Part 3 in a Series
Beginning in early March 1921 when President Harding moved into the White House and Laddie Boy arrived, the public could expect several stories a month connected somehow to the country’s First Dog. It is most likely an Alaskan newspaper picked up these articles for a public longing to read Washington, D.C. news that wasn’t overtly political.
Laddie Boy’s role as a White House dog wasn’t all cynical and calculated. The President had always loved animals with special concern for their welfare -- but as luck would have it, his acquisition of Laddie Boy came at the right moment in history. War dog heroes were in the news. One of the more famous was the American Bull Terrier, Sergeant Stubby – the most decorated World War I dog – who went to France with the 102nd Infantry Regiment and was attached to the 26th Yankee Division. For 18 months on the Western Front he participated in 17 battles, comforted the wounded, saved his regiment from a gas attack, and captured a German soldier by the seat of his pants. He’s the only dog whose bravery in combat gained him the rank of sergeant. He died in 1926 at age 10 and his remains are at the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1921 General John J. Pershing awarded him a medal sponsored by the Washington, D.C. branch of the Humane Society. “After the ceremony,” the July 10, 1921 Buffalo Courier reported, “he passed the White House grounds where he is said to have saluted Laddie Boy with a bark that showed he had lost none of his democratic spirit.” On May 11, the Washington, D.C. Humane Society sponsored a parade and “Laddie Boy, in his official capacity as first dog in the land, headed the procession on a float bedecked with flowers and ribbons. Following Laddie Boy, Stubby, hero dog of the world war, held his place of honor on another float wearing his blanket bearing 27 decorations for battles.” Everything seemed to go well until the parade reached the main viewing stand where the President sat. Laddie Boy, “seeing his master waving at the other animals, cocked up one ear as if ready to hop from his bed of flowers.” Fortunately for all, he remained in place reported the Washington Post. In a later interview with the press, the reporter said Laddie Boy looked, “either indifferent or downright miserable,” on the float as he watched with envy all the mongrels on the street running freely. If the theme of the parade was “Be Kind to Animals,” they should have let him off the float, he told the press. A few weeks earlier, the Humane Society had premiered a short feature film starring Laddie Boy. “The story centered around a little girl who found a lost dog,” the May 4, 1921 Washington Times reported. “It told of her adventures until she finally found a safe lodging place for the waif at the Animal Rescue League headquarters.”
During their short term, both Warren and Florence used their influence and Laddie Boy to advocate for the humane treatment of animals. In 1922 in Pennsylvania a mutt named Dick, a mix of Saint Bernard and mastiff, was scheduled for execution because it was against state law for an alien, his owner, Jacob Silverman, to own a dog. It was Florence who learned of the case and urged the President to intervene. “I once had to have a dog killed that I greatly loved, and I recall it to this day as the sorest (sic) trial of my life,” Harding wrote to the governor. “If it came within my executive authority, I would gladly grant a pardon to the convicted animal. I suppose there is a good and ample reason for a statute which makes this dog an unlawful possession, but I have an abiding faith that the man who loves his dog to the extent that he will grieve for him has in him the qualities which will make him a loyal citizen. Mrs. Harding and I are both pleased to appeal for some form of clemency in this case, and I hope this note is not too late to enable us to add our appeal in behalf of both Silverman and his dog.” Pennsylvania Governor William Cameron Sproul saw to it and the animal was spared reported the Salt Lake City Tribune.
The American public always looked forward to stories about Laddie Boy. And the press knew how to use the purple prose to elicit tears and sympathy. In 1923 dogs needed a license in the country’s capital. Into the license office walked a, “tattered bit of a boy, barely high enough to raise his smeared little face above the polished edge of the long counter by standing on the tips of ten bare and dusty toes.” He carried his little dog under one arm. This petit urchin wanted a dog tag for his pet. Putting his animal down he muttered, “Mike wants No. 1,” “He’s furst.” The dog wagged his stubby tail in approval. “I’m sorry,” the clerk replied, “but Laddie Boy, your President’s dog, asked for No. 1 tag several weeks ago. So we’ve promised it to him.” Tucking little Mike back under his arm, the boy murmured “Oh,” and tip toed out. Other deserving dogs got the same treatment. “There was Teddy Boy, the stalwart terror” and of royal breeding from an unbroken line of fighting champions. And Pippin, “a bull who had won enough blue ribbons to make a blanket for himself.” Laddie Boy was not only promised dog tag No. 1, but his name would be engraved on the reverse side and it would be presented to him “with ceremonies befitting a dog of his stature.” From the interviews he gave to the press, it was clear the President’s dog didn’t really care about the status his tag’s number would give him. Indeed, he probably didn’t even want a collar according to the Washington, D.C. Evening Star.
As the Hardings traveled cross country via rail, apparently some thought that Laddie Boy was with them, as did the mayor of Laramie, Wyoming when he introduced the President. “I am afraid your mayor made one slight mistake,” Harding noted on June 25, 1923, in Laramie, “although I know how good his intentions were, when he referred to Laddie Boy, Laddie Boy is not with us; he is crying his eyes out at the White House in Washington because he cannot be with us. I like that the mayor said I like dogs; I like their unfailing fidelity, and I wish we might have more of the same quality among humanity,” according to “Speeches and Addresses of Warren G. Harding, President of the United States Delivered During the Course of His Tour from Washington, D.C. to Alaska” reported and compiled by James W. Murphy, Official Reporter, U.S. Senate, 1923. By this time the president most likely knew some of his political “friends” had worked behind his back for their own enrichment.
In Alaska, Fairbanks had a unique surprise for President Harding and the First Lady, especially as it concerned Laddie Boy – a moose hide collar decorated with gold and fossil ivory. It was reported to be worth $400 – the equivalent about $6,082 today. On July 16, 1923, the President acknowledged the gift in a speech before Fairbanks Mayor Thomas Marquam and local citizens. “Having spoken once,” he said, “I had not thought to say a word more, and I dare not trust myself to talk about dogs. The popularity of the dog in Alaska is, I think, one of the reasons why I like the Territory. I like dogs, and I was pleased to hear what the mayor said about ‘Laddie Boy’s’ courage, confidence, trust and fidelity,” Harding continued. No doubt he appreciated a canine friend he could trust. “Of course, when I speak of ‘Laddie Boy’ I merely speak of him as one typical dog. I cannot understand anybody who does not love a dog. I like his unfailing fidelity and his unquestionable confidence and his every-willingly expressed admiration and love and his utter restraint from ever saying anything unkind about one. The gift which you have presented to me is a beautiful souvenir of my visit. Oh, you are too generous in Alaska! It is not necessary to carry away some trophy or memento in order to remember you. You could give us nothing to surpass the cordiality or your greeting this morning, but, not the less, the gift is treasured, and I think I will take the time to say that I do not believe you could have done anything that would have more appealed to Mrs. Harding.”
Harding noted that earlier in the trip he took an oath before one of the pioneer secret orders never to kick a dog. That had been in Skagway, along the inside passage. A Freemason and a member of the Elks and Eagles, the President was invited and agreed to join Camp Skagway, the “Mother” camp of the Arctic Brotherhood. Those that attended the private ceremony recalled that the ritual, “made a profound impression on the President and his reception of the honor was human and brotherly…The mantle of his high office seemed to drop from his shoulders and he became, for the hour, just Brother Warren.” In Fairbanks he recollected the event, “I like that spirit and admire those who are unwilling to kick a dog,”
Laddie Boy no doubt agreed with his master, but there were some dogs he wouldn’t mind kicking – especially a few related to him. Older readers may recall some of our more recent Presidents with badly behaving brothers who they wished would keep out of the news. Laddie Boy was no exception. The Presidential pet hadn’t been in the White House four months when his brother “Dickie Boy” ended up in court for escaping his owner while on a hike and killing 70 or 80 chickens. His owner would pay up, but wanted evidence, which was not conclusive. He asked the judge, “You don’t think a dog with a brother in the White House would stoop to chasing chickens, do you?” The judge replied, “Well, I shouldn’t think so,” and took the case under advisement, reported the Billings Montana Gazette on July 29, 1921. Two years later another brother named “Radio Hound” who reportedly had a cranky disposition, got into trouble. No specific crime was mentioned, but local officials kicked him out of town for rehabilitation. “It is hoped,” the Boonville (Indiana) Enquirer, “his disposition will improve.”
But by this time the trip had taken its toll on both Warren and Florence. The United Press International reported from Fairbanks on July 17, 1923, that “Mrs. Warren G. Harding…is suffering from exhaustion but she is not seriously ill…. The president’s personal physician said the unusual exertions of Alaskan travel with long days and no nights had tired her. She remained in bed here until shortly before the train left at 5 p.m.”
Plans changed; due to the First Lady’s exhaustion there would be no auto trip over the Richardson Highway to Chitina where the rails would have taken them to Cordova. The U.S.S Henderson would have left Resurrection Bay to pick up the Presidential party there. Instead, they again boarded the Alaska Railroad for a trip that would terminate in Seward where they spent a day before boarding their ship for a stop at Cordova and back to the states.
TO BE CONTINUED
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of American artist Rockwell Kent’s 1920 classic, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.