She was married to a President unfairly but routinely considered among the worst, proving that no matter how much good a First Lady may accomplish, it can never supersede the perceived damage done by her husband. If that isn’t a challenge to reputation, she was also the only First Lady accused of poisoning her husband. Little wonder Florence Harding‘s advocacy for the protection, care and rescue of abused, abandoned and neglected animals is completely forgotten, yet nobody who lived in the White House, felt more compelled about humans learning to view animals with greater respect.
Born today, August 15, in 1860, in Marion, Ohio, Florence Kling came to understand horses first. Expert as a sidesaddle rider, and capable of calming the large animals when they scared, she was once witnessed firmly pinning down her steed “Billy” after he stood upright in panic, preventing him from harming her, others or himself. Once, when she saw a milkman who had stepped from his horse-drawn cart and was whipping his horse. Mrs. Harding ran up and yanked the whip from him. Handing it to the man’s wife, she told her to use the whip – on her husband. As she wrote in later years:
“It has always been a source of pleasure to me that I have been from childhood very fond of animals; but it has been still more of a satisfaction that animals were seemingly prejudiced in my favor. Men and women assumed a great responsibility when they made the animals their servants or their friends; they assume the responsibilities for the comfort and happiness of the dumb creatures that have given up so much of their capacity for happiness through a natural life, in order to serve their masters. So I always think of our duty to the animals, as in kind, though of course not in degree similar to the obligation to children.”
As the business and advertising manager of her husband’s newspaper, The Marion Star, Florence Harding knew how to sell a popular story to the press. On March 5, 1921, the day after she and Warren moved into the White House, they received their anticipated new family member, a seven-month old Airedale dog from Toledo, Ohio whom they named Laddie Boy. With no child of their own, Laddie truly became like the Harding child, and their mutual compassion for dogs was an intense bond in an otherwise trying relationship at times. Giving him a custom-made Cabinet chair and writing letters on Laddie’s behalf, the President claimed the dog as his own, but Florence seemed to spend more time with him. Despite her desire to avoid the “distress over the unavoidable sorrow” of a dog’s death, which she’d already experienced, she effectively used her new companion as the poster dog for animal rights efforts she supported, whether it was reviewing an animal parade, riding in a float in another parade. It not only made Laddie Boy the first presidential dog with a national public identity, celebrated in toys, jewelry and song, but he tangibly linked Florence Harding to humane issues.
It had been a previous dog, in fact, who prompted Florence Harding’s involvement in the animal protection movement. Her first dog pet had been a mastiff named Jumbo, followed by a smaller bill terrier named Hub. That second dog had been one of the few gifts she received from her estranged son by a first, common law marriage and the association took on great emotional meaning. Her niece recalled that Florence would even “wash his feet every night before he could sleep on the foot of her bed.” The sudden death of Hub in 1913 was all the more shocking because she learned days later that he’d been poisoned by some stranger, no note explaining a motive.
The trauma forever altered Florence Harding’s perspective on the dynamic between humans and animals. Had she not been working at the newspaper, and then assuming responsibilities for her husband when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1916, she wanted to head an animal protection organization. She did join the Animal Rescue League, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and the Humane Society, contributing to both frequently and pressed her wealthy friends to do likewise.Due to the legislative work laid by the SPCA, founded in 1866, most states had enacted penalties for cruel acts against animals. The organization’s bulletin Our Animals singled out her simple example of intervening or reporting cruelty as an important part every citizen could play, adding that, “Cruel treatment arouses her militant protest.”
Beyond placing birdhouses and squirrel huts on the White House lawn and removing animal trophy heads from the State Dining Room walls because they’d been killed for mere sport, Florence Harding advanced views not far from today’s People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Although not vegetarian, Florence Harding believed far too much meat was consumed as food, and she let her name be used in support of the effort to reduce it by the National League to Conserve Food Animals. She was a member and contributor to the National Society for the Humane Regulation of Vivisection. Refusing to use peacock feathers on her clothes because the birds were usually killed first, she only used those from ostrich since they could be painlessly plucked. Zoos, carnivals or other venues which used animals to amuse humans incurred her wrath. She reacted so heatedly when invited to a rodeo she later apologized: “I hope you did not think me too abrupt about the wild west show…[but] anything that pertains to animals, I fear I am apt to be a little too emphatic.”
Florence Harding used her political prerogatives as First Lady to protect animals as well. She returned a sealskin coat after learning the Alaskan seal industry annually killed some 30,000 seals. Discovering that the federal government had not intervened in the “slaughtering of seals in the rocks” by San Diego fisherman who claimed the seals ate the fish and damaged their livelihood, she was outraged. Overstepping the Commerce Secretary, she wrote his department’s commissioner of fisheries, demanding an investigation: “It is difficult to believe that the protection of the fish requires the sacrifice of these seals.” When the First Lady read that a Pennsylvania law would lead to the destruction of dogs owned by some immigrant boys who were not citizens, she convinced the President to write Governor Sproul of that state to override the obscure regulation.
It was through compassionate respect for non-human beings that Mrs. Harding believed that human beings could be improved: “Cruelty begets cruelty; hardness towards animals is certain to breed hardness towards our fellow men. Of this, I am very sure from both observation and analogy, the converse is just as true. That is why I am always willing to give every encouragement to humane causes.” This First Lady of the 20s, however, wanted to plant her vision early in people’s lives in a grassroots effort through the Humane Education Society, “to have these principals taught to children in the schools.”
Her intentions were cut short just eighteen months after becoming First Lady, however, with a near-fatal illness, in September of 1922. Part of her collapse was due to stress after a public controversy which had begun with her effort to help an impoverished farmer continue to keep alive the oldest horse in America.
The fifty-one year old workhouse named Clover had been used to haul stones and other heavy loads in his home of Catawissa, Pennsylvania. Contacted in July about the matter by the local SPCA there, Florence Harding sent one-hundred dollars to the farmer, a Dr. U. Myers, moved by what she called the “sense of justice and gratitude and faithfulness which impels you to sacrifice your comfort rather than kill a splendid horse.” The gift allowed Clover to live on until May 4, 1924, when he died naturally.
After the local press picked up the story, it spread throughout the nation and provoked ridicule and criticism of the First Lady’s action, including a malicious cartoon. Ignoring the fact that her donation was intended to let both the horse and farmer flourish, without one life having to be sacrificed for the other, the attacks took the premise that Florence Harding placed higher value on animal beings than human beings. It was the point of an editorial in the Socialist paper, The New York Call: “…a horse has no soul, he has no appreciation of art or music or literature…If the $100 had not come, the worst that could have happened to him would have been a quick death by shooting. But those workers who have done their work and are cast aside, they are condemned to live, and their sentence is for life.”
Ninety years later, with continued reports of senseless cruelty to animals, it is likely a value judgement that might still be made, proving the maxim offered by the late, great Liz Carpenter that, “In Washington, no good deed goes unpunished.”
Indeed, another good deed related to Florence Harding’s animal friends did not go unpunished in Washington. After President Harding’s death, his widow sought to break herself from all possible reminders of him. Impulsively, she gave Laddie Boy away to her Secret Service agent Harry Barker. Reassigned to the Boston area, Barker took Laddie Boy home where he died in 1929, laying his head against the agent’s wife. Before Laddie died, and in remembrance of the Hardings and their interest in the well-being of the nation’s newspaper delivery boys, a group of newsboys donated pennies which were melted down to provide the copper for a sculpture of the First Dog. It was donated to the Smithsonian – but has not been displayed for decades.
Tags: Alaska, Animal welfare, Florence, Florence & The Machine, Florence Harding, Humane society, Laddie Boy, Liz Carpenter, Marion Star, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, State Dining Room, White House