Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding

Warren Gamaliel Harding, twenty-ninth president of the United States, died in a San Francisco hotel room on the evening of 2 August 1923. The sudden end to his brief, unhappy administration, and the refusal of First Lady Florence Harding to permit an autopsy, fueled subsequent rumors of foul play and cast a retrospective shadow over the president’s final days. It has been suggested that Harding committed suicide, or might even have been murdered, in order to avoid imminent revelations of scandal that could have resulted in his impeachment and removal from office.

Within months of his death, some of the president’s key associates, including Attorney General Harry Daugherty, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, and the Veterans Bureau chief, Charles Forbes, were mired in the Teapot Dome oil lease investigations.

Teapot Dome was America’s worst experience of political scandal before Watergate and has since become a catchall term to describe the illegal sale of government oil lands in Wyoming for profit, along with other, loosely linked cases of fraud, embezzlement, and bribery by Harding’s cronies— the men who constituted “The Ohio Gang” who followed the new president to Washington in 1921.

Harding himself is not thought to have been personally involved and probably knew little or nothing of the corruption within his government until mid1923. The dawning realization, however, was known to have deeply troubled him. Embarking on a tour of the western United States to promote U.S. membership of the World Court, Harding exhausted himself by insisting on a punishing schedule of public appearances.

After his collapse in Seattle, the rest of the tour was canceled on Florence Harding’s orders and the president was rushed through to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. At first, his condition seemed to improve but, on the evening of 2 August, as his wife read to him a favorable news article from the Saturday Evening Post, the president suffered a relapse and died.

Conspiracy theorists have had plenty of material to work with in the case of Warren Harding. Conflicting accounts of the exact time of the president’s death, its exact cause, and the number and identity of persons in the presidential suite at the time, aroused suspicion among reporters, as did Florence Harding’s refusal to allow an autopsy.

The former first lady later destroyed many of her husband’s personal papers, while the rest were closed to historians for forty years. This generated fresh rumors that she, or her husband, had something to hide. In the absence of detailed, academic analyses of the president and his administration, the way was left open for less reliable commentators to fashion Harding’s image and place in history.

In 1930, Gaston Means, a private investigator and convicted perjurer, published The Strange Death of President Harding, alleging that Florence Harding had confessed to administering an overdose to her husband, with his tacit complicity, during his illness in San Francisco.

Her aim, she told Means, was to spare him the humiliation of impeachment. Harding apparently understood what she was doing as the fatal dose was administered and accepted it as his sole means of escape from onrushing disaster.

Means also confirmed the claim of Nan Britton’s 1926 memoir, The President’s Daughter, that she had been Harding’s mistress and had borne his child. Jealousy of Harding’s philandering, Means wrote, had driven Mrs. Harding to employ private detectives to keep track of his extracurricular activities.

Popular fiction later took up these promising themes of adultery, scandal, and petty espionage. In the 1926 play Revelry, Samuel Hopkins Adams’s pastiche of the Harding years, the failed “president” Willis Markham commits suicide to avoid humiliation.

In Gore Vidal’s Hollywood (1989), much is made of Florence Harding’s 1920 visit to noted Washington astrologer Madame Marcia, who had famously predicted in 1920 Harding’s election and premature death. Vidal, however, has Marcia prophesying the president’s murder.

The rumor mill ground on for four decades. While Harding’s philandering nature has been confirmed by most scholars of the period, there exists no clear evidence to substantiate the wilder rumors of presidential murder. The most likely explanation for Harding’s death is that of sheer nervous exhaustion, exacerbating an already dangerous heart condition.

Two recent Harding analysts, Robert Ferrell (1996) and Carl Sferrazza Anthony (1998), support the theory of death from natural causes. Anthony adds an extra dimension by speculating that the homeopathic remedies practiced on the president by Dr.

Charles Sawyer may have been a significant contributory factor to Harding’s sudden death at a time when he had appeared to be on the road to recovery. Ferrell and Anthony point to a postmortem disagreement between Sawyer and other medical experts as to the cause of Harding’s death.

Anthony suggests that the real cause of death—a fatal heart attack brought on by strong purgatives that were administered relentlessly by Sawyer and weakened the president’s condition—was covered up in order to protect Sawyer’s reputation. Anthony claims that although the death was innocent and accidental, it was nevertheless a case of negligent homicide.

Despite this, the rumors of conspiracy have never entirely been silenced. Interpretations of the Harding years have been dominated more by hostile journalists, gossip, and popular fiction than by serious historical analysis and this has given the entire period an “unbalanced” character, in which the focus has been almost entirely upon the president’s love life, his wife’s addiction to clairvoyants, and his associates’ thievery.

In such a lurid environment, murder conspiracy theories thrive. The facts are insufficient to sustain such theories but, in the case of President Harding, the justifying principle appears to be not that presidential murder took place, but that, given the surreal nature of the Harding era, it would not have been surprising.