Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan and the Green Bay Packers - a History of the Annual Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon

"The Goddess of Thanksgiving as she flies over prosperous country on her noble steed the turkey"

The Oshkosh Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wisconsin), November 25, 1899, page 12.

The Presidential pardon of the White House Thanksgiving Turkey has been an annual fixture of American pop-culture since President George H. W. Bush formalized the event in 1989.  But he wasn’t the first President to spare the life of a turkey. 

President Lincoln once spared the life of a turkey his son Tad had become attached to, but it was a Christmas Turkey, not Thanksgiving,[i] so arguably it doesn’t count. 

At a public event days before his death in 1963, President Kennedy spared the life of a turkey presented by the National Turkey Federation, saying, “Let’s Keep Him Going.”  Although the President did not characterize it as such, reporters covering the event referred to it as a “reprieve”[ii] or “pardon.”[iii]

According to the White House Historical Association, First Daughter Patrician Nixon sent a turkey to a children’s farm and First Lady Rosalyn Carter sent one to a small zoo, but without direct Presidential involvement.   The Reagan administration routinely sent their official White House turkeys to a farm to live out their days, but it was done without public ceremony or official proclamation. George H. W. Bush began the practice of issuing official turkey pardons during the annual official White House turkey presentation ceremonies in 1989.[iv]  It has since become a beloved annual tradition.

But not everyone is a fan.  In 2014, Amy Ralston Povah penned an Op-Ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle.  “Instead of sleepwalking through the obligatory turkey ‘pardon’ on the White House Lawn this year,” she wished that “President Obama would grant some real pardons – to humans.”  Ms. Povah had, herself, been the recipient of clemency from President Clinton nine years into a twenty-four year sentence related to her husband’s MDMA (ecstacy) trafficking activities.

It was an interesting proposal, but it would not have been anything new.  It would have been a return to the past.  What’s left out of most discussions of the history of the traditional Thanksgiving pardon for turkeys is the fact that it may have been modeled on a much older tradition of granting Thanksgiving pardons to humans.

Humanitarian Pardons

The tradition appears to have begun, appropriately enough, in the Massachusetts, the state that invented Thanksgiving.  Governor Nathaniel P. Banks granted the first Thanksgiving pardon in 1860.

As an inducement to good behavior, the Governor and Council gave to the Warden the privilege of recommending two convicts for pardon, in cases where very marked mental or moral improvement had been exhibited.  One was pardoned on Thanksgiving day, the other on New Year’s.  This practice, if continued, will enlist all the inmates in the work of promoting good order in the prison.

Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), January 10, 1861, page 1.

The practice was continued, and he was remembered years later as the originator of the Thanksgiving pardon.

During the administration of Governor Banks the practice was introduced by the warden of the State Prison at Charlestown of pardoning on Thanksgiving Day a limited number of convicts.

Rutland Weekly Herald (Rutland, Vermont), December 14, 1865, page 4.

There is a curious custom in Massachusetts which dates back to the time when Nathaniel P. Banks was governor of that State, whereby each succeeding Governor has been called upon . . . to pardon on Thanksgiving Day two prisoners undergoing imprisonment for life. . . . 

The custom seems to have arisen from the idea that Thanksgiving Day ought to be signalized by a supreme act of mercy, and that men imprisoned for life for crimes falling short and in some cases barely escaping, through the skill of their lawyers, the death penalty were the most fitting recipients of this act of the executive favor.

The Baltimore Sun, December 24, 1891, page 2.

American Presidents eventually adopted the practice.  It’s not clear when it started, but it was considered customary before 1880.

A Presidential Pardon.

Boston, Dec. 5. [Note: Thanksgiving fell on December 5th that year]

The President of the United states has pardoned Frederick W. Broders, formerly clerk in the Boston post office, who was sentenced oct. 23d, 1876, to four years in East Cambridge jail for embezzling valuable letters.  The pardon is granted on good reasons set forth in recommendations of the United States district attorney.

Hartford Courant (Hartford, Connecticut), December 6, 1878, page 3.


President Hayes, in accordance with the custom at Thanksgiving season, signed to-day the pardon of the United States convict who will be liberated to-morrow from the Albany Penitentiary, where he is serving a sentence for larceny.  His name is Edward F. Peck, and it is claimed on his behalf that he committed the crime when he was intoxicated.

Chicago Tribune, November 27, 1879, page 2.

Governors in other states followed suit.

Thanksgiving pardons: Thomas Reed, of Wayne county, and James Hallanan, of Van Wert county.  Unsatisfactory evidence in the case of the former and consumption with the latter are the causes.

Summit County Beacon (Akron, Ohio), December 8, 1880, page 3.

Gov. Dockery will to0morrow grant three pardons to convicts in the state penitentiary, as provided by law, and which are known as the Thanksgiving pardons.  Nine convicts receive executive clemency in this manner annually, three each on the occasions of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Fourth of July.  Only long-termers are chosen for these pardons.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, November 28, 1901, page 3.

In accordance with the custom which has obtained in the State almost from time out of mind, Gov. Frazier has granted a number of Thanksgiving pardons and commutations.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), November 24, 1908, page 8.

In Tennessee, the purpose behind some of the pardons was to get support for the creation of juvenile reform schools.

In the recent campaign the Governor declared with great emphasis upon every stump in Tennessee where he spoke that it was his intention to pardon every boy sent to the penitentiary or the work-house unless the State provided a reformatory for juvenile offenders.  Probably no declaration of Gov. Frazier’s elicited such general and hearty applause as this statement did at every place where it was made.

The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee), November 24, 1908, page 8.

But not everyone was a fan.

Even in Massachusetts, the cradle of the Thanksgiving pardon, there was resistance as early as 1891. 

The strangest fact about this matter is that there has been in all this time no law of the State authorizing the annual release of prisoners of the highest grade held in custody under sentence of the courts. . . .

One of the prisoners pardoned and released this year on Thanksgiving Day was known as “the Pelham murderer,” and the grace extended to him seems to have aroused public interest in a custom which has nothing but sentimental considerations to rest upon, and which it is now beginning to be urged would be “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

. . . “The people,” says the Springfield Republican, “may very propery challenge an unwritten law of this character.  It has become a machine for nullifying the action of the courts and interfering with the execution of justice. . . . The Republican calls upon Governor Russell and his council to wipe out the rule which compels the granting of two pardons of this character on Thanksgiving Day, and let the law henceforth take its course.”

The Baltimore Sun, December 24, 1891, page 2.

Resistance was not futile.  Massachusetts discontinued the practice in 1893.

These Thanksgiving pardons . . . were continued until 1893, the last year of Gov. Russell’s administration, when the discontinuance of the Thanksgiving pardons was announced one week before the holiday.

Boston Globe, May 21, 1905, page 41.

Based on the frequency of “hits” on searches for “thanksgiving pardon” on a digital newspaper archive, the practice of Thanksgiving pardons appears to have peaked sometime around 1910. 

In some years, some Governors simply chose to forego the pardon.

Chattanooga Star (Chattanooga, Tennessee), November 29, 1907, page 2.

In Texas, the Governor granted no pardons for two years in a row.

. . . No Thanksgiving pardons were granted by the governor last year.

Austin American-Statesman (Austin, Texas), November 9, 1924, page 16.

But political winds shift quickly.  In 1925, Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson, the first female Governor of Texas, granted 105 pardons on Thanksgiving Day.

Galveston Daily News, November 16, 1925, page 1.  

But some things never change.  Shortly after issuing her list of pardons, the Governor left town for College Station to see the Texas-Texas A&M football game.[v]

Even as the tradition of Thanksgiving pardons dwindled, it did not disappear entirely.  In 1942, for example, the New Jersey State Court of Pardons issued a list of eighty-two prisoners to receive Thanksgiving pardons.  Even Governor Lester Maddox of Georgia (more famous for less-humanitarian acts) brought Thanksgiving pardons back to Georgia in 1968.

Several hundred inmates of Georgia prisons will be released the day before Thanksgiving, State Pardons and Paroles Board chairman J. O. Partain Jr. said Wednesday, but the number will be smaller than last year’s Christmas release.

Gov. Lester Maddox initiated the mass release program last year to demonstrate the state’s concern to aid in rehabilitation by giving young prisoners a chance to enroll in school in the fall and allow adult prisoners to be home for Christmas.

The Atlanta Constitution, October 17, 1968, page 8.

President John F. Kennedy may have been generally aware of the fading tradition of Thanksgiving pardons.  In 1962, he issued five Thanksgiving Day pardons, most notably to Matthew J. Connelly, Appointment Secretary to President Harry S. Truman, who had been convicted of “conspiring to defraud the government, to commit bribery and perjury, and to violate the Internal Revenue Laws.”


Times Democrat (Orangeburg, South Carolina), November 23, 1962, page 11.

One year later, a few days before his own death, Kennedy would grant a “reprieve” to his White House turkey, the first President since Lincoln known to have “pardoned” a turkey, although Lincoln’s bird was just a Christmas turkey.

A Turkey Pardon?

In 1857, the Governor of New York released a man known as “Tom Hand” (real name, Jacob Shuster) from Sing Sing prison.  His wife had lobbied for his release, despite the fact that she was the principle accuser in the case that lead to his arrest and conviction on counterfeiting charges.  He returned to his home in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving Day,[vi] suggesting, perhaps, that although the annual practice of granting Thanksgiving pardons started in Massachusetts in 1861, the impulse to pardon on Thanksgiving may have been even older.

Ironically, “Tom Hand” had previously served time in a Federal penitentiary for stealing “the Government jewels from the Patent Office in Washington,” including a “flask of ottar of roses, presented to the United States Government by the Sultan of Turkey” (his sweet smell was apparently a factor in solving the case).  During that first term in prison, his wife “travelled repeatedly to Washington, and brought every influence to bear upon the President to obtain a pardon, but without success,” [vii] thereby depriving history of what would arguably have been the first Thanksgiving “Turkey” pardon.

Turkey Pardons


In the days before Christmas of 1863, with the nation mired in a Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln took time out from a Cabinet meeting to spare the life of his Christmas turkey.

Oregon Daily Journal (Portland, Oregon), February 6, 1916, page 44.

A friend of the Lincoln family once sent a fine live turkey to the White House, with the request that it should be served on the President’s Christmas table.  But Christmas was then several weeks off, and in the interim Tad won the confidence and esteem of the turkey, as he did the affection of every living thing with which he came in contact.  “Jack,” as the fowl had been named, was an object of great interest to Tad, who fed him, petted him, and began to teach him to follow his young master.  One day, just before Christmas, 1863, while the President was engaged with one of his Cabinet ministers on an affair of great moment, Tad burst into the room like a bomb-shell, sobbing and crying with rage and indignation.  The turkey was about to be killed.  Tad had procured from the executioner a stay or proceedings while he flew to lay the case before the President.  Jack must not be killed; it was wicked.

“But,” said the President, “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas.”

‘I can’t help it,” roared Tad, between his sobs.  “He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.”

The President of the United states, pausing in the midst of his business, took a card and wrote on it an order of reprieve.  The turkey’s life was spared, and Tad, seizing the precious bit of paper, fled to set him at liberty. 

“A Boy in the White House,” Noah Brooks, St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, November 1882, page 59. 

With his life spared, “Jack” the Christmas turkey settled into life as a White House pet, and might have voted in the 1864 Presidential election if not for his young age.

In the course of time Jack became very tame, and roamed at will about the premises.  He was a prime favorite with the soldiers – a company of Pennsylvania “Bucktails” – who were on guard at the house.  In the summer of 1864, the election for President being then pending, a commission was sent on from Pennsylvania to take the votes of the Pennsylvania soldiers in Washington.  While the “Bucktails” were voting, Tad rushed into his fathers’ room, the windows of which looked out on the lawn, crying, “Oh, the soldiers are voting for Lincoln for President!”  He dragged his father to the window and insisted that he should see this remarkable thing.  The turkey, now grown tall and free-mannered, stalked about among the soldiers, regarding the proceedings with much interest.

“Does Jack vote?” asked Lincoln, with a roguish twinkle of his eye.

Tad paused for a moment, nonplussed at the unexpected question; then rallying, he replied, “Why, no, of course not.  He isn’t of age yet.”

“A Boy in the White House,” Noah Brooks, St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, November 1882, pages 59-60. 


The next President known to have spared the life of a turkey is President John F. Kennedy, just one more coincidence to add to the long list of “Weird Coincidences Between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.”

Unlike Lincoln, however, Kennedy did it in public as a photo-opportunity with the official White House turkey donated by the National Turkey Federation.  He did not call it a “pardon,” but reporters covering the event characterized it as a “reprieve” or a “pardon.”

Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), November 20, 1963, page 12.
The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana), November 20, 1963, page 5.


According to the White House Historical Association, First Daughter Patricia Nixon and First Lady Rosalyn Carter each sent at least one White House turkey to a children’s farm or a zoo, and President Reagan routinely sent his Thanksgiving birds to a farm, but without pomp or circumstance or “official” pardons.

But in 1987, Reagan joked about his willingness to pardon his turkey to deflect from answering a question about pardoning the White House aides caught up in the Iran-Contra Affair.  In the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, rumors had been swirling that President Reagan would announce pardons for Oliver North and others on Thanksgiving Day.  When asked about those rumors during the annual Rose Garden turkey presentation, President Reagan sidestepped the issue with a joke. 

A reporter first asked about what would happen to the turkey, a 55-pounder named “Hawaiian Charlie.”  Without reference to a pardon, a participant in the ceremony (not the President) answered that it was slated to go to a pet farm.  ABC News reporter, Sam Donaldson, then asked the President whether he would pardon the White House aides, to which Reagan replied, “That’s a question no one can answer at this point.”  When pressed for a further response, Regan added, “If they’d have given me a different answer about Charlie and his future, I would have pardoned him.”[viii]


His Vice President may have been taking notes.  Two years later, Vice President Bush, now President Bush, granted the White House turkey a “Presidential Pardon,”[ix] sparking the annual tradition that survives to this day.

President Bush’s 1989 official pardon may have been inspired by President Reagan’s off-the-cuff remark, but he could also have been inspired by a less-well known turkey pardon that took place in the intervening year.  In 1988, Tommy Thompson, the Governor of Wisconsin, officially pardoned a turkey involved in a turkey-flap at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers

On November 13, 1988, the 5-5 Indianapolis Colts visited Lambeau Field to take on the 2-8 Green Bay Packers.  A beer vendor smuggled a turkey into the stadium by hiding it in a beer truck, hid the turkey in his coat and dumped it onto the field between the first and second quarters.  It was widely seen at the time as commentary on the Packers’ season.  At halftime, Bob Costas commented that “a fan, looking to show displeasure with the Packers brought a turkey to Lambeau Field” (at the time, “turkey” was a ubiquitous slang insult). 

In the aftermath of the game, NFL Films arranged for the Governor of Wisconsin to issue an official pardon to be shown on one of its highlight shows, which the Packers coach, Lindy Infante, found insulting.[x]  The perpetrator was never caught, but the case was finally solved when one of the co-conspirators confessed her role in the affair after seeing a TV-news bit on the thirtieth-anniversary of the game.[xi]  

Governor Tommy Thompson would later serve as the Secretary of Health and Human Services under George H. W. Bush’s son, President George W. Bush.  There’s no indication that the appointment was payback for helping his father develop the annual turkey-pardoning ceremony.

The First Thanksgiving pardon? Indianapolis News, November 29, 1900, page 15.

No pardon at all.  Indianapolis News, November 29, 1900, page 15.

[i] “A Boy in the White House,” Noah Brooks, St. Nicholas Magazine, Volume 10, Number 1, November 1882, page 59-60.  The author “was a journalist and frequent visitor to the White House” who had befriended Lincoln in 1856.  See, for example,
[ii] United Press International, The Journal Herald (Dayton, Ohio), November 20, 1963, page 6.
[iii] Headline, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), November 20, 1963, page 12.
[iv] “Pardoning the Thanksgiving Turkey,” Betty C. Monkman, The White House Historical Association.
[v] Weekly Town Talk (Alexandria, Louisiana), November 28, 1925, page 1.
[vi] Evening Star (Washington DC), May 9, 1857, page 1.
[vii] Evening Star (Washington DC), May 9, 1857, page 1.
[viii] Reagan Library YouTube Channel, Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation to President Reagan on November 23, 1987.
[ix] The Bush Library YouTube Channel, MT154 Proclamation Signing and Presentation of Thanksgiving Turkey – 17 November 1989,
[x] Billings Gazette (Billings, Montana), November 25, 1988, page 2.
[xi] “’Fowl’ play: Woman reveals truth about Lambeau Field turkey prank, WBAY, ABC 2 Green Bay.