Inside the Strange History of Pardoning Turkeys

It started with lobbyists giving presidents dinner, but it spun out to an unusual tradition
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 20, 2023 9:33 PM CST
Inside the Strange History of Pardoning Turkeys
Turkeys Liberty and Bell attend a news conference ahead of receiving a presidential pardon at the White House in 2023.   (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Each year before Thanksgiving, a turkey or two is pardoned by the sitting US president—and while this tradition has become a signal that it's almost time to stuff ourselves with pie, it's also fairly new. NPR breaks down some of the puzzling aspects of the turkey pardon, including how it came to be. The turkey lobby began formally giving turkeys to presidents in the 1940s, though according to the White House Historical Association, poultry dealers sending the commander-in-chief a fat bird for dinner dates back even further, to the 1870s. While lobbyists began the tradition as a means of free advertising, it wasn't quite a spectacle until the pardoning began.

JFK is thought to be the first president to pardon a turkey in 1963—just three days before his own death—when he opted to save the bird presented to him with a sign around its neck that read "Good eating, Mr. President." "I think we'll just let this one grow," he said at the time. NPR posits that being seen as a "turkey liberator" polls better, and though it took time for it to catch on, pardoning became the norm by the 1980s. The tradition has spread to states like Alabama, where it's been done for decades, and more recently Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pardoned her first turkey, "Mitch E. Gander," in 2022.

The event is most associated today with corny jokes, but the turkey lobby is still driving it, and quite a lot of prep work goes into getting the birds to the White House. Not only are they put up in a fancy hotel room before the big event, the Hill reports that they receive a bit of media training. To get them ready for the crowds, the turkeys are introduced to camera lights and loud sounds. This year's birds listened to music in preparation, and are apparently Swifties, and also enjoy some Prince. While their alleged crime is unknown, receiving the presidential pardon means the lucky birds will live out their days on a farm sanctuary rather than end up being served for dinner. (More Thanksgiving stories).

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