In 1863, when Abraham Lincoln was president, the cooks at the White House received a live turkey to fatten up for a holiday feast. The turkey’s name was Jack, and it didn’t take long for Lincoln’s son Tad, age ten, to make friends with the bird. Soon Jack was following young Tad around the White House grounds like a pet.
One day, the story goes, Lincoln was in a Cabinet meeting when a tearful Tad burst into the room. He announced that Jack was about to be killed and begged his father to stop the execution.
“But Jack was sent here to be eaten,” the president tried to explain. “He’s a good turkey, and we mustn’t kill him,” Tad sobbed back. The president halted his meeting, took a piece of paper, and wrote out a reprieve. A joyful Tad raced away to show the presidential order to the executioner and save the life of Jack the turkey.
According to the White House, people sometimes gave live holiday turkeys to presidents in the years following the Lincoln administration, but it wasn’t until 1947 that the first official National Thanksgiving Turkey was presented to Harry S. Truman, who followed Lincoln’s example and pardoned the bird.
The reprieve has become an annual tradition. Each year, the National Turkey Federation chooses a plump bird and brings it to Washington. (Believe it or not, an alternate is also chosen in case the winner cannot fulfill its responsibilities.) Just before Thanksgiving, the president of the United States pardons the National Thanksgiving Turkey at the White House. The grateful bird then retires to a petting zoo or a resort such as Disney World, where it stays the remainder of its happy, natural life.