America was up in arms, and it was all the president’s doing. Harry Truman had gone too far this time, and folks were furious.
What had struck such a raw nerve? Was it dropping the atomic bomb (twice)? Maybe firing General Douglas MacArthur? Perhaps spending billions to rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan?
They were all child’s play compared to the outrage that had people so infuriated.
Truman had disrespected a dog. A puppy, in fact. And many Americans were hopping mad about it.
Harry Truman had spent much of his early life on his family’s farm in Jackson County, Mo. It wasn’t a gentleman’s farm or a showplace like Lyndon Johnson’s LBJ Ranch in Texas, which hired hands ran. The Truman place was operated by father John and sons Harry and Vivian, and occasionally extra help when they could afford it. Which wasn’t often.
Harry had been fond of animals as a boy. He roamed the rolling countryside on his beloved Shetland pony with his dog Tandy, dutifully trudging along while Bob the cat waited at home.
As Harry grew older, the chores grew harder—especially after his dad died in 1914, leaving him and his brother Vivian to work like, well, dogs. And somehow or another, dogs fell out of favor with him.
Truman married Bess Wallace and they had one child, daughter Margaret. As the Truman Library delicately phrased it, “They preferred to be a pet-free family.”
Franklin Roosevelt’s unexpected death landed the Trumans in the White House in the spring of 1945. Harry immediately faced enormous challenges: wrapping up a world war, a critical housing shortage, transitioning from wartime to a peacetime economy, the dawn of the Atomic Age, the start of the Cold War—and that was just his first six months in office. With his plate overflowing with all that, Truman simply didn’t have time for pets.
That changed when Postmaster General Robert Hannegan gave 21-year-old first daughter Margaret an Irish Setter puppy named Mike. The pooch was quickly banished to the Trumans’ Missouri home, where he developed rickets (believed to have been caused by being fed too many rich table scraps by staffers) and was quietly regifted to a family in Virginia.
Truman is said to have called Mike “a damned nuisance.” But the worst was yet to come.
A woman in Truman’s native state of Missouri felt it just wasn’t right for the Trumans to be without canine companionship, regardless of how the head of the free world felt about dogs. One day in December 1947, a metal crate showed up bearing the simple address, “Harry S. Truman, The White House, Washington, D.C.” Inside was a cocker spaniel puppy named Feller. Pictures were released to the press, and dog-loving Americans were smitten by the adorable addition to the First Family.
Adorable to everyone, that is, except Truman. He was heading into a re-election campaign that virtually every pundit said he was sure to lose, Josef Stalin was making increasing mischief in Europe, and labor unrest threatened to cripple an already-weak economy. With his attention pulled in a dozen different directions simultaneously, he simply had no patience for a dog he didn’t want in the first place.
Once again, the answer was regifting. Feller was palmed off to Brig. General Wallace Graham, Truman’s personal physician. Author Stanley Coren writes Truman privately called Feller “a dumb dog” that he simply had to “get rid of.”
Several months later, a reporter asked, “Whatever happened to Feller?”
“Who?’ the president snapped, caught off-guard by the name. Reminded of the puppy he had received, Truman brushed it off with, “Oh, he’s around here someplace.”
What was arguably the lamest coverup in presidential history immediately fell apart. Word of Feller’s short White House stay hit newspapers—and then it hit the fan. Thousands of hate letters from irate dog lovers poured in, raking the president over the coals.
Graham was so embarrassed by the uproar that he hustled Feller off to a farm in Ohio where, it should be noted, he lived to a ripe old age.
Truman simply shrugged it off the same way he did all other criticism, focusing instead on pulling off one of the greatest election upsets of all time that November. From then on, there were no more gift pets for the rest of his presidency.
The man known for popularizing the phrase, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” couldn’t stand having one himself.
Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected].