Just before Thanksgiving in 1904, the Boston Herald served up some shocking news: Two of President Theodore Roosevelt's younger children had chased the presidential dinner turkey around the back lawn of the White House, pulling feathers from the frightened bird as Roosevelt looked on with great amusement.
But was this turkey of a story true? The controversy raged on until nearly Christmas. Over the years, the story has become the stuffing that Thanksgiving legends are made of.
The legend began when the Herald's White House reporter wrote that young Ethel and Quentin Roosevelt "have a new plaything." It was the 30-pound Rhode Island turkey delivered for the first family's Thanksgiving table. The big bird was kept in a cage, but the children "wanted it loose and free." When the gobbler was released, "they chased the turkey all over the White House grounds, plucking it, yelling and laughing until the bird was well nigh exhausted. The President witnessed part of the proceedings and laughed."
The next day, a Herald columnist named "The Chatterer" opined: "Apparently the Roosevelt children are chips off the old block and possess their full share of juvenile irresponsibleness. But why should they be allowed to torment and frighten an innocent turkey?"
Roosevelt didn't see the articles until the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. After returning from a trip to St. Louis, he found the clippings on his desk. He carried them into a Cabinet meeting, where he angrily declared the turkey story was a canard. Agriculture Secretary James "Tama Jim" Wilson, who grew up on a farm, noted that it was impossible to pluck feathers from a running turkey. Roosevelt said it was even harder in this case because his Thanksgiving turkey was dead on arrival and dressed for the roasting pan. Roosevelt closed the meeting by declaring that he "intended to stop newspaper stories of that kind."
At 6 p.m., Roosevelt's secretary, William Loeb Jr., issued a typewritten statement that "No such incident as that recited in the Herald has ever taken place since the president has been in the White House."
A second, live turkey had been shipped in from Milwaukee, Loeb said, but it was never released from its cage before being freed at a bucolic barnyard in New York's Oyster Bay. The turkey story, Loeb said, "marks the culmination of a long series of similar falsehoods, usually malicious and always deliberate, which have appeared in the news columns of the Boston Herald." As a result, its reporter was barred from the White House, and all federal departments were ordered to stop providing news information to the Herald.
The Boston Herald responded with what one newspaper called an apology that was "a trifle sarcastic." The Herald said: "It is always with keen regret that the management of the Herald finds that it has been the means of circulating statements which have no foundation in truth." The turkey story came from a supposedly reliable source, but "candor compels us to say that it was not worth telegraphing." The paper added that Roosevelt also has made statements in error.
Many newspapers sided with Roosevelt as an aggrieved father who was the victim of "fowl" play. "We are very much in sympathy with the indignant attitude of the president regarding the fake story," the St. Paul Globe in Minnesota wrote. "Mr. Roosevelt is distinctly a family man. It is an outrage that a public man should be pilloried through his children."
The Buffalo Commercial commented, "There is no excuse for printing and circulating reporters' rot of that sort because any intelligent person knows that the president is tender-hearted and detests cruelty to animals as he does cowardness."
A columnist for the Charleston Post in South Carolina, writing with tongue in cheek, argued that the punishment of the Herald correspondent was "way too mild. The Boston reporter should have been tried by court martial and condemned to be shot from the mouth of a cannon on the Washington Monument."
Not all of the newspapers supported Roosevelt's actions. "Nobody can blame the president for being irritated at the publication of such a story," the New York Times editorialized. "But the executive vengeance goes . . . entirely too far. This is all wrong, in addition to being perfectly un-American."
The controversy escalated in early December when overzealous officials at the U.S. Weather Bureau in Boston refused to provide the Herald with government weather maps and forecasts for the Boston area. As one observer put it, "Meanwhile the readers of the paper may find out when it is raining by looking out their windows."
This time, even many Roosevelt supporters came down against the president. "The denial by the United States weather bureau of the daily reports to the Boston Herald was an outrage on the people as well as on the public press," said the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
"The Herald's offense was petty, the president should not permit himself to use a battleship to crush a codfish," chided the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Newburyport Herald in Massachusetts scolded: "The story was silly and the order of the President sillier." Added one wag: "This is very light punishment at the hands of the president. Just think, he might have shut the weather itself off."
Roosevelt quickly rescinded the Weather Bureau ban, saying his order had been "misconstrued." But the government boycott of the Herald in Washington remained. The controversy continued to be front-page news well into December, overshadowing even a report that a two-headed baby had been born in Boston. And the comments about the anti-Herald orders grew more serious.
"If this principle is to be adopted and sustained, it will obviously be possible for the president of the United States to dictate to any newspaper" whom they shall employ "in the work of gathering news concerning the government in Washington," said the Manchester Union in New Hampshire. And "that means censorship and nothing else."
Finally, on the day after Christmas, the Chicago Tribune published this one-line news story: "There were no White House turkey stories in the esteemed Boston Herald yesterday."
The controversy disappeared from the news pages as apparently the White House quietly returned to normal press practices. Another Roosevelt "big stick" policy had made its point. In the case of the fake turkey story, the policy might be called, "Speak softly and carry a big drumstick."
This article was written by Ronald G. Shafer as a special to The Washington Post.