Yesterday the current occupant of the White House pardoned two turkeys. The annual ceremony during Thanksgiving week in which the President spares a turkey's life is one of the more bizarre moments in our national life. It's unclear why the act is even called a "pardon," since the definition of the word is "a release from punishment for an infraction of the law," and no one ever says what these turkeys are guilty of other than being ridiculous-looking.
The first president to spare a turkey's life was Abraham Lincoln. In 1863 a family friend sent the Lincolns a live turkey, along with a note stating that it was for their Christmas dinner. During the weeks the turkey was being fattened, the youngest Lincoln child, Tad, who was 10 at the time, became attached to the bird and named him Jack. Learning the turkey's intended fate, Tad burst into his father's office, begging him to prevent the turkey's death. President Lincoln promptly wrote an order of reprieve.
But this wasn't the start of a consistent tradition of executive clemency. Beginning in the 1870s Rhode Island farmer Horace Vose (a.k.a. "The Poultry King") began sending turkeys to the White House, a practice he continued until his death in 1913. Unlike lucky Jack, these birds were certainly eaten. Many believe President Truman began the annual tradition of pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, but this is, shall we say, the stuffing of legend. Accodring to popular tradition John Kennedy pardoned a turkey, but in spite of the media's promiscuous use of the word "pardon," that actually never happened. JFK simply said he had no interest in eating this particular turkey. It's entirely possible the bird was the victim of fowl play and became someone else's dinner. Presidents Johnson, Ford and Reagan all the had their pictures taken with turkeys at press conferences, but no one knows if these birds survived their visit to the White House.
The tradition of pardoning a turkey Thanksgiving week actually began with the first President Bush. He was appearing with a turkey in a photo shoot. In response to nearby animal rights activists protesting the event, he yelled, "let me assure you...this fine tom turkey...will not end up on anyone's dinner table, not this guy -- he's granted a Presidential pardon as of right now."
The rest, as they say, is history.