This is the second in a series of posts about folklife related to the Virginia Opossum, the only marsupial native to the United States. (Find the whole series here!) The first post looked at the history of the phrase “Awesome Possum.” Future posts will look at songs, stories, and foodways related to the animal. But first, since we are after all in Washington, D.C., I thought we might explore stories about opossums and U.S. Presidents. Who knew so many commanders-in-chief were interested in their country’s marsupials? Here are five encounters between presidents and possums.
George Washington tried to send a pair of opossums to Ireland.
Presidential engagement with opossums goes right back to the beginning of the nation; even George Washington sought them out. Washington was a friend and correspondent of Sir Edward Newenham, an Irish Member of Parliament for Enniscorthy (1769-1776) and Dublin (1776-1797). In response to a letter which unfortunately does not survive, Washington wrote to Newenham on August 29, 1788:
I failed not, on the receipt of your letter, to make the best arrangements in my power for obtaining the opossums and birds you mentioned. But I shall not be able to succeed in time for this conveyance. Having heard of a Male & female Opossum, with several young ones, at the house of one of my friends in Maryland, I sent for them, but unfortunately they were all dead. I may probably be more successful in autumn.
Washington succeeded in procuring opossums, perhaps in the autumn of 1788 but perhaps a bit later, for he wrote to Newenham again on March 2, 1789:
Notwithstanding my various endeavours to procure the articles I was desirous of transmitting to you, I have only been able to succeed in obtaining a couple of opossums, of the different sexes. I have been prevented from sending them, for some time, for want of a direct opportunity. The[y] will be forwarded by the first conveyance.
Since Newenham’s letters referring to the opossums didn’t survive, we don’t know exactly why he wanted them, nor do we know if he received them. But let’s hope if they were sent, the poor creatures made it safely to Ireland. If they took up residence there, they might have been the first marsupials to have their family name changed to “O’Possum”!
Thomas Jefferson played with opossums as a child.
During Thomas Jefferson’s lifetime, not much was known about the biology and anatomy of the opossum. As an unusual animal, the critter was often discussed by scientists of the era. Jefferson himself had an interest in the opossum, and among his papers we find an unsigned and undated page of zoological notes on the animal, which you can view at right. While he served as the U.S. Minister to France from 1784 to 1789, Jefferson wrote a letter asking congressman and future president James Madison to send him opossums as “great presents” “for the naturalists.”
Among Jefferson’s friends with an interest in opossums was David Rittenhouse of Philadelphia. Rittenhouse is best remembered as an astronomer and as first director of the U.S. Mint, but he had wide scientific interests. Rittenhouse discussed his interest in opossums with Jefferson, in particular his belief that the female opossum’s pouch disappeared during the part of the year when the animal had no young.
In 1791, Jefferson’s son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph Jr., was living at Monticello while Jefferson was in the capital serving as Secretary of State. Randolph was making observations of several opossums and communicating his conclusions to Jefferson in his letters. Randolph reported that the opossum’s pouch did not disappear, but that it was hard to observe when it was empty. Jefferson forwarded Randolph’s notes on to Rittenhouse as a courtesy, and in his own letter accompanying the enclosure, revealed that he himself had played with and observed opossums as a child:
You mentioned to me once, information which you had recieved [sic] and which satisfied you that the pouch of the Opossum disappeared after weaning the young. As I knew that Mr. Randolph intended this spring to make observations on that animal I communicated to him your information that he might pay particular attention to it. You will see what he says. Tho a single observation is not conclusive, yet the memory remains strong with me that, when a boy, we used to amuse ourselves with forcing open the pouch of the Opossum, when having no young, and the Sphincter was so strongly contracted as to render it difficult to find where we were to enter our fingers, and extremely difficult to introduce them.
Jefferson’s youthful observations, of course, have been borne out by later studies: the opossum’s pouch is a year-round feature. Nowadays, however, we can’t condone children or even adults poking at innocent opossums. So, just in case it needs to be said: don’t try this at home!
Martin Van Buren was depicted as a very creepy opossum.
Martin Van Buren was president at a crucial time in history, and symbolized a significant transition for the young nation. As the first president born in the United States (all his predecessors had been born in British colonies) he was living proof that the country was no longer a brand-new nation. Yet, interestingly, he was also the first (and so far the only) president whose first language was not English; he was raised speaking Dutch, as was a significant minority of New Yorkers in his time.
Van Buren had a mixed record on issues we care about at AFC. He was an abolitionist, and although he suppressed this impulse early in his career for political reasons, he ran in the 1848 presidential election on an anti-slavery platform. On the other hand, he continued Andrew Jackson’s cruel Indian removal policy, perpetuating the shameful Trail of Tears.
Van Buren served only one term as president, from 1837 to 1841. In the election year of 1840, he was beset by many difficulties; an economic depression associated with the “Panic of 1837” coincided with his presidency. Unable to pull the country out of the depression, Van Buren was seen as an overly deliberative person, more concerned with sticking to party ideology than getting things done. Crucially, he was unable to get a bill establishing an independent treasury through Congress to help the economy for over three years; although he did ultimately succeed, the delay caused him to be lampooned in many cartoons as indecisive and weak. One showed him literally sitting on the fence, while another showed him fleeing from a pack of wild animals. He continued to run for president after being voted out of office, and the subsequent campaigns yielded even more outrageous cartoons.
One of the most common depictions of Van Buren was as a fox–see the print above as an example. This went back long before his days as president, at least to his term as Vice President to Andrew Jackson, and continued after his presidency was over. In traditional European and American culture, foxes were seen as cunning and wily tricksters, attractive but dangerous. The Van Buren fox was sometimes depicted among a flock of chickens, suggesting the meaning of an insincere and dangerous interloper. Van Buren had a reputation as a dandy, and was very popular among women (who unfortunately could not vote in his day), which may also have contributed to his depiction as a fox; the traditional folktale “Mr. Fox,” which we featured on the blog, features just such a man. In the tale, “Mr. Fox” turns out to be a killer, showing that the animal had sinister and frightening connotations in Anglo-American culture. Finally, Van Buren had red hair, another characteristic often referred to as “foxy.”
Cartoons depicting Van Buren as “The Kinderhook Fox” typically showed him as an animal on all fours, with no clothes but a fox’s red fur, sporting a brushy tail but Van Buren’s human face. This depiction paved the way for one of the strangest cartoons aimed at Van Buren during his presidency, “An Interesting Family,” which you can see at right. It depicted Van Buren as an opossum with a human head; in his pouch were three people seen as administration insiders. The summary description provided by my colleagues in the Prints and Photographs Division explains:
A caricature of Martin Van Buren as an opossum. The marsupial, with a smirking Van Buren’s head, rises on its hindquarters and displays in its pouch three of its “young.” They are administration insiders (left to right): Thomas Hart Benton, John C. Calhoun, and Washington “Globe” editor Francis Preston Blair.
I’ve never seen a cogent explanation of exactly what the opossum was supposed to symbolize in this cartoon. It’s likely that the opossum’s strangeness, its seeming to be neither one thing nor another, connects with Van Buren’s reputation for indecision. The inclusion of his minions in his pouch seems to criticize them as party hacks who were, so to speak, “in his pocket.” It was also common in political discourse of the time to call into question an opponent’s masculinity. John Adams was famously called by James Callender “a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Among American opossums, only males have only a vestigial flap, not a pouch that can hold young. The cartoon depicts Van Buren as a creature with female anatomy, but the head of a balding man with a beard, fitting Callender’s description much better than the quite ordinary-looking John Adams!
If you have a fuller explanation of this presidential possum, please let me know in the comments. In the meantime, one thing is certain: that’s one creepy cartoon!
Benjamin Harrison had two opossums at the White House.
Stories about President Benjamin Harrison’s pet opossums, Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection, can be found all over the internet. Most of them cite the Presidential Pet Museum, which notes:
Harrison gifted the two opossums to his grandchildren, but he is clearly the one who gave the marsupials their weighty names as at the time, the platform of the Republican party was: “Protection and reciprocity are twin measures of Republican policy and go hand-in-hand.”
These two opossums were well-loved by the Harrison family and could often be seen running around the White House.
However, the museum gives no evidence for the story. Although I was able to find books with references to these opossums, no book seems to mention them until the 1990s. Where is the contemporary evidence, I wondered?
The Library of Congress’s Chronicling America presentation of historical newspapers provides not only confirmation of at least part of the story, but an additional interesting detail. The story about the opossums appeared in 1892. The New York Evening World, June 16, 1892 (page 5 column 3) contained a very short item, whose entire text reads:
Uncle Jerry Rusk has secured two young opossums for President Harrison. One is named “Reciprocity” and the other “Protection.” They were presented by some Maryland people.
Similarly, an item carried by many papers that month, including the The Sully County watchman of Clifton, South Dakota on June 25 (page 2 column 1), carried a more detailed story:
Some time ago President Harrison expressed a wish to Uncle Jerry Rusk for two good ‘possums as soon as frost set in, and the other morning two fine young ‘possums were received at the White House. These were delivered by Adams Express Company, and were in a box marked: “To the President: Two citizens of Maryland—Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity—with the compliments of John R. Howlett, No. 1411 N street northwest.” Each of the animals had a red, white, and blue ribbon round his neck, one marked “protection” and the other “reciprocity.”
This is only partial confirmation, since I haven’t found any mention of the president giving the ‘possums to his grandchildren, but I’ll keep looking!
The interesting new detail is the role of “Uncle Jerry Rusk.” Although this name is no longer a household word, at the time all Americans would have known it referred to the colorful Jeremiah Rusk, Harrison’s Secretary of Agriculture, a Union Army General who then served as a congressman from Wisconsin and as Wisconsin’s governor before being appointed to Harrison’s cabinet. Uncle Jerry’s terms in office were not without controversy. In particular, as governor he gave an order which led to the Bay View Massacre, in which seven workers were shot and killed while striking in support of an 8-hour work day. Though he always maintained his order was misinterpreted, he also said he had simply “seen his duty and done it.” As recently as 2011 state legislators debated removing his portrait from the State Capital.
As a throwback to an era when Wisconsin was largely agrarian, Rusk clearly didn’t understand the different attitudes and practices necessary to be a leader of an industrialized state. This may be one reason the newly created Agriculture job was seen as appropriate for him. Although Rusk was technically the second Secretary of Agriculture, his predecessor served as Secretary for only three weeks while the job made the transition from commissioner to a cabinet-level post. We’ll have more on Harrison’s opossums in a future post, suggesting reasons for which the head of the USDA was also appropriately employed as the administration’s chief procurer of opossums.
Herbert Hoover loaned out his opossum.
In May 1929, participants in the high school athletics program in Hyattsville, Maryland, were elated; they had won county championships in soccer, basketball, and track and field, and their baseball team had made the playoffs. But then, tragedy struck: their mascot, a live opossum, vanished. Believing fervently in the luck bestowed by a mascot, and therefore the bad luck in losing one, the team was nervous about their prospects. After losing a game, their first loss in the season, they were, in the words of news reports of the time, “disconsolate.”
A solution to their dilemma soon suggested itself: the team read a news report that an opossum had wandered onto the grounds of the White House and been adopted by President Hoover, who kept many pets. The critter was named “Billy Opossum” and had taken up residence in a pen once occupied by President Coolidge’s raccoon, Rebecca. So the Hyattsville team contacted the White House and sent a delegation to determine if Billy was their missing opossum. According to the White House Historical Association, they were disappointed when the opossum did not come when called, and realized it was not their mascot after all.
Then they had another idea: why not borrow Billy for the postseason? President Hoover agreed to loan out his opossum to be Hyattsville’s acting mascot. And, to Hyattsville’s delight, the team won their championship. After that, they dutifully returned the marsupial.
Newspapers such as the Hyattsville Patch, as well as the White House Historical Association, have speculated that the Library of Congress photo above, of two young men with an opossum at the White House in 1929, might be related to the story of the Hyattsville baseball team. I’m able to report some new information unknown to other bloggers, or to my colleagues in the Prints and Photographs Division.
According to newspapers of the time, the two men in the photo are Robert Venemann and William Robinson, students at the high school who were part of the delegation that borrowed Billy. More interesting still, correspondence between these two enterprising ball players and President Hoover survives. Venemann and Robinson, on behalf of the school, wrote:
Dear President Hoover,
Please accept the hearty thanks of our association for your kindness in acceding to our request for the use of the White House o’possum as a mascot during the closing weeks of school. Having won successively the Prince George’s County high school championship in soccer, baseball, basketball and track and field events, we cannot fail to appreciate the value of this little animal as a purveyor of good fortune.
Accordingly, we have restored Billy Possum to the keeping of the White House in the hope that he will bring you full measure of good luck, trusting, however that with your kind permission, we may again be honored with his effective leadership in our athletic program next fall.”
Hoover wrote back to Venemann:
My Dear Robert:
I am glad to have your formal report on the efficiency of Billy Opossum–it will be incorporated into his service record. Precautions will be taken to maintain his health and spirits for the further needs of the Prince George’s County high school teams.
The correspondence was documented by newspapers of the time, and reported in more recent accounts such as the one from the Hyattsville Patch, but until now I haven’t seen anyone definitively connect the names of the correspondents to the Library of Congress photo.
See the correspondence, from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, below!
More presidential possums to come.
These aren’t the only U.S. presidents with connections to the opossum. In a future post, we’ll look at some more, including Calvin Coolidge and Jimmy Carter. We’ll especially tell the story of the “Possum Feast” staged for William Howard Taft in Atlanta, which helped spark a minor craze for the opossum soon after he was elected. But first, we’ll look at the opossum and American foodways. Stay tuned!