Shortly before Thanksgiving in 1987, then-President Ronald Reagan stated that he was pardoning a turkey that had been given to the White House as a gift, and he sent it to a petting zoo. The turkey pardon was turned into a ceremony by Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, in 1989. Since then, the tradition has continued, with Presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and Biden issuing annual turkey pardons. While the turkey pardon is an odd tradition, most would consider it a bit less odd than if the President were to spare a raccoon from the Thanksgiving dinner table. Surely, such a thing would never happen. But happen it did. In this article, I will re-tell the story of the time then-President Calvin Coolidge – who I have covered in other articles – saved a raccoon from the Thanksgiving dinner table in 1926.
I cover Rebecca’s successor as strange-White House pet, President Hoover’s Billy Possum, in a follow-up article.
Finding the Original Coolidge-Thanksgiving Raccoon Story
I knew that President Coolidge had been sent a raccoon for Thanksgiving dinner one year. Rather than recount the story using secondary sources, I decided to use Elephind, a powerful newspaper search engine that I have written about at The New Leaf Journal, to find original news stories and reports. The Associated Press covered the story of Coolidge and the would-be Thanksgiving raccoon dinner on December 1, 1926. I found the original article in the December 1, 1926 edition of the Santa Cruz Evening News – titled Cal’s Distaste Is Luck For Raccoon. Below, I will reprint the story from the newspaper.
The AP story began as follows:
The raccoon that came to Washington to make Thanksgiving at the White House uncommonly succulent, not only has been saved from death by President Coolidge’s distaste for that particular delicacy, but has been given an opportunity to rise in the world to the status of a pet.
You can tell that the reporter who received this important reporting assignment did not undertake writing the article reluctantly. Here, we learn that someone sent the White House a raccoon for Thanksgiving dinner, but Coolidge declined to turn the raccoon into dinner because he was not a connoisseur of raccoon meat.
Perhaps that was not a New England delicacy.
The raccoon became a pet, they said? Let us read on.
But the coon, which came from Mississippi, hasn’t learned to pet, so he has been turned loose – for educational purposes, possibly – among some other wild bees that buzz around about a hollow tree in the White House grounds.
Note the interesting use of pet as a verb. The raccoon had not learned to pet. According to Webster’s 1913, we owe this use of pet to the seventeenth century English essayist, Owen Feltham.
But I digress.
The AP concluded with an additional fact about then-President Coolidge after noting that the raccoon may have been living with the bees on the White House grounds.
[The raccoon and bees] already have one point in common: President Coolidge doesn’t like wild honey, either.
The AP specified wild honey. Where did President Coolidge stand on farm-produced honey?
What Happened to the Raccoon?
In modern times, we seldom hear from the beneficiaries of the Presidential turkey pardons after their ceremonies. Would the raccoon that Coolidge declined to eat for Thanksgiving fade into similar obscurity?
She would not.
Again, I knew the story of what became of the raccoon generally, but I thought it would be fun to find some contemporary sources on the strange story. Again, I searched Elephind.
Our first reference to the raccoon subsequent to its finding a home on the White House grounds came in an August 23, 1927 AP article. The article was not about Will Rogers, not Calvin Coolidge, but Rogers offered a quip about the raccoon in question:
I’m going east now to see if the White House is ready for Coolidge. And I am going to hunt for Rebecca.Will Rogers
Rebecca? It couldn’t be. But it was. The AP added in a parenthetical that Rebecca was “the White House pet raccoon which disappeared recently.”
Disappeared!? Where did Rebecca go?
According to an article in the October 16, 1927 edition of Australia’s Sunday Mail, Rebecca was not only alive and well, but also something of an international celebrity:
Rebecca Raccoon, riding through Washington recently beside President Coolidge on the rear seat of his car, is by no means the first animal to sit in high places. Dogs have often broken biscuit in the White House–collies, Airdales, or terriers. Every President to his choice. Now the bright light of publicity is thrown on the private life of a little raccoon. Rebecca is the first [of] her race to be found of Presidential calibre.
The last line is interesting (I corrected a typo from the original paper). Coolidge did not find Rebecca to be of dinner caliber, but he did find her to be of pet caliber. I will note that riding next to the President of the United States in a car is a bit of an upgrade from being Thanksgiving dinner.
We received another Rebecca update in an April 10, 1928 AP article about the Easter festivities at the White House.
The article described President Coolidge watching the White House lawn become overrun with children. It is then that we learn about Rebecca’s whereabouts:
The confusion was greatest immediately in front of the executive offices, where Rebecca, the pet White House raccoon, performed her choicest antics in a special pen for the benefit of her visitors.
Calvin Coolidge left office on March 4, 1929. He was replaced by Herbert Hoover. Did Rebecca become President Hoover’s pet? She did not, but she did receive a worthy successor.
On May 9, 1929, the AP reported on the strange pet happenings in the Hoover Administration.
The article disclosed Rebecca’s fate after Coolidge retired to Massachusets:
Rebecca, who had a habit of escaping from [her] pen at frequent intervals, was sent to the national zoological park here a short time before the end of the Coolidge administration…
The pen that Rebecca had entertained children in when she was not busy escaping and running away remained even after she was gone. It did not stay vacant for long:
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.
Of course it did.
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.
What was its name?
It has been named ‘Billy Possum’ and for the present is to be retained in Rebecca’s cage.
If you are curious about Billy Possum, you are in luck. I covered Rebecca’s successor in office in a follow-up article.
Additional Facts About Rebecca
Having found all the information I could about Rebecca in the Elephind archives, I will now flesh out the raccoon’s story with help from the aptly named Presidential Pet Museum website page on the subject.
The Pet Museum confirms that Rebecca was the same raccoon that had been kindly sent to the White House for Thanksgiving dinner. Shortly after receiving the raccoon, Presidential Coolidge announced that “he” would be kept as a pet, and asked the press for help in deciding on the raccoon’s name. “Rebecca” received her name on New Years Eve in 1926, which explains why the first AP article I found from December 1, 1926, did not include her name. Moreover, the AP‘s story referring to the raccoon as “he” makes sense in light of the fact that President Coolidge referred to the raccoon as “he” when he informed the White House press of the raccoon’s adoption.
The article notes that the President’s wife, Grace Coolidge, took a particular liking to Rebecca. Rebecca enjoyed playing with cakes of soap in the White House bathtub. The article notes that “President Coolidge was known to walk around with Rebecca draped around his neck…”
In 1928, some kind individuals sent the White House a second raccoon, Reuben, to be friends with Rebecca. However, Reuben and Rebecca did not get along before Reuben successfully ran away (Rebecca was always found in her escape attempts).
While the President and the First Lady loved Rebecca, some White House staffers were less fond of the unusual pet due to Rebecca’s tendency to rip clothing and upholstery.
I hope you enjoyed the inspiring story of Rebecca the raccoon, who rose from the rank of intended Thanksgiving dinner to beloved White House pet. Her journey took her from Mississippi to the White House, and from the White House to the Washington Zoo. While Rebecca does appear to have spent a great deal of time trying to run away from her remarkably good fortune, we cannot doubt that she had much to be thankful for.
My New Leaf Journal colleague Victor V. Gurbo inspired a section of our website when he once said: “I don’t like your emu and I don’t have to eat it, but you can keep the sofa.” President Coolidge did not say this, but we can paraphrase what must have been his thoughts about his 1926 Thanksgiving gift: “I don’t like raccoon and I’m not going to eat it, but I will keep her as a pet and name her Rebecca.”
I have not forgotten about Rebecca’s successor in office, Billy Possum, but that story is covered in a follow-up article.