The Strange Death of President Harding;

The news of his death was a shock to the nation, close friends and loved ones alike. He seemed so robust, big and strong. He was over six foot tall, handsome, friendly, unassuming and generous. In fact, the common view of Warren G. Harding was that more than anything he looked presidential. After the previous three presidents (Theodore Roosevelt who was like an actor bigger than life playing a part for history, William Taft who was just plain big, and Woodrow Wilson the cold distant intellectual who acted as savior to the world) this man, the first to be elected in an election finally allowing full participation by women, seemed a calming influence. Like the famous campaign phrase that brought him to office he seemed a "Return to Normalcy."

Now, midway through his term of office, he was dead. There had been no apparent sign of the approach of death for this relatively young president. At 58 he continued to love to travel, one of the most traveled presidents thus far in history, and meet the people. Assistants always had to try and reign him in. He would always stop in front of any crowd at the White House or train stop and shake hands and greet those who he had asked for their vote.

He had been born on a farm in 1865 near Blooming Grove, Ohio. He got enough education to take up teaching then editing a newspaper in Marion, Ohio. Actually he was not successful until he married Florence Kling. She became obsessed with her "Wurr'n" and personally took over the management of the newspaper. Throughout the rest of her life she was possessed with her husband's career and place in history. He probably reached beyond his abilities because of her. As an increasingly influential editor he won some low level state political jobs (state senator 1899-1902 and lieutenant governor 1903-1904) and eventually going to the US Senate (1915-1921) where his only distinctions seem to be golf and poker. Strangely, because he was so unconfrontational, everyone liked him. Then in one of those behind the scenes moves engineered by political bosses he became a candidate for president, a compromise against three other very capable possible contenders. He was elected in 1920 and probably was a person way over his head.

Harding's presidency was undistinguished. He dealt with people well and took extensive trips so he remained a popular president.One such trip to Alaska was strenuous and after he received a strange coded message from Washington he collapsed. At a rest stop at San Francisco more changes in the president's health began to occur. He complained of being very tired and then collapsed again. First reports were that he had ptomaine poisoning probably from eating tainted crab meat. The next day attending doctors called it pneumonia and proclaimed his condition as "grave." Then he rallied for a day before the final relapse on August 2nd, 1923. This came as his wife was alone reading to him. He went into a violent convulsion, she said, and was gone.

Why did Warren G. Harding die? There are several possible explanations.

First, there was his wife who knew of and tired of his numerous sexual trysts. For example, he and his wife had some close friends in Ohio with whom they frequently vacationed. Harding had an affair with the woman, Carrie Phillips, and she constantly threatened to expose him until finally rumors had reached the "Duchess," his wife Florence Harding. Of course, Carrie's husband knew, as well, and never forgave Harding for seducing his wife and ruining his marriage. Even more devastating was Nan Britton, a young girl from Marion, Ohio, who had a long lasting affair with Harding. In fact, Secret Service agents would bring her into the White House and the President would hide with Nan in the cloakrooms to make love. She got pregnant and had a daughter, Elizabeth Ann, who to her dying day claimed to be Harding's child. The president regularly sent money to Nan to help with the care of the child but otherwise accepted no responsibility. Florence Harding knew of these things and was increasingly losing her grip. Such scandal, as horrible and humiliating as it was to her, was even more terrifying now that she was the first lady. She had always been sickly, in fact she would die within a year of the president's death, and soon suspicion arose over her role in San Francisco. In fact, one former Bureau of Investigation agent, Gaston Means, claimed in a book called The Strange Death of President Harding that she killed the president. However, the reputation of Gaston Means was highly suspect as well. However, the first lady was adamant in not allowing an autopsy of her dead husband. Nor did she allow for the customary death mask to be cast. Many thought she feared any too close a look at the dead president.

Depression and self inflicted death might be another possibility. In his youth Harding had a frail emotional and psychological health. When he was 24 he had a nervous breakdown and spent several weeks in Dr. Kellogg's sanatorium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was there in 1889, 1894, 1897 and 1903. Besides golf he loved card games and once gambled away an entire set of antique White House china. Furthermore, there were definite signs of hypertension. Harding never believed he was up to the job of presidency. On numerous occasions he confided that he was in over his head. However, just as he was beginning to feel a little confident a long hidden secret was beginning to be rumored about.

Racism in the 1920s continued to be intense. And publications were beginning to appear attesting to the rumor that Harding's genealogy showed an African American connection. Professor William Chancellor of Wooster University wrote a book, The Right of the American People to Know, tracing the genealogy of the President and said that Harding was part African American. In the 1920s such news, true or not, was political death. Agents of the Secret Service and Bureau of Investigation quickly confiscated the printing and the plates of this book. However, a few slipped through and rumors were rife in America on the President's ancestry.

Furthermore, both Carrie and Nan were pressuring the President to leave the Duchess and take up his responsibility with them. He continued to put them off, and they continued to threaten. Carrie was erratic making all kinds of threats. In the meantime her husband quietly seethed in rage. But Nan, the mother of his child, was more determined. She did not want money alone, she wanted the Harding name. She would continually "show up" at places where the President would be. She loved to look upon him and by chance have Florence see her.

Lastly, it was clear that his popularity was beginning to decline. First, certain sectors of the economy, particularly the farmers, were not well off. For several weeks in late 1922 a steady stream of threatening letters came to the White House announcing that the President was "marked for death." Florence had gone to an astrologer and received premonitions of his death as well. Secret Service agents increased their security. Second, there were some disturbing revelations coming out of his own cabinet about corruption. Messages reached him in Alaska and his mood immediately turned worse. He confided to a close acquaintance: "I can handle my enemies, but God protect me from my friends! Perhaps, his leadership style was his doom. Harding appointed some good people to his cabinet (Herbert Hoover to Commerce, Charles Evans Hughes to State, and Andrew Mellon to Treasury) but there were some bad appointments and Harding pretty much let them go their own ways. A group of cronies came to Washington with him who were dubbed the "Ohio Gang." One such person was the highly political and devious Harry Daugherty, the person who got Harding nominated for president because, he exclaimed later, "He looked like a President." As a reward Daugherty, over the objections of many, was made Attorney General. Eventually he will be implicated in graft and forced from office. Daugherty's livein friend, Jesse Smith, saw the gathering storm and committed suicide under unusual circumstances. Smith feared and hated all guns yet he apparently shot himself in the head. Many felt he had been murdered.

Another of Daugherty's boyhood friends, William Burns, was named head of the Bureau of Investigation. Famed as a private detective Burns ran and misran the bureau as if it were his private detective agency. Any criticism of Daugherty, for example, ended in harassment by bureau agents. And it was rumored among insider bureaucratic that Harding knew of Dauherty's criminality and was going to expose and fire the Attorney General when he returned from Alaska. One of Burns' agents, Gaston Means, had been indicted (though not convicted) earlier for murder. Eventually he will go to jail for graft and influence peddling. He will claim in his book that he was in the hire of the first lady to spy upon the President and uncover any evidence of infidelity.

Two close friends appointed to Veterans Bureau and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian were arrested for graft. More importantly, one such appointment was the former Senator from New Mexico, Albert Fall, to be Secretary of Interior. By the spring of 1923, rumors inspired an investigation by Senator Thomas J. Walsh of the illegal leasing of government oil reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming to the Sinclair Oil company; Fall had received $400,000 in gifts and "loans" from the oil company for his decision. Eventually this will bring down Fall and his imprisonment. In short, by 1923 the reputation of the Harding administration was hanging by a thread. Only a major diversion could keep the public from looking too closely at the personal and political debacle of Warren Harding's life.

Suggested Readings

Robert H. Ferrell. The Strange Deaths of President Harding (1996)

Gaston Means. The Strange Death of President Harding (1930)

Francis Russell. The Shadow of Blooming Grove: Warren Harding in his Times (1968)