These are the dog days of summer, but all I can think about is a brightly-colored parrot that used to fly the halls of Montpelier. Her name was Polly (I know, the Madisons could have tried a tad harder on the creative naming process).
According to the Madisons’ friend Judith Walker Rives, Polly was given to Dolley Madison as a gift from a South American diplomat. Polly was living in Washington by October 2, 1813, when Anna Thornton, another Madison friend, wrote in her diary that she had brought her mother to the White House to see the Madisons’ macaw. Although Polly’s origin was South American, her vocabulary was decidedly French, thanks to the efforts of White House majordomo John Sioussat. Not only did he teach Polly French phrases, he also took her to a safe location before British troops burned the White House in August 1814. It was not just the portrait of George Washington that was saved on that fateful day.
Several visitors to Montpelier wrote about Polly’s beautiful appearance. Lydia Sigourney described Polly as “a favourite Macaw, of shrewd character, and singularly splendid train and plumage.” Judith Walker Rives remembered not only Polly’s “magnificent plumage,” but also her “formidable beak and claws.” James Madison had to rescue Rives from Polly, who then turned on Madison and “bit his finger to the bone.” Madison, ever imperturbable, dismissed the attack on him as “only pretty Polly’s way.”
Rives was not the first visitor to be terrorized by Polly. While still in Washington, Polly swooped after the Secretary of the Navy’s daughter, Mary Crowninshield, trying to catch her feet. According to her mother, Mary “screamed and jumped into a chair and pulled hold of Mrs. Madison.” Polly was “the terror of visitors,” opined Dolley Madison’s niece Mary Cutts, who recalled that the easiest way to frighten any children in the house was to call out “Polly is coming!” Polly ranged freely by day, spending the night on a perch in the hall. Her reign of terror finally ended on a night when no one remembered to bring her in, and a night hawk killed her.
On your visit to Montpelier, keep your eyes wide open and find our life-sized model of Polly. She surveys visitors from a variety of locations in the house. In keeping with Polly’s free-ranging spirit, Montpelier staff relocate Polly each week. Unlike her historical counterpart, our Polly is equipped with a GoPro camera, which will give a parrot’s-eye view of surprised (but hopefully not terrified) visitors passing by her latest perch. Follow Montpelier on Instagram to see where Polly will land next!