What Did The President Know And When Did He Know It?
As president, Thomas Jefferson had a strict no-gifts policy. This is why, when he was given a 1200-pound “mammoth cheese,” he insisted on paying $200 for it. But his dubious ethics allowed for one clear exception to his no-gifts rule—sheep.
In the third season premiere of the Plodding Through The Presidents podcast, we dive deep into the story of an unusual four-horned ram gifted to Thomas Jefferson, and the violence and death that it wrought.
Listen to the episode now if you don’t want spoilers…
This was no ordinary ram. Gifted to Jefferson by a DC businessman named James D. Barry, the ram was a Shetland – a small, usually docile breed that has either two horns or no horns. This Shetland had the distinction of having four horns, and two of them pointed forward.
At this point the United States was in the middle of the Embargo Act barring trade with Britain and France, so Jefferson was keen on anything that could boost the country’s manufacturing from within. Since at least 1790, Jefferson had been told that Shetland wool was “reckoned the finest produced in any part of the British Dominions” and he hoped this many-horned ram’s wool would produce “the famous Shetland stockings” which sold for a guinea a pair and were “soft as fur.” He clung his hopes on this ram to bring that fine wool to America, and his hopes caused him to overlook this ram’s less desirable qualities. That negligence proved deadly in February 1808.
Nine-year-old Alexander Kerr was walking home from school one day, taking the common shortcut through the then-unfenced White House lawn, when he was attacked by the ram.
J. L. Bell has a great four-post series on Jefferson’s ram that lays out the timeline between Jefferson receiving the ram as a gift in June of 1807 and it attacking at least two people in February 1808, including the young Alexander Kerr.
The day after the attack on Kerr – while it was still unknown whether he would survive – Jefferson wrote to the boy’s father. He said, “Had the orders I had given some days before for securing the instrument of it against doing injury, been timely executed, this great calamity would have been prevented.”
Presumably any such request to secure the ram (none can be found) would have been made in response to its earlier attack “some days earlier” on an old Revolutionary War veteran named William Keough. Keough was laid up for weeks after his encounter with the ram but survived. If that incident was the first indication of this animal’s threat, then it might be possible to take Jefferson on his word.
But we found more evidence among the Jefferson Letters collection that proves that Jefferson knew about this ram’s aggressive nature five months earlier.
The White House stablemaster and caretaker of Jefferson’s sheep, Joseph Dougherty, warned Jefferson on August 31, 1807:
“The ram here is becom verry unruly. he has beat the shepherd until he would not follow them any more Until I made him take a large dog on a roap by which he is now protected. he will make battle without offence and turn on any one that will go near him…”
His ram had attacked the old man hired to keep him safe, who was only safe himself when holding a dog on a leash. And Dougherty makes it clear that the danger wasn’t limited to the shepherd; this ram would turn on anyone, unprovoked.
We know that Jefferson received and read this letter, because he responded to it specifically – not to the part about his shepherd being beaten, but to another part about Dougherty’s marital troubles. Jefferson said nothing about the ram’s behavior in the letter.
Dougherty wrote to Jefferson about the ram again two weeks later, this time speculating that the four-horned beast might be sterile. He suspected this because the ewes were not pregnant yet, and because he thought the ram might actually be the offspring of a sheep and a goat. Unfortunately, the ram was not sterile. Had the creature been unable to produce offspring, Jefferson likely would have gotten rid of it. But the ram successfully impregnated most of the ewes, and Jefferson was determined to keep this sire around.
After Alexander Kerr’s death, Jefferson reportedly had blinders put on the ram and it stayed on the White House lawn for several months with no known violent incidents. Ram blinders (unlike horse blinders) block the front of the ram’s view; rams still have peripheral vision. One newspaper politicized the events, calling the ram’s attacks “proofs, that unbridled liberty is productive of nought but evil.” A very folksy letter to the editor said, “i dont dounder stand this Bargo…some say they wish mr. Jeffisun woodent put bords afore all the peeples faces as wel as afore his rams.”
Ultimately, the ram’s wool was determined to be of such a poor quality that it was almost worthless. After finding this out – and after the ram killed three more of Jefferson’s sheep at Monticello – he finally had it destroyed, calling it an “abominable creature” and saying it was “so dangerous generally that I was obliged to have him destroyed. I found the species very worthless.”
In his myopic pursuit of fine wool, Jefferson chose not to see the inherent danger in allowing an aggressive ram with lethal horns to roam freely, even when he was explicitly warned. As in many areas of his life, he seemed to be wearing blinders.
Listen to the episode for more details about the killer ram, Jefferson’s secret master plan to populate Virginia with the finest wool-producing sheep, and a quiz for Jess on how best to survive an encounter with an aggressive ram.