Friends to Animals

Abraham Lincoln, Pets and Children

Abraham Lincoln’s stepmother recalled that he was “lover animals” and generally “and treated them Kindly.”1 Boyhood friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled that young Lincoln “would write short sentences against cruelty to animals. We were in the habit of catching Turrapins—a Kind of turtle and put fire on their back and Lincoln would Chide us—tell us it was wrong—would write against it.”2

Compassion to animals was a lifelong preoccupation for Lincoln. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that young “Lincoln…tried to civilize his contemporaries by denouncing their mistreatment of animals. On the Midwestern frontier, cruelty to animals was common.”3 But, Abraham Lincoln was not cruel. Lincoln had a life-long aversion to hurting animals. “Abe preached against Cruelty to animals, Contending that an ants life was to it, as sweet as ours,” remembered step-sister Matilda Johnson of a teenage Lincoln.4 Years later, Lincoln was traveling across the Illinois prairie with friends. Joshua Speed recalled: “We were passing through a thicket of wild plum, and crab-apple trees, where we stopped to water our horses. After waiting some time [John] Hardin came up and we asked him where Lincoln was. ‘Oh,’ said he, ‘when I saw him last’ (there had been a severe wind storm), ‘he had caught two little birds in his hand, which the wind had blown from their nest, and he was hunting for the nest’. Hardin left him before he found it. Lincoln finally found the nest, and placed the birds, to use his own words, ‘in the home provided for them by their mother’. When he came up with the party they laughed at him. Said he, earnestly, ‘I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother’.”5

For several years before Lincoln became president, the family had a dog named Fido. Historian Edward Steers wrote: “Fido was every bit a Lincoln. A common mixed breed that wagged his tail constantly, he was everyman’s dog.”6 President-elect Lincoln left Fido back home in Springfield with some neighborss, but early in the Lincoln administration he was given two kittens by Secretary of State William H. Seward. One day at dinner in April 1862, a kitten jumped onto the chair next to the president and ate off his fork. “Don’t you think it is shameful for Mr. Lincoln to feed tabby with a gold fork?” Mrs Lincoln asked a visitor. “If the gold fork was good enough for [President James] Buchanan I think it is good enough for tabby.”7

“Among the White House menagerie on the south lawn were donkeys, horses, and a pair of goats, Nanny and Nanko,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “Tad would hitch the goats to a chair, which he used as a cart, and would drive pell-mell through the White House during a reception, to the consternation of many guests. One day the pun-loving president observed a goat gamboling on the lawn and remarked: ‘He feeds on my bounty, and jumps with joy. Do you think we could call him a bounty-jumper?’ In the spring of 1864, when Tad and the First Lady were away on one of their many trips, Lincoln sent her a telegram: ‘Tell Tad the goats and father are very well especially the goats.’”8 One friend of the family wrote: “The boys had many pets given them – dogs, goats and ponies, both of the latter, their favorite pets, being burnt with the stables when they were consumed. Tad had another goat named Nannie, who was great attached to him. Once when Tad and his mother were out of the city in Philadelphia I think, the President wrote to his wife that Nannie had been found in the middle of Tad’s bed, chewing her cud. She undoubtedly thought she would find Tad there.”9

An early Lincoln biographer, Joseph Holland wrote: “Just before he arrived at City Point, a pet cat, belonging to General Grant, had presented the General with a little family of kittens. On their owner’s departure, the President took them into his care; and, during all those days of battle, in the intervals while he waited for dispatches, he relieved the pressure upon his heart and brain by playing with these kittens. When Richmond had fallen, and he was about to start for the front, he took up one of the kittens, and said: ‘Little kitten, I must perform a last act of kindness for your before I go. I must open your eyes.’ He then manipulated the closed lids as tenderly as a mother would handle her child, until he had accomplished his purpose. Then he put her down, and, as he stood enjoyed her surprise as being able to see, he said, ‘Oh that I could open the eyes of my blinded fellow-countrymen, as easily as I have those of that little creature!’”10

Like Lincoln, Churchill liked cats. Erstwhile secretary Grace Hamblin recalled: “He always had a cat, if not two. I must tell you one lovely cat story. It was way, way back in the Thirties. He came to his door one morning with some papers in his hand and a cat was sitting in the passage: ‘Good morning, Cat.’ But the cat didn’t answer. It was one of those horrible snooty things. So he said again, ‘Good morning, Cat.’ The cat made no effort to be near him. He slashed at it with his papers and the cat ran from the house. Cat didn’t return the next day or the next or the next. Finally he said, ‘Do you think it’s because I hit him?’ Of course I said, ‘Yes, definitely.’”

That evening I was whiling away my time while the family had dinner downstairs, when Sarah came up and said, “Hambone, I have a message for you from Papa. He said if you like you may go home, and if you wish before you go, you may put a card in the window to say that if Cat cares to come home, all is forgiven.” Cat did come home several days later with a wire round his neck. Given cream and the best salmon and so on, he did recover, I’m glad to say.11

Like Churchill, his adopted cat Smoky was a creature of uncertain moods. Churchill secretary Elizabeth Layton Nel recalled: “Mr. Churchill was very fond of cats, and at this time the kitchen staff acquired a young Persian, grey and fluffy, whom they named Smokey. This little animal became much attached to the P.M., who returned his affection. Every morning as breakfast was taken in Smokey would be at the door waiting to be let in too; he would sit on the bed and receive graciously any small piece of meat, or perhaps a little milk, and then he would sleep for hours on the bed while the Prime Minister worked, sometimes covering him accidentally with a Top Secret report. Unfortunately, as Smokey grew up he became more and more wild, and ill-behaved, till he was a positive menace to anyone entering the room. Legs and stockings were his speciality. One never liked to make a fuss when ladders and even blood appeared, but privately Smokey was called by some uncomplimentary and unrepeatable names.

On the morning in question Mr. Churchill sat in bed and Smokey sat on the blankets watching him. The prime Minister’s telephone conversation with the C.I.G.S. [Alan Brooke] was long and anxious; his thoughts were far away; his toes wiggled under the blankets. I saw Smokey’s tail switch as he watched, and wondered what was going to happen. Suddenly he pounced on the toes and bit hard. It must have hurt, for Mr. Churchill, startled, kicked him right into the corner of the room shouting “Get off, you fool” into the telephone. Then he remembered. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t mean you,” and then seeing Smokey looking somewhat dazed in the corner, “Poor little thing.” Confusion was complete, the C.I.G.S. hung up hastily and telephoned the Private Secretary to know what was happening. it took a long time to get it all sorted out, and Sir Alan Brooke assured that it was not his fault.”12

Another of Churchill’s feline adoptees, Nelson, was generally brave. In 1940, the black cat had moved along with Churchill from the Admiralty to the Prime Minister’s residence. “I once saw him chase a huge dog out of the Admiralty. I decided to adopt him and name him after our great Admiral,” said Churchill.13 He generally treated cats as receptive to persuasion. During one German air raid on London, Churchill found Nelson under a bed. “Nelson, summon the spirit of the tiger,” proclaimed the prime minister. “Think of your namesake – no one named Nelson slinks under a bed in a time of crisis.” Temporarily, Nelson emerged from under the bed – only to return when another siren sounded.14 Churchill’s affection for Nelson was reflected in a memo the prime minister wrote in October 1940 during the London Blitz: “Pray let six new office be fitted out for my use, in Selfridge’s, Lambeth Palace, Stanmore, Tooting Bec, the Palladium and Mile End Road. I will inform you at 6 each evening at which office I shall dine, work and sleep. Accommodation will be required for Mrs Churchill, two shorthand typists, three secretaries and Nelson.”15

Although Nelson was evacuated from No. 10 Downing, which was vulnerable to German attack, another cat called the “Treasury Cat” or the “Munich Mouser” (left behind when Nelville Chamberlain resigned as prime minister) remained on site and on the hunt. Nelson and Treasury Cat had not gotten along.16 “Munich Mouser” was an independent soul, whom private secretary John Colville said “very seldom paid me any attention, but on two or three occasions I found him curled up on my blotting pad at No. 10.”17 The Munich Mouser died on July 25, 1943 at the Foreign Office. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden wrote: “Winston says that he died of remorse and chose his death-bed accordingly.”18

Before the war, Churchill kept a large menagerie at his own country home, Chartwell. Churchill biographer Carlo D’Este wrote: “At one time or another he kept sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, polo ponies, chickens, swans, geese, and other birds of various types.”19 Private Secretary Eric Seal wrote in July 1940 of visiting Chartwell with Churchill: “One of the features of the place is a whole series of ponds, which are stocked with immense gold-fish – really a variety of carp. Some of them are well over a foot long; & there are hundreds of them. The PM loves feeding them & we walked round with a bag of food on Sunday morning, watching them come to the surface & eat it up. One of his most amiable qualities is his obvious love of animals – he calls them all darlings & shouts to the cat, & even the birds. The old swan on the lake knew his call, & answered back.”20 Ironically, Seal “did not last a year [as principal private secretary],” wrote John Colville. “His wits were sharp, he was hardworking and he was efficient, but Churchill treated his secretaries as part of the family, especially during weekends at Chequers, and he was embarrassed if they were not entirely congenial to him. Seal, for all his qualities was not.”21 Colville observed that after a bomb fell on London’s St. James Park, Churchill was concerned about “those poor little birds” in the park’s lake.22

Churchill biographer William Manchester wrote of Chartwell: “The only animal to fall from grace was a ram named Charmayne. Winston had nursed Charmayne as a lamb, but when it grew up it turned vicious and butted everyone. A veterinarian was summoned. He performed an operation. If anything, the beast grew worse. The children were afraid of it; Clementine begged Winston to get rid of it. He scoffed as the idea. ‘How ridiculous. You don’t have to be frightened. It is very nice and knows me.’ However, one day, to the secret delight of the children, Charmayne got behind Churchill, charged, butted the back of his knees, and knocked him flat. Before the sun set, the ram had vanished. How he had disposed of it he would not say, but Clementine hoped it had been sold, and for a good price; she wanted to see something at Chartwell pay for itself.”23

“In the comparative safety of Chartwell resided the Marmalade Cat,” wrote historian David Dilks. “One of the private secretaries took lunch alone there with Churchill on 3 June 1941; more exactly, there was another guest in the person of the cat, placed in a chair at the Prime Minister’s right-hand side. In the intervals of composing, half under his breath, an important speech, then preparing arguments to use with [Lord Max] Beaverbrook, then complaining about the conduct of military affairs in the Middle East, he cleaned the Marmalade Cat’s eyes, offered some ti[d]bits of mutton and expressed his deep regret that cream was not available on account of wartime rationing. When this favourite of all his pets died during a week of grim news, Mrs Churchill, knowing how intensely her husband would be upset, insisted that he be not told until better tidings had come.”24 In April 1942, Churchill visited again visited Chartwell, which he usually avoided during the war for security reasons. The prime minister wrote his son Randolph: “The goose I called the naval aide-de-camp and the male black swan have both fallen victims to the fox. The Yellow Cat however made me sensible of his continuing friendship, although I had not been there for eight months.’”25 After the war in his second incarnation at prime minister in the 1950s, Churchill’s working companion was a parakeet which flew “round the room, pecking at Cabinet papers, occasionally taking nips from the whisky-and-soda at the Prime Minister’s bedside and settling upon the domed head of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with the inevitable consequences,” wrote Dilks.26

Churchill’s concern with animals extended beyond England’s shores. After witnessing Operation Dragoon, Churchill stopped over at Gibraltar where he learned that the number of barbary apes who lived on the imposing rock had shrunk. Concerned about the longtime legend that if the apes disappeared from Gibraltar, so to would British rule, he ordered: “The establishment of the apes on Gibraltar should be 24 and every effort should be made to reach this number as soon as possible and maintain it thereafter.” With great difficulty, 20 apes were procured and shipped by sea to Gibraltar.27

At the end of World War II, Churchill wrote his wife about the garden behind the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street and then added: “One big goldfish was retrieved from the bottom of the pool at Chartwell. All the rest have been stolen or else eaten by an otter. I have put Scotland Yard on the work of finding the thief. I fear we shall never see our poor fish any more, and nothing is left but an unfruitful vengeance, and that about 1,000-1 against a thief and 20,000-1 against an otter.”28

For Further Reference

  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 108 (William H. Herndon interview with Sarh Bush Lincoln, September 8, 1865).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 112 (September 12, 1865).
  3. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 31.
  4. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 109 (Matilda Johnson Moore interview with William H. Herndon, August 8, 1865).
  5. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 590 (Letter from Joshua F. Speed to William H. Herndon, ca 1882).
  6. Edward Steers, Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, p. 290.
  7. Michael Burlingame Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 261.
  8. Michael Burlingame Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 261.
  9. Julia Taft Bayne, Tad Lincoln’s Father, p. 49.
  10. Josiah Gilbert Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 509.
  11. Grace Hamblin, “Chartwell Memories,” Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies, October 30 1987, pp. 37-49.
  12. Elizabeth Nel, Winston Churchill by His Personal Secretary, p. 44
  13. Quentin James Reynolds, Winston Churchill, p. 173
  14. James Humes, The Wit and Wisdom of Winston Churchill, p. 204.
  15. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 44 (Memo, October 31, 1940).
  16. Mary Soames, A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir of Winston Churchill’s Youngest Child, p. 144.
  17. John Colville, The Fringes of Power: The Incredible Inside Story of Winston Churchill, p. 315.
  18. Anthony Eden, The Reckoning, p. 339.
  19. Carlo D’Este, Warlord, p. 305.
  20. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 654.
  21. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 76.
  22. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 852.
  23. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 778.
  24. David Dilks, Churchill and Company: Allies and Rivals in War and Peace, p. 45.
  25. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 99 (Letter from Winston S. Churchill to Randolph Churchill, May 2, 1942).
  26. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 76.
  27. Gerald Pawle, The War and Colonel Warden, pp. 314-315.
  28. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1284 (letter from Winston S. Churchill to Clementine Churchill April 6, 1945).
Posted in Essays