Free Bird: The History of Presidential Turkey Pardoning

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Each year before Thanksgiving, the President of the United States formally pardons a live turkey presented to him by the National Turkey Federation. It’s a tradition that’s seemingly been around forever, and while the NTF has been supplying the White House with holiday birds since the 1940s, the pardoning bit is actually a pretty new development.

A lot of people point to Harry Truman as pardoning the first turkey in 1947, but the record keepers at the Truman Library can’t find any “documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records” tying Truman to the custom. What’s more, the first turkey Truman supposedly pardoned wasn't even for Thanksgiving — it was given to him at Christmas. The Truman family ate it.

Another origin story says that Abraham Lincoln interrupted a Cabinet meeting in 1863 to grant a turkey named Jack, which his son had befriended, an order of reprieve for “execution” in the kitchen. As with Truman, though, there’s no documentation supporting the story, and it may be just another Lincoln tall tale.

The first president after Truman to spare a turkey was John F. Kennedy. But JFK did not grant a formal “pardon” to the bird presented to him the week before Thanksgiving in 1963. He simply suggested the family “just keep him” and announced he would not eat the bird. ("It's our Thanksgiving present to him," Kennedy said.) According to a contemporary New York Times report, the bird was returned to a farm for breeding. Kennedy tragically didn't live to see Thanksgiving — he was assassinated on November 22.

Ronald Reagan spared a turkey named Charlie from the White House kitchen, but only joked about giving it a pardon as he tried to deflect questions about the Iran-Contra affair. Formalized turkey pardoning, it turns out, has only been around since 1989, when President George H.W. Bush looked at his turkey and said, “Let me assure this fine tom he will not end up on anyone's dinner table. Not this guy. He's been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”

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Since 1989, the tradition has been cemented and the president has pardoned a turkey (and its alternate) each year.

Until 2004, the spared turkeys were sent to Kidwell Farm, a petting zoo at Frying Pan Park in Virginia, where they lived out the rest of their lives in the Turkey Barn. From 2005 to 2009, the turkeys went to either Disneyland in California or Disney World in Florida, where they served as honorary grand marshals in Disney's Thanksgiving Day Parade and then retired to Disneyland’s Big Thunder Ranch.

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In 2010, Disney stopped taking pardoned turkeys and President Obama’s birds were sent to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia — which is where this year's turkeys will spend the holidays, too. The pardoning ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday in the Rose Garden, and the White House social media team really went overboard this year:

The turkey with the less-popular Twitter hashtag will be killed and eaten, right? No, according to the White House, "both turkeys travel to George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens where they will be on display for visitors during 'Christmas at Mount Vernon.' The turkeys will then travel to their permanent home at Morven Park's Turkey Hill, the historic turkey farm located at the home of former Virginia Governor Westmorland Davis in Leesburg, Virginia."

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November 26, 2013 - 11:40am
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