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Presidential turkey pardons, not as long a history as you might think

Nicholas Kamm / AFP

Two turkeys, one named "Caramel" and the other "Popcorn," are presented to the press in Washington on Nov. 26, 2013.

The annual ceremony of the presidential turkey pardon is so ingrained in the American Thanksgiving tradition that it might seem as old as the holiday itself. But the ritual of White House clemency for a pair of lucky fowl is actually relatively recent.

President Barack Obama will officially pardon "Popcorn" and "Caramel" this week at the White House.

President Harry Truman is often cited, incorrectly, as the first president to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey.
(Just Google first president to pardon a turkey and see how many amateur-website Truman answers you get.)

Adding to the confusion, President Bill Clinton attributed the first Thanksgiving-related poultry acquittal to Truman during his own pardoning session in 1997.

But the Truman Library wrote in 2003: "The Library's staff has found no documents, speeches, newspaper clippings, photographs, or other contemporary records in our holdings which refer to Truman pardoning a turkey that he received as a gift in 1947, or at any other time during his Presidency."

Slideshow: A look back at presidential turkey pardons

In fact, Truman was fairly blunt about the fact that the tasty birds that came to the White House weren’t exactly headed toward blissful retirement after a high-profile political absolution.

Doug Mills / AP

President Bill Clinton gestures toward a turkey presented to him at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 1993 by the National Turkey Federation as the Federation's President Stuart Proctor looks on.

"Truman sometimes indicated to reporters that the turkeys he received were destined for the family dinner table," the library wrote.

It appears that Abraham Lincoln, in a way, was the first to spare a turkey. But it wasn't a Thanksgiving turkey. It was a turkey his son adopted as a pet during the Christmas season, which is apparently the kind of thing kids did in the mid-1800s.

"[T]he tradition actually began 83 years earlier when President Lincoln received a turkey for Christmas holiday,” Clinton said during that same 1997 speech. “His son, Tad, grew so attached to the turkey that he named him 'Jack,' and President Lincoln had no choice but to give Jack the full run of the White House."

President George W. Bush made reference to the same story in his “pardoning” ceremony in 2001.

So which president was the first to actually pardon a Thanksgiving turkey?

Harvey Georges / AP

President John F. Kennedy reaches out to touch a 40-pound turkey presented to him Nov. 19, 1963, at the White House.

It appears it was John F. Kennedy in 1963. An NBC News archive search found a Los Angeles Times article dated Nov. 20, 1963 with the headline, "Turkey gets presidential pardon."

And that turkey was a monster. The paper described it as a "55-pound broad white tom."

Despite a sign hanging around the bird's neck that read, "Good eating, Mr. President," Kennedy took a look down at the "frightened, panting bird" and said, "We'll just let this one grow."

One more – albeit morbid – note about these pardoned birds. They're bred to be eaten, and they only live an average of two years after the leave the White House.

On that appetizing note, enjoy your Thanksgiving dinner!

An earlier version of this history of turkey pardons – “Beg your (Turkey) pardon” -- was first published in First Read on Nov. 25, 2009.