Part 6 of 6
On March 5, 1923, the Hardings left Washington for St. Augustine, Florida on a much-needed, month-long vacation. They returned to Washington after Easter to a warm welcome from Laddie Boy and began serious planning for the Alaska trip.
The president and first lady left the White House at 2 p.m. on June 20, 1923, a day that was 90 degrees in the shade. Jackson probably had Laddie Boy occupied, for the dog always wanted to hop in any car Harding entered. The president and Mrs. Harding took the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and arrived in St. Louis the next day. From there they boarded the Superb – the presidential rail car – one of ten traveling across the country.
There were many whistle stops, for this was a campaign trip as much as anything else – with speeches, receptions, dinners, and much politicking. By the time they got to the West Coast, the Hardings looked forward to a relaxing trip up the Inside Passage aboard the troop transport, U.S.S. Henderson. The President was well aware of his ill health. “Unless it’s radically modified and changed in many respects,” he noted, “it will kill me. I just cannot keep up such a pace without dire consequences.”
In late July, while in Fairbanks, the Hardings became so exhausted that they changed plans and returned directly to Seward. Harding spent several hours walking the streets and meeting the people. The next day his party left on the Henderson. On the way to Sitka, he received a coded message from a naval seaplane. He appeared shocked after reading it and commented about false friends. The corruption embedded within his administration was on the verge of becoming public.
In Vancouver, he nearly collapsed while giving a speech. He complained of violent cramps and his doctor ordered bed rest. This is probably when the false rumor started – that tainted crabs he had consumed in Alaska caused his death. On Aug. 2 on the way south – as if a bad omen – the Henderson rammed one of the fleet’s destroyers, the Zeilin, in the fog. Most of the presidential party were tossed to the floor as they ate breakfast, but no one was injured, and the Henderson wasn’t damaged, but the Zeilin was taken in tow by the other destroyer.
Along the way Harding’s aides canceled upcoming speeches in Portland and rushed him to a hospital in San Francisco. There he died suddenly on August 3, 1923. Most of the public were unaware of Harding’s serious health problems, and Mrs. Harding, to the doctors’ dismay, refused to allow an autopsy. Some questioned their competing treatment methods, and they feared they would be blamed for Harding’s death.
For years many rumors circulated as to the cause of his death, including a 1930 book by Gaston Means, a former Harding administration official. He falsely accused the first lady of poisoning the President. Most medical experts today agree Harding died of myocardial infarction, or a heart attack – an event hardly unexpected in the context of his health and his exhausting trip.
The night Harding died in San Francisco, newspapers reported that back in Washington Laddie Boy “howled piteously.” It was an hour later that the White House staff learned of the president’s death. The dog howled again the next night. “Some of the White House attaches are certain Laddie Boy sensed the departure of his playmate and master,” the press noted, “for they declare the dog was never before known to howl at night.”
One must understand how the dog Laddie Boy and the man Warren G. Harding were intimately connected to a canine-loving public who wanted to enter into and own a piece of that special relationship. According to reports, Laddie Boy right away sensed the sadness permeating the White House. He knew his master and mistress made trips without him, but they always returned, and he was always present to jump up to greet the President. It had been tradition, often photographed, printed and provided to the press. “In his dog sense,” newspapers reported, “he figures ‘an automobile took them away, so an automobile must bring them back’” – so he waited patiently for that familiar engine sound followed by familiar voices. With the president’s death, many cars arrived at the White House, but none recognizable to Laddie Boy.
Dogs sense our emotions and energy, and Laddie Boy knew something wasn’t right as he wandered aimlessly about the White House grounds with Jackson. When Mrs. Harding returned on Aug. 8, after being gone for almost two months, he seemed to take a new interest in life. The next day she asked Jackson to bring Laddie Boy to her. “Together they sat in a room alone and the widow wept as she told the dog what had happened,” insiders reported to the press. “Laddie Boy’s tail wagged at first, as he listened to her, but as he watched her tears fall he became subdued and at last raised himself to her lap and snuggled there with his fore paws and big shaggy head as though to tell her that her grief was his.” In the East Room soldiers guarded her husband’s flag and flower decked bier. Up until now, only Mrs. Harding had been allowed in that room. She approached the door with Laddie Boy and motioned to the guards to let the dog enter.
“Alertly, he sniffed the heavy air, freighted with the fragrance of funeral blooms,” observers noticed, “walked solemnly around the bier lying under the great crystal chandelier and poked his nose in the flowers, as if looking for the master he knew was there, but couldn’t see, and then turned brown eyes on the White House attaches with an inquiring look, which was too much for them to endure without their own eyes turning misty. Laddie Boy knew his master was back in the house but he seemed to sense, that for some reason he couldn’t find him, and like a good dog, he concluded there was nothing to do but go back to his favorite spot and wait, faithful to the end.” “Laddie Boy, He’s Gone,” became a popular song. The third says, “As you wait—brown eyes aglisten/ For a master's face that's gone/He is smiling at you, Laddie/From the peace of the Beyond.”
Those observing had no idea what the dog was thinking, but the sense was that “No human being could have shown greater sense of respect for the occasion…he knew it had some deep meaning in connection with the failure of President Harding to return and frolic with him as was his want.” Laddie Boy returned to Mrs. Harding with “drooping ear and solemn gait,” the press reported, and snuggled up against her as she wept. She patted his head, then sent him off with Jackson to lie in his kennel.
There he was comforted by Harry Barker, head Secret Service agent at the White House and special guard to Mrs. Harding. Florence and Barker had developed almost a mother-son relationship. “Next to his real master,” newspapers noted, “Laddie Boy loved Barker of all men. To him Harry whispered, as the dog lay grieving in his kennel, that Mrs. Harding had asked him to accept the dog as a gift from the passing master and mistress of the White House. With uplifted paw Laddie Boy shook the hand of his new master.”
Barker had served earlier under Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who he escorted to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. When he became head of the New England area in 1916, he moved his family to Newton, just outside Boston.
No doubt the press appealed to public emotions and perhaps overly sentimentalized purple prose, but they seemed to capture the essence of that special relationship existing between dogs and people and the public recognized that. Soon the President’s casket would rest in the Capitol, a single wreath of flowers of scarlet, yellow and white, laying across it.
Why did the First Lady send Laddie Boy away? Florence Harding had nearly died a year earlier from a chronic kidney condition, and she would live only one more year. Upon a president’s sudden death, there is immediate need for the vice president to take over, so Mrs. Harding quickly left and moved in with a friend. She knew she’d be unable to care for Laddie Boy and that Harry Barker with his large family would be the right caretaker for the President’s dog.
By Aug. 23, Barker had moved the dog to Newton, outside of Boston, and Laddie Boy began life in the real world – traveling there in a railroad baggage car just like any dog in the land. Barker’s children — George, 19; Russell, 18; Philip, 10; Marion, 6; and Harriet, 4 – became the envy of all the local youngsters.
The press thronged to Newton and Barker’s children had their photos taken with the dog. The Newton High School football team even requested the dog as their mascot, and the dog was present at many of the school’s sporting events. Harding was six feet tall and for a while, the family said, Laddie Boy followed every tall man he saw. “One of Laddie Boy’s unusual traits” newspapers reported, “was his fondness for coffee with sugar and cream, a taste acquired at the White House and indulged at the Barker home.”
The Roosevelt Newsboys throughout the country collected pennies to be melted down and cast into a statue of Laddie Boy. On Sept. 7, the dog was brought to the Boston studio of sculptress Bashka Paeff for his first sitting.
Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s VP and now president, realized how important a first dog of the land was to his popularity.
By Oct. 1923, the publicity connected with his two rivals for the job – the pup Airedale Laddie Buck (Laddie Boy’s half-brother) and the wirehaired terrier Peter Pan, threatened to sidetrack press coverage of his participation in the World Dairy Conference. By November, the statue of Laddie Boy went on tour. Today it is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Laddie Boy’s life in Newton had its ironies. The dog had often complained about his White House confinement to interviewers and how he longed the freedom to roam. Not more than three months after his arrival in Newton the dog ran away and was picked up by Traffic Officer James Mills. “Discovering the dog’s identity from his collar,” the press reported, “the police gave Laddie Boy a rousing reception and he was placed in a warm comfortable cell instead of being tied up in the basement…as is the usual custom for runaways.” Within two hours Barker “bailed him out,” but the case was “placed on file.” Most likely, some people thought, the dog is trying to find his way home. Perhaps annoyed that Laddie Boy wasn’t happy, a Chicago boys organization claimed to have adopted the dog and raised money for his transportation there. It never happened.
In early March 1925 he escaped the Barker’s residence and ended up in jail. “Laddie Boy a Jail Bird,” one newspaper reported in jest and added, “Former White House Airedale Picked Up by Police.” Patrolman Michael Mooney recognized Laddie Boy wandering near the West Newton home of Secretary of War, John W. Weeks and took him to the station for safe keeping, but the dog did spend the night in jail. Apparently, there were other incidents and it became less of a joke and more of a problem, especially with Secretary Weeks who it seems didn’t appreciate the dog’s attraction to his property.
Through 1926-27 Laddie Boy’s statue continued to tour even as all the Harding scandals and Congressional hearings took place. In fact, it seems the dog himself took on less reality than his bronze image and other paraphernalia.
There was Laddie Boy dog food, stuffed animals, miniature copies of the large bronze statues, and even boys’ suits. Modern advertising latched on to Laddie Boy and the new technologies to sell product. Though the dog’s name still lingered in the press into the late 1920s, the focus became less on the real dog living out his life in Newton.
In the fall of 1928, the Barkers noticed an abscess on Laddie Boy’s ear. A powder helped with the dog’s pain, but little else could be done. On Monday morning, Jan. 21, 1929, he went outside and wandered around a bit. He returned in the afternoon dragging his hind legs. At four o’clock that afternoon he died while resting on Mrs. Barker’s arm. In August of that year he would have been ten years old.
When word reached the public a day or two later, rather than a shock, the announcement mostly rekindled memories and reflections of happier days and of a once charismatic president whose administration and personal life was now tainted. Most papers throughout the country covered the death, some in more detail than others. Poetry and condolences filled newspapers for months.
“After his master’s voice had been silenced by death,” the Brooklyn Times Union wrote in his obituary, “Laddie Boy never seemed quite so playful. He came to live at the Barker home and for a time was the pet of the neighborhood.” Some newspapers placed their brief death notice on the front page as did the Seward Gateway. The New York Times put their three-paragraph story on page twenty. Laddie Boy’s memory was gradually fading in the public mind and after Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, with the Stock Market Crash, the country had more important things to consider.
By 1930, one finds headlines like “Laddie Boy Wins Banner Cup” about a “beautiful white and tan collie” from the Nashville Kennel Club. In Auburn, Nebraska, a ten-year-old piano prodigy named Laddie Boy entertained the public. In Cincinnati, Little Bill Lookabaugh from Portsmouth, Ohio, had his picture published with his collie named Laddie Boy. Laddie Boy dog food could be found on sale, 11 cans for a dollar. The focus now was on President Herbert Hoover and his Irish wolf hound. “What was the name of President Harding’s dog?” became a trivia question in newspaper columns. In 1933, Albert Payson Terhune, author of the novel “Lad, A Dog,” begins his story “Laddie Boy” with “Long ago I wrote you a story of Laddie Boy’s gallant little collie mother, Lassie, and how she saved her owners from probable death. I shall speak of her…let me tell you about her son, Laddie Boy, and of an odd friendship he formed.”
In California, six months after Laddie Boy died, his sister, Lady, was found poisoned. Two years later in Pittsburgh, Laddie Boy’s brother Taffey – who “forsook a pampered existence to become a fire laddie,” answered his last call. Taffey would ride the Oakmont Borough fire truck. In Sept. 1932, as he lay in front of the engine house, he was crushed by a truck on its way to a fire. He was buried behind the firehouse with a granite marker: “Here lies Taffey, beloved dog of firemen.”
By the 1930s, Laddie Boy began to join the footnotes among forgotten presidential pets. His grave is either unknown, or one of the best kept secrets among the old timers of Newton, Massachusetts.
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.