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It has been a long time since we had any posts related to turkeys!  Now that it’s November again, it is definitely time to revisit those magnificent birds.  A good place to start is by examining different varieties of domestic turkeys.  Since there are many different breeds, I’ll make this the first half of a two-part post.

Broad-Breasted White Turkeys on a turkey farm

The majority of turkeys available at the supermarket are Broad Breasted White turkeys, a non-standardized commercial strain noted for quickly putting on weight.  The white feathers also serve a practical purpose by making it difficult for market-goers to spot an imperfectly plucked turkey.  These large birds are raised in factory farms and their diminished existence means that they do not attain the cunning which broader life experience brings to free-range fowl.  Nevertheless, they are not nearly as dim as they are made out to be by popular myth.

Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys

The turkeys we raised on the farm when I was a child were Broad-Breasted Bronze turkeys which are also a non-standardized breed noted for quick weight gain.  Neither the Broad-Breasted Bronze nor the Broad-Breasted White turkeys are capable of reproduction without the aid of artificial insemination.  My family obtained our turkeys as little poults through the mail and the birds’ later inability to have offspring was rather pathetic.  Additionally our pet turkeys tended to develop health complications due to their immense and ungainly size.  Other breeds of turkeys from the past did not have these issues.  They were kept by homeowners and farmers as small rafters (that’s the proper term for a group of turkeys) or as individuals.  Since turkeys are formidable hunters capable of eating a vast quantity of insects, the birds, like other domestic fowl, served as pest control before commercial poisons became inexpensive.  Abraham Lincoln had a pet turkey “Tom” who tended to the white house lawn.

The American Poultry Association recognizes eight breeds of domestic turkeys.  These breeds were variously popular in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries but became largely moribund during the late twentieth century with the rise of the Broad-Breasted white.  Most varieties nearly went extinct– however a recent fad for heritage turkeys during the holidays (and a growing trend for backyard poultry) has created a niche market for these historical turkeys.

Here is the first half of a gallery of turkey breeds:

Royal Palm Turkeys

The Royal Palm was not a meat bird but was bred for selected ornamental characteristics.  The toms are usually less aggressive than other male turkeys and the females are said to make solicitous and conscientious mothers.

A "Rafter" of Slate Turkeys

The American Turkey Association first recognized the Slate turkey in 1874.  The turkey can range from pale gray (known as lavender) to a dark charcoal color.

A Narragansett Turkey Tom

To quote the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, “Narragansett color pattern contains black, gray, tan, and white. Its pattern is similar to that of the Bronze, with steel gray or dull black replacing the coppery bronze…. Narragansett turkeys have traditionally been known for their calm disposition, good maternal abilities, early maturation, egg production, and excellent meat quality.”

The White Holland Turkey

The White Holland turkey was the most popular table turkey during the early twentieth century largely because the pale pin feathers made the dressed carcass look neater.  The White Holland turkey had a smaller body than the Large Breasted White Turkey but its head was more colorful, its beard was black and its legs were longer.  This breed has primarily disappeared due to being bred into the Large Breasted White Turkey population.

That’s enough Turkey Breeds for one day, but don’t worry I will finish the second portion of this list before turkey day gets here!

Dueling was a major conundrum for gentlemen of the nineteenth century.  Since dueling was against the law, engaging in contests of honor could endanger one’s career and prospects.  To refuse a duel however was inconceivable: it meant forfeiting one’s honor and manhood–it meant being a coward, in an era where that was the most despicable thing one could be.

The field of honor, was therefore a great crucible for true character. Some men were indeed revealed to be cowards or cheats.  Some people did not deign to fight but fired their bullets in the air and waited to see if their opponent would shoot them in cold blood. Other men fought it out and wound up as killers or as corpses.  The man who solved the problem with the greatest panache was Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, who found a completely satisfactory way out of the terrible conundrum (although it was a close thing).

The oldest-known photograph of Lincoln, about 1847

In 1842, Lincoln, then an Illinois state legislator, allegedly wrote a series of anonymous letters criticizing a hot-headed Democrat named James Shields, the state auditor.  The national financial crisis of the preceding years had left the state coffers in disarray and had infuriated the electorate–circumstances which left the auditor ripe for mockery.  It is unclear how many of the letters, Lincoln authored himself—his future wife Mary Todd probably was much more culpable (although Lincoln was courting her at the time and was trying to both impress her with his wit and gallantry as well as shield her from any scandal).  Unfortunately the anonymous letters acquired a life of their own as other writers added to the canon. Ultimately the letters hinted tauntingly at Shield’s cowardice and…inadequacy as a man.  The irate Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel.

Lincoln realized that he had gone too far and tried to apologize to Shields, however the latter was not appeased by any words. Since he had been challenged, Lincoln was allowed to choose the location and the weapons.  A cunning lawyer, Lincoln chose Bloody Island as the battleground:  this spit of land on the Missouri side of the Mississippi was disputed between the states (and by the flooding river).  The island’s actual legal location was therefore unclear (a useful subterfuge for possible legal tangles).  James Shield had a reputation as a crack shot and a fearless fighter, but he was small, whereas, at 6’4” Lincoln towered above his compatriots and was known for immense physical strength.  Lincoln also excelled at championship submission wrestling–as a younger man he had frequently grappled against all challengers on the frontier and he was only thrown twice.

Lincoln Wrestling (by Harold von Schmidt)

For the dueling weapons, Lincoln chose the heaviest & longest cavalry swords, which gave maximum advantage to his height and strength (and possessed the added advantage of being terrifying).  The future president showed up at Bloody Island early and dug a fighting pit which, in the event of a sword fight, would prevent Shields from escaping or circling away.  When Shields and his entourage arrived they were dismayed by these provisions and preparations, however the bold Shields continued to demand satisfaction.  It was only when he witnessed Lincoln hack off a large willow branch far above the ground, that Shields finally was swayed by Lincoln’s apologies.   The two men settled their differences and remained friends and political allies for the rest of their careers. During the civil war Lincoln appointed James Shields as a Brigadier General.

What Shields and Lincoln both saw in their nightmares

Lincoln was personally ashamed of the whole incident and did not refer to it often.  ‘I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure I could disarm him…,’ he later wrote, adding, ‘I didn’t want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols.’  According to one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters an officer once asked President Lincoln if it was true that he had nearly fought a swordfight for his wife’s honor.  Lincoln responded, “I do not deny it, but if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.” Perhaps the near disaster taught him to keep his sarcastic humor more in check (although his letters and quips reveal this always remained difficult for him). It also taught him to create allies through self-deprecation, sincerity, and–failing that–intimidation. I think Lincoln may have been embarrassed because the whole affair revealed that, if everything else failed, he maintained a cunning ability to win at any cost—a steely strength which lay within the genteel and amiable man.

The list of presidential pets is many and astonishing. Each executive stands revealed by his choice of companion animal.  Additionally the animals’ remarkable names reflect different eras of American history.  George Washington, the father of the nation, started the trend magnificently with a gigantic donkey named Royal Gift and a pack of three American staghounds called Sweet Lips, Scentwell, and Vulcan. Thomas Jefferson owned a mockingbird named Dick.  Andrew Jackson kept fighting cocks (names unknown) whereas Martin Van Buren favored tiger cubs–at least until they stopped being cuddly. During the civil war, Abraham Lincoln kept goats in the white house yard as well as Jack, a pet tom turkey. Benjamin Harrison had a pair of gentleman opossums named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. Naturally, Teddy Roosevelt kept a veritable menagerie of terriers, hunting dogs, cats, and farm animals, however his bristling nature stands most revealed by his free-ranging pet badger, Josiah, and his beloved garter snake, Emily Spinach.

John Quincy Adams, who swam nude in the Potomac every morning, kept an American Alligator in the guest bathroom of the White House!

Enjoy your stay at the Executive Mansion....

For the moment, I’m going to ignore the larger ramifications of that crazy list and simply use it as the lead-in to a biography of one particular presidential pet.  Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was a small government conservative from New England known for his taciturn silence.  But Coolidge loved animals.  In addition to more familiar housepets, Coolidge’s collection included a wallaby, a miniature antelope, a black bear, canaries, a donkey, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a pair of lions.  In 1927, Silent Cal came into possession of one of the most remarkable animal figures in American history, a pygmy hippopotamus named William Johnson Hippopotamus, (1920s – October 11, 1955) AKA “Billy”.  The rubber baron Harvey Firestone presented Billy to Coolidge after workers on one of Firestone’s giant latex plantations in Liberia captured the 6 foot long 600 pound pygmy hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis or Hexaprotodon liberiensis—there is a taxonomical controversy surrounding the correct name).  Since the White House had limited space for the large semi-aquatic artiodactyls, Billy quickly found himself at the National Zoo–today called the Smithsonian National Zoological Park (although the attentive Coolidge visited him there frequently).

An adult pygmy hippopotamus (I couldn't find one of Billy, but I'll keep looking)

Billy’s life and times straddled a great dividing point for wild animals in captivity.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, zoos were more or less for entertainment purposes only.  Creatures were captured and exhibited for profit in circuses or for status in menageries.  When the animals died of stress, disease, or malnutrition, new specimens were obtained.  The National Zoo and the Bronx Zoo were both feeling their way towards nobler scientific and conservation ends, however there was still a whiff of the nobleman’s menagerie about them.  Good animal husbandry was frequently unknown or subsumed for larger aesthetic or cultural reasons.

Billy was a very “frisky” hippo and a mate named Hannah, was acquired by the zoo on September 4, 1929. Unfortunately Billy and Hannah’s first three offspring met hasty ends.  Although the Washington Post quickly concluded that “inability to survive the neglect of an errant mother was the cause given for baby Hippo’s demise,” it seems that human ignorance was more to blame. The pygmy hippos were initially kept in the lion house (a stressful environment for pregnant pygmy hippos!). When the pair was moved to their own lion-free facilities, their offspring did fine. Pygmy hippos became one of the first great success stories of the zoo.  Billy had many offspring and his celebrity continued to grow.  He attended the World’s Fair in 1939, and then acquired an additional mate in 1940 (when the zoo director ignored geopolitical rumblings to personally visit Liberia and capture a new pygmy hippo female).   Billy died on October 11, 1955 having outlived Coolidge by 23 years.  His last offspring, Gumdrop XVIII was born five months later.

Baby Pygmy Hippo!

Billy left a tremendous legacy.  The majority of pygmy hippos in America’s zoos are his direct descendants, and, as zoos improve their conservation programs (and their international ties), his progeny are spreading around the planet.  Additionally, thanks to his fecundity, his longevity, and his highly placed political and business connections (and even his simple hippo joie de vivre) Billy helped popularize a new conception of zoos.  Zoological parks are no longer a novelty or a diversion but a critical tool to understanding wildlife.  They are also a conservation measure of last resort in a dangerous world of ever diminishing wilderness habitat.

An orphaned baby pygmy hippo taken in by the London Zoo last year

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