Black Jack – the Riderless Black Horse at JFK’s Funeral


Although I was only three when President Kennedy was assassinated, I have what I believe to be a memory of the event. My mother and I were in Central Park, in NYC.  My mother saw that the people around us were weeping and asked what had happened. That’s how we learned that the President was dead. Is that memory real? It’s hard to know and I’ll have to check with my mother about it over Thanksgiving. I just remember the importance of the event and the terrible sorrow around me.

In memory of that day, I’m reposting a story that first appeared on the blog Horse and Man: Black Jack, the Caparisoned Horse and Caissons.

WHO WAS BLACK JACK?

Well, he was probably in our time, depending upon the age of the readers here.  But most of you at least will have seen a photo of JFK’s funeral procession.  In those photos, you always see that marvelous riderless black horse who carried a saddle with boots turned backwards in the stirrups.  This magnificent horse was Black Jack.

Black Jack is the horse following the caisson

WHERE DID HE COME FROM?

The origins of Black Jack seem to be a bit muddled.  They know when he was foaled, January 19th, 1947.  But, they don’t really know his breeding.  Most agree he was probably a mix of Morgan and Quarterhorse.

He was purchased by the US  Army Quartermaster on November 22, 1953.   Black Jack had the honor of being the last of the Quartermaster–issue horses branded with the Army’s U.S. brand (on the left shoulder) and his Army serial number 2V56 (on the left side of his neck).

WHAT IS A CAPARISONED HORSE?

I asked the same thing.

The Caparisoned horse is the riderless horse who follows the caissons (6 horses pulling the cart which carries the casket of the fallen soldier).  The caparisoned horse represents the soldier who will no longer ride in the brigade.  The caparisoned horse wears the cavalry saddle, the sword and backwards boots in the stirrups, symbolizing the end of his tenure.  If you watch any footage of military funerals, you will see this horse.

Black Jack – with his famous white star

After Black Jack retired, “Sgt.York” carried on this tradition. However, there is a huge time gap between when Black Jack retired and when York came into service.  I couldn’t find which horse was used in the interim.

“Sergeant York” was formerly known as “Allaboard Jules”, a racing standardbred gelding. He was renamed (in honor of famous WWI soldier Alvin C. York) when he was accepted into the military in 1997. He served as the riderless horse in President Reagan’s funeral procession, walking behind the caisson bearing Reagan’s flag-draped casket.

He was foaled in 1991, sired by Royce and out of the mare Amtrak Collins sired by Computer. He is a descendant of the great racing stallions Albatross, Tar Heel and Adios.

Sergeant York in Ronald Reagan’s funeral procession

HOW DID BLACK JACK BECOME THE CAPARISONED HORSE?

Well, this is very interesting… Black Jack became the caparisoned horse because he refused to do anything else.  He was not suitable for riding, he wouldn’t pull anything and he refused to parade.  Exasperated, they sent him off to do a funeral procession as the caparisoned horse (riderless horse in the procession).  The only thing Black Jack had going for him at this point was his beauty and the fact that he was black (which is the desired color of  a caparisoned horse).  In his first stint as a caparisoned horse, Black Jack failed again.  He was awfully mannered and failed to behave.   Black Jack absolutely refused to flat walk.  He pranced and danced and threw his head.  He was described as “uncontrollable”.

Black Jack sort of standing still

The Army made a full apology to the family involved but the family responded that the fire in that horse equaled the fire in the loved one they were burying.  To them, Black Jack was a symbol of the life that had been.

So, his job was secured.  From that day forward, Black Jack , with his famous white star, walked in over 1000 funeral processions and worked for 24 years.

THE NAME

Black Jack got his name, basically, because he was Black.  The reference to Black Jack was for General John J. (Black Jack) Perishing, Supreme Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I who was called “Blackjack.”  Somewhere I read about Black Jack’s original name but I cannot find it.  Aargh.  I was something silly like Tippy or something.  I’m kinda glad that they changed it.

Handsome photo

BLACK JACK STORIES

As is standard in the military, officers change jobs every 18 months.  So, Black Jack had a new handler every 18 months.  This was somewhat of an issue because Black Jack was not an easy horse to care for, as you could imagine.  Pete Duda was one of Black Jack’s favorites, and the pair walked together in more than 200 funerals. Duda was reluctant to ride Black Jack, but he was completely dedicated to the horse’s care. He wouldn’t let anyone else near him or his equipment.

Always messing with his handler…

Another bit of trivia… Black Jack was always a hot horse, and he didn’t mellow with age. He was fine when he was walking, though he often pranced beside his walker, but when the procession halted he kicked and circled, displaying his impatience. While he eventually got used to the typical noises of a funeral, he never was able to deal with the cannon salute.  I don’t really blame him on the cannon salute part…

“The media coverage of Kennedy’s funeral brought hordes of school children to Fort Myer after their teachers realized that Black Jack was a national treasure. At first they came in small groups, but eventually hundreds of children visited the barns so they could see the horses and pet Black Jack. He seemed to love the children. Visitors often asked for one of Black Jack’s horseshoes as souvenirs.”

Nancy Schado, a nice woman who lived in the area, began visiting Black Jack – and the other horses in the regiment – fairly regularly.  She baked special goodies for the men and the horses.  Upon one visit, she brought butter pecan cake for everyone.  And, to her surprise, Black Jack went crazy for it.  So, she never brought anything else for Black Jack and was dubbed, “Black Jack’s Mother”.

An early photo of Black Jac

JFK’S FUNERAL

This was written so nicely, I cut and pasted it.

Even though Duda was Black Jack’s favorite, it was Arthur Carlson who would lead Black Jack in Kennedy’s funeral.

On Sunday, Nov. 24, he led Black Jack behind the caisson on the three-mile walk through the cemetery, over the Memorial Bridge, and through the city to Pennsylvania Avenue. The only trouble the unit had was pausing every so often for Black Jack to catch up. When the group reached the Treasury Building, the right rear wheel of the caisson became stuck in a gutter grate. The wheel was so stuck that the caisson dragged the grate a number of yards, which unnerved all the horses, including Black Jack.

When the unit finally arrived at the White House, Black Jack was nervous and wouldn’t stand still. He danced and fidgeted all the way to the Capitol. Because of protocol, Arthur wasn’t able to speak to the horse. After escorting Kennedy’s coffin to the Capitol Building, the caisson unit returned to the stables for the night.

On Monday, they headed back to the Capitol Building to escort Kennedy’s casket again. Black Jack was wild during the procession to the White House, and Arthur was afraid he was going to lose hold of him. At one point, Black Jack stomped down on Arthur’s toe so hard he was sure it was broken, but he couldn’t even bend down to rub it, or show any emotion at all due to the television cameras and witnesses.

Despite his antics, the media carried his image all over the world, and the beauty of his role in Kennedy’s funeral, as well as his display of spirit, touched the American people. Jacqueline Kennedy herself was one of many who became admirers of Black Jack.
On Nov. 27, Jacqueline informed the Secretary of the Army that she wanted to buy Black Jack when he was retired. Her request was acknowledged, and she later received Black Jack’s caparison, which included his saddle, bridle, saddle blanket, sword, boots and spurs.

Black Jack being bad during JFK’s funeral. His handler could not reprimand him or use any voice cues during the event.

OTHER DISTINCTIONS

Black Jack was the first choice in monumental funerals.  Even though he was horribly misbehaved and always a challenge, he was everyone’s first request.  Along with the over 1000 funerals he attended at Arlington, Black Jack had the honor of marched in the funerals of presidents Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as that of General Douglas MacArthur.

RETIREMENT

As Black Jack grew older, the years of marching on blacktop evolved into arthritis and issues with his front feet.  So, Black Jack was retired on June 1, 1973 at the age of 27.

24 years of service

BLACK JACK’S 29TH BIRTHDAY

I found it interesting that Richard Nixon wrote this about Black Jack on the horse’s 29th birthday:

“Black Jack has been a poignant symbol of our nation’s grief on many occasions over the years. Citizens in mourning felt dignity and purpose conveyed, a simpler yet deeper tribute to the memory of those heroic ‘riders’ who have given so much for our nation. Our people are grateful to Black Jack for helping us bear the burden of sorrow during difficult times.”

DEATH

Black Jack’s health deteriorated badly in his final year. His arthritis worsened and his kidneys and liver began to fail.

Because Black Jack held a prominent position in the Army, the veterinarian, Capt. John Burns, had to go up the chain of command to the Department of the Army to receive official permission for Black Jack’s euthanasia.
He died after 29 years of military service on Feb. 6, 1976, and was laid to rest at Fort Myer. He was buried with full military honors, only the second horse in U.S. history to receive such an honor.

Upon his death, Black Jack was cremated.  Tne ashes were placed in an urn, then conveyed by the funeral procession and buried buried near the flag pole at Summerall Field.  A monument was erected that is visited often.

His final resting spot
Black Jack’s monument
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4 thoughts on “Black Jack – the Riderless Black Horse at JFK’s Funeral

    1. Liz Goldsmith

      Thanks — this post was written by/posted at the blog Horse and Man, not here at Equine Ink. If you’d like to let me know which photos are not Black Jack I can remove them.

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