I was enjoying The History Blog’s article on President Wilson’s White House lawn sheep-keeping as part of the war effort. While the gesture was well-intended and fleece from the sheep raised did go on to win prizes, the article noted President Wilson’s ram was an ornery, tobacco-chomping terror who frequently butted White House visitors, and that ‘interestingly, he wasn’t the first vicious ram to roam the White House lawns. Thomas Jefferson brought a large flock with him from Monticello…The leader of the flock was a four-horned Shetland ram who took aim at anyone attempting to take a short cut through the property…The ram actually killed a child.‘
Thomas Jefferson’s ram straight up murdered a kid?! How did no one tell me about this until now? Can you imagine the furor and Weekly World News (R.I.P.) cover if this happened anywhere near today? The History Blog’s source cited an article from The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, and if you want to learn all about President Jefferson’s obsession with the exciting world of sheep-breeding, I recommend reading it in full. That’s not sarcasm either – President Jefferson refused most gifts of wealth from other countries, the exception being sheep – the availability of which depended on the American Colony’s relation with the rest of Europe at the time. Countries clashed, personal snubs were made (Jefferson’s prized ‘merino’ ram turned out to be nothing but a ‘common country sheep’ and high society pointed and laughed), smuggling abounded and fortunes were made and lost. Merino sheep’s soft and silky wool was the pride of Spain at the time, and they guarded the breed with extreme caution. If you were a king they liked, maybe you got a sheep.
If you can’t bother to be drawn into the heady swirl that was Colonial sheep-breeding, here’s the particularly juicy bit about Jefferson’s murder-ram:
“By the spring there were almost forty presidential sheep grazing on the square in front of the White House. If it had been the year 2000, there would also have been a flock of lawsuits. Several unsuspecting pedestrians tried to take a short cut across the square, met the Shetland ram, and were vanquished in their encounter. One William Keough wrote Jefferson that “in Passing through the President’s Square was attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency’s ram-of which [I] lay ill for five or six weeks.” Another of the ram’s unfortunate victims, as we learn from the diary of Jefferson’s friend Anna Maria Thornton, was “a fine little boy killed by the Ram that the president has.”
Unfortunately, the only available online record of Anna Maria Thornton’s diaries seems to be this excerpted collection from the Washington D.C. historical society, which though an informative historical read, includes no further details about the ‘fine little boy’ straight up murdered by a Presidential ram. Did children die with such frequency at the time that a deadly ram-butting on the White House lawn didn’t even warrant mention by the papers? Who was the little boy, and were any reparations made by Jefferson to his family?
What is known is the ram’s fate – returned to Jefferson’s farm, he was put down 4 years later after escaping his pen and murdering two Barbary rams and his own son.