The First Lady Who Loved Dogs…and got Hell for Saving a Horse

Florence Harding holds a puppy in Alaska, 1923.

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.

Florence Harding with her horse Billy at home in Marion, Ohio.

Born today, August 15, in 1860, in Marion, OhioFlorence 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.”

Florence Harding welcomes Laddie as a puppy to his new home, 1921.

Laddie Boy with his biscuit birthday cake, 1921.

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.

Florence Harding and Jumbo, her first dog, circa 1892.

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.

Florence Harding and her second dog, Hub, who was poisoned, circa 1905.

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 gave regular financial support to vivisection regulation and animal rescue organizations.

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.”

Clover the oldest horse in America, pictured with his caretaker, Dr. U. Myers.

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.”

In the days after President Harding’s August 1923 death, a cartoon depicted Florence Harding and Laddie Boy both in mourning.

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.

Statue of Laddie Boy sculpted from donated copper pennies sent by newsboys and donated to the Smithsonian, where it is no longer displayed.

Categories: First Ladies, Presidents and Animals, The Hardings

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9 replies »

  1. A motivating discussion is worth comment. I’m sure that you should produce more on this topic, may well be a taboo theme but generally people are too few to speak on such subjects. To the next. Many thanks

  2. Dear Carl:

    That was quite a story on Florence Harding She appears to have been quite a charactor. It’s only been recently, that I have found myself “judging” first ladies. That is probably due to my irrational dislike of the current first lady. As I’ve mentioned to you previous, I have always seen our First Ladies in a positive light. As a child, the Eisenhowers appeared to be straight out of a Bobsy-Twin-like book. Two kindly appearing white haired people whom I ascribed saintly status to. They were followed by the Kenndys. Two of the most glamerous people any teenage girl would be awed by. Post-Kennedy, they were all looked upon in a more critical manner, yet I found all the 1st Ladies to be talented, interesting people; all very different from each other. Mrs. Johnson, Ford & Carter, Reagan & Bush wrote wonderful memoirs of their time at the WH. In reading your article, my bottom line is: I don’t know if I would have liked Florence Harding. She comes across to me, after reading this, as a self-righteous person who perhaps cared more about animals than humans.

    I have a beautiful hardbound copy of your book on Florence Harding. Sadly, it. turns out that my arthritic hands just don’t like thick books anymore. Not too long ago, I checked with Barnes & Noble to see if the bk was available in Nook edition. Unfortunately, it is not, but I hope you will consider the release of your book in “e-reader” format. My e-reader has made a wonderful difference in my life, I am now back up to reading at a volume I can take
    some pride in.

    Thanks again Carl, for another wonderful annecdote. Did you know a previous WH florist is releasing her memoir of WH & working with 1st. ladies? The review I read of bk (in Seattle paper), noted that this would be the 1st memoir of 1st Ladies at WH. I disagree with that. I recall reading memoir of WH usher who served from Eisenhower – Johnson. A few WH chefs have done memoirs that include stories of East & Residential Wings as well as ecipies. A social aide wrote a wonde erful juicy account of dating 1st daughters & going to State Dinners. Letitia Baldrige wrote of her times with Jackie Kennedy, and so did dress designer Oleg Cassini. I nonetheless look forward to reading this, and hope she really spills the beans for a change!

    Best regards,

    • I find that when it comes to Presidents and First Ladies, everyone has a strong opinion about each. All of them are really just human beings in extraordinary positions of symbolism. Hillary Clinton once told me a funny story about walking into a crowded reception and hearing the comments whispered behind her as she passed. She felt great when she came in and heard someone say, “She looks so good, much better than on television,” and then a few steps later, she felt awful after hearing, “My God, I thought she was better looking than she is!” I wouldn’t say Florence Harding cared more about animals than human beings, but she strove to treat the former with the same respect that she strove to show the latter. As for the florist’s memoirs, it will be the latest in a long line – the very first was written by Paul Jennings, the African-American slave owned by James and Dolley Madison – and actually I will have a post about him next week. Lastly – one correction, Mamie Eisenhower was never….white-haired. She made sure of that.

  3. I have been interested in Florence Harding ever since i read your superb biography several years ago. History seems to have maligned thsi first lady who showed compassion-to animals, wounded veterans and in general the undertrod.
    I am also a collector of Harding memorabilia and am always looking to add to my collection. I have visited marion Ohio and taken the tour of the house and visited the memorial at the cemetery.
    Would love to hear from any other Harding collectors.
    Richard -NYC

    • Thanks Richard. Florence Harding did so much for so many people. And I’ve always felt that whatever else might have created friction between them that she and her husband’s greatest bond and testament to their true character was their mutual respect for all animals. In this, as well as matters like universal health care, the eight-hour workday, and even what I consider a great idea – a one-term six-year presidency (that was his idea, one with which she disgreed), they had foresight and staunch progressives. Perhaps your posting here might direct some fellow Harding collectors your way. Thanks again.

  4. I was born & grew up in Marion, Ohio, lived four blocks from the Harding Home, and learned from an early age what “terrible” people President & Mrs. Harding were. Their reputations were so trashed in the MSM that not many people in town really talked much about them. It was not until the past few years that historians and writers have begun to have the courage to tell the truth about them. However, to this day, VERY little that you read about them even remotely resembles the truth. How refreshing to read what you have written (truthfully) about them. They were people, and subject to the foibles of humanity — but they were both very decent human beings who died within a year of each other, and had no children living, and no friends with sufficient courage and influence to defend them. Compared to many subsequent occupants of the White House, these people were giants.
    A Northern Buckeye

    • Thanks John – your observations actually mean quite a bit to me. There are two old-timers, one in Marion another being a writer/historian who really went on an intense attack of me for my portrayal of the Hardings in my biography Florence Harding. Despite bringing to light for the first time the fuller text of speeches Harding made on civil rights, his intentions to create a Social Welfare Department which was actually focused on health and medical-related issues…startling and insightful and forward-thinking for 1921, and his stance against the Klan, the reaction was that anything which cast Harding in less than a 100 percent perfect glow was denigrating him. This old woman in Marion even declared in a public forum that she would never even read my book or even the portions which detailed Harding’s successes and legislative iniatives simply because the word “scandalous” was in the sub-title. However, I have found that beyond family, friends, former Administration employees, and regional supporters, every President has a core group of people so utterly enamored with them as ideals they do not wish to learn about them as human beings. So you can see why your kind reaction has great meaning to me. Thank you again.

  5. dear Carl, may i send you a link about Jackie Kennedy using her husband presidential influence to bypass a quarantine holdup on her horse and also an info on Ethel Kennedy who stole a mistreated horse in order to rescued him from his miserable health condition… both ladies are known to be excellent riders and passionate equestrians, plus both loved dogs and had plenty of them, which you relate to, i´m sure!


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