Pardon My Turkey – A History Of The Presidential Turkey Pardon

It has become a yearly tradition in the United States for the President to grant clemency to one lucky turkey on Thanksgiving and spare him the unpleasantness of a thorough stuffing.  You may wonder what history lies behind this most unusual of Presidential traditions, and its origins are often disputed.  Some claim that the annual pardon started with Harry S. Truman and some say it was Kennedy, but I have discovered that its origin goes back much farther than that.  

In the mid 1870’s, a poultry dealer by the name of Horace Vose began sending prize turkeys to the White House as a means of gaining publicity for his farm.  Though the turkeys were meant for eating, then President Ulysses S. Grant was well known for his disdain for the taste of poultry and was often heard to say, “the only turkey I consume, is Wild Turkey Bourbon” (he later became the first national spokesman for the bourbon after his Presidency).  Fortunately for Vose, President Grant had gained quite an affinity for cock-fighting during his time as a young Army officer outside of Mexico City during the Mexican-American War.  While cock-fighting was considered illegal in the United States, Grant was pleased to discover that there were no laws governing “turkey-fighting” and established the first Presidential turkey-fighting ring in the basement of the White House.  Though fights were by invitation only, word of the new sport got out and turkey-fighting became a national phenomenon.  The “sport” was participated in by all social classes and many prize turkeys even earned national acclaim (similar to today’s professional boxers).  Poultry dealers such as Horace Vose began breeding their birds for fighting and trained them to be angrier and more aggressive.*  

In 1910, one particular turkey-fight received national attention, as President William Taft’s very own prize fighting turkey, Tom Tom The Terrible was pitted against The Butterball Brawler, the prize turkey of turkey-fighting newcomer Milton Butterball**.  The Tom Tom vs. Brawler fight was highly anticipated and the stakes were raised even higher when the two turkey owners agreed that the losing bird would be consumed at the annual White House Thanksgiving dinner.  The historic fight lasted fifteen agonizing rounds before the underdog, Brawler, won by knockout.  The gambling world was stunned and President Taft, devastated by Tom Tom’s defeat and drunk on power (and Wild Turkey Bourbon), ordered Milton Butterball to be incarcerated.  Unable to bear the thought of eating Tom Tom, Taft granted the bird a full Presidential Pardon and then consumed the champion Butterball Brawler, feathers and all.  

The President’s actions, though an act of passion, were no doubt a black-eye for the White House, whose staff went into full “damage control mode” the following day.  Milton Butterball was released from prison and as a means of avoiding legal repercussions, the White House granted him an exclusive contract for all of their poultry needs.  This, however, did not sit well with Horace Vose, but fortunately for everyone he accidently fell into a “fighting bird” pen on his farm three days later and was never seen again.***  The tradition of the President granting a pardon to one of Butterball’s turkey’s carries on to this day.

*In 1892, a shipment of Vose’s “fighting birds” were mistaken for “eating birds” and sent to a local Rhode Island grocery story.  The Granby Gazette described the scene at Hank’s Grocery as a “blood bath” and it took local Animal Control five days to round up all the vicious gobblers while the town remained on total lockdown.

**No relation to the national corporation… purely coincidental.  
***The “fighting bird” pen that Vose disappeared in was later used on the set of the movie Jurassic Park as the enclosure in which the Velociraptors were kept.  If you look closely in the movie, you can still see the “turkey scratches” and blood stains on the concrete walls.