While nearly 50 million turkeys are served up every Thanksgiving, two lucky gobblers given each year to the White House are granted stays of execution. Unlike most American Thanksgiving rituals, however, the fowl tradition of the presidential turkey pardon is a relatively new phenomenon.
Two hundred years after George Washington issued the first presidential proclamation of a day of public thanksgiving, President George H.W. Bush stepped before reporters, 30 schoolchildren and one antsy 50-pound turkey in the White House Rose Garden on November 17, 1989. The public presentation of a plump gobbler to the chief executive in the lead-up to Thanksgiving had been a time-honored photo op since the 1940s, but Bush would add a new presidential tradition of his own. After noting that the turkey appeared “understandably nervous,” Bush added: “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 quarter-century later, the presidential turkey pardon remains an annual Thanksgiving ritual. However, while Bush formalized the fowl tradition, he may not have been the first president to issue a stay of execution to a turkey. A story is told that while Abraham Lincoln occupied the White House, his young son Tad grew so close to a turkey destined for Christmas dinner that he named him Jack and led him around on a leash like a pet. Listening to Tad’s pleas to spare the turkey from his culinary fate, the Great Emancipator granted a reprieve and freed the bird.
A decade later during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, Rhode Island poultry dealer Horace Vose began to send plump turkeys to the White House for Thanksgiving dinners. Although a staunch Republican, Vose was non-partisan when it came to turkeys. He sent birds to presidents of both parties until his death in 1913. Beginning in 1946, a pair of poultry industry groups—the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board—assumed the duties of presenting presidents with turkeys for the holidays. That year, the groups delivered a 42-pound Texas tom to President Harry Truman for Christmas.
While Truman began the ritual of appearing with the gift turkeys in staged photo ops, he is erroneously credited with starting the presidential pardon tradition. The misinformation is so prevalent that the Truman Library has issued a statement on its web site that its staff “has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency.”
In fact, not only did the turkeys given to Truman and some of his successors fail to receive clemency, they suffered a much different fate by ending up on the presidential dinner table. In 1948 Truman told reporters that the turkeys given to him “would come in handy” for the 25 people expected for dinner at his Independence, Missouri, home that Christmas. Ten days before Thanksgiving in 1953, National Turkey Federation president Roscoe Hill presented a live 39-pound turkey to President Dwight Eisenhower, who hoped Hill would kill, freeze and return the gobbler to the White House “in plenty of time because I hope to spend Thanksgiving with my youngsters and I want to take him along.”
A president finally took pity on a gifted bird in 1963 when John F. Kennedy spared the life of a mammoth 55-pound white turkey wearing a sign around its neck—clearly not of its own volition—that read “Good Eating, Mr. President!” “We’ll just let this one grow,” Kennedy said with a grin. “It’s our Thanksgiving present to him.” As the president left the Rose Garden on November 19, 1963, the turkey prepared for its return to a California farm while Kennedy finalized preparations for his fateful trip to Dallas three days later.
Although newspapers in 1963 reported that “Merciful President Pardons Turkey,” the first president to actually use the word “pardon” at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation may have been Ronald Reagan, albeit as a quip. During the throes of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987, Reagan sidestepped reporters’ questions about whether he planned to pardon any of his aides accused of wrongdoing. When then asked about the fate of the 55-pound turkey he was just given, Reagan joked, “I’ll pardon him.”
Although the National Thanksgiving Turkey and its alternate (sent in case the primary turkey can’t fulfill its duties—mainly, staying alive to make it to the presentation ceremony) now receive stays of execution, their remaining days do not last too long. The skeletons and organs of turkeys bred for consumption are incapable of supporting extreme weights, and most of the reprieved turkeys die prematurely within the following year.
For many years, the freed turkeys spent their remaining months at the ironically named Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, Virginia. Between 2005 and 2009, they were sent to Disneyland and Walt Disney World where they served as grand marshals in the theme parks’ annual Thanksgiving parades. From 2010 to 2013, the turkeys made the short trip from the White House to Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and this year they will be transferred to Turkey Hill Farm at Morven Park in Leesburg, Virginia, to live out their last days as free birds.