In the spring of 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt went on an epic rail trip of the Western U.S. to see and be seen, traveling more than 14,000 miles over nine weeks. His whistle-stop tour crossed 25 states and stopped in more than 150 towns, where the president delivered 200 speeches from the back of his train. In one of these towns, a 12-year-old girl asked President Roosevelt if he’d like to have a badger. Of course, the animal-loving president said yes.
In early May, Roosevelt’s entourage stopped overnight in Sharon Springs, Kansas. On Sunday morning, the President slept late, attended a church sermon, and rode his horse across the plains.
After the service, Roosevelt returned to his train to discover much of the townspeople had gathered to admire its splendor. And it was a magnificent sight. There were six gleaming cars, bedecked in leather and wood. His private car – called the Elysian – was 70 feet of mahogany, leather, and velvet chairs, complete with two sleeping chambers, two bathrooms, a private kitchen with Roosevelt’s own, star chef, a dining room, a stateroom with pictures windows, and a rear platform from which he delivered countless whistle-stop speeches.
The good-natured President, used to massive crowds, shook hands with everyone gathered there. “The census shows Sharon Springs to have a population of 170, I have shaken hands with 700 and hope to meet the rest of them,” Roosevelt told people, according to the Wichita [Kansas] Eagle.
A 12-year-old girl named Pearl Gorsuch, who’d come to town with her family, shook the President’s hand and asked him a question.
“Among the rest there was a little girl who asked me if I would like a baby badger which she said her brother Josiah had just caught. I said I would, and an hour or two later the badger turned up from the little girl’s father’s ranch some three miles out of town,” in Roosevelt’s words as recounted by Edmund White in his 2010 biography Theodore Rex.
The President was delighted with the badger. “Bother politics,” Roosevelt said. “This last day in Kansas is the best of them all.”
Roosevelt named the two-week-old badger Josiah. White wrote that the furry critter reminded the president of a “small mattress, with a leg at each corner.” On the train ride back to D.C., Roosevelt hand-fed Josiah cut-up potatoes and milk and showed off the baby badger to schoolchildren at stops along the route.
Upon his arrival at the White House, Josiah the badger joined the Roosevelt menagerie, which included dogs, cats, ponies, a hog, a garter snake, guinea pigs, a macaw, and a one-legged rooster.
Roosevelt’s third son, Archie, then 9, would carry Josiah around, clutching its middle like a giant cat. When his father suggested that the badger might take advantage of his situation to bite his face, Archie replied: “He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces.”
Indeed, it seems that Josiah did like to nibble on Archie’s legs, as Edmund White described the boy: “Out of the noisy scurry that was Archie there poked occasionally a fierce, hawklike face, and sharp bony extremities much bitten by Josiah the badger.”
Daughter Ethel Roosevelt wrote in her journal that Josiah the badger “is always amusing us with his antics, like shredding the furniture with his sharp little claws, or chasing the gardener up a tree. Father just throws his head back and laughs his booming laugh.”
However, as the badger grew in size, so did also his temper. Josiah began hissing at anyone who approached him (as badgers will). Within a year, he was re-homed to the Bronx Zoo in New York, where he lived out his years, presumably in peace from any presidential children.
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City