The Pets in the Benjamin Harrison White House
Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), grandson of William Henry Harrison, was in the White House from 1889-1893. During that time, a goat named Old Whiskers, two opossums, a dog named Dash,
and several other mixed breed dogs lived at the White House. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Harrison White House was the fact that many of his relatives moved in when he did; several of the pets belong to them.
If you draw a blank when you think of President Benjamin Harrison, you are not alone. For that reason, here is a bit of background. Benjamin Harrison was a Republican who ran against the incumbent Grover Cleveland. Cleveland had taken strong stands against the “spoils system” of governmental job distribution, felt the railroads needed to be regulated, and worked to lower tariffs to get more U.S. money back into circulation. These initiatives angered many of the men benefitting from the system as it was, so Harrison found himself backed by many groups that organized to defeat Cleveland. Vote-buying and worker intimidation was widespread.
Cleveland won the popular election by almost 100,000 votes, but the election was won in the electoral college. Republican National Chairman Matthew Quay had set aside party money to buy votes in two important states—Indiana and New York—which successfully manipulated the outcome. Harrison had 233 electoral votes to Cleveland’s 168.
Moving to the White House
In today’s White House, the Obamas have Michelle’s mother quietly living with them to serve as a parental back-up when the President and First Lady are away.
This is nothing compared to the Harrison entourage. Harrison moved in with his wife, Caroline, his father-in-law, John Scott, and his and Caroline’s two grown children, Russell Benjamin Harrison (1854-1936), and Mary “Mamie” Scott Harrison McKee (1858-1930).
Both Russell and Mary were married, with their own children at the time that Benjamin Harrison took office. Mary, her spouse and their two children moved in to the White House for her father’s full four years. (Her mother died toward the end of Harrison’s term so Mary filled in as First Lady.)
Russell may have only lived there with his family for the first year or so, as in 1890 he bought the Helena Daily Journal and moved back to Montana where he had lived previously. At any rate, he must have been in residence at the White House for a time as the goat, Old Whiskers, was said to belong to him.
There may have been more members of the extended family living at the White House as well. Caroline Harrison had applied to Congress for funds to enlarge the White House but all Congress would do was appropriate $35,000 for updating. She installed new floors, added more bathrooms, and painted and papered. In 1891 she had electricity installed but both she and the President feared being electrocuted so the lights were left burning all night until a building engineer arrived in the morning and could turn them off.
The Animals of the White House
Dash is the most commonly talked about dog in the Harrison White House though there was at least one other dog and perhaps others. Dash was a mixed-breed collie, and Harrison had a fancy doghouse built right next to the White House. The dog may have been Caroline’s dog or belonged to the grandchildren. However it is noted that Dash often wanted attention from the President who was reportedly uncomfortable playing with the dog. He feared “his colleagues would think of him as less of a man.”
The opossums were gifts for the grandchildren, and there is little information about where they lived or what they were named.
Old Whiskers on the Run
One day while President Harrison was waiting at the North Portico for his carriage to pick him up, Old Whiskers, who was pulling a cart with the grandchildren in tow, bolted through the White House gate. Harrison is described as holding on to his top hat and setting off down Pennsylvania Avenue in active pursuit of the goat and cart. Dash ran right along with him. The scene must have had a happy ending as there is no further report.
An article in the February 15, 1891 issue of The New York Times wrote about life at the White House with the Harrisons. The reporter’s source must have been a mole on the staff of the Executive Mansion. While I was hoping for mention of life with the Harrison pets, I found other equally intriguing reports. The article openly mocks “Indianapolis simplicity,” talking of the family’s love for codfish balls and flapjacks, Indiana specialties. The woman brought in to cook for the Harrisons noted that her people “couldn’t abide by fancy cooking,” but the Times’ reporter notes that the breakfasts now being served (hot bread, strong coffee, and fried steak) would not meet with the approval of an “effete New York epicure.”
And while I wish I could report that the article contained the perfect anecdote about the family pets, I have to work with what’s there and I am still laughing at the final paragraph of the story:
“[Harrison’s} devotion to his grandchildren has even allowed them to participate in the observance of state occasions. He invited the Brazilian Admiral Silviera to luncheon one day. He attended. So also did the President’s young grandson. The three were at table, the grandson in his high chair.
“During a conversation between the two gentlemen it occurred to the grandson that he might possibly add to the gayety of nations by thumping vigorously on the table. He made the dishes jump. Silviera frowned. The President didn’t mind it, but he directed the child to be quiet. Thereupon the grandson leaned back in the chair, raised his feet in the air, and brought them down repeatedly on the table.
“See,” cried the President in gleeful simplicity. “See how well he obeys me!”
Harrison, A One-Termer
Ultimately, Benjamin Harrison was voted out of the White House in the next election when Grover Cleveland regained the presidency. Harrison had gotten through the McKinley Tariff, the Sherman Antitrust Act, and saw the admittance of six states to the union. He also advocated for protecting the voting rights of African-Americans though nothing happened at that time.
There was one amazing first during the Harrison era. He was the earliest president whose voice has been preserved for posterity. The recording was made on a wax phonograph cylinder in 1889 by Giuseppe Bettini. Click here to listen to this 36-second recording.