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Note from the author:

As exciting as writing a book on a subject you care passionately about can be, there is an aspect that is heartbreaking: the reality of word counts and editorial constraints inevitably means that there are some stories you have come to love which wind up being cut. I have a book on pet cemeteries and animal burials coming in the Fall, titled “Faithful Unto Death”, and in the last round of editing the situation was put to me bluntly. Something has to go. To fit all the photos we’re using and make our word count within the number of pages at our disposal, we need to cut the equivalent of about one story. That is why what follows, the tale of the death of an Irish Setter named Garry, will not appear in the book. But it is, and I hope you will agree, a wonderful and historically important story, one which I think still has something to teach us even a century later. This is why, with thanks to the Order of the Good Death, it is offered to you here. And for those curious about what is in fact in the book, here is a link.

Small, private pet cemeteries had a heyday in the United States in the late nineteenth through early twentieth centuries. This was before urban pet cemeteries had become popular, and since owning sufficient land was the first necessity for being able to start a cemetery, it should be no surprise that they were primarily found on the estates of wealthy people. Among the most noteworthy was located in a clearing of trees on Mackworth Island, in Casco Bay just off the coast of Portland, Maine. The island had been owned by the Baxter family, which gained its wealth from the canning and packing of vegetables. In a small clearing set just back from the island’s coast, Percival Proctor Baxter, who would become the fifty-third governor of Maine, would establish in his youth an animal cemetery.

The site is marked by a simple stone circle, and the paucity of visible memorials—there are only a few cracked gravestones—no doubt causes most visitors to pass by without giving it much thought, and certainly without recognizing its extent. In fact, there are many more burials here than are initially apparent. Rather than being individually marked, they are recorded on a bronze plaque attached to a large boulder within the circle. “To my Irish setters/life long friends and companions/affectionate faithful and loyal/Percival P. Baxter/Governor of Maine,” the inscription reads, and then notes those interred at this spot. And it is one of those names that gives the cemetery its importance: a scandal surrounding the death of Garry on June 1, 1923, turned him into one of the most influential dogs in American history.

The stone memorial and bronze plaque

Paul Koudounaris

It was not Garry’s death itself that was scandalous, as he had died of old age and its related complications. Nor had there been any hint of impending controversy during his life, as he had always been a good dog who would have been content to remain far removed from the public eye had not his owner been the state’s governor. The hubbub was instead due to Baxter’s act on the death of his faithful companion. On his authority, an order was issued to lower the American flag at the statehouse in Augusta to half mast in Garry’s honor. Lowering the American flag is reserved for times of national tragedy. It is a gesture not to be taken lightly, and provoked a vitriolic response quickly followed.

Many of the state’s political observers had already questioned whether Garry hadn’t gotten privileges enough, including many not extended to the state’s own citizens. The dog could come and go as he liked from the Capitol Building, for instance, whereas human visitors by law had to register before entering. He even had access to areas where outsiders were not allowed, such as the Treasurer’s Office. In the governor’s chambers, meanwhile, Garry had his own couch, and was allowed to sit in on councils in which Baxter confirmed appointments and voted on pardons—there were even whispers that the dog’s attitude towards a petitioner might be the deciding factor when it came to such decisions.

The Bee, Friday, June 8, 1923.

And now Baxter had ordered the American flag to half mast at the dog’s passing? The consensus was that this time the man had gone too far. No matter how much he had been affected by the loss of Garry, he had abused his authority and mocked a solemn gesture. The condemnations came quickly, led by members of the American Legion and other veteran’s groups. Colonel George R. Gay, an official with the local chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, lodged an official complaint with the State House on behalf of his post. He likened the act to a form sacrilege, one that insulted every member of his organization. While he loved dogs himself, Gay explained, the problem had nothing to do with canines in general. What he and his fellow soldiers loved most of all was “the old flag which so many of them gave their lives to preserve,” and it should not be lowered for vain or personal reasons. (2)

Mrs. William Wolff Smith, Chair of the Correct Usage of the American Flag Committee of the Women’s American Legion in Washington, D.C., pointed out that, strictly speaking, Garry wasn’t even a citizen. Had “the dog been an American citizen it might be different,” she commented, “but he was no more of a citizen than a strawberry patch.” Baxter’s political opponents had meanwhile pounced on the incident, vowing to use it against him. Word quickly spread, and by the next day people as far away as the West Coast heard about the governor’s act, and suddenly everyone was taking shots at Percival Baxter.

And that was fine by him. To understand why, it will help to know a bit more about the man. Despite coming from a politically prominent family, his father having served as mayor of the state’s most populous city, Portland, he was definitely not a standard, party-groomed politician. A Republican who had previously served in both Maine’s House of Representatives and Senate before assuming the office of governor in 1921, many of his views would even now seem progressive, and he was not afraid to take a stand in the name of causes he believed in, even if the result was a ruckus. 

The Hartford Courant, Saturday, June 2, 1923.

Baxter was, for instance, among the first prominent politicians to publicly oppose the Klu Klux Klan, which had at that time gained a strong foothold in Maine politics. He was also a prominent supporter of environmental causes, and as both a legislator and governor he campaigned to get the state to purchase the land around Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine, in order to preserve the area as a wilderness park. When he failed to sway the state, he instead used his own money to buy up the land and donate it. This gift earned him the nickname “the man who gave away mountains,” and the land is now known as Baxter State Park, one of the largest on the East Coast.

But his greatest interest was animal welfare. A framed placard reading “Be Kind to Animals” stood in his office between the national and state flags. He did not hunt, unusual for the time, having abandoned the pastime for ethical reasons. “I would no sooner think of killing a deer than I would step out and shoot some down faithful old horse out there in the street,” (4) he said. He also took an active stance against the fur trade, and as governor scuttled a plan to provide a fur farm at the University of Maine. Likewise, he declined a request to capture local bear cubs and send them to a zoo in Massachusetts, commenting that, “our wild animals are entitled to their freedom, and, unless they are dangerous to human life and property, should not be molested.” (5)

A pamphlet authored by Baxter and issued by the state urged people to treat animals humanely. “They work for, depend upon, and are devoted to us,” he explained, and “On our part we always should care for them, protect them against all neglect and cruelty and do everything in our power to right their wrongs.” He pleaded with his readers that “should you see animals or birds being abused, do all you can to stop the abuse; and you yourselves should never fail to treat them kindly.” (6) Likewise active in the anti-vivisection movement, Baxter worked during his tenure as governor to prevent the cruel use of animals for dissections in Maine’s schools. All of this considered, it is hardly a surprise that he was lauded as “America’s greatest humane governor” by the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.

Among all animals, Baxter’s greatest joy was dogs, and of all breeds, his favorite was the Irish setter. Garry was not his first. Baxter’s history with them dated back to his childhood in the 1880s, when he received as a gift from his father an Irish setter puppy named Glencora, who would test the boy’s heart from the outset. The puppy was frightened and confused that first night and began to cry, and as young Percival lay in bed worrying about his new friend and wondering what to do, someone in the house got up and took care of the situation—by putting the dog out. “This cruelty was more than I could stand,” Baxter later recalled, and he snuck out, found the frightened puppy huddled in the yard, and carried her upstairs and placed her in his own bed. (7) The scene repeated itself for several nights until the dog was finally enough at peace to sleep quietly in the house.

black and white photograph of Percival Proctor Baxter seated, wearing a suit and tie as irish setter, Garry sits in front of him

Maine Governor Percival Proctor Baxter with his Irish Setter, Garry.

Baxter eventually began breeding Glencora. Her puppies were sent to good homes for a nominal fee, but he also kept a few for himself and continued breeding them. The Irish setters became a constant motif in his life, there always seemed to be one around and the love he had for these dogs was so sincere that people didn’t seem put off, despite the liberality with which he treated them. Not even after one of them, Deke, who lived on campus with Baxter during his university days at Bowdoin College, carried a large bone into the university chapel during a service and laid it down at the feet of the school’s president during prayer. In the end, he raised an estimated five dozen Irish setter pups, all descended from the first, Garry among them. But now, with the flag at half mast, Baxter had finally crossed the line of public decency.

What the people lodging complaints didn’t know was that the lowering of the flag was a carefully contrived gesture designed to manipulate them into the exact situation they were in. Garry had been sick for some time, and after the best veterinarians in New England failed to suggest an adequate plan of treatment, the governor resigned himself to the fact that his friend’s passing was imminent. He then came up with a plan to turn the tragedy of Garry’s death into something positive. Yes, flying the flag at half mast would raise ire, but doing so would provide an opportunity to open a public dialogue. “I did it . . . to teach a lesson,” Baxter explained to a newspaper reporter, “to draw people’s attention to the qualities of the dog, qualities which so often are forgotten in human relationships.” (8) In other words, the ruckus would provide him an audience to proselytize to about a topic he passionately believed in.

As the complaints rolled in they were met with a pamphlet, printed in advance, to be distributed to the governor’s detractors. “If all men would acquire the outstanding virtues of the dog,” it explained, “great happiness would soon be spread over this sordid world.” And of those virtues, Baxter believed that loyalty and unselfishness are the greatest.

Where can these be found in purer form than man’s best friend, the dog? He never falters in his devotion, never questions nor complains. Hunger, threat and privation to him are nothing if he can share them with his master and comfort him in his distress . . . The loyalty and unselfishness of a dog may well put most men to shame, for few are as loyal to their Heavenly Master as is the humble dog to his earthly one. (9) 

There were many people who would no doubt grant him these points, but still insist that the lowering of the flag was inappropriate. And to them, Baxter explained his belief that, “when men and women of this State and nation think through what I have done, they will see (that) a lesson in the appreciation of . . . animals has been taught, and that my act heightens the significance of our flag as an emblem of human achievement that has been made possible largely through the faithful services and sacrifices of . . . animals.” (10) It was a nod not just to a single dog or canines in general, but a public recognition of all the animals that worked alongside humans to found the United States and toil for its prosperity.

And considering that selfless service, could anyone begrudge a symbolic lowering of the flag in thanks for the heretofore unacknowledged role animals played in the building the country? Baxter didn’t think so. “The fair names of our State and Nation have not been tarnished because a flag was placed at half mast out of respect to one of God’s humble but noble creatures,” he explained. And as for lowering the flag for Garry in particular, Baxter believed that the act was a “fitting tribute . . . to my dog and to dogs of ages past, a tribute well deserved, but long deferred.”

He concluded that the act didn’t diminish the flag one bit and that, personally “I should esteem it an honor when my time comes to have the same Capitol flag that was lowered for my dog lowered for me.” (12) This was entirely new and unexpected grist for the mill of public opinion. The man had a point. Animals certainly had been indispensable to the founding and prosperity of the nation, often laboring in brutal conditions. And they had never gotten their due. Was there really harm in finally offering them this token gesture of recognition?

Things turned around quickly. The governor’s gesture was suddenly deemed admirable, and messages of a different sort now arrived. “I have received probably a thousand letters and telegrams from all parts of the country. Only one was unfavorable,” he was soon able to report. (13) A school girl from Illinois, inspired by the publicity, even wrote a poem in the governor’s honor that wound up printed in humane society journals across the country. It was the work of a child to be sure, but the sentiment behind it spoke for many people considerably older than she.

Percival Proctor Baxter,

A Gentleman of Maine,

Has gained a reputation 

For himself, and great fame.


I see his picture often,

But the one I like best,

Is where he has his Garry,

It’s nicer than the rest.  (14) 

The members of the Grand Army of the Republic, meanwhile, withdrew their condemnation and had all criticism of his actions withdrawn from their official records. They went so far as to offer him a vote of appreciation and confidence. And so that the dialogue raised upon Garry’s passing should not fade too quickly, the Governor’s Council voted a year after the dog’s death that a bronze memorial to him should be placed in the State House, so that it might serve as a “constant reminder to the people of Maine of the faithful and unselfish services rendered them by their domestic animals.” In announcing the memorial, the Council offered its hope that “the day will soon come in this State when cruelty to and neglect of animals will be no more and when man will be kind and merciful to all of God’s creatures, however humble.” (15) From what initially looked like a public relations disaster, the governor had scored a resounding victory.

Photo of the cemetery

Paul Koudounaris

Baxter never commented on this so we simply can’t know his intentions. But we can know a fair bit of his on his feelings about politics at the time. With his dedication to serving humble causes even at the risk of his own reputation, he seems like an awkward fit among American politicians, and he himself felt this was the case: he served a single term as governor and declined to run again when it ended in 1925. Politics, he had decided, were not for him. But dogs were. While there was no room left on the plaque on Mackworth Island, there was still room in his heart. More Irish setters were indeed to come, and when they were likewise buried in the stone circle, additional, smaller plaques had to be added to the boulder. The first notes four dogs buried through 1934, and the final small plaque names two others, through the 1940s, when the island was given over to state as a gift. Six more dogs total, and it turned out that Baxter wasn’t quite through with Garry, either. Two of those buried afterward were named in his honor, a favorite dog who in his passing helped teach the nation a lesson about its debt to animals.


(1) It should be noted that the Garry in question was technically Garry II. But in the controversy that followed the II was dropped by the press and the dog became known then and afterward simply as Garry, and Baxter himself listed him without the II on the plaque.
(2) “Veterans Protest Honor Given Dog,” Hanover (PA) Evening Sun, June 4, 1923, 8.
(3) “The Flag Incident in Maine,” Buffalo Courier, June 8, 1923, 6.
(4) “Governor Who Honored Dog Makes Reply to His Critics,” New York Times, July 8, 1923, 7:3.
(5) Liz Soares, All for Maine: The Story of Governor Percival P. Baxter (Mt. Desert, ME: Windswept, 1995), 38.
(6) Ibid. 37-38.
(7) Ibid. 9.
(8) “My Faithful Dog Unlike My Human Friends Never Betrayed Me—Baxter,” Lewiston Evening Journal, June 5, 1923, 11.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) “Governor Defends,” Portland (ME) Evening Express and Advertiser, June 4, 1923, B9.
(12) “Defends Lowering of the Flag for Dead Dog,” Portland Press Herald, June 5, 1923, 3.
(13) “A Governor Who Put Flag at Half Mast for his Dog,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, August 24, 1923, 6.
(14) Soares 39.
(15) Ibid., 42.

Paul Koudounaris has a PhD in art history from the University of California and has written widely on European ossuaries and charnel houses for both academic and popular journals. He is the author of The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us, and Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Paul is a member of the Order of the Good Death and has over 110k followers on Instagram.

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