Thursday, February 12, 2009


You can see these statues in the town square of Hodgenville, Kentucky--the one of the boy Lincoln and a dog was only dedicated last year. The boy, holding a spelling book, is looking right into the eyes of the somberly seated figure at the other end of the square. The dog, meanwhile, is only interested in the boy. He also has a name, which I'll get to presently.

As you might have heard a few times by now, today is the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth--Charles Darwin's too. I'm in more of a Lincoln mood this year, but maybe I can do an article on Darwin's dogs next February.

Yeah, Lincoln had dogs, and quite a few. Do not let the cat people bamboozle you. They perpetually insist our 16th President's heart belonged to kitties, and he absolutely did have a deep affection for them--for all animals, really. The stories of his kindness to birds and beasts of varying shapes and sizes are impossible to count--and quite certainly a lot of them are wildly embellished or just made up out of whole cloth. The first murdered President's image became heavily mythologized in the years following his death, but there's no shortage of reliable witnesses to this aspect of Lincoln's character. The stories go all the way back to his poorly documented childhood, and show a consistent pattern of him being unable to simply shrug and say "It's just an animal." It seems that he needed to be around them as much as possible--given his very well documented penchant for melancholy (which slid over into what we'd call clinical depression on several occasions throughout his life), he clearly used his various pets to chase away the blues--which puts him in a very large club. But he also belonged to the much more exclusive club of people who sincerely and unselfconsciously care how animals feel, and are willing to put themselves to considerable pains to make them feel better.

Probably the best-known instance of this would be Fido--Lincoln's last dog in Springfield, before he became President. You don't meet a lot of Fido's these days--it's become kind of a stereotypical dog name that isn't actually used much anymore, but I have to wonder if the story of Lincoln's Fido wasn't one of the reasons for its erstwhile popularity.

Convinced Fido wouldn't survive the trip to Washington, Lincoln asked a neighbor's family to take care of him, and make sure he was happy--and even left them Fido's favorite horsehair sofa for him to rest on. This being a time when most family dogs weren't even allowed to sleep indoors, and Fido was no tiny pampered lap-sitter, judging by this photo.

Lincoln's solicitousness towards the emotional needs of a mere mutt must have seemed odd to many at the time (and let's face it, to just about anyone today who doesn't have a dog). It's no exaggeration to say Fido ended his days in considerably more comfort than Lincoln had begun his own, though both of them had the misfortune to die by violence. It doesn't take much imagination to realize he loved seeing Fido enjoy the pleasures of middle class existence--as his animal friends had shared his early privations, they also shared his hard-won prosperity. It is a pleasant thing to see a big dog lounging on a comfortable sofa as if he owns the place, and it makes you appreciate the little luxuries of your own life more. Though I suppose some of the dog beds they're making these days are just as good, and easier to clean.

Very little solid information of Lincoln's boyhood has survived--and what we have is so mixed together with local folktales and self-serving anecdotes as to make it impossible to know for certain where truth ends and legend picks up. But it is generally accepted that he was close friends with Austin Gollaher, a slightly older boy who lived in Knob Creek Kentucky, where Lincoln's family moved when Abe was about two and a half--they stayed there until 1816. Gollaher is best known as the boy who saved the future President from drowning--only he and Lincoln knew for sure if that actually happened, and there are a suspiciously large number of stories about Lincoln almost dying as a child and being miraculously saved--but then again, who'd believe he was born within a few hours of Charles Darwin, or murdered on Good Friday? I mean, who writes this stuff?

When Gollaher was a very old man, J. Rogers Gore, a local Kentucky journalist, began to collect reminiscences of Gollaher's brief childhood friendship with Lincoln--which as Gore himself said, were clearly affected by wistful nostalgia, as well as the Lincoln Legend that Gollaher had been heavily exposed to over the years. But there doesn't seem to be much serious doubt they had been friends. And it was Austin Gollaher who told us the story of Abraham Lincoln's first dog, in episodes scattered across "The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln", a narrative composed of Gollaher's stories that Gore published some years later.

And I have no more idea how much of what follows is true than anybody else. Some of it comes across as overly melodramatic (partly due to Gore polishing Gollaher's already well-rehearsed narratives), much of it sounds almost Lassie-esque, though the dog in question was no movie star. But hey, we don't have strong documentation for most of those Lincoln cat stories either. And this is a dog blog. I've selected a few excerpts (and by no means the most improbable)--make up your own minds how much is real, and how much is just a shaggy dog story told by a sentimental backwoodsman--who, I have to say, comes across as a pretty modern type of dog-lover. Rather like Lincoln himself. You have to ask how much did Gollaher's friendship with this oversized oversensitive boy affect the way he saw the world--and why would he put so much emphasis on the dog, in an era where they were still mainly treated as working animals? Gollaher couldn't seem to separate the two in his mind. So they remain permanently together in his memories.

Thomas Gollaher [Austin's father] had just trimmed a smooth spot upon the trunk of a big tree and was preparing to "indite" a letter, a simple, three or four word letter, in which he would find amusement, but others would perhaps see nothing except a senseless scrawling when a short distance ahead of him he saw young Lincoln trudging along with a good-sized dog under one arm and a small sack of meal upon the opposite shoulder. It was a heavy load, very much too heavy for the lad, big as he was, and he carelessly threw the sack of meal down under a clump of bushes, then very gently placed the dog on the ground beside it. The day was hot, and under his burden Abe was steaming and perspiring. He fanned himself with a bunch of leaves and dropped down beside the dog.

The curious Mr. Gollaher slipped noiselessly from behind one big tree to another, Indian-fashion, until he was within a few feet of Abe. Then he watched and listened.

Abe was holding the dog close to his breast, calling it "Honey" and talking to it most sympathetically. Again he placed it on the ground by the bag of meal, and went to a small spring across the road and brought back a cap full of water which he gave the dog to drink. Then he took a hunting knife from his belt and quickly whittled out two rude splints. Next he peeled the bark from some pawpaw bushes, placed a splint on each side of the dog's right foreleg and wrapped it with the soft pliable bark. The wounded dog licked Abe s hands and face, and whined its thanks into his ear. The new friends loved each other, the boy because it was natural for him, out of his sympathetic heart, to love that which suffered, and the dog out of gratitude for the great kindness shown him.

"By holy, he's fixed that dog's broken leg!" exclaimed the astonished Gollaher in a voice that Abe overheard. Realizing that he had disclosed his presence he stepped out from his listening-post and asked if he could be of any assistance to "Doctor Abraham."

Without displaying the slightest surprise over the sudden interruption, the boy quietly asked Mr. Gollaher for a piece of rawhide, and the two finished the job by wrapping tightly the bark and splints.

"Give me another piece of rawhide, please, Mr. Gollaher, to tie around the dog's neck, so I can fasten him to a stock."

"All right Abe; here it is, but don't you know the sun is about down and you are at least a mile from home? Your pappy'11 tan your hide when you get there. Now, you'd better move along; I'm going the other way, just as soon as I write my letter." And he stepped over to the tree which he had prepared for his inscription.

"I'll tell you what I'll write," said Mr. Gollaher with a humorous twinkle in his eye. "I'll just say Abe got a dog."

"Now, please, Mr. Gollaher, don't tell father about the dog," begged Abe, "for he might try to kill it to put it out of its misery; and I want it to get well, so Austin and I can play with it."

Mr. Gollaher promised, and Abe turned homeward, his sack of meal over his shoulder, the dog hopping on three legs at his side. Then upon the tree, the woodsman wrote, in ragged letters:


Abe trudged along stopping now and then to pat the dog on the head, and to assure it that the broken leg would soon be well. When in hailing distance of his home he paused to reconnoiter and to plan. He must do something with the dog; he must hide it temporarily, because there was grave danger that his father would kill it. Dropping his bag of meal, he hurriedly tied the crippled dog beneath a sheltering bush and told it to lie quiet until he got back.

"Down there by the tall sycamore tree, I have a dog tied to a sapling, and its leg is broken," Abe whispered to his mother, Thomas having fallen asleep in the chimney corner. "Please go with me to get him, and help me put him in the pen where the pigs used to stay; there's a roof over it and he won t get wet when it rains."

Mrs. Lincoln, always indulgent of Abraham, consented, and the two went out into the night to find the dog and bring him in to his new home the pig pen. Abe carried the wounded animal in his arms, patting him and calling him "Honey," as they made their way back to the house.

"You love the dog so much," said his mother, when Abraham asked her what to name him, "I reckon you'd better call him Honey ; that was what you called him last night when you untied him from the sapling."

So the dog was christened "Honey."

"He'll do lots of good things for me," said Abe to his mother. "You just watch and see."

When at last, after much careful nursing, the crude bandage was removed, Abraham was terribly distressed to find the leg miserably twisted, and he was much afraid the dog would never be able to run fast. However, Honey developed speed that was surprising, and as the leg did not pain him or interfere with his activities Abe was happy, for physical appearance did not count much with him then as ever.

"Honey was not good to look upon," said Mr. Gollaher; "his twisted leg reminded me of a curve in the road ; but he was the smartest dog in the neighborhood, and made a fitting companion for Abe, since both were good and smart and ugly."

Having introduced Honey, Gollaher and Gore keep returning to him throughout the book, often to underscore Lincoln's kindness--and of course to consciously foreshadow future events, and build upon the already well-established image of a soul possessed with compassion--and a curious searching mind.

"Austin," said Abe, as he tenderly patted his dog, "father has been on the mourners bench and has prayed out loud once or twice, but I don't know so much about his religion."

"Why Abe, what's he done to make you say that?" asked Austin.

"Kicked Honey last night, and I don't believe anybody with even a little religion will kick a dog when it rubs its nose against him in a friendly way. That was all Honey did; just put his nose up against father's knee, and father kicked him on his twisted leg. I haven't been on the mourners bench," continued Abe, "but I wouldn't kick anybody's dog. What do you think about it, Austin?"

"Well, I don't know; maybe your father thinks it's no harm to kick a dog; maybe he thinks God doesn't like dogs."

"No, surely he wouldn't think that," said Abe earnestly. "He would be a mighty funny God if He didn't like a good dog."

Cruelty to animals, and Lincoln's reaction to it, was probably the most recurrent theme in Gollaher's recollections--

"Upon this occasion," said Mr. Gollaher, "a youngster called Freckles who was loafing around the mill awaiting the grinding of his corn, threw a stone and hit Abe's crippled dog. Honey yelped and Abe cried out: "Who hit my dog?

"Freckles", I said.

"Why did you do that, Freckles?" asked Abe, quicker and hotter than I had ever heard him speak before.

"Because the dog's ugly and I wanted to hear him holler," replied Freckles.

"Well," said Abe, "I am ugly too. Next time you want to hit somebody ugly, hit me; I'll know why you hit me; Honey doesn't."

This passage sounds very credible to me--there are many recorded instances of dogs appointing themselves assistant zookeepers over a private menagerie--

Abe's pets now numbered four: Honey, the crow, the goat and a pet raccoon. When he played around his home all four were with him, but when he went into the woods Honey only accompanied him. The raccoon gave him much trouble, and Abe wasn't so fond of him as he was of the crow or the goat. In fact the raccoon had tried to run away several times, but Honey always rounded him up and brought him back.

And this story falls into the "How many times could Lincoln have almost died as a kid?" category, but nobody's ever disproved it--as the story goes Lincoln disappeared one day while he was out rambling with his dog, and a search party was gathered--then--what's that Honey? Abe is in the old well?

From somewhere out of the night the dog came. He whined at her feet and looked up appealingly into the eyes of first one and then another, until, finding Mr. John, he jumped upon the miller and barked again and again, squarely in his face.

"Gather your torches!" John Hodgen commanded, "and we'll follow where the dog leads."

With a yelp, the panting Honey circled the corner of the house and dashed through the garden, barking as he ran. Everybody, as everybody usually does in such circumstances, expected the worst; expected the dog to lead them to Abraham's mangled body, though many a silent prayer went up for the boy s safety.

To the north and west of the Hodgen house Nolin River circled, and it was straight to the river that Honey led the searching party.

"I know where the boy is!" shouted John Hodgen joyously. "Why didn't I think of it before? He's lost in that confounded cave; we ll soon find him and I'll bet he's not hurt a bit. But I can't imagine what the boy meant by going into that hole; I have never known him to do a thing like that before."

When they reached the cave, John Hodgen commanded every one to be quiet while he blew his whistle three times. There was a moment's anxious silence.

Then from somewhere back in the cave came a faint voice:

"Here I am, but I'm fastened!"

The next day when the boys were discussing the adventure, Abe said: "Now, you see, Austin, Honey has paid me back for mending his broken leg."

Now I'm kind of raising my eyebrow at this story (some versions just have Honey kicking up a racket at the cave, and bringing in some curious hunters to rescue The Great Emancipator), but if a cat person ever dared to question its veracity, I'd be very pissed off. And none of this would be at all beyond the capacity of a smart backwoods cur.

Gollaher also told a story of how Lincoln came to find out what had happened to Honey before he rescued the injured pooch--now, 21st century dog lovers, try to tell me this one doesn't get you right where you live--I dare you. Seems they met an old itinerant man in the woods one day--

"Honey, behave yourself" commanded Abe, when he had recovered from the first surprise. But Honey only growled the more fiercely. Abe put his arm around the dog's neck and tried to quiet him, but Honey was not so easily appeased; he had fight in him and Abe had to cling tightly to keep him from springing on the stranger.

The ugly, dirty, little man seemed bewildered, but he spoke to the dog and snapped his fingers at him in an effort to make friends, though there was no inclination on the part of Honey to be friendly.

"Go away, or he will tear you to pieces," warned Austin; but the man did not move.

"Where did you get that dog?" But before Abe or Austin could answer he continued: "I believe on my soul it's my dog Whistle, come back to life. Whistle, don't you know me? Don't you know your old master? Come to me, Whistle; I want you. I want you to forgive me."

But Honey only snapped and growled the louder.

"Where'd you get the dog? Where'd you get my Whistle?" the little man inquired pathetically.

Abe and Austin were too astonished to answer; they were quite convinced now that the man was crazy. Finally he repeated the question, and Abe replied:

"No, sir, this is not your dog; he is my dog. I found him in the road with his leg broken, and I fixed his leg and nursed him till he got well. He's my dog, and nobody can take him from me."

"Exactly, exactly," mumbled the little man. "I know now Whistle was not killed. I thought he was dead when I saw him at the foot of the cliff with blood running from his mouth, and I went away and left him. I want him back; he is my dog," the old fellow whined.

"How did Honey get hurt?"

"Well," came the shamefaced answer, "I got mad at him because he wouldn't mind me, and I kicked him with my heavy shoe and he rolled over the cliff, and when I looked down I thought he was dead. And I felt sorry for him, and went away and left him there."

"Then there came into Abe's face a terrifying expression," said Mr. Gollaher. "It wasn't anger; it was righteous wrath, I suppose; I don't know how to describe it. But when Abe opened his mouth and spoke, I knew there was fight and defiance in every word."

"If you try to take Honey away from me, I ll make him tear you up," he said. "I'll make him grab you by the throat. Let's see you take him," and there was a blazing light in his eyes. "I dare you to try to put your hands on him. Here he is, take him! Why don't you take him? You are a coward!"

"All the time Abe was speaking, Honey was growling and gnashing his teeth. The two warriors were defiant and ready for battle. I was a little frightened, but it tickled me to hear Abe talking that way,because I had always wanted to see him fight."

"Why," Abe continued, "what right have you got to Honey? You tried to kill him; you kicked him and broke his leg and left him bleeding to death. Look at Honey's leg now, all twisted, because you kicked him over the cliff. Why don't you fall over a hill yourself, and break your own leg? Then you will know how Honey felt. A dog suffers when he is hurt just as much as a human. No, sir, you can't get Honey! He would rather die than go with you, and I would rather die than let him!" were Abe's parting words to Honey's old master."

My reaction to each of these stories is always "If that didn't really happen, it should have!" But with Lincoln, it really is hard to know where to draw the line. NONE of it is believable, particularly some of the things we know actually happened. Even his flaws make him seem larger than life. He truly wasn't this saintly perfect messianic figure--we've learned plenty about his driving ambition, his ruthless streak of political pragmatism, and even his lamentable racial beliefs--that changed over time, thanks in part to his talks with Frederick Douglass.

But it all had to start somewhere, and we would so love to know how such a remarkable man could have come into being, what influences shaped him as a child--and what persons--and it seems only natural to me that some of those persons had fur, or feathers. Maybe it was the cruelty and sadness he experienced in life, and witnessed so vividly all around him, that made him so desperate to show mercy to the most helpless creatures--and as he matured, that sense of empathy extended further and further, until it encompassed everything, and overcame the prejudices instilled in him, while transforming his politics into a vision that we still haven't caught up to. Make no mistake, you can like animals and despise people; but a love of humanity that isn't built upon a love of animals will no more stand than a house divided against itself--this I believe.

And my favorite story is actually quite believable, if a bit prosaic--Honey ran ahead of Abe and Austin while they were out one day, and found them some new acquaintances--a husband and wife pair of school teachers headed for Indiana, and in possession of a wondrous treasure--a copy of Robinson Crusoe that the woman read to Abe while they were staying in the area. Then, as now, dogs eagerly facilitated connections between strangers, and unknowingly altered the course of human lives.

Lincoln's father ran into financial difficulties at Knob Creek, and the family began to contemplate pulling up stakes and moving--always a worrying time for a poor boy with a dog--Abe confided to Gollaher--

"Well, I reckon I'm crying because father keeps on talking about moving to IndianAnner, or somewhere a long ways from here, and I don't want to go and neither does mother. And I'm afraid he won't let me take Honey. Then I never will be happy. I believe Honey knows father doesn't want him around, and that mother and I are worried about something, because when we talk about moving he just looks up at us for a minute or two, then kind o' whines and goes off and curls up in a corner. Of course, I know if we go and I have to leave Honey here you will treat him all right, but he would be awful lonesome, because he loves me more than anybody knows."

But Abe," said Austin, "you have been sad about one thing and another ever since you were a baby. Mother says you looked worried the day after you were born. She says you are now as big as a fourteen-year-old boy, and that you oughtn't to cry so much. Why, she said she caught you crying yesterday when she chopped a chicken's head off, so's we could have it for sister's birthday dinner. You ate plenty of the chicken just the same," Austin added laughingly.

People just can't know my feelings, and I reckon they never will. I wasn't crying about the chicken; I was crying because I felt bad about moving away from here. Of course, after the chicken was dead and cooked," continued Abe, "I ate some of it."

And later--

"You know, Austin, if we go to that place across the big river, I'll never get back. It's hard to get across Knob Creek sometimes, and I know I could never cross that big river; so when I tell you good-by I reckon I'll never see you again. I'll give you the crow and the coon, and maybe I'll give you the goat. But I m going to take Honey."

Lincoln's father doesn't come off so well in Gollaher's stories (though he has a few good moments here and there), but even he wouldn't have begrudged the dog who saved his son's life the right to travel to Indiana with them. And that's where the story ends, and begins.

"Good-by, Austin," said Abe simply, and the two boys wound their arms around each other. Then Abe broke away and led the cow across the stream, Honey following.

"I watched them as they ascended the hill," said Mr. Gollaher, "the wagon in front, Abe and Honey and the cow behind; I watched Abe, I watched him 'till the highest peak of his coonskin cap ducked below the hills, and then I fell upon my father's neck and sobbed."

So I know this is a pretty patchwork account drawn from a not entirely kosher historical source, but the 200th anniversary is almost over, and I reckon I won't be around for the 300th, so I figured I'd go on a piece (the style kind of rubs off on you). Anyway, now at least you'll have something to say to those darned cat people when they start in about how Lincoln was one of them. He wasn't one of anybody, I think. He was one of a kind. Whether it's the myth or the man you're talking about. And I'm pretty sure Gollaher was talking about both. But the dogs would have only known a comforting presence, felt a gentle hand, and sensed an abiding sadness, which we can be sure they did their best to assuage. Whether a dog saved the boy Lincoln's life or not, dogs certainly played their role in shaping the man he became, and giving his careworn existence some moments of free and unquestioned joy. And if there's any mercy in the universe--

"A million times since he left here I have seen him in these hills with Honey," the old fellow said." Why, just the other day I went down to Knob Creek down by the Nice Stone, and there I saw Abe, the boy with that sad strange expression upon his face, and I whispered, Abe, you went out into the world on an errand for God, and now you've come back to play with me. Call Honey and we will go out in the woods and pester the squirrels."


Caroline S. said...

Hey, you're back!

Chris said...

With a vengeance, you might say.

I have some photos uploaded, so there'll be another new article soon.