A Tail of Two Pollys
I’ve written before about how Andrew Jackson was like an unkillable horror movie monster, and there is one part of him that lived on to haunt his family – his profanity. At least according to the very popular story that Andrew Jackson’s parrot had to be removed from his funeral because it wouldn’t stop swearing.
But is this story true, or just another John Quincy Adams alligator tale?
We dig into the story, along with reports of Dolley Madison’s terrifying and violent macaw, in Season 3 Episode 2 of the podcast.
Listen now if you want to avoid spoilers:
The Madisons’ Macaw
In her piece Parroting Historical Research, Hilarie M. Hicks lays out the terror that Polly (or Mrs. Poll) wrought on young visitors to their home. We explore those events and dig into the role of White House Master of Ceremonies Jean-Pierre Sioussat – a name I pronounce every way except correctly – the man responsible for rescuing Mrs. Poll from being burned in the White House during the War of 1812.
We also look at macaw behavior to help explain the stories about Polly attacking human toes and biting James Madison’s finger to the bone.
Andrew Jackson’s Potty-Mouthed Parrot
Jackson’s parrot, also named Polly (or Poor Poll) is famous because of the funeral story, but that story did not appear in print until 1920 – 75 years after Jackson’s death. Mark R. Cheathem’s write up on the source of this story in his Jacksonian America blog explains that these recollections came from a 90-year-old man, William Menefee Nement who attended Jackson’s funeral when he was just 15. Nement is the only source for this swearing parrot story, and we consider that fact, and the 75-year-difference, along with several historical tidbits about profane parrots and Jackson’s own purported profanity, when determining just how plausible this story is.
Along the way, we dive into Andrew Jackson’s personal letters about Poor Poll, a bird very near and dear to his heart as the last living piece of his late wife, Rachel – which meant he put a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone at the Hermitage to keep this bird alive at all costs.
Listen now for our deep irreverent dive into these dirty birds:
This episode originally contained even more bird stories, including the probably-Platonic love affair between Thomas Jefferson, his pet mockingbird Dick, and the writer Margaret Bayard Smith. You can listen to the 28-minute bonus episode of outtakes (coming out later this week) by joining our Patreon family.
“Parroting Historical Research” by Hilarie M. Hicks, Montpelier.org
The Autobiography of Mrs. William Cabell Rives. Born–Judith Walker–of ‘Castle Hill’ Va.,” Library of Congress, Washington, DC
Mary Estelle Elizabeth Cutts Memoir II, [1849-1856], Cutts Family Collection of Papers of James and Dolley Madison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
“Why Do Parrots Attack Feet” by John, parrotwebsite.com
Of Parrots and People: The Sometimes Funny, Always Fascinating, and Often Catastrophic Collision of Two Intelligent Species by Mira Tweti
“Macaws and Children,” Avian Avenue forum discussion
“The First Master of Ceremonies of the White House” by John H. McCormick, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. , 1904, Vol. 7 (1904), pp. 170-194
“How Bad Is A Macaw Bite? (Bite Force, Injuries + Finger Loss)” by Carrie Stephens, AllAboutParrots.com
“Andrew Jackson’s Profane Parrot” by Mark R. Cheathem, JacksonianAmerica.com
The Papers of Andrew Jackson, The University of Tenneseee Knoxville
“REV. W. M. NORMENT: A Minister Sixty-Seven Years. Pastor of the Same Church Since 1858” by Henry G. Rhodes, The Cumberland Presbyterian, February 26, 1920, page 9
Andrew Jackson and Early Tennessee History, Volume 3, by S.G. Heiskell, page 54
“‘Don’t shoot’: pet parrot’s words may be used in Michigan murder trial” by Jamiles Lartey, The Guardian
Lincolnshire Wildlife Park: Swearing parrots removed from view, BBC News