The Harrison grandchildren pose for a photo with Old Whiskers. National Journal

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In 1903, the now-defunct Washington Evening Star published a story simply titled "An Exciting Race: When President Harrison Took After a Billy Goat." Surely, it's one of the more harrowing tales in the paper's 129-year history. It tells the tale of how, one afternoon, Harrison saved his grandson from a runaway goat on the White House grounds.

Some background: President Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd commander in chief of the United States, was a kick-ass grandpa. After inauguration in 1889, the president and first lady brought their grandchildren to live with them at the White House. The kids were doted on. President Harrison would dress up as Santa Claus at Christmastime, and personally waited on them at birthday parties. ("The children sat in high chairs waiting for the president to serve them cake," the biography Benjamin Harrison: Centennial President explains.) When it came to dinner at the Harrison White House, the president's toddler grandson was seated directly to him in a high chair. That same toddler, one Christmas, is said to have recieved a full suit of armor as a present.

But even better: Harrison kept a pet goat for the kids. Its name was Old Whiskers, and the animal was harnessed so it could ferry children around on a tiny cart, as illustrated in the photo above. It must have been awesome: To a small child, a billy goat is positively falcore-sized. What could go wrong?

The Evening Star's source for the story was an anonymous Treasury Department staffer, recalling the incident about ten years after Harrison left office. We can assume the staffer concealed his name out of fear he would be on the line for damaging the reputation of the former president. 

On the day of the great goat chase, Harrison had been supervising his grandson Benjamin McKee on the White House lawn. Old Whiskers was ferrying the little boy around per usual.

Then, "without warning, the goat started down Executive Avenue on a brisk canter," the Treasury staffer recalled. What spooked the old goat is unknown to this day. President Harrison, a stout man in his late 50s, went after the animal. "The goat went faster and the President quickened his steps," the source described.

Sensing a chase, Old Whiskers turned his head toward the approaching president. That was it. The goat accelerated to a full-bore run down Executive Avenue, heading directly towards a construction excavation site. Poor Baby McKee! This was the child who sat next to the president at dinner. Harrison knew he had to save the little one.

"Half way down... the President and goat were each doing his level best," the staffer's yarn continues. "The President's coat tails shot straight out behind and the patter of his feet on the concrete pavement sounded for all the world like a woodpecker's attack on a soft maple in the early spring." (Apparently, the Evening Star had found a most-poetic Treasury staffer.)

For just a moment, the president and the goat were neck and neck. "But finally President Harrison made a spurt, and by a brilliant coup caught the bridle of the fleet-footed billy goat just before the excavation was reached." Phew!

The child? "Unconcerned as could be," the staffer said. The president? "Pretty well winded."

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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