, including multiple dogs, cats, snakes, a badger, guinea pigs and a one-legged hen named “Baron Speckle”.

JKF and kids with their pet horse, Macaroni.

Which President had the most unusual named pet? I think you can learn a lot about people based on what they name their pets. George Washington had an American Staghound named “Sweet Lips”; Benjamin Harrison had two opossums named “Mr. Reciprocity” and “Mr. Protection”; Teddy Roosevelt had a garter snake named “Emily Spinach”; and Jimmy Carter had a Siamese cat named “Misty Malarky Ying Yang”.

Amy Carter and Misty Malarky Ying Yang

The award for least creative Presidential Pet Name goes to Lyndon B. Johnson, who had two beagles named “Him” and “Her”.

LBJ gets an enthusiastic welcome to the Oval Office.

And now, a couple of quick Presidential Cat Stories. . .

Calvin Coolidge was a man of few words and even fewer emotions, but he loved his animals. It was previously mentioned that he had 24 pets, but the President’s favorite was his beloved cat Tiger, a striking orange tomcat with black stripes who would drape himself around the president's shoulders as “Silent Cal” wandered through the White House. Tiger would rush to his master's side when called.

In late March 1924, Tiger disappeared from the White House during an ice storm. The president was greatly distressed the next morning when the cat did not respond to his customary greeting. A thorough search of the grounds turned up nothing, and for three days the Coolidge family fretted over the mysterious fate of Tiger. On the evening of March 24, Secret Service agent James Hanley appeared on local radio and appealed to the city to keep an eye out for a cat fitting Tiger's description. Scores of Washingtonians began calling the White House with reports of cat sightings and unhelpful offers to replace the lost cat.

To the nation's delight, on March 25 a Navy captain named Benjamin Fink -- pictured below -- discovered Tiger inside a Federal building, about 500 yards from the White House. Coolidge was overjoyed by Tiger's return and immediately had a collar made for him with his name and address on it.

(Question: Author A. A. Milne introduced the fictional characters Winnie the Pooh in 1926. One of Winnie friends is an energetic, orange cat with black stripes, named Tigger. Coincidence, or not?)

CAPT Benjamin Fink and Tiger; 1924

I did discover this interesting obituary of “Socks”, the Clintons’ cat who just passed away on Feb 20 of this year:http://www.obit-mag.com/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5205. Socks was probably the most high-profile cat who had been in the White House in many years. She spent much of her time on the desk of Betty Currie, President Clinton’s secretary. This desk is located just outside the Oval Office, so I like to imagine that Socks would occasionally wander into the most powerful office in the world to check things out. (Note: there was tension in the Clinton household when the President got a new dog, Buddy. Socks found Buddy's intrusion intolerable; according to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Socks "despised Buddy from first sight, instantly and forever" and Bill Clinton said that "I did better with the Palestinians and the Israelis... than I've done with Socks and Buddy". When the Clintons left the White House in 2001 they took Buddy to their new home, but left Socks under the care of Bill Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.)

The Bush White House also enjoyed the company of India, a black American shorthair who lived to be 18 years old. While President Bush’s dog enjoyed far more publicity, India had lived in The White House for 8 years, but primarily stayed in the residential East Wing. According to former First Lady Laura Bush, India (or “Willie”, as they called him) liked to sleep on the books in the sunny part of the Presidential library. He enjoyed a quiet life, far from the cameras and attention that Socks enjoyed. (You can draw your own conclusions about the comparative differences between the Clintons and the Bush family.)

First Lady Laura Bush and India in a March 2008 story in Architectural Digest

India "Willie" and Miss Beasley getting to know each other.

Ok…I’ll admit that I didn’t find any great stories of cats roaming the halls of The White House and rubbing up against the legs of foreign diplomats or jumping up on the table during important Cabinet meetings. Still, I like the mental image of the President of the United States, working late in the Oval Office, wrestling with the complex issues of this county, with a cat sitting on the window sill looking out over the Rose Garden, waiting to be stroked and petted during those quiet moments of contemplation and decision making . .

Historical Landmark of the Month (February, Part II): Owney

Since the story of Stubby, the original canine war hero, was so warmly received, I thought people might enjoy another story in the same realm. It's not quite as heart-warming as Stubby, but interesting and historically accurate. It's about Owney, the globe-trotting mascot of
the United States Postal Service.


Owney, born sometime in the late 1880's, was a stray mixed-breed terrier adopted as a mascot by the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. Postal workers in the Albany office found the abandoned puppy asleep on some empty mail bags. The puppy really took comfort in the mail bags, maybe it was the smell or the texture of the heavy canvas, but he was never really satisfied until he was curled up on a mail bag.

Owney and his mail bags

At some point in time, Owney started riding the rails with the USPS's Railway Mail Service. (Historical note: The Railway Mail Service (RMS) carried the vast majority of letters and packages mailed in the United States from the 1890s until the 1960s.) For another unknown reason, Owney loved to ride the trains. His trips became longer and longer, and
the postal clerks at Albany became concerned that the dog might get lost. They bought Owney a collar with a metal tag that read: "Owney, Post Office, Albany, New York". Railway clerks also took a liking to Owney, and began to mark his travels with small, metal tags. The
National Postal Museum (in Washington, DC, right next door to Union Station) has a collection of 1,017 metal tags that belonged to Owney. (You can see an on-line collection of some of Owney’s tags here.)

On April 9, 1894, a writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that "Nearly every place he stopped Owney received an additional tag, until now he wears a big bunch. When he jogs along, they jingle like the bells on a junk wagon." When Postmaster General John Wanamaker learned that the dog's collar was weighed down by an ever-growing number of tags, his wife made Owney a “jacket” on which to display the "trophies."

Owney and the men of Railcar #99

Owney became a celebrity and newspapers around the country chronicled his adventures. As Owney travelled across the country, he made appearances at a number of diverse places: the 1892 Republican convention in Buffalo, greeting participants at a bankers' convention in Council Bluffs, Iowa and a surprise arrival at a Poultry Association event in Tacoma, Wash. Here's a random blurb published in the New York Times on an unknown date:

Owney and an unidentified Postal Worker

On September 19, 1894, the Columbus Dispatch published the following three paragraphs in the paper:

"Owney, the famous mail dog, arrived in Columbus today from Athens, over the Toledo & Ohio Central, where he has been spending a few days. Owney is one of the most widely known dogs in the United States. For the past eight or ten years he has traveled constantly and always in mail cars.

Twice has he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and both times he persisted in riding with the mail clerks.

He has been over every railroad in the United States and will ride only with mail clerks, all of whom know him, feed and care for him. The dog's neck is freighted with medals given by admirers in all parts of the country. Owney is a fox terrier and originally came from Albany, New York, which he makes his headquarters. Several years ago in a wreck in Canada the dog had the sight of his right eye destroyed."

(The claim of Owney losing his vision in one eye couldn't be substantiated by additional resources.)

In 1895, Owney went on his longest journey, a 14,000 mile, 132-day trip around the world on trains and steamships, with stops in Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, Suez, Algiers, Europe, and the Azores, New York, and then back to Tacoma, Washington, where the trip began, to be greeted by cheering crowds. Owney had become so popular that the New York Times published a small column about his return to America:

Owney and his vest

But his proudest moment was probably his appearance at the convention of the National Association of Railway Clerks in San Francisco, where, according to the National Postal Museum, the clerks who had taken care of him on his journeys gave him a rousing fifteen minute ovation, and "cheered, clapped, and whistled for their faithful four-legged friend."

Owney retired from the Railway Mail Service in 1897 due to poor eyesight and old age. However, as a well-traveled dog he had a serious case of wanderlust and was difficult to contain.

Owney slipped out of the Albany post office in June 1897 and took one final trip. Details regarding his death are sketchy and unclear, but he passed away in Toledo, Ohio on July 11, 1897.

Here's a closer look at some of Owney's tags:

Presented to "His Dogship" on April 20, 1892 from the Baltimore and Grafton Railway Post Office (RPO) car

Tag presented during a visit to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 27, 1895.
Tag presented to Owney during a visit to Mankato, Minnesota on June 17, 1895.

Tag presented to "Owney the Globe Trotter"; Unknown origin.

Tag presented to Owney from the Travelers Insurance Company, Chicago, Illinois.

A medal given to Owney at the annual Postal Convention on April 19, 1892 in Baltimore, Maryland.

A statue of Owney on display at the National Postal Museum; Washington, DC.

Mail clerks raised money to have him stuffed and put on display in a glass case -- first at Post Office Headquarters in Washington, DC; then at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He travelled around some after that, but wound up at the new National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. He can still be seen there today, wearing his small doggy vest bristling with some of the medals and tags that he accumulated in his travels. Next time you are in town, check him out.

Owney's permanent home.
Owney might not be as famous as Stubby, but he had at least two children's book written about him. You can read it on-line here:
For you visual learners, here's a short video that tells Owney's story (it's about 3 minutes long).

Historical Landmark of the Month (February): Stubby the dog

I recently came across a fantastic story that was so good, I had to research it a little more to find out if it was true. What I discovered was even more enjoyable than I had imagined. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the true story of Stubby, the four-legged hero of World War I.

When the United States entered World War I, we didn’t have a very large military. As a result, various National Guard units were activated and combined to form larger units. In June 1917, National Guard units from Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont were combined to form the 102nd Infantry Battalion of the 26th "Yankee" Division. Prior to their deployment, they trained on the grounds and athletic fields of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. It was there that Private Robert Conroy came across a stray dog.

We aren’t really sure what kind of dog it was; some sources speculated that he was part Boston Terrier and part Pit Bull, while other sources state that he was in fact a pure bred American Pit Bull Terrier while his obituary described him as a "Bull Terrier". Whatever he was, he was low to the ground with short, bristly hair and a sold, compact frame. Since he had a short, chopped-off tail, they called him “Stubby”.

Stubby took to the soldiers, and they quickly adopted him as their own. He didn’t bark or make any unauthorized messes, and he learned to march with the troops and sit up straight in a doggie-version of “Attention”. He even learned a modified canine salute, bringing his right paw up in the general vicinity of his head.

At the end of their training, the 26th YD headed south to Newport News, VA where they boarded the USS Minnesota for the trip across the Atlantic. Conroy, unwilling to part with Stubby, smuggled him onboard in his luggage and kept him hidden until they were well out at sea. Once free, Stubby roamed the decks and made friends with the sailors. All was good until Conroy’s Commanding Officer got wind of the dog, but when Stubby snapped to attention and rendered his canine salute, the CO allowed Stubby to stay. It was official—Stubby was going to the front with his comrades in the Yankee Division.

The Yankee Division served in the trenches of France for 18 months, taking part in four major offensives and 17 battles with the Germans. Their first major combat was on February 5, 1918 at Chemin des Dames, north of Soissons. During constant fire, day and night, Stubby was a valuable asset. When American soldiers were wounded in “No Man’s Land” (the area between the Allied and German trenches that was constantly raked by machine gun fire), Stubby would find them (they would call his name in English) and bark ferociously until the medics came and retrieved the wounded soldier. With his keen hearing, Stubby could also hear the incoming whine of artillery shells, and learned to take cover. When the soldiers saw Stubby duck for cover, they did the same, even when they couldn’t hear the incoming shell over the noise of battle. Stubby filled other duties as well, ferrying messages between posts, standing watch with the sentries at night, and providing comfort and cheer to the men.

In April 1918, during a raid to take Schieprey, Stubby was wounded in the foreleg by the retreating Germans throwing hand grenades. He was sent to the rear for convalescence, and as soon as he was able, started making the rounds of the hospital, improving morale and (as rumor has it) paying special attention to the morale of the nurses. When he recovered from his wounds, Stubby returned to the trenches.

Stubby also had an early serious exposure to a poison gas attack by the Germans. After he was rehabilitated and returned to the Yankee Division, he was keenly aware of the faintest hint of gas. On at least two separate occasions, the Germans attempted a poison gas attack while the Division slept at night. Stubby, hyper-sensitive to the gas, caught a whiff of the gas and ran through the trenches, barking and biting at the soldier’s shirts and boots to wake them up. As a result of Stubby's actions, the gas alarm was sounded and hundred of men were saved from injury. With his job done, Stubby left the trench to avoid the gas and didn't return until he felt it was safe.

Stubby was a serious soldier, but garnered even more fame when he captured a German soldier on his own. One day, Stubby went to investigate a noise and found a German spy who was mapping out the layout of the Allied trenches. The German soldier tried to call Stubby to him but it didn't work (Stubby obviously didn’t speak German!) With his ears back and haunches low, Stubby began to bark. The German began to run and Stubby launched into an attack, biting the soldier on his legs causing him to trip and fall. Stubby then attacked the soldier's arms and finally bit and held onto his rear end. By this time some of the Allied soldiers had come to see what all the noise was.

In his journal, Pvt Conroy recorded the following: "Single-pawedly, in a vigorous offensive from the rear, Stubby had captured a German spy, who'd been prowling through the trenches. The man was whirling desperately in an effort to shake off the snarling bundle of canine tooth and muscle that had attached itself to his differential. But Stubby was there to stay. It took considerably more time to convince Stubby that his mission had been successfully carried out and that he should now release the German.”

The commander of the Yankee Division used this act of bravery to put Stubby in for a promotion-he became the first dog to be given rank in the U.S. Armed Forces and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. (Stubby even outranked his friend, Robert Conroy, who was only promoted to Corporal.)

After the Allies had recaptured the town of Ch√Ęteau-Thierry from the Germans, news of the little dog's heroism became known to the townspeople and the women of the town made Stubby a very nice hand-sewn chamois uniform decorated with Allied flags and his name stitched in gold thread. The coat became his recognized trademark, becoming a depository for his service chevrons, medals, pins and buttons which he wore at parades for the rest of his life.

Stubby's uniform in all of its glory.
On leave, Stubby visited Nice, Monte Carlo and even Paris. While in Paris, Stubby suddenly bolted from Conroy's side and knocked a young girl away from a street corner, out of the path of a careening car. While they were grazed by the car, neither was seriously hurt. For his chivalrous actions, Stubby became a hero to the French.

After the War ended, Stubby was a celebrity. Walking the streets of Paris, he was recognized by hundreds of French, English, Australian and American soldiers. Before his return to the United States, he visited with President Woodrow Wilson after leading the American troops in a pass and review parade.

Stubby's left side (above) and right side (below)

Stubby had survived an amazing military experience, but as the war ended and he returned to the US (once again smuggled onto the ship by his faithful friend, Corporal Conroy), he was just getting started.

He was made a lifetime member of the American Legion and marched in parades and attended every Legion convention from the end of the war until his death. He was written about by practically every newspaper in the country and made multiple trips to the White House, meeting three different Presidents (Wilson, Harding and Coolidge) and was a lifetime member of the Red Cross and YMCA. The YMCA offered him three bones a day and place to sleep for the rest of his life (he often took advantage of that offer) and he regularly hit the campaign trail, recruiting members for the American Red Cross and selling victory bonds.

Stubby soliciting funds for the American Red Cross.
In 1921 General Blackjack Pershing (who had been the Supreme Commander of American Expeditionary Forces during the War) pinned Stubby with a gold hero dog’s medal that was commissioned by the Humane Education Society the forerunner of our current Humane Society. The bravery, loyalty and military usefulness of Stubby was instrumental in the creation of the U.S. "K9 Corps" during World War II- a tradition that exists to this day.

Being awarded a medal by General Pershing.
Corporal Conroy remained his true and faithful friend. In the early 1920’s, Conroy was nearly denied service at the Grand Majestic Hotel in New York City because they wouldn't accept the dog. With a grumble that might have been worthy of Stubby facing a German spy, Corporal Conroy is reported to have slammed his fist on the counter and said, "This is no dog. This is an American war hero!" Stubby was then received and signed the guestbook with a pawprint.

When his master, Robert Conroy, moved to DC to study law at Georgetown University, Stubby came along. Stubby was widely known around campus, and eventually became the official mascot of the Georgetown Hoyas (Georgetown uses the likeness of a bulldog to this day that represents Stubby!) During halftime of football games, his antics of playing with the football not only served to be entertaining but initiated a line of canine mascots to follow and is even credited with beginning the college football half time show. Stubby still found time to be received by not one but two Presidents (Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge) at the White House (he'd met President Wilson in Europe during the War and offered his well known salute to Wilson's delight).
Stubby as the Georgetown Mascot.
Stubby passed away in 1926 after a full and satisfying life. The Georgetown University newspaper wrote, upon his death in 1926, “If there is any place on the Other Side for dogs that are true, and loyal, and heroic, Stubby is no doubt there, gamboling after gray-clad warriors with all his former gusto.” The New York Times ran a three column obituary that can be read here. Rather than being buried in Arlington, his body was donated to the Smithsonian and even though it’s a little creepy, his body was stuffed and he stands guard over the WWI display in the National Museum of American History ("The Price of Freedom: Americans at War" exhibit, 2nd floor East.) Next time you are in DC, stop by and pay your respects to a genuine American military hero.
Stubby was honored with a brick in the Walk of Honor at the United States World War I Monument, Liberty Memorial, in Kansas City at a ceremony held on Armistice Day, November 11 2006.
Stubby's brick at the WWI Memorial.

Time-Waster Conclusion

Here's a few of the noteworthy and infamous people I spotted in the Inaugural crowd.