Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”
Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”
If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.
Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.
The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.
Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats. Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.
Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”
Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.
Official Portrait of Fido, Abraham Lincoln’s Dog
During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.
Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.
Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.
Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, “The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.
As one of her biographers wrote, “history has not been kind to Mary Lincoln.” In fact, she experienced unpopularity during her years in the White House, partly because of her spending habits, but also because she had relatives fighting for the Confederacy. Though Mary had faults, she was loyal to her husband and the Union, and she became increasingly opposed to slavery.
Mary learned about slavery growing up in Kentucky. Her father’s involvement in state politics meant that his children heard political issues debated at home. One of these issues was slavery. Robert Todd opposed the trading of slaves among whites, which tore them from their relatives. Naively, he hoped that the practice of holding slaves would eventually die out.
His convictions did not, however, keep him from owning a few household slaves. One of these slaves, Aunt Sally, was a mother figure for Mary when her own mother died. When Mary heard a knocking outside one night, Sally explained that she had made a mark on the Todd’s fence to signal to runway slaves that they could stop there for food. Although she knew helping runaway slaves was illegal, Mary was thrilled that Sally shared a secret with her and never told anyone. Her father’s politics and her relationship with Aunt Sally gave Mary an unfavorable view of slavery that became stronger later in her life.
Shortly after she became First Lady and moved to Washington, Mary struck up a friendship with her African American dressmaker and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When former slaves came flocking to the capital during the Civil War without food or a place to sleep, Elizabeth made it her mission to help them. Mary wrote to her husband, President Abraham Lincoln asking him to support her friend’s charity. She also made contributions herself. In a letter to her husband, she wrote, “She [Elizabeth] says the immense number of contrabands in Washington are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpet to cover themselves—Many dying of want…I have given her the privilege of investing $200 here in bed covering…this sum, I am sure, you will not object to being used in this way—The cause of humanity requires it.”
Unaware of Mary’s growing antislavery feelings, radical abolitionist Jane Swisshelm expected Mary Lincoln to be a Confederate sympathizer. When they met at the White House in 1863, however, Swisshelm believed that Mary was “more radically opposed to slavery” than the President. By listening to her African American friend’s descriptions of suffering, Mary took up the cause of helping former slaves. Through this cause, Mary gained a perspective on slavery that most whites, including the President, did not have.