White House Thanksgiving Raccoon

By Gayne C. Young

Raccoon was once considered for the main course of Thanksgiving dinner at the White House. The First Lady intervened and made the trash panda a pet instead.

The story begins with the death of Horace Vose in 1913. For more than four decades, this “Poultry King” from Rhode Island had provided every turkey for the first families’ Thanksgiving and Christmas table starting with President Ulysses S. Grant. After his passing, several farmers and buyers tried to take the mantle (and earn the prestige) by sending their stock to the White House. President Calvin Coolidge asked for this practice to stop in 1923, but people kept sending the White House food for the holiday dinners. The oddest of these food gifts came in the form of a live raccoon.

Vinnie Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Mississippi sent the First Family a raccoon in November 1926 with the intention of it being butchered and eaten for Thanksgiving. President Coolidge passed on the idea saying that although plenty of people ate raccoon, it wasn’t the meat for him. Some at the Washington Evening Star found this odd and ran a story detailing how raccoon meat was delicious, far less fatty than possum, and carried a taste that was something akin to a chicken crossed with a suckling pig.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is bullshit. Raccoon tastes nothing like chicken mixed with suckling pig.

Still, the president passed and decided instead to make a pet of the masked bandit.

This came as little to surprise to most as Coolidge was a known animal lover and that the White House was often referred to as the “Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo” by the press. In addition to having dogs, cats, and canaries the president often had to contend with unsolicited gift pets sent to him. During his time in office, he was given a black bear from Mexico, an African pygmy hippopotamus from rubber magnate Harvey Firestone, and even a pair of lion cubs which he named “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.” Unlike these latter animals, the raccoon was allowed to actually stay in the White House.

The raccoon proved to be … a raccoon. She ripped clothing, clawed upholstery, unscrewed light bulbs, opened and closed cabinets, and uprooted potted plants. The White House staff called her a “regular Houdini” given her inclination to wriggle free from her harnesses and break out of her cage. Things got somewhat better when an outdoor cage was built for the coon on the White House’s South Lawn outside the window of the president’s office. First Lady Grace Coolidge wrote, “We had a house made for her in one of the large trees, with a wire fence built around it for protection. We kept her chained when out of doors, but in the house she had her liberty. She was a mischievous, inquisitive party and we had to keep watch of her when she was in the house. She enjoyed nothing better than being placed in a bathtub with a little water in it and given a cake of soap with which to play. In this fashion she would amuse herself for an hour or more.”

For Christmas the pet was given the name Rebecca along with a collar bearing an engraved plate that read, “Rebecca Raccoon of the White House.” President Coolidge loved Rebecca. He walked her almost daily on a leash and at night would have her curl up in his lap while he sat reading next to the fireplace. And although Rebecca seemingly loved the president, she was sent away once for bad behavior. The press speculated that Rebecca was sent to the zoo at Rock Creek Park as a result of her either scratching or biting the President given the bandage he wore on his wrist but nothing was ever made public. Rebecca returned to the White House a week later and the press reported that the raccoon was once more “in good standing at the White House.”

Rebecca participated in the annual Easter Egg Roll in 1927 but was sent back to her cage after clawing the First Lady and a few kids. The Washington Evening Star reported that Rebecca “plainly evidenced her dislike for the whole doings.” That summer, Rebecca went with the First Family on vacation to South Dakota’s Black Hills. It was there that she began a pattern of serious escape attempts. She repeatedly broke out of her cage and escaped up tall trees sending the Secret Service into action with orders to retrieve her. Rebecca continued her flights of fancy back in Washington until it was decided she would be better off in the National Zoo. She wasn’t. She died shortly thereafter as the result of failing “to adapt to zoo life.”

Additional Facts:

The turkeys Vose supplied to the White House usually weighed between 30 and 50 pounds. These were HUGE birds considering the average turkey in 1920 weighed about 12 pounds.

Strange Coincidence: During the same Christmas that Rebecca got her name, the Coolidges gave their oldest son, John, a raccoon coat that cost $500 (almost $9,000 today).

Rebecca was given a companion coon named Reuben in an attempt to calm her down. This was a major fail.  As the First Lady wrote, “Rebecca had lived alone and had her own way so long that I fear she was a little overbearing and dictatorial, perhaps reminding her spouse that he was living on her bounty. [Afterward, Rebecca] continued to live in single blessedness.” —Until she went to the zoo, that is.

Owning a live raccoon in Washington, D.C. is now illegal.

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