Lesson #6: The Strange Death of Warren Harding (1923)
by Russell Aiuto
Within minutes of Warren G. Harding's death at either 7:10, 7:20, or 7:30 p.m. on
August 2, 1923, rumors began to circulate. No one present at his demise could give
the correct time of death. No one seemed to be sure who was on hand in the San Francisco
hotel room when he breathed his last. Most of all, the four physicians who had been
caring for Harding for the previous week could not agree on the cause of death. It
had something to do with his heart. On the other hand, perhaps it was a stroke. Alternatively,
it could have been both, exacerbated by the ptomaine poisoning that he may or may
not have experienced a few days earlier in Vancouver. Despite the confusion over
the time of death, surely an autopsy would resolve the uncertainty about what killed
Warren G. Harding.
Except—there was no autopsy. Mrs. Harding—the "Duchess," as her husband called her—would
not permit it. Within an hour of his death, he was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed,
and in his casket. By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C.
It is little wonder that newspaper reporters, servants, and minor attending officials
speculated about the circumstances of the death of the 29th President of the United
States. How could an event so important to the life of the nation be so shoddily
handled? Or was there some secret, something about this death that needed covering
The entire affair was so bizarre that it was inevitable that conspiracy theories
arose. Was it suicide? If so, why? Was it murder? If so, who did it?
The Making of a President
To understand the strange circumstances of his death, it is necessary to know something
of Harding himself. How could he have assembled such a loony group around him? If
he committed suicide, what would have driven him to it? If he was murdered, who had
reason for killing him and what was their motive?
It is difficult not to treat the story of Harding frivolously. He was a frivolous
man, well meaning, but nonetheless a man who inspires irreverence.
The life and presidency of Warren Gamaliel Harding is essentially a comic story.
Harding had many admirable traits—kindness, charm, generosity—but he was basically
an inept man, without many talents. If it had not been for his steely, extremely
capable wife, and a few stalwart members of his cabinet, he would have had no presidential
accomplishments at all. From the time of his entry into politics in Ohio to the time
of his death, his career can best be described as slapstick, a sort of political
gang that couldn't shoot straight.
Yet the Harding story is, in its own way, sad. Besides the buffoonery of his days
in the Senate and the White House, there is the tale of a man in over his head, trusting
of untrustworthy associates, trying to do his best.
Harding was born in 1865 in the farming village of Blooming Grove, Ohio. His family
moved to the somewhat larger town of Marion, Ohio, when he was a child. While his
father was a doctor, his was essentially a farming family. He grew up with the usual
farm chores of late 19th Century Middle America, did reasonably well in school, and
went off to a small Ohio college. After graduating, he taught school for a year,
and then left the demanding teaching profession for the newspaper business. Together
with two other young men, he bought a local weekly, the Marion Star. Soon, he was
the sole owner, and spent his adult life, other than his career in politics, as a
He was not, strictly speaking, a newspaperman. He wrote editorials, most of them
loyally Republican in an otherwise Democratic county, but most of his efforts were
in seeking advertising. He was a typical, small town glad-hander, a quintessential
Midwestern Rotarian, a tall, handsome young man on Main Street chatting up the local
citizens. He was clearly a politician in the making. A Marion "booster," he played
coronet in the town band, frequented the roller-skating rink, and played poker. Sinclair
Lewis could not have invented a more typical character in his novels about small
While still in his 20s, Harding became an orator. In the ornate style of the time,
he gave speeches at county and state Republican conventions. They were noted for
their William Jennings Bryan puffery, high-sounding orations without much comprehensible
At about this time, the daughter of Marion's richest man, Amos Kling, spotted the
handsome, confident, and personable young man, and set her cap for him. Her name
was Florence Kling DeWolfe. She was five years older than Harding, had recently been
divorced (albeit from a common-law marriage) and was a piano teacher. She was smart,
tough, and reasonably good-looking. She had given birth to a child from her brief
"marriage," and had given the child to her stingy, mean-spirited father to raise.
She met Harding at the skating rink, and within a year, they were married. It was
a marriage that would make the career of Warren G. Harding.
Florence took over the business operations of the Star, and capably directed the
paper's fortunes. In the meantime, Harding was free to "bloviate" (as he called his
speeches and conversations) and become a town fixture. His good nature and charm
overcame the vicious rumors spread by his father-in-law, the most damning of which
was that the Harding family had Negro blood. Florence and her husband were estranged
from her father for more than seven years after their marriage.
With Florence's encouragement, Harding ran for the Ohio State Senate and won. He
served two terms, followed by a term as lieutenant governor, and then was defeated
when he ran for governor. A fundamentally lazy man whose approach to politics was
conciliation and compromise, Harding did not mind returning to Marion and his role
as newspaper publisher.
During these early years of their marriage, Harding began his long career as an adulterer,
and fathered the first of his illegitimate children. He and Florence never had children.
She was, as he said many times over the years, his "partner," his "best pal," his
"Duchess." Not, however, the mother of his children. Harding's life is resplendent
with adulteries and one-night stands, a compulsion that he maintained almost to his
During his service as state senator, Harding, who certainly looked presidential,
was noticed by a fevered Ohio politician, Harry Daugherty. Daugherty recognized that
Harding could very well be his political meal ticket, and that someday he could guide
this tall, good-looking, and charming boob to the greatest heights of political achievement.
Between the Duchess and Daugherty, Harding's trajectory to the presidency was a sure
thing—at least Daugherty thought so. Daugherty was a schemer and a crook, but he
knew a successful politician when he saw one.
After a hiatus from public life, Daugherty and the Duchess successfully brought Harding
to the U.S. Senate in 1914. As always, Harding was well liked by his colleagues.
His policy of conciliation and compromise was as successful in Washington as it had
been in Columbus. One could always find Harding on both sides of an issue, and could
expect him to wait until the last moment before casting his lot with one side or
the other. During his six years as a senator, the Hardings enjoyed their Washington,
D.C., life, except for the snubs that Florence had to endure from other senators'
wives. However, one day she would pay them back.
Harding enjoyed being a senator. Yet Daugherty and others saw him as the Republican
hope for the presidency, particularly in the sad last days of the Woodrow Wilson
administration. At first, the Duchess was reluctant to encourage her husband on this
last, great quest. Her reluctance was reinforced by the prediction of her astrological
adviser, Madame Marcia, who foresaw in the stars the presidency for Harding, but
added that he would not live out his term of office.
Eventually, Daugherty persuaded Florence. The strategy was to make the well-liked
Harding every delegate's second choice at the 1920 Republican National Convention
in Chicago. The strategy worked. Slowly, the strength of the front three candidates
eroded and late in the convention Warren G. Harding became the Republican nominee
for president on the seventh ballot. Legend has it that Harding became the nominee
after a long meeting in a "smoke-filled room," but the reality was that influential
Republicans came and went from a hotel suite trying to figure out how to break the
convention deadlock. Daugherty traded many favors and promised a number of political
appointments as he seduced delegates from the three front-runners.
Then came the campaign—and a strange one it was. James Cox, the Democratic candidate
and the Governor of Ohio, traveled the length and breadth of the country, while Harding
conducted a "front porch" campaign from his home in Marion, just as William McKinley
had done in his successful campaign for the presidency in 1896.
Droves came to hear orations by the candidate and, with a strategy developed by Florence,
entertainment personalities (for the first, but not for the last, time in American
politics) flocked to Marion to endorse the Republican candidate. Harding won the
election handily. Warren G. Harding was now president and the colorless Calvin Coolidge,
his eventual successor, his vice president.
America's Best Loved and Least Effective President
Warren G. Harding was inaugurated as the 29th President of the United States on March
4, 1921. He looked every inch a President—silver hair, dark eyebrows, tall, handsome,
smiling—a president sent from central casting. His inaugural speech, a bit better
than his usual "bloviations," introduced the famous word "normalcy." Warren Harding
was going to return a war-weary country to the peace and happiness of a bygone era.
Everything would return to normal.
President Warren Harding's first cabinet
Harding blundered from the very start of his presidency. He formed a cabinet that
had four wise men, two non-entities, and three crooks. These selections would come
back to haunt him.
The four capable appointees were Charles Evans Hughes (Secretary of State), Herbert
Hoover (Secretary of Commerce), Henry Wallace (Secretary of Agriculture), and Andrew
Mellon (Secretary of the Treasury). The two non-entities were James J. Davis (Secretary
of Labor) and Will Hays (Postmaster General).
But it was the last three "old pals" who would disgrace his administration. The first
scoundrel was Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior, a New Mexico senator and
pal from Harding's poker-playing days in the Senate. The second was not so much a
scoundrel as an incompetent—Edwin C. Denby, Secretary of the Navy. The third was
Harding's campaign manager and Ohio politico, Harry Daugherty, who was appointed,
of all things, Attorney General. In Albert Fall, Harding had selected an anti-environmentalist
with a penchant for acquiring land and wealth for himself. In Daugherty, he had selected
a schemer and shady politician to be the nation's leading law enforcer. Denby's goal
in life was to be liked. With 27 million American males to choose from, Harding picked
three of the worst.
President and Mrs. Harding got off to a good start. They opened the White House to
visitors, a practice that had been curtailed during the Wilson administration. The
social functions of the presidency allowed Florence to return the snubs that the
Hardings had endured during his six years in the Senate. With Mellon's help, Harding
created the Bureau of the Budget to oversee government spending. He held a far-reaching
disarmament conference, primarily to provide an alternative to the League of Nations,
Wilson's attempt at world peace that had so polarized the nation. Secretary of State
Hughes was instrumental in accomplishing a treaty that curtailed the growth of sea
power. Mrs. Harding became an advocate for World War I veterans, particularly those
that had been disabled.
Florence 's advocacy for veterans was only part of her impact on the Harding administration.
She participated in the selection of government appointments, one of which, the Director
of Veterans Affairs, would prove to be disastrous. This appointment went to the Hardings'
good friend, Charles Forbes, who was soon to lead the administration into scandal.
All Hell Breaks Loose
It wasn't long into the Harding presidency before the scoundrels began their work.
Daugherty surrounded himself with nefarious characters. The most odious of the group
was Jesse Smith, an unofficial member of the Justice Department who specialized in
kickbacks, whiskey distribution—Prohibition had gone into effect in 1919—and political
favors, all, presumably, with the approval of Daugherty.
William "Billy" Burns
A second remarkable character was Billy Burns, owner of a famous detective agency,
who became director of the FBI, and was Daugherty's principal instrument for intimidation
of citizens who were critical of Harding or Daugherty. Burns, who kept his detective
agency throughout his tenure as FBI Director, employed Gaston B. Means, an ex-convict
and swindler of the first rank whose assignments included shadowing Harding on his
amorous escapades. Smith, in particular, was important, since he delivered blackmail
payoffs to a number of Harding's mistresses when they threatened to make public the
amazingly juvenile love letters written to them by Senator, and then, President Harding.
Most of all, this group, particularly Smith and Daugherty, formed the nucleus for
late night poker games and stag parties held in a special house kept for that purpose.
It was, in effect, Harding's YMCA.
A dollar-a-year man hired by Daugherty was none other than the publisher of The Washington
Post, Ned McLean, whose wife, Evalyn (the owner of the famous Hope Diamond), was
Florence's best friend. Basically, McLean was Harding's pimp and one of his bootleggers.
It was his house, occupied by Daugherty and Smith, which was the setting for the
presidential shenanigans. Though both were married, Daugherty and Smith had a very
domestic relationship in McLean's hideaway, prompting speculation that the attorney
general and his unpaid assistant were gay.
Albert B. Fall
While shenanigans were going on in the Department of Justice, Albert B. Fall, with
the cooperation of the hapless secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, set his corruption
scheme into operation. During World War I, Wilson had placed the nation's oil reserves
under the control of the Navy Department. Fall, who was a friend of the oil barons
Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny, saw a golden opportunity. He convinced Harding
to transfer the authority over the oil reserves from the Navy Department to the Department
of the Interior. The clueless Denby went along with the proposal.
Fall's objective was to sell the oil leases in the federal lands surrounding the
oil reserves to the oil companies. He did this without competitive bidding to Doheny
(the Elk Hills oil reserve in California) and Sinclair (the Teapot Dome oil reserve
in Wyoming). The oil companies stood to make $100 million each, a considerable sum
for the time.
Coincidentally, after the leases were approved, Albert Fall's ranch in New Mexico
was improved and expanded, all on his modest government salary of $12,000 a year.
When eventually confronted with questions about his newly acquired wealth, Fall first
said that he had received a loan from McLean, and then admitted that he had received
"loans" from Doheny and Sinclair. One loan, from Doheny, was $100,000, delivered
in a suitcase by Doheny's son. Soon after the leases were given to Sinclair and Doheny,
Fall resigned his cabinet post (much to the regret of his good friends, the Hardings)
and went to work for Sinclair. One cannot say that Albert Fall lacked boldness.
After Harding's death, Fall was charged with corruption; Sinclair and Doheny with
bribery. They were tried, convicted, and sent to prison. Fall, the first cabinet
member in history to go to jail, served a year.
Daugherty was not to be outdone by Fall, whom he did not like. In addition to skimming
his part of the take from Jesse Smith's operations, Daugherty also managed to sell
off government surplus goods at ridiculously low prices, which the purchasing companies
then sold for many times what they paid. Here again, Daugherty took the kickbacks.
The Daugherty-Smith illegal gains ended up in Daugherty's brother's bank in the oddly
named town of Washington Court House, Ohio. Daugherty was indicted for corruption
and tried twice. His first trial resulted in a hung jury. He was found not guilty
at his second trial because of insufficient evidence. It seems that the records of
his brother's bank had mysteriously disappeared, and his partner in crime, Jesse
Smith, had killed himself in 1923.
The boldest of the grafters was Charlie Forbes, a favorite of Mrs. Harding and the
man responsible for the care of her "boys," as she called the World War I veterans.
As director of the Bureau of Veterans, Forbes also sold supplies to willing purchasers,
but, in this instance, these were hospital supplies—not surplus—needed by the veterans'
hospitals. Worse, without approval from congress or the president, Forbes proceeded
on a program of hospital construction, taking his cut from the inflated income of
the contractors. In these schemes, he was assisted by the Veterans Bureau auditor,
There is a marvelous scene, worthy of the Three Stooges, in which Harding was found
choking Forbes, shouting, "You yellow rat! You double-crossing bastard!" Forbes asked
to conduct an inspection of British veterans' hospitals, and Harding forced him to
write a letter of resignation before he left. It was not needed. Before Forbes could
leave the ship when it arrived in Southampton, England, Forbes received a cablegram
that he had been fired. A little over a month later, Cramer committed suicide. Eventually,
Forbes was tried, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison.
There were at least two other suicides among these bands of pirates. Doheny's son,
the messenger with the suitcase of money, committed suicide during the oil lease
scandal investigations of 1924. Jesse Smith questioned by Harding about his activities,
particularly for his arranging for paroles of convicts (for a price) without seeking
the President's approval, committed suicide in June 1923. The usually ebullient Smith
became depressed after this interview, and was particularly upset that he was no
longer in favor with the President and the First Lady. Evidently, he fed on being
intimate with power. (It is important to note that Smith had an intense fear of firearms,
and it was odd that he would choose a revolver for his suicide. Gaston Means suggests
that Smith was murdered in order to silence him.) The Hardings were shaken by Smith's
death, as they prepared for a fateful trip west, but they were not nearly as upset
as Smith's co-conspirator and housemate, Harry Daugherty.
The Final Trip
For a number of years, the Hardings had been looking forward to a trip to the Far
West, particularly Alaska. Finally, after Florence's serious illness in the late
fall and winter of 1922, and the President's debilitating case of influenza in the
winter and spring of 1923, they departed with an entourage in June 1923.
Accompanying them were the two White House physicians, Dr. Charles Sawyer, a homeopathic
quack; and Dr. Joel Boone, a Navy physician assigned to the White House, but under
the thumb of the quirky Dr. Sawyer. The Duchess swore by the skills of Sawyer, who,
she claimed, had saved her life the previous winter. Also in the party were George
Christian, Harding's secretary; and three cabinet secretaries: Work (who had replaced
Fall), Wallace, and Hoover (who would meet them on the West Coast). The trip was
called a "Voyage of Understanding."
The train transporting the presidential party reached Tacoma, Wash., on July 4, after
numerous stops and speeches along the way. Harding was clearly weak and tired, and,
on some occasions, the Duchess gave impromptu speeches in his stead from the rear
platform of the train. The President was brooding over the betrayals of his friends.
After four days of sailing, with Harding playing bridge most of the way, the ship
carrying the group reached Alaska. They made brief stops along the Alaskan coast,
and, on the return trip, Harding indulged in a feast of crabs and butter. When they
reached Seattle, Harding faltered while delivering a speech and was rescued by Hoover
as he dropped pages of his manuscript. He complained of violent cramps and indigestion
and was put to bed. Sawyer diagnosed Harding's complaints as "a slight attack of
ptomaine" from the crabs he had eaten. Dr. Boone, however, was alarmed, and told
Secretary Hoover that there was more to it than indigestion. Harding's heart was
enlarged. Hoover telegraphed ahead to San Francisco requesting that the president
of Stanford University, Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, who was also president of the American
Medical Association, meet the train. They proceeded directly to San Francisco, canceling
a scheduled speech in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Charles Minor Cooper, a noted heart specialist,
who had been enlisted by Wilbur, joined the group. Harding refused a wheel chair
and walked off the train into a waiting limousine. He was whisked to the Palace Hotel,
and put to bed at once.
The Palace Hotel
Harding was scheduled to deliver a speech on the World Court in San Francisco. Remaining
ill, he canceled the speech, but had Hoover release it to the press. All of his scheduled
activities for California were canceled. Harding rallied, sitting up in bed and eating
solid food, reading the newspapers, and talking with the Duchess, Christian, Boone,
Sawyer, and Hoover. Sawyer announced that the crisis had passed, while Boone, Wilbur,
and Cooper were convinced that Harding had suffered a heart attack.
On the evening of August 2, Florence was reading an admiring article about him that
he clearly enjoyed. According to one account, she left the room to go to her suite
across the corridor. One of the nurses came into the room with a glass of water so
that Harding could take his evening medication. She saw Harding's face twitch and
his mouth drop open. The nurse ran for Florence, who entered the room, saw her husband
dead, and then called for Dr. Boone. By the time Boone arrived (in only a few minutes)
Harding had been laid out in a white robe, eyes closed, flat on the bed. This, according
to Francis Russell, is the official version.
Dr. Boone's recollections of the death were quite different. Dr. Sawyer was not in
the room. Hoover's memoirs state that Dr. Sawyer was in the room, lying across the
foot of the bed, taking Harding's pulse, or simply holding his hand. The two nurses,
the consulting physicians, and reporters immediately outside told different stories.
All that is clear is that Harding died some time between 7 p.m. and 7:35 p.m., but
who was actually with him remains unknown.
The slow train ride from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., gave countless citizens
an opportunity to show their affection for the good-natured, likeable president.
It was the greatest outpouring of grief since the death of Abraham Lincoln. The oil
lease scandals and the veterans' affairs corruption were not yet public, so the collective
memory of the citizenry at the time of his death was of their handsome, friendly
Mrs. Harding had Harding's casket elevated, so that as the train passed, the thousands
along the route could glimpse their beloved president.
Warren Harding was eventually laid to rest in an elaborate mausoleum in Marion, Ohio,
a structure finally dedicated by President Herbert Hoover in 1931. By this time,
Harding's reputation had plummeted, where it remains to this day. It was an awkward
dedication. Besides the scandals, there lingered questions about how Harding actually
There are four theories about the death of Warren Harding, ranging from the straightforward
and plausible to the speculative and bizarre. These theories are natural causes,
negligent homicide, suicide, and murder.
If ever there was a candidate for a heart attack, it was Warren Harding. He lived
the fat-filled, tobacco-infused, and alcohol-drenched life of early 20th Century
America with gusto.
While Harding epitomized the vigor of the corn-fed farm boy, he was, in reality,
a violator of reasonably healthy behavior. His only exercise consisted of desultory
rounds of golf, fairly frequent love trysts, and at least twice-weekly marathon poker
games. These card games were drenched in highballs, suffused with cigar smoke, and
punctuated with copious expectorations of tobacco juice into strategically placed
spittoons. While Harding and his cronies played cards and munched on roast beef sandwiches,
the Duchess kept the whiskey flowing. These games often ran past one in the morning.
There were clear indications that Harding had coronary artery disease. He was short
of breath, and for a considerable time he had to sleep propped up on pillows in order
to breathe. During his final trip west, his lips were often blue. For most of his
presidency, he complained of periods of indigestion that were, in all likelihood,
attacks of angina.
Dr. Charles Sawyer—Doc Sawyer, as he was known in the Harding family—was a homeopathic
physician who believed in herbal preparations, purgatives, laxatives, and other folk
remedies. (Harding's other doctor, a scientifically trained allopathic physician,
was Dr. Joel Boone, who was kept at a distance from his famous patient by the jealous
and possessive Sawyer.) In brief, Harding's worsening coronary disease went untreated.
Or, one might propose, incorrectly treated.
Still, because of his cheerful vigor, Harding's death came as a surprise. For all
of Dr. Boone's concern, one is left with the impression (derived from Dr. Boone's
diaries and memoirs) that he felt that Harding could have been saved. Even with that
hopeful outlook, Boone and the specialists brought into the picture when the ill
Harding arrived in San Francisco thought that Sawyer's treatment of Harding was,
at best, contrary to the best medical practice, and, at worst, bizarre.
Harding was already in a weakened state. He had experienced a severe bout of influenza
in January 1923, and had returned to his duties before he had fully recovered. In
the meantime, Sawyer, continuing to mistake Harding's angina for indigestion, was
convinced that its severity was compounded by ptomaine poisoning from "a mess of
King Crabs drenched in butter." Obviously, reasoned Sawyer, he had to purge Harding
of the poisons with powerful purgatives. The fact that Harding became weaker and
weaker with this treatment did not alarm Sawyer as it had the other three physicians.
The agreed upon "cause of death" was a stroke, although only Sawyer appeared to believe
that conclusion. The other three doctors, particularly Boone, believed that Harding
died from a heart attack. Most likely, the three allopaths agreed to the diagnosis
of a stroke to keep Sawyer's reputation from being damaged by his inept care of the
President of the United States.
A reasonable conclusion is that Harding was a victim of negligent homicide. The case
for this is strengthened by Sawyer's strange behavior at the time of Harding's death.
One might reconstruct those last moments in the hotel room in San Francisco as follows:
Sawyer, having given Harding another powerful dose of purgative, propelled the president
into cardiac arrest. Alarmed at the result, he rushed from the sickroom to get a
counteracting stimulant, but returned from his own room too late to save Harding.
Even if this scenario cannot be proved, it is clear that Sawyer was guilty of horrendous
malpractice, both in diagnosis and treatment. It is reasonable to conclude that Harding,
who might have died sooner or later from a heart attack, was a victim of negligent
“I can deal with my enemies. It's my goddam friends that have me walking the floor
at night!" So Warren Harding supposedly told the famous journalist, William Allen
There was no question that Harding was worried about impending revelations that would
demonstrate the graft of his friends—Attorney General Harry Daugherty and his right-hand
man Jesse Smith, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, and Director of Veteran Affairs
Charles Forbes. His Secretary of Commerce (and later President) Herbert Hoover wrote
that Harding, on the fateful trip, asked Hoover what he should do if it was revealed
that scandal might engulf his administration. Hoover's advice was to "get it out
in the open" so that the President could remain above the wrongdoings. Harding dropped
There were times during the Western trip when Harding was visibly depressed. He seemed
particularly shaken after a private interview in St. Louis with Fall's wife. There
was a sword above his head, and Harding knew it. He had made a new will just before
leaving Washington, executed by his personal attorney, Harry Daugherty. He sold his
beloved Marion Star a few weeks before—for a sum far exceeding its worth. His newspaper
was to be his place of retirement, his home to go to after his presidency was over.
All in all, he seemed to be getting his house in order, anticipating his death.
In contradiction to these omens of doom, it appeared that Harding was preparing to
run for a second term, although his campaign manager, Daugherty, might have created
that appearance. Even the rumblings that the auto magnate, Henry Ford, might run
for the presidency did not seem particularly threatening. He might have survived
the scandals after all, since he had fired Forbes and accepted Fall's resignation,
and—considering his conversation with Hoover—contemplating how to disassociate himself
from "his friends."
While one of the rumors floating around after Harding's death was that he committed
suicide to avoid impeachment and disgrace, there is little likelihood that he was
driven to such an act by ingesting poison. It seems an unlikely method to choose
to take one's life, even if he had been clever enough to select a means that would
mimic "natural causes." Harding might have been corruptible, but he was not so clever
The one certainty is that the scandals were worrying him, adding stress to an already
diseased constitution. That, combined with the inept care provided by Doc Sawyer,
would have been enough to do him in.
The specter of murder pervades the characters of the Harding administration. Some
of the suicides, notably Jesse Smith, prompted rumors of murder, since the hapless
Smith knew too much about the schemes that might have involved Daugherty, bootleggers,
grafters, and Harding himself. It is interesting to note that at least five of the
principals in this story died suddenly.
In 1930, the amazing Gaston B. Means published a book entitled The Strange Death
of President Harding. It is difficult to determine whether this book contains accurate
information or whether it is pulp fiction at its worst. Means cast himself as the
hero, a private investigator who can accomplish anything a client requested. The
fact that he was working for the FBI under the disreputable William Burns contributes
to the unsavory nature of the Department of Justice under Daugherty's leadership.
In his book, Means claims that he was on special assignment to Mrs. Harding, who
directed him to obtain evidence of Harding's affair with Nan Britton. (Means repeats
the story, first told by Harding's secretary, George Christian, that disaster was
averted when Mrs. Harding made an unexpected visit to the Oval Office, at the very
time when Harding and Nan were making love in a nearby closet, and was intercepted
by Christian.) With Evalyn McLean acting as an occasional intermediary, Means was
asked to pilfer letters and mementos from Nan Britton, and to deliver them personally
to Mrs. Harding. Means recorded her fury over her husband's infidelity. To add more
spice to his account, Means has other revelations about Jesse Smith, Charlie Forbes,
and other characters.
According to Means, Mrs. Harding had two motives for murdering her husband. The first,
and most important, was to protect his reputation from the looming scandals by killing
him when he was at the height of his popularity. She could not allow him to be disgraced.
His death, she reasoned, would remove him from the tawdry malefactions of his subordinates.
The second motive was revenge, prompted by her jealousy over Nan Britton, who had,
she claimed, given birth to Harding's daughter. The betrayal wounded her so deeply
that she could not allow her beloved Warren to live.
As Means' potboiler of a book steams to its conclusion, Mrs. Harding more or less
admits that she poisoned her husband, almost as an act of charity.
Rumors that Harding had been murdered had been around from just after his death,
and were almost as widespread as those that he had committed suicide. Most of these
murder plots revolved around some idea that Harding had to be silenced, lest he implicate,
punish, or otherwise demolish the careers of the grafters.
But this was different. Florence Harding had been dead for some six years at the
time of the publication of Means' book—she had died a little more than a year after
her husband—and was, of course, not able to defend herself. As it turned out, there
was little need for a defense, since Means, recently released from a federal prison
in Atlanta after serving a sentence of two years for graft, was not a very credible
Surprisingly, Means does get some things right in his book. There are some verifiable
facts, and some details that indeed demonstrate an insider's knowledge of the machinations
of the Harding presidency. The association with Evalyn McLean must have been somewhat
congenial, since he was able to dupe her out of $100,000 in 1934 during the Lindbergh
baby kidnapping case. He claimed that he could ransom the boy, and convinced Mrs.
McLean to provide the cash. After some wild goose chases, Means was shown to be a
fraud, convicted, and spent the rest of his life in prison, where he died in 1939.
Mrs. Harding had endured far more than Nan Britton during her marriage to Warren.
A conservative number of mistresses would be five, all of whom had been bought off
by Daugherty, Ned McLean, or Jesse Smith. The number of one-night stands must have
been formidable. Harding, in his sexual exploits, makes John Kennedy and Bill Clinton
look like Dominican friars. Florence knew of at least four of these mistresses, and
she certainly knew of Warren 's penchant for pretty women. One mistress, once Florence
's best friend, was Carrie Phillips, who carried on an affair (off and on) with Harding
for over 15 years. Another, Grace Cross, had been one of Harding's secretaries during
his senate years, and received a substantial blackmail payment for the return of
incredibly sappy and juvenile love letters Harding wrote her.
It is difficult to imagine that Nan Britton finally enraged her to the point where
she murdered her husband. It could not have been the existence of a child, since
Harding had already fathered an illegitimate child early in their marriage with another
of Florence's best friends.
So, jealousy, even from the long-suffering Duchess, is an unlikely motive. However,
the protection of her husband's reputation was important to her. Her burning much
of her husband's papers immediately after his death evidences this. Nonetheless,
for all of the storm clouds hovering around Warren Harding in August 1923, he was
still popular and beloved. One gets the impression that rather than hurrying Warren
into the Great Beyond in order to protect his good name, the Duchess would have found
a way to weather the storm.
Besides, the Duchess must have known that Warren had not long to live. He was obviously
ill. Most of all, Madame Marcia had foretold that Harding would not live out his
first term, and that, for Florence, was something she feared, but knew—absolutely—would
Hypotheses on Harding's Death
The most likely hypothesis about Warren Harding's death is that put forth by Carl
Anthony. Warren Harding was a victim of medical neglect, or, to be precise, of negligent
homicide. Considering the strange mix of folk medicine and evolving science at the
time, that is not a very remarkable fact. Distinguished physicians often recommended
smoking for their tense patients, so ignorance was a common occurrence in medical
circles of the time.
What makes the case of Warren Harding interesting is the cast of characters surrounding
him, as well as the president himself. While there have been scoundrels around the
presidency throughout American history, none have been quite as colorful as those
around Harding. John Dean (of Watergate fame) recently wrote a book that maintains
that George W. Bush is worse than Dean's old boss, Richard Nixon. Even Nixon, for
all of his problems, was distinctly above the mediocre as a man and as a president.
Some of the associates of Ronald Reagan were a bit odd, particularly during the Iran-Contra
affair, but none rose to the level of idiocy of Fall, Daugherty, and Forbes. Warren
Harding, witless and genial, takes the prize for gathering around him the most disreputable
bunch in 20th Century American politics.
It is tempting to draw parallels. Florence Harding and Nancy Reagan share a preoccupation
with astrology, horoscopes, and the occult, and both provided steely support for
their husbands. One could remark on the proclivities of other presidents to engage
in sexual dalliances—indeed, at least half dozen presidents from Wilson to Clinton
have had mistresses. A cynic might point out that almost every president has had
at least one venal, or slightly demented, cabinet officer.
But, in the last analysis, such parallels would be pointless. The times, the people,
and the country during the period 1920 to 1924 constituted a special set of circumstances
wherein a well-meaning bumbler and his disreputable underlings could construct a
It would be unfair not to mention that Harding did some good things. He pardoned
Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist unjustly imprisoned during World War I for opposing
the war. In his zeal to be a good Republican, he tried to restrain federal spending
by creating the Bureau of the Budget, an institution that is still useful to this
day. Through the talents of his "good" cabinet officers, he was able to create the
forty-hour week, reduce military armaments, and stimulate a lagging economy.
But his failures were many. His successors—Calvin Coolidge, the dour do-nothing,
and Herbert Hoover, the bright but unsuccessful technocrat—inherited a federal government
and policies that would eventually lead to the Great Depression. The fact that the
Teapot Dome and other Harding-era scandals would drag on through both the Coolidge
and Hoover administrations did the country no service.
Whatever one's view—critic or apologist—a significant mystery remains. How did Warren
Harding die? Any conclusion must be murky because evidence is either lacking, or,
when available, contradictory. Is this simply a case of a genial mediocrity who didn't
know how to take case of himself, and paid the price with a stroke? Or is it something
more sinister—a gullible politician who became aware of what was going on around
him, and had to be silenced?
Adams, Samuel Hopkins. 1939. Incredible Era. Houghton Mifflin.
Allen, Frederick Lewis. 1931 (1964 reprint). Only Yesterday. Harper & Row.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza. 1998. Florence Harding. William Morrow.
Britton, Nan. 1927. The President's Daughter. Elizabeth Ann guild, Inc.
Daugherty, Harry M. 1932 (1975 reprint). The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy.
Dean, John W. 2004. Warren G. Harding. Times Books.
Means, Gaston B. 1930. The Strange Death of President Harding. Guild Publishing Co.
Russell, Francis. 1968. The Shadow of Blooming Grove. McGraw-Hill.
Sinclair, Andrew. 1965 (1969 reprint). The Available Man. Quadrangle Books.
Aiuto is a retired educator. He was a college professor of biology, specializing
in genetics, a dean, a provost and a college president. He has a BA in theater from
University of Michigan, a BA in biology and English from Eastern Michigan University
and an MA and Ph.D. in genetics and botany from the University of North Carolina.
After his academic career at Albion College (MI) and Hiram College (OH) he was a
division director at the National Science Foundation, director of research and development
for the National Science Teachers Association, and senior project officer for the
Council of Independent Colleges.
As an author of non-fiction, he has published twelve research papers in genetics,
five science textbooks, a number of articles in science education, literature, and
criticism, and has been the editor of a major national science curriculum revision.
His fiction publications include two short stories, seven plays, and a novel. In
his spare time he enjoys cooking, travel and performing in local theater groups.
He is a contributor to Notable Twentieth Century Scientists and is listed in Who's
Who in America.