When Abraham Lincoln Turned Down the Chance to Fill America With Elephants

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Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” the king wrote, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

5 Facts About Larry the Cat, the UK’s Chief Mouser

Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images
Chris J Ratcliffe, Getty Images

In February 2011, then-Prime Minster David Cameron adopted a tabby cat from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home to help control 10 Downing Street’s rodent population. The shelter recommended Larry based on his "sociable, bold, and confident nature," and now, besides rat catching, Larry “spends his days greeting guests to the house, inspecting security defenses, and testing antique furniture for napping quality,” according to the 10 Downing Street website.

Since receiving the esteemed title of Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—the first Downing Street cat to carry the title—he has outlasted Cameron and PM Theresa May, has had scuffles with his nemesis Palmerston (more on that later), and may have caused a security issue for Donald Trump.

It’s unclear if new PM Boris Johnson will keep Larry around or possibly replace him with a dog, which will probably not go over well with Palmerston and Gladstone, Chief Mouser of HM Treasury. Here are some things you might not know about the photogenic feline.

1. On his first day on the job, Larry scratched a journalist.

ITV News reporter Lucy Manning paid a visit to 10 Downing Street on Larry’s first day. Media attention was a new thing for Larry at the time, and he didn't immediately take to it. Instead, he lashed out and scratched Manning on the arm four times, then hid under a table and refused to come out.

2. Larry wasn't a natural mouser.

Larry the Cat wearing a collar with a bow on it and sitting on a green table.
James Glossop, WPA Pool/Getty Images

Though Larry supposedly had a "very strong predatory drive and high chase-drive and hunting instinct," according to a spokesperson, it wasn't until two months into his tenure that he started showing Downing Street's mice he meant business. As The Guardian reported in April 2011, Larry "preferred hanging out in the corridors of power to stalking in the grass" and the building's staff was forced to train the cat "by giving him a toy mouse to play with when he failed to catch any prey for two months." Finally, on Good Friday, “Larry appeared through a window from the Downing Street garden with a mouse in his mouth. He is believed to have dropped his swag at the feet of the prime minister's secretaries.” Larry continued his duties between daily cat naps.

3. Larry may or may not have caused problems for Donald Trump.

During Donald Trump’s June 2019 visit to 10 Downing Street, Larry—who is allowed outside—decided to hang out under Trump's limo (nicknamed "the Beast") to take shelter from the rain ... and reportedly wouldn't move. According to The Washington Post, "It wasn’t immediately clear whether Larry’s presence halted Trump’s movement ... Earlier, the cat appeared in a photo of Trump and Prime Minister Theresa May in front of 10 Downing Street." He did eventually mosey off (hopefully in search of mice).

4. Larry has a nemesis.

Palmerston, a black and white cat, sits outside a black and gold gate.
Leon Neal, Getty Images

In 2016, Palmerston—a black-and-white tuxedo cat named after 19th-century Prime Minister Lord Palmerston—was hired as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's Chief Mouser. Like Larry, Palmerston was a rescue who came from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Soon after Palmerston moved in, the cats had a couple of rows, including a major one in August 2016, during which they "were at each other hammer and tongs," according to a photographer. Larry lost his collar in the fight and messed up Palmerton’s ear as they “literally [ripped] fur off each other.” The turf war was so bad that police had to step in, and Larry needed medical treatment. Thankfully, the two seem to have ceased the cat fighting.

5. Larry has a parody twitter account.

"Larry" has an active Twitter parody account, where he comically posts political articles and photos (and has even begun poking fun at his new Downing Street flatmate, Boris Johnson). Sometimes he provides educational information: “England is part of Great Britain (along with Wales and Scotland), which in turn is part of the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland).” Other times he just makes cat jokes (see above).

5 Fabulous Facts About Jackie Kennedy

David Cairns/Express/Getty Images
David Cairns/Express/Getty Images

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who was born on July 28, 1929, was one of our country's most stylish and elegant icons for decades, but she was no empty, aloof beauty. Let's take a look at five things you might not have known about Jackie O.

1. Jackie Kennedy was almost Jackie Husted.

Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 - 1963), Democratic senator for Massachusetts, escorts his bride Jacqueline Lee Bouvier (1929 - 1994) down the church aisle shortly after their wedding ceremony at Newport, Rhode Island
Keystone/Getty Images

Jacqueline Bouvier came to international prominence when JFK became president, but she very nearly had a different husband. In December 1951, she became engaged to another man, John G. W. Husted. Husted was a Yale grad, a stockbroker, and a member of the same upper class of New York society as the Bouvier family.

The engagement didn't last long, though. By March of 1952, Jackie had called it off. It's not exactly clear why she gave Husted the ax, but there's been lots of speculation. Some biographers think that Jackie's mother, Janet, felt that Husted didn't make enough money to support her in style. (His salary of $17,000 a year was roughly equivalent to $100,000 today.) Other biographers have recounted stories of Jackie confiding to friends that Husted was immature and a little on the dull side.

Whatever the reason, the relationship ended, and Jackie Bouvier was soon dating John Kennedy; the couple would marry on September 12, 1953.

2. Some paparrazi shots landed jackie kennedy in an issue of Hustler.

Jackie Onassis (Jackie Kennedy) (1929 - 1994) and her husband Aristotle Onassis (1906 - 1975) leave an Athens nightclub at 7am after celebrating Jackie's 40th birthday
Nicholas Tsikourias, Getty Images

If you ever wonder how today's celebrities haven't yet realized that topless sunbathing is never a good idea if you're a target of the paparazzi, you should at least know that the exposed stars are in good company. In 1972 Jackie O. was photographed while sunning herself in the nude on husband Aristotle Onassis' private Greek island, Skorpios, by a photographer using a telescopic lens on a fishing boat.

The pictures first appeared as black-and-white prints in European men's magazines like the Italian rag Playmen, but they didn't make it to the States until Larry Flynt purchased them for his Hustler magazine in 1975. Flynt ran five full-color shots in the August issue, and despite Flynt's decision to print several million more copies than normal, the issue quickly sold out. He later called buying the pictures "the best investment I ever made."

3. Jackie Kennedy often locked horns with the paparazzi.

The flap over these nude pictures wasn't the only time the paparazzi ran afoul of Jackie O. In 1967 a particularly devoted paparazzo named Ron Galella followed Jackie home to her Manhattan apartment building and spent the next five years more or less following her every move, often from a perch on the bench in front of her building. He even went so far as to befriend one of her maids.

Jackie seemed to have taken this annoyance in stride for quite a while, but when Galella jumped in front of JFK Jr.'s bike in 1972, she had seen enough. Jackie O. took Galella to court and received a restraining order to stop Galella from harassing her. Although Galella had orders to stay 50 feet away from the former first lady, and 75 feet away from her children, he openly scoffed at this rule; 10 years later, Jackie had to sue him again. This time Galella finally gave up after facing a $125,000 fine and the potential of spending seven years in prison.

Kennedy wasn't the only person Galella drove to distraction, either. In 1973 he so enraged Marlon Brando that the star slugged him in the jaw, knocking out five of Galella's teeth. Brando's fellow actor Richard Burton loathed Galella so intensely that he hired goons to beat the photographer up.

4. Jackie Kennedy won an Emmy.

When the future First Lady toured the White House with her mother and sister in 1941, she noticed something odd: for a house with such a rich history, all of the furnishings and fixtures seemed awfully modern. Upon moving into the White House 20 years later, she set about to rectify this problem by filling the house with antiques that would accentuate the house's history. As she told LIFE Magazine, "All these people come to see the White House and they see practically nothing that dates back before 1948 ... Everything in the White House must have a reason for being there. It would be sacrilege merely to 'redecorate' it—a word I hate. It must be restored—and that has nothing to do with decoration. That is a question of scholarship."

After throwing herself into the restoration process for over a year, Jackie was ready to unveil her restored White House to the public in 1962. On Valentine's Day of that year the major networks broadcast A Tour of the White House, in which Kennedy and CBS newscaster Charles Collingwood surveyed her handiwork. An incredible 56 million viewers watched the program, and the First Lady received a special Emmy, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Trustees Award. Lady Bird Johnson accepted the award for the First Lady, and the statuette is still on display at the Kennedy Library.

5. Jackie Kennedy was good friends with Andy Warhol.

Andy Warhol
Getty Images

Warhol's images of the grief-stricken First Lady around the time of her husband's assassination are among the most memorable of his long career, and he actually became quite chummy with his subject. The former First Lady eventually became a frequent guest at Warhol's spread in Montauk, New York, and when the artist died, he left behind a couple of pieces of odd memorabilia.

Warhol was a notorious packrat, and archivists who were trying to sort through his belongings made a pair of interesting Kennedy finds. One was a piece of cake from the wedding of Caroline Kennedy to Edwin Schlossberg in 1986; Warhol had apparently put the cake in a box and forgotten about it. The other find was a bit more titillating: a nude photo of Jackie. Even more interesting, it was apparently autographed by the lady herself; it bore the inscription "For Andy, with enduring affection, Jackie Montauk." Sounds like the former First Lady knew how to have a little fun with her image.

BONUS FACT:

One bonus fact we've mentioned before: Jackie O. was the editor of Michael Jackson's autobiography, Moonwalk.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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