Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)
Just prior to Thanksgiving 2021, I published the story of how then-President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge turned a raccoon that had been sent to the White House to be Thanksgiving dinner into a pet named Rebecca. On March 4, 1929, Calvin Coolidge left office and retired to Vermont, and he was succeeded as President by Herbert Hoover. In my article, I noted that Coolidge sent Rebecca to the Washington Zoo shortly before leaving office. Her cage would not remain empty for long, however – Hoover filled it with an opossum named Billy Possum.
In this article, I turn to original sources to tell the story of the time when President Herbert C. Hoover adopted an opossum as the White House pet and named him Billy Possum.
How an Opossum Became the White House Pet
When Calvin and Grace Coolidge sent Rebecca to live out her days at the Washington Zoo before they retired to Masachussetts, they left Rebecca’s empty cage on the south grounds of the White House. Thus, when President Hoover took office in March 1929, he inherited Rebecca’s cage.
On May 9, 1929, about two months after Hoover took office, the Associated Press reported that Rebecca’s former home on the White House grounds had a new occupant:
The spacious cage on the south grounds of the White House, which once housed Rebecca, President Coolidge’s pet raccoon, now has a new occupant, an opossum.
How did this unusual situation come to pass? The AP explained:
The animal strayed into the White House grounds several nights ago and was captured by B.B. Snodgrass of the White House police, who placed it in a cage.
Left unexplained is whose idea it was to turn an opossum that had been captured on the White House grounds into a pet. But we cannot answer every question here. Every pet needs a name, and President Hoover’s opossum received one:
It has been named ‘Billy Possum,’ and for the present is to be retained in Rebecca’s cage.
What’s In a Name? “Billy Possum”
I did not find any materials wherein an individual in the Hoover administration was cited as explaining why the opossum was named Billy Possum. However, the reference is clear in context.
President-elect Taft’s Possum Feast
On January 1, 1909, William Howard Taft, who was then the President of the United States-elect, was to have a banquet held in his honor in Atlanta, Georgia. As the guest of honor, it was incumbent on the President-elect to select a main dish for the event. Taft was from Ohio, but in the interest of choosing a dish that was beloved by some in the south, he chose possum and taters. The event was described in detail in the January 1, 1909 edition of The Topeka State Journal, and the significance of Taft’s choice was examined in a 2019 article by Mr. Stephen Winick for the American Folklife Center & Veteran’s History Project at the Library of Congress.
Billy Possum as the Answer to Teddy’s Bear
Because my purpose is to understand why President Hoover named his opossum Billy Possum, we must leave Taft’s banquet behind and turn to an article at Ohio History Connection by Ms. Cassie Burris.
Taft succeeded Theodore Roosevelt as president. During Roosevelt’s seven years in office, the Teddy bear (originally called “Teddy’s bear”) – which was named in his honor – became a beloved toy among American children. Ms. Burris explained that toy manufacturers were concerned that the popularity of the Teddy bear would wane when Roosevelt left office – perhaps overestimating the importance of the toy’s connection to the outgoing president.
Ms. Burris recounted that toy manufacturers decided that the best way to capture lighting in a bottle a second time was to create a stuffed toy in honor of Taft. Taft’s request for opossum to be the main course at his January banquet served as a eureka moment for the toy manufacturers. Ms. Burris wrote:
When Taft’s belly was stuffed, local boosters presented the president-to-be with a small plush opossum. The toy, they told Taft, was destined to be the next big thing-it was going to replace the teddy bear. They dubbed it ‘Billy Possum. The gift pleased Taft–As did the dinner.’“
Toy manufacturers went into overdrive producing Billy Possum toys for America’s children.
As you may guess with hindsight, the drive was unsuccessful. Ms. Burris wrote:
Unfortunately, sales died quickly, and it was all a massive flop. Billy Possum didn’t even last a year–the craze died by Christmastime.
Had they taken a step back, it may have occurred to them that the opossum might lack some of the visual and tactile appeal of the teddy bear – entirely separate and apart from presidential connections and homages.
An Example of the Nickname For Taft
The source of the name “Billy Possum” for Hoover’s unusual pet is clear – but one may come away from the foregoing story with the impression that Hoover named his opossum after a defunct toy. I believe this is false. In my view – I think Hoover named his opossum in honor of William Howard Taft himself. Indeed,“Billy Possum” had become one of Taft’s nicknames during his presidency. See, for example, this passage from the March 8, 1909 Herald Democrat, which was published within a week of then-President Taft’s inaugural:
The Billy Possum has succeeded the Teddy Bear.Herald Democrat
It is also worth noting that when Billy Possum the opossum was captured, the original Billy Possum was not a historical afterthought or typical former president. The original Billy Possum and former president was the incumbent Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, having been appointed to that role by former President Warren G. Harding (who had also appointed Hoover as the Secretary of Commerce – a position that Hoover held under both Presidents Harding and Coolidge).
Thus, I will venture that the opossum’s name was a reference to then-Chief Justice Taft’s nickname rather than to the short-lived stuffed animal that was created in Taft’s honor when president. However, because the source of Taft’s nickname appears to have been the stuffed animal, I suppose the difference between the possibilities is slight.
Alternative Suggestion: A Children’s Book Homage
While I think that President Hoover’s opossum’s name was a reference to Taft, I will note one alternative possibility. Thornton Burgess, a renowned children’s book author of his day, had a recurring character named Unc’ Billy Possum in his books. Burgess’s Billy Possum character first appeared in the title of one of Burgess’ books in 1914, and may have appeared in a book as early as 1910.
Billy Possum Was Viewed as the Successor to Rebecca
Since Billy Possum was both a strange pet and the new occupant of the home of one of Coolidge’s strange pets, he was naturally viewed as the successor to Rebecca. For example, see the following passage from the December 6, 1929 The Aspen Daily Times”
And the successor to ‘Rebecca,’ the Coolidge raccoon, is ‘Billy Possum,’ an opossum which strayed upon the White House grounds and, being captured by a guard, was immediately adopted into the exclusive society of ‘Presidential Pets.’
Let it be said that The Aspen Daily Times did not give the guard his due. I am happy that we here at The New Leaf Journal rectify this oversight 92 years later. Without Mr. B.B. Snodgrass’s expert opossum-catching, there would have been no confused Billy Possum occupying a cage that formerly belonged to a raccoon on the White House grounds.
President Hoover Loans Out Billy Possum
Shortly after adopting Billy Possum, President Hoover saw fit to loan his new pet to a local high school athletics program. If you thought this story could not get any stranger, you thought wrong.
We again turn to Mr. Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress for his August 12, 2019 article on presidential encounters with opossums.
A High School Loses Its Mascot
Mr. Winick explained that there was a very successful high school athletics program in Hyattsville, Maryland – obviously in close proximity to the White House. The baseball team at Hyattsville was in the playoffs and hoped to win a county championship much like their schoolmates had in soccer, basketball, and several track and field events. However, the school mascot, an opossum, escaped. Shortly after the escape, the baseball team lost its first playoff game. Naturally, the players on the team were “disconsolate” (according to reports cited to by Mr. Winick) and believed that the loss of their beloved mascot had worsened their plight.
Fortunately, kids in high school in 1909 read the newspaper. According to Mr. Winick, they came across an article (likely the same article I reprinted earlier in my article) about the adoption of Billy Possum by President Hoover. At first, the baseball team thought that Billy Possum may have been their possum – and they contacted the White House asking if they could see it. The White House accepted, but the team was “disappointed when the opossum did not come when called, and realized that it was not their mascot after all.”
Borrow Billy Possum?
We now turn to an AP report in the July 16, 1929 The Spokesman-Review, which details Billy Possum’s strange journey that took him from replacing a pet raccoon to replacing an opossum high school sports mascot. I was referred to this original newspaper article by a May 16, 2013 article in the Hyattsville Patch.
The AP described what happened after the Hyattsville baseball team determined that Billy Possum was not their opossum:
[T]he boys asked permission to take Billy back to Hyattsville to fill the place of their own vanished pet. Permission was given and the team had a successful season.
After the successful season, the baseball team duly returned Billy Possum to his home at the White House. The team wrote a letter thanking President Hoover for his contribution and expressed their hope that they might “‘again be honored’ with Billy Possum’s ‘effective leadership in our athletic program next fall.’”
President Hoover responded as follows:
I am glad to have your formal report on the efficiency of Billy Possum–it will be incorporated in his service record. Precautions will be taken to maintain his health and spirits for the further needs of the Prince Georges county high school teams.
A Picture of Billy With the Baseball Team?
Below, you will find a May 25, 1929 photo at the White House of two gentleman holding an opossum:
Mr. Winick investigated the story behind the photo. The two gentleman in the photo, according to a June 10, 1929 article in The Albuquerque Journal wherein it was reprinted (see original article), were Mr. Robert Venemann and Mr. William Robinson, both of whom were students at the high school. The article identified them as two of the students who adopted Billy Possum.
The photo certainly shows Billy Possum with two members of the high school. Mr. Winick’s article investigated whether Mr. Vanemann and Mr. Robinson were the individuals who penned the letter to President Hoover on behalf of the baseball team.
While the story of how Billy Possum became White House pet was only slightly less peculiar than how Rebecca the raccoon went from Thanksgiving dinner to White House pet, I dare say that Billy Possum had a busier life as White House pet. While Rebecca often escaped on her own initiative, she was never loaned out to a local baseball team. At the very least, Billy Possum did an admirable job filling the void that was Rebecca’s empty cage, even when he was away from the White House on loan.
Billy Possum was not the first opossum to be kept as White House pet. About 40 years prior to Billy’s adoption, then-President Benjamin Harrison, who I have also covered on site, kept two opossums named “Protection” and “Reciprocity” on the White House grounds. The story of President Harrison’s opossums, however, will be left to be covered elsewhere.