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Rescued Dog Becomes Fido Lincoln

Fido Lincoln held an important position in American history. Like most dogs, he made the lives of his humans better. Abraham Lincoln acquired the “yaller dog” at a time when he needed joy in his home. He named his new companion Fido, from fidelitas, which is Latin for faithful. Fido Lincoln quickly proved himself to be just that.  

Many of the details of the famous dog’s life can only be gleaned from snippets in history. We do know from two or three photos that Fido Lincoln was a mixed breed and probably a street dog. At that time only purebreds were valuable while mutts (also called tramps) were considered worthless. We can only assume that Abraham Lincoln did not purchase his dog. But we know that Fido Lincoln was considered a valuable member of the family.

Life Magazine Published The Story of Fido Lincoln, 1954

In 1940 Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt was writing a book about the Lincoln’s son Tad when she stumbled across a carde de visite (a nineteenth-century trading card) of a scruffy dog. Diving deep into her research, she discovered that two of Tad Lincoln’s childhood friends were still living in their hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Isaac Diller’s aunt lived across the street from the Lincolns and John Linden Roll lived nearby. Both knew Fido personally.

Both men were 86 when she interviewed them. While memories can be unreliable, she was able to corroborate their first-hand accounts and verify some details through the few documents that survived. On February 15, 1954, Life Magazine published Kunhardt’s article, Lincoln’s Lost Dog.

As the story was told, no one knew just how Abraham Lincoln acquired the dog. But ledgers from the Corneau and Diller Drugstore listed a commonly used dog de-wormer, “Bottle Vermifuge —25¢.” The date was 1855.

Diller and Roll agreed that Fido led a good life and he brought happiness to the Lincoln home. Kunhardt writes:

“… Fido rolled on the floor with Mr. Lincoln and his boys, ending the fun in a breathless pinwheel chase after his own tail.”

Fido often accompanied Mr. Lincoln to work at his law office and around town as Abraham Lincoln ran errands. He sometimes carried Mr. Lincoln’s purchase tied with string. Fido was also well known at the barbershop. Billy the Barber was an institution in Springfield. Since Abe went in regularly for shaves (he was clean-shaven until late 1860),

“…the remarkable West Indian Negro — flute player, poet, philosopher — whom Lincoln liked to visit, lounging around long after his shave and haircut to swap stories with the other men while Fido waited outside in unhurried communion with the other animals attending their masters.

A beloved town dog, Fido patiently waited outside t any other establishment Lincoln patronized. One such place was Diller’s drug store, which was owned by Isaac Diller’s father, Roland.

“On a hot summer day Mr. Lincoln liked to go there to sit at the fountain, a recent novelty, holding a glass of fruit- flavored soda water alternately to Tad’s and to Willie’s thirsty mouths.”

Fido’s blissful life in the Lincoln household changed on May 18, 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was nominated for the presidency.

 “Every church bell in Springfield was ringing, cannons boomed, boys exploded firecrackers. That evening at the Lincoln home, hurrahing men and women and children pushed through the front door into the parlor and out the kitchen way “

Fido was afraid of lightning, loud noises and too much human commotion. We can only imagine that he was filled with anxiety from the activity in Springfield. Lincoln had a custom built, seven-foot long horsehair sofa on which he could fully recline. Fido was allowed on that sofa. When he was fearful, as he always was during lightning storms and firework displays, he would hide beneath the sofa.

The morning after the nomination Fido trotted along behind Mr. Lincoln as he walked as usual to market with basket on arm, but the walk was interrupted every few feet by people who made the candidate stop and talk.

That night Fido raced through the streets with the neighborhood children. Strangers arrived at the Lincoln home on Eighth and Jackson, all clamoring for government posts.

When Mr. Lincoln was elected president of the United States, he had to make a difficult decision. According to Kunhardt, Lincoln was concerned for the dog’s safety in the stressful environment of Washington D.C.

Mrs. Mary Todd Lincoln was not as fond of animals as her husband. She insisted the White House was the wrong place for a mutt with bad manners.

The public will not tolerate a dog, even the president’s dog, if that animal soils the White House carpets, or damages the heritage furniture in that mansion. Those items are public property and are held in trust by the president and should not be despoiled by any animal. 

The president elect delivered the heartbreaking news to his sons that it would be best for Fido to remain in their comfortable small town home.

But what should they do with Fido? Kunhardt lists the various neighbors with children familiar to Fido. Ultimately he chose Frank and John Linden Roll who he considered to be gentle, serious children. They were about the same ages as Willie and Tad.

“Fido had always made a fuss over them, licking their hands and running halfway home with them when they left after playing with him. Moreover their father, John Eddy Roll, was Lincoln’s oldest friend in Springfield.”

Lincoln also gave the Rolls family his custom horsehair sofa so Fido would have a familiar, safe place in his new home. And he gave the family a list of instructions for Fido’s care.

“They had promised never to leave him tied up in the backyard by himself. He was not to be scolded for wet or muddy or dusty paws. He was to be allowed inside whenever he scratched at the door and be allowed in the dining room at dinnertime because he was used to being given tastes by everybody around the table.”

While few people treated mutts with such respect, Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria were both trendsetters in many arenas, including their attitudes towards pets.

On the day the Lincolns were heading to their new home in Washington, Kunhardt writes:

“Willie and Tad suddenly remembered they had no picture of Fido to take away to Washington with them. So Fido had one last excursion with his young masters. They trooped over to F. W. Ingmire’s studio on the west side of the square. Mr. Ingmire draped a piece of fancy material over a washstand and put Fido on top as if on a royal couch. Willie and Tad watched but did not get into the picture.”

At 7 in the morning of Feb. 11, Mr. Lincoln stood in the depot waiting room, taking his neighbors’ hands in his to say goodbye as he climbed on the train. Johnny Kaine beat his drum. Fourteen-year-old Lincoln Dubois pressed against the bumper of the car and saw tears in Mr. Lincoln’s eyes.

What Became Of Fido Lincoln?

For a time there was no record of Fido. Then almost three years later, after Willie died in the White House, a letter of condolence arrived from his old friend, Billy the Barber:

“I was sorry to hear of the death of your son Willy. I thought him a Smart lad for his age, so Considerate, so Manly; his Knowledge and good Sence, far exceeding Most boys far advanced in years yet the time comes to all. all must die. . . . Tell Taddy that his (and Willys) Dog is alive and kicking doing well as he stays Mostly at John E. Rolls with his Boys. …”

Isaac Diller never forgot the morning of April 15, 1865. His family was sitting down to breakfast when they got the word that Mr. Lincoln had been assassinated the previous night. Everyone burst into tears.

On May 4 a black mourning blanket was laid across Lincoln’s horse, old Bob. He was led to the Lincoln home and photographed, as he waited for the funeral procession to start. Kunhardt writes:

“Search the picture as you may, there is no trace of Fido. Nor can he be seen in the photograph of the crowd waiting at the station for the black-draped train with its tolling bell, or in that of the assembly on the quiet hillside where the extra-long coffin and the short one holding Willie were laid to rest.”

As a side note, news of Lincoln’s death was reported days later in some Confederate newspapers.  The Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph printed the story on April 24th as a news clip on page four.  It didn’t even have a bold headline. News of Emancipation did not hit Texas until two years later when Juneteenth was finally celebrated.

What became of Fido Lincoln? Now an old man, Johnny Roll, wrote to Kunhardt in shaky penmanship:

“We possessed the dog for a number of years when one day the dog, in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing [who] in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. He was buried by loving hands. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog met the fate of his illustrious master — Assassination.”

Abraham Lincoln Needed Dog Energy In His Life

In the book, Abe & Fido: Lincoln’s Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion, award-winning journalist and author Matthew Algeo paints a portrait of a man in need of a good dog. The book explores Lincoln’s day-to-day life in Springfield, Illinois, how he got there and how Fido became an important member of his family. It also delves into his inner turmoil.

Lincoln was plagued throughout his life by anxiety, self-doubt and a sense that he had never accomplished enough. In 1855, he his wife Mary Todd and sons Bob (12), Willie (4) and Tad (2) lived in their home on Eight and Jackson in Springfield, Illinois. Mary was argumentative and moody and known for spending above their means.

“Home was not always a place of solace. Lincoln seemed to prefer spending time away from home, riding the circuit on one of his trusty horses to litigate cases in distant locales. On the political front, he was haunted in 1855 by the specter of slavery, the era’s “defining moral and political question.”

He had withdrawn from politics and was reexamining his life.

“He was depressed by his own perceived shortcomings and the seemingly imminent dissolution of his beloved country. So sometime that year, he got himself a dog: a yellow, long-eared mutt with a short bushy tail.”

Truth Or Fiction? 

How do we know when a story from history is fact or fiction? Or even a lie? Fortunately, Kunhardt was able to interview two people who personally knew Fido and the Lincoln family in Springfield. A few documents still existed and some original writings referenced Fido.  The closer we can get to original sources, the better. 

Dr. Michael Hudak, Sierra Club activist, warns about the importance of verifying quotes and other information in his essay: Abraham Lincoln: Vegetarian and Animal Rights Advocate?—A Review of the Evidence. Hudak writes that since the mid-1980s people have claimed that Lincoln was an animal rights advocate, based primarily on one quote cited by Jon Wynne-Tyson, British publisher and author of books on vegetarianism and animal rights:

“He claims that Lincoln said or wrote (unclear which): “I am in favour of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.” Wynne-Tyson cites as the source for the quote, “Complete Works,” which presumably refers to the Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln. But he provides neither volume nor page number for verification.”

Hudak read off of the volumes, but did not find the quote. A search of the Internet revealed that the quote was taken as authentic and reused thousands of times without verification.

“Performing a Google search on the terms “Abraham Lincoln” and “I am in favor of animal rights” returns (as of 8 September 2009) more than 19,000 websites. Inspecting the first few dozen of these reveals that the vast majority of them accept the validity of the quotation.”

Excellent resources for researching the life of Abraham Lincoln include the LincolnLog.org and a searchable database of Lincoln’s complete works–speeches, correspondence and other writings. 

Fortunately, Abraham Lincoln’s actions towards animals spoke for him. And Fido Lincoln was living proof.

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