Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

The Cause of Death

Warren Harding memorial in Ohio
Warren Harding memorial in Ohio

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 died.

President Herbert Hoover
President Herbert Hoover

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.

Natural Causes?

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.

Negligent Homicide?

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 homicide.

Suicide?

But could Harding have hastened his own end?

"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 White.

Jesse Smith
Jesse Smith

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 the subject.

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 --- anti-Semite, crypto-fascist, and America's wealthiest stupid man --- 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 and devious.

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.

Murder?

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 F.B.I. 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 witness.

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 happen.

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