Millard Fillmore, the First Cat President? (Cats in the White House, Part 1)

Millard Fillmore, earliest known keeper of the White House Cat.

Millard Fillmore, earliest known keeper of the White House Cat.

For those who love and share their lives with Cats, this is the first in an anticipated series about those Presidential Families who did likewise.

We know next to nothing about the plurality of cats that lived in the White House when Millard Fillmore was President.

Did he bring them from his home in Buffalo? Were they just local, feral cats who got a saucer of milk from him? Did he name them?

Cat President.

Cat President.

What little is known comes from a snide 19th century newspaper article criticizing Fillmore’s fastidious manner and determination to keep the old mansion as clean as possible.

According the the story, during his family’s 1851 Thanksgiving Day dinner, President Fillmore wanted to be sure no food from the feast hit the floor.

Early that morning, however, he apparently heard the persistent but soft purrs of his cats, which had been closed off in the large East Room, where they apparently had their basket of blankets.

He couldn’t bear to deny his kitties their request for freedom (he was less generous towards humans held in bondage), and without telling the household staff, the President opened the door and let the cats out of the room, free to roam the state floor.

And they roamed right into the Family Dining Room and were the first Fillmores to enjoy the turkey luncheon.

The Est Room as it looked about ten years after Fillmore's presidency,

The Est Room as it looked about ten years after Fillmore’s presidency,

Apocryphal? Myth?Legend?

The story was repeated in a mid-20th century column meant as yet another sarcastic hit on Fillmore, and the original report, in a newspaper clipping book in the Library of Congress had the date and publication snipped off.

But unlike most Presidential myths, this one has strong contextual evidence supporting it.

In March of 1867, as a former President, Millard Fillmore established the Buffalo branch of the newly-formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was the leader of the local meetings, and used his prestige to initiate local ordinances calling for fines and punishments against starvation, torture and mistreatment of all animals and further publicly supported the first animal protection bill in New York State history, enacted in 1870.

Fillmore spoke of how he had come to understand the need for caring of animals:

Fillmore's father Nathaniel.

“Old Nat,” Fillmore’s father Nathaniel.

When I was a thoughtless boy, I took the life of a mother bird. I remember my father was greatly grieved and said, ‘Millard, do you realize what you have done? You have taken the life of a mother, and have left her children to die of starvation in the nest. How would you like to have a great giant come along and kill your father and mother and leave you alone without food or care?

My father’s rebuke sank so deeply into my heart that since that day I never have taken the life of a living creature.”

Ridicule of Henry Bergh, ASPCA founder.

Ridicule of Henry Bergh, ASPCA founder.

The former President warned that getting the organization to be taken seriously would be extremely difficulty.

Becoming involved in animal protection also meant being “prepared to meet the cold indifference of the thoughtless multitude, the ridicule and scoffs of the reckless and the savage malignity of the cruel.. But it is a good cause.”

Kitty Fillmore.

Kitty Fillmore.

Two years later, Fillmore joined a ten-person advisory committee on drafting guidelines for statewide animal protection.

He found it “inconceivable,” he wrote the Rochester ASPCA how anyone “can stand by idly and see the cruelty and torture that is daily inflicted upon the brute creature.”

Millard Fillmore was not a great President, but he was a bit of alright as a person.



Categories: Cats of the White House, Presidents, Presidents and Animals

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12 replies

  1. Dear Mr. Anthony,
    Once again I have expanded my knowledge because of all your research – I always thought that Florence Harding was the first in the White House to support the ASPCA – now I know that it was President Fillmore. He still does not rank very high with me, however, his standing has improved a little now that I know he was kind to our furry friends.

    I say this all the time, but thank you for all your work – I always look forward to your blogs – and I always learn something.

    On a separate note – will you be on the panel next week when C-SPAN reviews Florence Harding? I assume they will reference your book on Mrs. Harding?

    Thanks –

    David/Chicago

    • Yes, too often we view these individuals as symbols only rather than the people they always remain, virtues and vagaries intact. The history of the ASPCA is pretty interesting. There was so much ridicule and ignorance but I believe what has been left unsaid is that the reaction to it was part of the growing pain of a world culture that was transitioning from agrarian to industrial, rural to urban, and an understanding and appreciation of animals not as tools but living beings was only just beginning. No, I have learned I will not be a panelist. Who knows what they will reference. In any event, I appreciate your writing about old Fillmore. Cheers.

  2. Hello Carl-Great article as always!
    I will have you know that I was the winner of the first annual Millard Fillmore award when I was in high school. Never did figure out the purpose of the award-i suspect it was created for me (and in my honor) since I found his obscurity to be funny and kept bringing him up in class!
    Love reading about all White House pets-from Miss Rebecca Coolidge to those poor unnamed Johnson beagles with the sore ears-Him and Her!

    Richard Klein
    NYC

    • Thanks Richard. One can often feel like those like Millard Fillmore are summarily dismissed without just cause. Yet his willful course of action involving the spread of slavery and fueling of sectionalism are reason enough for his ignominy let alone his later anti-Catholicism. And yet, and yet – here he is the same fellow being so vigorous a visionary when it came to respecting those non-human beings we call animals. And perhaps among the first Presidential family members to do so – though Jefferson had an acute fascination with the ways birds communicated. More of these sort of stories to come, when time permits. Thanks again. Cheers.

  3. Hi Carl: Thanks for the cute story of Pres. Fillmore & his cats. They sure get tourist class accomadations these days. We had Socks do a lead role in the 1st years of the Clinton Admin; then the Patrician Brown Labrador named Buddy came to stay at Pres. Bill’s side, and that was the end of PR FOR Socks.

    I recall watching a pleasant, “soft” visit with Pres. W. & Mrs. Laura Bush doing a tour of their residential quarters, Barney their cute Scotty was featured, and so was their cat, India. I recall the segment that featured Laura Bush, solo, had her holding India w/out sharing spotlight with Barney. The 1st lady said her husband was wonderful with cats as well as dogs, even though he was never pictured with India. I think Laura was trying to tell us India deserved more press:).

    I was fortunate to be raised in a home that loved pets, except that my Dad was leery of cats. In his childhood, a nasty neighbor who raised Persians (my fave breed) told him to stay away from her cats, because they bit like pit bulls! I can not think of a gentler, cuddlier animal than a Persian Cat, but fears die hard. My dad’s love and curiosity of animals over-rode his fear re my critters, he was amazed at how well behaved they were, as well as their telepathic communication:). Sadly, he never got to experience what a cat’s purr feels like, that far he would not go:). The glamorous JFK, Jr & wife Carolyn also had a cat named Ruby in addition to their dog, Friday. I understand both animals were quite high strung; Carolyn’s Ruby appeared to be a one-woman cat. I wonder how many of John Jr.’s animal-loving fans knew the couple had a cat? That’s the way it goes with cats and dogs.

  4. Carl – thanks once again for a very entertaining as well as very informative article. Those of us who read your blog are always amazed at the research work you do to inform us of fascinating historical background information that most of us would never know about left to our own devices.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the positive influences that being around pets has on children. And as an owner of two cats (or is it the other way around?) and as someone who finds them to be fascinating creatures, your writing about Presidents who kept them in the White House was even more interesting. It seems that Presidential dogs get all the publicity at the expense of the Presidential felines :-).

    Tim

  5. I just chanced upon this article and was immediately held hostage once again by your magical pen. A willing hostage and so glad you shed some light on the here to fore untold story of the kitties in the White House. You are right that dogs are more outgoing while Kitties remain aloof especially to political animals.
    As my kitty pointed out that’s why the term “publicity hound” was coined as most self respecting cats would not tolerate a reporter or a photographer,but you did get some candid shots of some of them. (I especially loved the Filmore Kitty shot!) Incidentally the ancient egyptian name for cats was “mews”-love that cocktail nugget of useless information. Anyway looking forward to more of your cat-tails(I’m sorry I could’nt resist!) Keep them coming!

    • “Magical pen” – I like that Phil, thank you! As is typical of what is the blessing and curse of my way of writing, I had originally intended to one article of about ten paragraphs with one each about the ten “Cat Presidents,” but as seems to always happen I become too interested in the detail and find it often reveals something of the character of generally-forgotten or overlooked public figures of the past that is worth presenting. So, what was intended as one article will eventually be ten…

      • Hi Carl: I am sorry to learn you will not be included in this panel CSPAN is having on Florence Harding. That is outrageous. You have written the major biography of her life; and you are a scholarly writer whose credentials are probably the strongest of any living writer/historian capable of discussing her life.

        • Hi Frosty and Carl –
          I agree 100% – I was shocked when I tuned in last night to C-SPAN and Carl was not on the panel. I read Ms. Sibley’s book, and it is a poorly written repeat of Mr. Anthony’s well researched and documented book on Mrs. Harding. I hope the Harding Home and Museum in Marion, Ohio will promote and encourage its visitors to read the definitive book on this under-rated First Lady who did so much in the short time she was in the White House.

          David

          • To David: It’s always wonderful when like-minded person can support one’s opinions. I did check out the 1st ladies museum recently, and they had all kinds of nice things to say about Carl, even more important, they seemed to be promoting his books. This is the type of atonement he deserves, and I hope
            they stay in his corner.

          • Thank you very much for your support Suzanne. It seems that a whole bunch of replies to comments did not post – sorry for that.

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