The death of President Warren Harding is one of those enduring mysteries that will probably never be solved. He died on August 2, 1923, and the cause of his death has never been established. The White House said it was food poisoning, and another physician later said it was a cerebral hemorrhage.
Harding started as a young reporter who purchased a struggling newspaper. It continued to struggle, but survived. Harding’s new wife, very efficient and ambitious, organized and streamlined the paper and made it not only profitable but influential as well. Harding became active in politics, serving in the state senate and winning election as lieutenant governor of Ohio. In 1914, with the help of political boss Harry Daugherty, Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate.
In his six years in the U.S. Senate, Harding missed over two-thirds of all roll calls and votes, compiling one of the all-time worst attendance records in the history of that legislative body. He introduced only 134 bills, none of them significant. As much as he disliked the work, he loved the Senate. He was affable, and genuinely well liked by his colleagues. He was a good party man who worked to keep harmony. This was a great help to him in 1920, when a deadlocked Republican convention turned to Harding as a compromise candidate. He easily won the election, defeating Ohio Governor James Cox.
Harding made a number of excellent appointments in his new administration. Charles Hughes was named Secretary of State, Andrew Mellon Secretary of the Treasury, and Herbert Hoover Secretary of Commerce. He named William Howard Taft Chief Justice and Charles Dawes Director of the Budget Bureau. But the majority of his appointments were disasters.
The Ohio cronies who helped elect him wanted their share of the spoils. Along with a few others, such as New Mexico Senator Albert Fall, they were given the major offices in the Harding Administration. His chief supporter, Harry Daugherty, was named as Attorney General. Daugherty then controlled most of the other appointments. The result was that most of the people in government knew each other well and got along well. They were called the Ohio Gang. It made for an extremely efficient government. But this also worked against Harding.
Warren Harding is consistently ranked last in every presidential poll. His administration was marked by the most complete corruption of any in our history. The Navy Department transferred strategic oil reserves to the Interior Department, which then sold the leases to the highest bidder. The newly created Veterans Bureau was looted of millions of dollars that were supposed to be used to support disabled veterans. The Alien Property Custodian also accepted graft. Harry Daugherty accepted bribes to decide Justice Department cases. In spite of Prohibition, liquor was served at the nightly poker games in the White House, and Harding continued to have extra-marital affairs.
Rumors circulated about the graft and corruption. Harding began to show the effects of the constant strain, and his health suffered. He was quoted as saying, “I am not worried about my enemies. It is my friends that are keeping me awake nights.” Another version of the same quote was, “My God, this is a hell of a job! I have no trouble with my enemies…But my damn friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.”
As things began to unravel, Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Bureau, went to Europe and sent his resignation back to the White House. (He was later convicted and sent to jail.) Charles Cramer, Forbes’ assistant at the Veterans Bureau, committed suicide, leaving a suicide note addressed to President Harding (who refused to open it). Jesse Smith, assistant to Attorney General Harry Daugherty, either committed suicide or was murdered. (He supposedly bought a gun and shot himself with it, but he had an absolute terror of guns.) Secretary of the Interior Fall resigned.
The Senate was debating the creation of a special committee to investigate the leases of Navy oil reserve lands to private companies. Harding put all his administration’s effort and resources behind the move to defeat the creation of such a committee. He realized that such a committee would uncover the poorly kept secrets of his administration, and it would mean sure impeachment.
To buoy Harding’s health and spirits, a cross-country trip was planned. During the trip, a long coded message reached the Presidential train informing Harding that the Senate had voted to establish a special committee to investigate the oil leases. Reporters with Harding later told of a depressed looking Harding asking them what a President could do when his friends betrayed him.
During his trip, he went to Canada and Alaska, the first President to go to Alaska. As his train passed through Seattle, he became ill. On July 27, he went to bed with severe cramps and indigestion. Surgeon General Charles Sawyer diagnosed it as food poisoning. On July 29, his train reached San Francisco, and Harding checked into Room 8064 of the Palace Hotel. He developed pneumonia, and had a fever of 102 degrees. On August 1, his fever broke, his accelerated pulse had slowed to normal, and his breathing was more comfortable. He was even making plans to go fishing the next day.
According to Mrs. Harding, she wanted to cheer him up by reading “A Calm View of a Calm Man,” which was a very flattering article about Harding in the Saturday Evening Post. Harding supposedly said, “That’s good. Go on; read some more.” Those were his last words. Mrs. Harding left him when she finished reading the article, with his eyes closed, assuming him asleep. Later, Burse Ruth Powderly came in, saw his face twitch, his mouth drop open, and his head roll to the side. Doctors concluded that he had suffered a stroke. This is where the mystery started.
Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy. Conveniently, California, where Harding’s death took place, did not yet have a mandatory autopsy law. Several rumors started. One said that Harding, already depressed and facing impeachment, committed suicide. Another said that Mrs. Harding poisoned him, to prevent him from suffering the humiliation of impeachment and removal from office, or possibly as revenge for his cheating on her.
This last rumor gained attention with the publication of a book by Gaston Means, a convicted swindler, entitled The Strange Death of President Harding. Means, an erstwhile private detective, had been employed by Mrs. Harding for a number of projects, including breaking into Nan Britton’s apartment to recover President Harding’s love letters to her. Means claimed to have become a confidant of Mrs. Harding, and that she described to him the President’s final moments after she had given him the poison without his knowledge.
Although the rumors are periodically renewed and reviewed, we will never know the truth about the death of President Harding. Certainly, had he lived, it is almost certain that he would have been impeached and removed from office. The lack of an autopsy prevented any definite answer, so important to the American people when a President dies suddenly. With newer and more dramatic mysteries and scandals, the importance of Warren Harding’s death has faded over time. His death, like his entire administration, left little mark on our history.