December 4, 2013
In 1981, an unknown epidemic was spreading across America. In June of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s newsletter mentioned five cases of a strange pneumonia in Los Angeles. By July, 40 cases of a rare skin cancer were reported by doctors working in the gay communities of New York and San Francisco. By August, the Associated Press reported that two rare diseases, the skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis, a form of pneumonia caused by a parasitic organism, had infected over 100 gay men in America, killing over half of them. At the end of 1981, 121 men had died from the strange disease; in 1982, the disease was given a name; by 1984, two different scientists had isolated the virus causing it; in 1986, that virus was named HIV. By the end of the decade, in 1989, 27,408 people died from AIDS.
In the years following the AIDS epidemic, medical research has given us a better understanding of HIV and AIDS, as well as made some remarkable breakthroughs unimagined in the 1980s: today, people living with HIV aren’t condemned to a death sentence, but rather have treatment options available. Still, to think of the AIDS epidemic in medical terms misses half of the story–the social aspect, which affected America’s perception of HIV and AIDS just as much, if not more than medical research.
The two sides of the story are told through a collection of articles, pictures, posters and pamphlets in Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics and Culture, a traveling exhibit and online adaptation curated by the National Library of Medicine that explores the rise of AIDS in the early 1980s, as well as the medical and social responses to the disease since. The human reaction to the AIDS epidemic often takes a back seat to the medical narrative, but the curators of Surviving and Thriving were careful to make sure that this did not happen–through a series of digital panels, as well as a digital gallery, readers can explore how the government and other community groups talked about the disease.
At the beginning of the epidemic, response was largely limited to the communities which were most affected, especially the gay male community. “People with AIDS are really a driving force in responding to the epidemic and seeing how change is made,” says Jennifer Brier, a historian of politics and sexuality who curated the exhibit.
In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men living with AIDS in New York City, published How to Have Sex in an Epidemic, which helped spread the idea that safe sex could be used as protection against spreading the epidemic–an idea that hadn’t yet become prevalent in the medical community. The pamphlet was one of the first places that proposed that men should use condoms when having sex with other men as a protection against AIDS.
Condoms as protection against AIDS became a major theme for poster campaigns. The above poster, paid for by the Baltimore-based non-profit Health Education Resource Organization, shows how visuals attempted to appeal, at least at first, to the gay community. Due to widespread misinformation, however, many people believed that AIDS was a disease that affected only white gay communities. As a response to this, black gay and lesbian communities created posters like the one below, to show that AIDS didn’t discriminate based on race.
Many posters and education campaigns harnessed sexual imagery to convey the importance of safe sex in an attempt to make safety sexy (like the Safe Sex is Hot Sex campaign), but it wasn’t a campaign tactic supported by governmental bodies–in fact, in 1987, Congress explicitly banned the use of federal funds for AIDS prevention and education campaigns that “[promoted] or [encouraged], directly or indirectly, homosexual activities” (the legislation was spearheaded by conservative senator Jesse Helms and signed into law by President Reagan).
Instead, federally-funded campaigns sought to address a large number of people from all backgrounds–male, female, homosexual or heterosexual. The America Responds to AIDS campaign, created by the CDC, ran from 1987 to 1996 and became a central part of the “everyone is at risk” message of AIDS prevention.
The campaign was met with mixed feelings by AIDS workers. “The posters really do help ameliorate the fear of hatred of people with AIDS,” Brier explains. “There’s a notion that everyone is at risk, and that’s important to talk about, but there’s also the reality that not everyone is at risk to the same extent.” Some AIDS organizations, especially those providing service to communities at the highest risk for contracting HIV, saw the campaign as diverting money and attention away from the communities that needed it the most–leaving gay and minority communities to compete with one another for the little money that remained. As New York Times reporter Jayson Blair wrote in 2001 (, “Much of the government’s $600 million AIDS-prevention budget was used…to combat the disease among college students, heterosexual women and others who faced a relatively low risk of contracting the disease.”
(This linked column by Blair was later found to be plagiarized from reporting by the Wall Street Journal, but the point still holds.)
Beyond campaigns that tried to generalize the AIDS epidemic, a different side used the fear of AIDS to try and affect change. These posters, contained under the section “Fear Mongering” in the exhibit’s digital gallery, show ominous images of graves or caskets behind proclamations of danger.
“It was like this sort of scared straight model, like if you get scared enough, you really will do what is right,” Brier says of the posters. “There were posters that focused on pleasure, or health, or positive things to get people to affect change in their behavior, but there were consistently posters that used the idea that fear could produce behavior change.”
The above poster exemplifies the tactic of fear mongering: a large, visible slogan to affect fear (and shame sexual behavior), while information on how to prevent the spread of AIDS is buried in small print at the bottom of the poster. A lack of information was typical of fear-mongering posters, which relied on catchy, scary headlines rather than information about safe sex, clean needles or the disease itself.
“The posters fed on people’s inability to understand how AIDS actually spread. It didn’t really ever mention ways to prevent the spread of HIV,” Brier says. “Fear-mongering posters don’t talk about condoms, they don’t talk about clean needles, they don’t talk about ways to be healthy. They don’t have the solutions in them, they just have the fear.”
Through exploring the exhibit, users get a sense of the different approaches public organizations took to spread information about AIDS. “It’s a fundamental question of public health,” says Brier. “Do you spread information by scaring people, do you do it by trying to tap into pleasure or do you do it by recognizing that people’s behavior isn’t just about their individual will but a whole different set of circumstances?”
November 21, 2013
“Doctor Who,” the classic British sci-fi television show, celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend. For those who’ve never seen the program, which in the United States has aired mostly on PBS stations and, more recently, BBCAmerica, here’s a short rundown: The main character is a man called the Doctor. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords. He travels through time and space in a blue police box that’s really a disguise for his bigger-on-the-inside ship called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space). In each episode, the Doctor and a companion (or two or three) explore the universe while fighting monsters and other enemies along the way. And every so often, the doctor “regenerates,” taking on a new body and face, letting a new actor take over the lead role.
The formula has changed little since “Doctor Who” first premiered on BBC on November 23, 1963. The show has survived poor production values, the Doctor getting stranded on Earth for years, declining public interest in the show, cancellation in the late 1980s, as well as a failed attempt to reboot the series in 1996 only to come back in 2005, gaining new fans and new respect.
“Doctor Who” has been distinct from other members of the science fiction genre, such as “Star Trek,” which focused solely on the future, by taking advantage of the ability to travel through time and periodically visiting the past. This focus on history has waxed and waned over the years, reflecting the interests and wants of the show’s producers and viewers, but it produced some unique storylines centered on pivotal moments in human history. Nearly all of these episodes are available on DVD or Netflix, although two of the episodes from the Crusades are preserved only as audio.
Adventures in the first season of “Doctor Who” took viewers into historical events such as Marco Polo’s 1289 expedition to Central Asia and the Reign of Terror in late 18th-century France. Though the show’s most iconic monsters, the pepperpot-shaped Daleks, had already been introduced by this time, these history stories got their drama from human events. In “The Aztecs,” the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his companions become trapped in 15th-century Mexico. One of the companions, history teacher Barbara, is briefly hailed as a divine reincarnation of a high priest and tries to put an end to the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Her efforts fail, and history moves on.
“Doctor Who” has frequently celebrated and explored iconic periods in British history while putting a bit of twist on them. In “The Crusade,” the Doctor (again played by William Hartnell) and his companions find themselves in 12th-century Palestine, caught in the middle of the conflict between the European crusaders, led by King Richard the Lionheart, who have conquered the land and the Saracens, led by Saladin, who are trying to kick them out. The story highlights the political machinations of the real-life leaders and the bloodthirsty nature of the Crusades themselves. The Doctor tries not to get caught up in court politics, as Richard attempts to broker a peace agreement by marrying off his sister to Saladin’s brother. But of course the Doctor fails, barely escaping a death sentence.
The Doctor may be known for traveling through time and space, but his third incarnation (played by Jon Pertwee) was banished by his fellow Time Lords to present-day Earth. Time travel stories returned, however, with the Fourth Doctor (portrayed by Tom Baker). In 1975, he and his frequent companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith, found themselves in England in 1911 in the home of a professor who had gone missing while excavating a pyramid in Egypt. The professor had accidently released an alien named Sutekh—which fans of Egyptian history will recognize as another name for the chaos god Set—who had been locked in that pyramid by his brother Horus and their fellow Osirians. The Doctor and Sarah Jane must battle robotic mummies roaming the grounds before taking down Sutekh and saving the human race.
One of the Doctor’s greatest enemies was another Time Lord, the Master. In The King’s Demons, the Doctor (now played by Peter Davison) encounters his arch-nemesis at a medieval joust in the time of King John. In one of the Master’s smaller evil machinations—in later years, for example, the Master turns every human on Earth into a copy of himself—he tries to thwart the course of human history by provoking a rebellion that will depose King John and prevent the creation of the Magna Carta, the foundation of constitutional government in the English-speaking world. The Doctor intervenes, setting history back on course.
The Master is messing with earthlings again, this time paired with another renegade Time Lord, the Rani, in the English town of Killingworth. This is the time of the Luddites, a group of English textile workers who were protesting changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Key to the Doctor Who story is real-life engineer and inventor of the steam locomotive engine George Stephenson, who saves the Doctor (portrayed by Colin Baker) from a group of Luddites who pushed him down a mineshaft.
History episodes became more frequent with the 2005 reboot of the “Doctor Who” franchise. The show’s producers, in their efforts to reintroduce the Doctor (played by Christopher Eccleston) to a new generation, set the entire first season on Earth. In a memorable pair of episodes, the Doctor and companion Rose find themselves in London during World War II, pursued by a creepy gas-mask-wearing child with a deadly touch. While later WWII-themed episodes feature notable historical figures from that era, including Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler, these episodes instead center on the sad story of homeless, orphaned children who had been cast adrift amidst the chaos of the London Blitz.
The Girl in the Fireplace is a masterful marriage of futuristic science fiction with a real person from the past. The Doctor (portrayed by David Tennant) and his companions find themselves on an abandoned spaceship in the 51st century. The crew is missing, but throughout the ship are portals into 18th-century France, points in time along the life of a Frenchwoman named Reinette. The young girl grows up to become Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XV, pursued her whole life by the clockwork men of the spaceship who believe that only her brain can fix their ship.
A classic “Doctor Who” trope is to take an event in history and provide another explanation for what happened. In this case, it’s “volcano day” in the city of Pompeii. Shortly after his arrival, the Doctor (again, David Tennant) is temporarily stranded when a merchant sells his TARDIS to a local businessman, Lucius Caecilius, who thinks the blue box is a piece of avant-garde art. Caecilius was based on a real person, Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, a banker whose villa was found in excavations of the Italian town that was buried under volcanic ash in 79 A.D. In the Doctor Who version of Iucundus’ story, the explosion that likely killed him was caused not by a volcano but by the Doctor. He and his companion Donna initiate the explosion to save the world from a race of aliens, the Pyrovillians, who were living in Vesuvius and planning to take over the Earth.
The renewal of “Doctor Who” brought a new type of history episode based on literary figures. The first explained how Charles Dickens got inspired to write about ghosts at Christmas. A later story showed what happened to William Shakespeare’s missing play Love’s Labour’s Won. The third of this genre, The Unicorn and the Wasp, cleared up a mystery regarding the world’s greatest mystery writer, Agatha Christie—what happened to her during the 11 days in 1926 that she simply disappeared? In the Doctor Who story, set at a house party during the 1920s, Christie was helping the Doctor (David Tennant) solve a Christie-inspired murder mystery and then did a little traveling in the TARDIS.
While at a Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d’Orsay in modern-day Paris, the Doctor (played by Matt Smith) notices a curious monster peeking out a window in Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers and decides to investigate, quickly jumping back in time to visit the great painter in 1890. Scenes directly reference paintings such as Café Terrace at Night and Bedroom in Arles, while the story revolves around Van Gogh’s periods of exhaustion and depression, as well as his eventual suicide. The Doctor’s companion Amy Pond tries to avert Van Gogh’s tragic end by taking him to the exhibition where the episode began, where he can hear his work praised. But Amy is saddened to discover that her efforts had no effect, and Van Gogh eventually killed himself, as history remembers. As with all Doctor Who’s history stories, this one reminds the viewer that although the Doctor can’t change the past’s biggest events, he can bring a bit of joy and happiness to some of our saddest moments.
April 30, 2013
In 1937, Walter Reuther and his United Autoworkers Union had brought General Motors and Chrysler to their knees by staging massive sit-down strikes in pursuit of higher pay, shorter hours and other improvements in workers’ lives. But when Reuther and the UAW set their sights on the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, Henry Ford made it clear that he’d never give in to the union.
On the morning of May 26, 1937, Detroit News photographer James “Scotty” Kilpatrick was among a crowd waiting for the shift change at River Rouge, which employed 90,000 workers. About 2 p.m. that May 26, Reuther arrived at the Miller Road Overpass at Gate 4 with an entourage of clergymen, representatives from the Senate Committee on Civil Liberties and dozens of women from UAW Local 174, where Reuther was president. The woman wore green berets and carried leaflets reading, “Unionism, not Fordism,” which they intended to hand out to departing workers. At the direction of “Scotty” Kilpatrick, Reuther posed for photographs with UAW organizational director Richard Frankensteen and a few other organizers atop the overpass—public property—with the Ford Motor Company sign in the background.
Then Harry Bennett showed up with his entourage. Bennett, one of Henry Ford’s right-hand men, led the notorious Ford Service Department, a private police force composed of ex-convicts, ex-athletes, ex-cops and gang members.
“You will have to get off here,” one of Bennett’s men told the unionists.
“We’re not doing anything,” Reuther replied.
Like that, what would become infamous as the Battle of the Overpass was on. Forty of Bennett’s men charged the union organizers. Kilpatrick called out a warning, but the security men pounced, beating the union leaders while reporters and clergy looked on. Kilpatrick and the other photographers began snapping away. Reporters accompanying them took notes on what they were seeing.
Reuther was kicked, stomped, lifted into the air, thrown to the ground repeatedly, and tossed down two flights of stairs. Frankensteen, a 30-year-old, hulking former football player, go it worse because he tried to fight back. Bennett’s men swarmed him, pulled his jacket over his head and beat him senseless.
“It was the worst licking I’ve ever taken,” he later told reporters. “They bounced us down the concrete steps of an overpass we had climbed. Then they would knock us down, stand us up, and knock us down again.” Another union leader was tossed off the overpass; his fall 30 feet to the pavement below broke his back. The security men even roughed up some of the women.
The battle, such as it was, ended almost as suddenly as it had begun. But then there was the matter of witnesses—especially the journalists on the scene. Some of Bennett’s security men began to tear notebooks from reporters’ hands. Others went after the photographers, confiscating film and smashing cameras to the ground. They chased one fleeing photographer for five miles, until he ducked into a police station for safety.
Scotty Kilpatrick fled, too—and made it to his car in just enough time to hide the glass-plate negatives from his Speed Graphic under the back seat. When some Bennett men stopped him and demanded that he surrender his negatives, he handed them unexposed plates.
Once Reuther, Frankensteen and witnesses began to tell reporters what they had seen in front of the Ford plant, Harry Bennett issued a statement. “The affair was deliberately provoked by union officials,” it said. “They feel, with or without justification, the [Senator] La Follette Civil Liberties Committee sympathizes with their aims and they simply wanted to trump up a charge of Ford brutality that they could take down to Washington and flaunt before the senatorial committee.
“I know definitely no Ford service men or plant police were involved in any way in the fight,” Bennett continued. “As a matter of fact, the service men had issued instructions the union people could come and distribute their pamphlets at the gates so long as they didn’t interfere with employees at work.” The unionists, he said, “were beaten by regular Ford employees who were on their way to work on the afternoon shift. The union men called them scabs and cursed and taunted them.”
Dearborn Police later said the Ford Service Department was “defending public property.”
Meanwhile, Scotty Kilpatrick developed his negatives, and other photographers, after the event, captured on film the injuries to the bloodied Reuther and Frankensteen. “If Mr. Ford thinks this will stop us, he’s got another thing coming,” Frankensteen said. “We’ll go back there with enough men to lick him at his own game.”
Reuther was more composed: “Before the UAW gets through with Harry Bennett and Ford’s Service Department, Dearborn will be a part of the United States and the workers will be able to enjoy their constitutional rights.”
Bennett did his best to put his version into news accounts of the Battle of the Overpass, but once Kilpatrick’s photographs were published, it was obvious that the beatings were far more violent than Bennett had described. And they showed Ford security men surrounding and beating UAW men and grabbing UAW women. In all, 16 unionists were injured in the attack, including seven women. Reuther was pictured bloodied and with a swollen skull, and Frankensteen was even worse—his face cut and his shirt torn and bloodstained. Kilpatrick’s photographs quickly turned public opinion toward the notion that the Ford Service Department was a gang of hired thugs.
In a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in 1937, the Ford Motor Company was called to defend itself from charges that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of the 1935 Wagner Act, which prohibited employers from interfering with workers’ efforts to organize into unions. During the hearing, Ford workers testified that if their superiors suspected them of showing interest in the UAW, Ford Service Department men would pull them from the assembly lines and escort them to the gate as they were fired on the spot, often without explanation.
The publicity from the Battle of the Overpass and the ensuing labor-board hearing proved to be too much for Henry Ford. He had tried to raise his workers’ pay soon after the incident in Dearborn, but his efforts came too late, and ultimately, like Detroit’s other automotive giants, he had no choice but to sign a contract with the UAW.
The power of Scotty Kilpatrick’s photographs eventually vaulted Walter Reuther into national prominence as a labor leader and prompted the administrators of the Pulitzer Prizes to institute an award for photography. The first Pulitzer for photography would be awarded to Milton Brooks of the Detroit News in 1942—for his image of UAW strikers savagely beating a strikebreaker.
“Union Acts to Prosecute Ford in Beating of Two Organizers,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1937. “C.I.O. Leaders Slugged, Driven Off in Attempt to Spread Handbills,” Washington Post, May 27, 1937. “Ford Men Beat and Rout Lewis Union Organizers,” New York Times, May 27, 1937. “The Battle of the Overpass, at 75,” by Bryce Hoffman, The Detroit News, May 24, 2012. “Ford Motor Company Chronology,” The Henry Ford, http://www.hfmgv.org/exhibits/fmc/battle.asp
Books: Nelson Lichtenstein, Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Basic Books, 1995.
November 29, 2012
The redistribution of wealth, it seems safe to say, is vital to the smooth operation of any functioning economy. Historians can point to plenty of examples of the disasters that follow whenever some privileged elite decides to seal itself off from the hoi-polloi and pull up the ladder that its members used to clamber to the top of the money tree. And while there always will be argument as to how that redistribution should occur (whether compulsorily, via high taxation and a state safety net, or voluntarily, via the hotly debated “trickle-down effect”), it can be acknowledged that whenever large quantities of surplus loot have been accumulated, the sniff of wealth tends to create fascinating history—and produce some remarkable characters as well.
Take William Crockford, who began his career as a London fishmonger and ended it, half a century later, as perhaps the wealthiest self-made man in England. Crockford managed this feat thanks to one extraordinary talent—an unmatched skill for gambling—and one simple piece of good fortune: to be alive early in the 19th century, when peace had returned to Europe after four decades of war and a generation of bored young aristocrats, who a few years earlier would have been gainfully employed in fighting Napoleon, found themselves with far too much time on their hands.
The result was a craze for heavy gambling that ran throughout the notoriously dissolute Regency period (c.1815-1838). The craze made Crockford rich and bankrupted a generation of the British aristocracy; at the height of his success, around 1830, the former fishmonger was worth the equivalent of perhaps $160 million today, and practically every cent of it had come straight from the pockets of the aristocrats whom “Crocky” had lured into the luxurious gambling hell that he had built on London’s fashionable St. James’s Street. So successful was Crockford at his self-appointed task of relieving his victims of their family fortunes that there are, even today, eminent British families that have never properly recovered from their ancestors’ encounters with him.
November 21, 2012
President Barack Obama pardoned his fourth turkey today, in what many believe is a Thanksgiving tradition dating back to 1947, when President Harry Truman, standing outside the White House, was presented with a holiday bird by the National Turkey Federation. But there’s no evidence that Truman did anything different from his successor, President Dwight Eisenhower, who, with his family, consumed all eight birds the NTF presented them.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy became the first president to see the word “pardon” used with reference to a Thanksgiving turkey, but he did not officially spare a bird in a pre-Thanksgiving ceremony in the Rose Garden. Kennedy simply announced that he would not eat the bird, and newspapers reported that the president had “pardoned” the gobbler given to him by the California Turkey Advisory Board. Just days before that year’s Thanksgiving, he was assassinated in Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word “pardon” in connection with a Thanksgiving turkey, in 1987, in response to media queries about whether he might pardon Lt. Col. Oliver North or any of the other figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal. Reagan joked that if that year’s turkey had not already been destined for a petting farm, “I would have pardoned him.”
In fact, it was President George H.W. Bush who began the tradition, in 1989. “Not this guy,” Bush said when a holiday turkey was presented. “He’s been granted a presidential pardon as of right now, allowing him to live out his days on a farm not far from here.”
Bush pardoned a turkey in each remaining year of his presidency, as has every president since. However, the earliest known sparing of a holiday bird can be traced to 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was presented with a Christmas turkey destined for the dinner table and his young, precocious son Tad intervened.
Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was just 8 years old when he arrived in Washington, D.C., to live at the White House after his father was sworn into office in March 1861. The youngest of four sons born to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Tad was born after Edward “Eddie” Lincoln died in the winter of 1850 at the age of 11, most likely of tuberculosis. Both Tad and his brother William “Willie” Lincoln were believed to have contracted typhoid fever in Washington, and while Tad recovered, Willie succumbed in February of 1862. He was 11.
With the eldest Lincoln son, Robert, away at Harvard College, young Tad became the only child living at in the White House, and by all accounts, the boy was indomitable—charismatic and full of life at a time when his family, and the nation, were experiencing tremendous grief. Born with a cleft palate that gave him a lisp and dental impairments that made it almost impossible for him to eat solid food, Tad was easily distracted, full of energy, highly emotional and, unlike his father and brother, none too focused on academics.
“He had a very bad opinion of books and no opinion of discipline,” wrote John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary. Both Lincoln parents, Hay observed, seemed to be content to let Tad “have a good time.” Devastated by the loss of Willie, and both proud and relieved by Robert’s fastidious efforts at Harvard, the first couple gave their rambunctious young son free rein at the executive mansion. The boy was known to have sprayed dignitaries with fire hoses, burst into cabinet meetings, tried to sell some of the first couple’s clothing at a “yard sale” on the White House lawn, and marched White House servants around the grounds like infantry.
On one occasion, a politician leaving the White House told a companion he had “just had an interview with the tyrant of the White House,” then made it clear he was referring to Tad.
Tad took it upon himself to raise money for the United States Sanitary Commission—the Civil War equivalent of the Red Cross—by charging White House guests a nickel to be introduced to his father, the president, in his office. Lincoln tolerated his son’s daily interruptions until he learned what the boy was up to, and then quickly put an end to Tad’s charity work. But the boy still saw commercial opportunity in the countless visitors to the White House, and it wasn’t long before he had set up a food vendor’s stand in the lobby, selling beef jerky and fruit for those waiting for an audience with his father. The profits, of course, were marked for the boy’s favorite relief organization.
The Lincolns allowed Tad to keep two ponies in the White House stables, which he would ride while wearing a military uniform, and when the Lincolns were given two goats, Nanko and Nannie, Tad caused quite the stir by hitching them to a chair and driving them, as if on a sled, through a crowded reception in the East Room hosted by the First Lady.
The boy also spent a great of time listening to the tales of White House visitors who would come to meet his father, and if Tad found the stories particularly moving (one woman’s husband was in prison, her children hungry and cold), he would insist that his father snap into immediate action. Lincoln, unwilling to disappoint him, agreed to free one such prisoner, and when Tad returned to the woman with the good news of a promised release, the two “openly wept” with joy together.
Thanksgiving was first celebrated as a national holiday in 1863, after Abraham Lincoln’s presidential proclamation, which set the date as the last Thursday in November. Because of the Civil War, however, the Confederate States of America refused to recognize Lincoln’s authority, and Thanksgiving wouldn’t be celebrated nationally until years after the war.
It was, however, in late 1863, when the Lincolns received a live turkey for the family to feast on at Christmas. Tad, ever fond of animals, quickly adopted the bird as a pet, naming him Jack and teaching him to follow behind as he hiked around the White House grounds. On Christmas Eve, Lincoln told his son that the pet would no longer be a pet. “Jack was sent here to be killed and eaten for this very Christmas,” he told Tad, who answered, “I can’t help it. He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed.” The boy argued that the bird had every right to live, and as always, the president gave in to his son, writing a reprieve for the turkey on a card and handing it to Tad.
The boy kept Jack for another year, and on election day in 1864, Abraham Lincoln spotted the bird among soldiers who were lining up to vote. Lincoln playfully asked his son if the turkey would be voting too, and Tad answered, “O, no; he isn’t of age yet.”
On the night, five months later, when the president and first lady went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, 12-year-old Tad was taken by his tutor to see Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp nearby. Just minutes into the children’s show, a theater official burst down the aisle, shouting that the president had been shot. The stunned silence was soon broken by the sobs of a young boy pining for his father. “They’ve killed him,” Tad cried. “They’ve killed him.”
The boy was taken back to the White House and did not see his father again until Lincoln’s embalmed body was displayed in an East Room ceremony, attended by General Ulysses S. Grant and the new president, Andrew Johnson.
“Pa is dead,” Tad told a nurse. “I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again… I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore. Well, I will try and be a good boy, and will hope to go someday to Pa and brother Willie, in heaven.”
Mary Todd Lincoln moved with him to Chicago, where boarding schools tried to make up for his practical illiteracy. The two traveled to Germany, where Tad attended a school in Frankfurt. On a trip back to the United States in 1871, he became severely ill, most likely with tuberculosis, and never recovered. He was just 18. Tad Lincoln, the “tyrant” of the White House and tireless advocate for turkey rights, was buried in Springfield, Illinois, beside his father and two brothers.
Articles: “What Was Tad Lincoln’s Speech Problem?” by John M. Hutchinson, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Vol., 30, No. 1 (Winter 2009), University of Illinois Press. “Tad Lincoln: The Not-so-Famous Son of A Most-Famous President,” By R.J. Brown, HistoryBuff.com, http://www.historybuff.com/library/reftad.html “The Death of Willie Lincoln,” Abraham Lincoln Online, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/education/williedeath.htm “Tyrant Tad: The Boy in the White House,” Ten Boys From History by K.D. Sweetser, http://www.heritage-history.com/www/heritage-books.php?Dir=books&author=sweetser&book=tenboys&story=tyrant “Tad Lincoln,” Lincoln Bicentennial 1809-2009, http://www.abrahamlincoln200.org/lincolns-life/lincolns-family/tad-lincoln/default.aspx “Pets,” Mr. Lincoln’s White House, The Lincoln Institute, http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/content_inside.asp?ID=82&subjectID=1 “Young Tad Lincoln Saved the Life of Jack, the White House Turkey!” by Roger Norton, Abraham Lincoln Research Site, http://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln65.html
Books: Doug Wead, All the Presidents Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families, Atria, 2003. Julia Taft and Mary Decradico, Tad Lincoln’s Father, Bison Books, 2001.