The Foreign Feline of President Hayes: First Siamese Cat in the U.S. (Cats in the White House, Part 3)

The Hayes family sing as Siam listens.

The Hayes family sing as Siam listens.

The cat who lived in the White House as part of the family of President Rutherford Hayes and his wife Lucy is particularly significant on two accounts. First, the relatively brief life and times of the cat were well-chronicled during its incumbency as “First Cat.” Secondly, it was the first Siamese cat to live in the United States.

Fanny Hayes. (Hayes Center)

Fanny Hayes. (Hayes Center)

For the sake of clarity and brevity, the story of Siam, the White House cat of President Hayes is excerpted here from a webpage of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, in Fremont, Ohio. The research facility, which predates those of the presidential library system, is adjacent to the family’s extraordinary Victorian home which can be toured by the public:

“Twelve-year-old Fanny Hayes watched excitedly as the White House staff opened the Wells Fargo crate for her mother. It had been more than two months since David B. Sickels, a United States diplomat at the consulate in Bangkok, had written to First Lady Lucy Hayes. Sickels explained that when he discovered that Mrs. Hayes was fond of cats, he decided to send her one as a gift.

He wrote, “I have taken the liberty of forwarding you one of the finest specimens of Siamese cats that I have been able to procure in this country”. I am informed that it is the first attempt ever made to send a Siamese cat to America.”

Letter from U.S. Consul at Siam (Thailand) sending Siam the Siamese Cat to First Lady Lucy Hayes in November of 1878.

Letter from U.S. Consul at Siam (Thailand) sending Siam the Siamese Cat to First Lady Lucy Hayes in November of 1878.

Affectionately called Siam, the “mahogany-colored” feline adjusted rapidly to life at the White House. President Hayes remarked that the family’s menagerie – two dogs, a goat, a mockingbird, and the Siamese cat – “give a Robinson Crusoe touch to our mode of life.”

The good-natured Siam soon became a favorite of little Fanny and the staff. Allowed to roam the White House as she pleased, Siam enjoyed making grand entrances whenever the First Lady entertained guests.

In the autumn of 1879, while the Hayes family was at Spiegel Grove, Siam became seriously ill. The staff tried fish, chicken, duck, cream, and even oysters, hoping that Siam would respond.

Siam was described as a Siamese cat that was “mahogany” in color.

Siam was described as a Siamese cat that was “mahogany” in color.

There, Fanny’s playmate, Nellie McCrary, daughter of Hayes’ Secretary of War, visited the beloved pet. The next day Nellie wrote to Fanny, bluntly reporting Dr. Baxter’s grim prognosis that, “he thinks she will die and I do to[o].”

Lucy Hayes was an equal opportunity companion of animals.

The family dogs were as close to her as Siam had been. She also appreciated birds of all sorts, keeping pigeons and chickens alike at the family home.

Former First Lady Lucy Hayes in 1889 on the porch of her Ohio home with one of her many beloved animal companions.

Former First Lady Lucy Hayes in 1889 on the porch of her Ohio home with one of her many beloved animal companions


Categories: Cats of the White House, History, Presidents and Animals, The Hayeses

2 replies »

  1. Carl,

    Thanks so much for these little feline stories about our first families over the course of our history. I just love reading them. Somehow, they make these people become 3 dimensional, rather than flat and 2 dimensional. Now, every president, regardless of party, gets a dog to bring up favorability ratings. They look good for photo ops. But before TV, we know that the people in the White House had no reason to have a dog or cat other than the love of animals. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying that any recent occupant of the White House doesn’t love their pets. What I am saying is they have become expected. I love “seeing” the real animal lovers. Thanks for giving me that opportunity.

    • Interesting fact about the current First Family. When Barack Obama told his family he wanted to run for President in late 2007, his then-very young daughters insisted they would agree on one condition – they must finally get a family dog. They refused to cooperate unless they did. Their parents promised. Michelle Obama told in the fall of 2008 how their two daughters Malia and Sasha were unrelenting in reminding their parents of this promise. They talked about what type of dog they would get, they ruminated over the possible names – finally their mother said, don’t worry, we are going to get a dog no matter what happens! Now they have two dogs – and guess who are the closest to them – the parents. The President is especially close to Bo but also Mrs. Obama last Christmas took Bo along on many visits to children’s hospitals and to preview the holiday decorations for the press. They recently got a second dog, at the end of this past summer.

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