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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 was like an actor bigger than life playing a part for history, William Taft was just plain 300 lbs. big, and Woodrow Wilson the cold distant intellectual masquerading as savior to the world) this man, the first to be elected in a national vote 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 loved to travel, one of the most traveled presidents thus far in history, and meet the people. Assistants had to reign him in. He would stop in front of any crowd at the White House or train stop and shake hands and greet those whom he had asked for their vote.
Harding was 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. He was not notably 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 deeply entangled in her husband's career and place in history. He probably reached beyond his abilities because of her.
As an increasingly influential editor he won election to state political jobs (state senator 1899-1902 and lieutenant governor 1903-1904) and eventually went to the US Senate (1915-1921) where his distinctions seem to be golf and poker. Because he was non-confrontational, people liked him.
Then in one of those behind the scenes moves engineered by political bosses, he became the Republican candidate for president, a compromise against three other contenders. He and running mate Calvin Coolidge beat fellow Ohioan James M. Cox in 1920 and Harding probably was in way over his head.
Harding's presidency was undistinguished on the surface. He dealt with people well and took extensive trips, so he remained a popular president. One trip to Alaska, his last, was strenuous, and after he received a strange coded message from Washington, he collapsed.
Later at a rest stop at San Francisco things turned worse for the president's health. He complained of being tired and collapsed again.
First reports were that he had ptomaine poisoning probably from eating tainted crab. The next day attending doctors called it pneumonia and proclaimed his condition "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, she said. He went into a violent convulsion, she said, and was gone.
Was that what happened? There are other versions.
First is the consideration that his wife knew of and hated his sexual life that didn't involve her.
For example, they had 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. Eventually rumors reached "the Duchess," his wife, Florence. Carrie's husband knew of the affair and never forgave Harding for seducing his wife and ruining his marriage.
More devastating was Nan Britton, a young girl from Marion, Ohio, who had a long 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 for sex.
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 girl but otherwise accepted no responsibility.
Florence Harding knew of these things and was watching her tight grip slip. Such scandal, humiliating as it was to her before, was even more terrifying now that she was the first lady. She had always been sickly. She was to die within a year of the president's death. Soon suspicion arose over her role in San Francisco.
One former Bureau of Investigation agent, Gaston Means, claimed in a book called "The Strange Death of President Harding" that she killed the president. While the reputation of Gaston Means became suspect, the fact remains that 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. Some thought she feared giving people too close a look at the dead president.
Depression leading to self inflicted death is another possibility. In his youth Harding had 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. Also, there were definite signs of hypertension. Harding never felt he was up to the job of US President. On numerous occasions he confided that he was in over his head.
However, just as he might be beginning to feel a little confidence, a long hidden secret began going the rounds again.
Racism in the 1920s continued to be intense, especially after President Wilson revived it in government. Publications were appearing claiming that Harding's genealogy showed an African 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 claiming that Harding was part Negro.
In the 1920s such a claim, 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, some slipped through and rumors spread in America on the President's ancestry.
Both his concubines, 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 seethed in rage.
Nan, the mother of his child, was more determined. She did not want money alone; she wanted the Harding name. She would keep showing up at places where the President would be. She loved to be in his presence and have Mrs. Harding espy her.
At the same time, Harding's popularity was declining. 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. The Secret Service increased Presidential security.
Then there were disturbing revelations coming out of his cabinet about corruption. Messages reached him in Alaska and his mood immediately worsened. He confided to a close acquaintance: "I can handle my enemies, but God protect me from my friends!"
Perhaps his leadership ability 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 live-in friend, Jesse Smith, saw the gathering storm and died under unusual circumstances. Smith feared and hated all guns yet he apparently shot himself in the head? Some felt he was 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 mis-ran 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 bureaucrats that Harding knew of Daugherty'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 employ of the first lady to spy upon the President and uncover any evidence of infidelity.
Two close friends appointed to the Veterans Bureau and the Office of the Alien Property Custodian were arrested for graft. More importantly, another 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. Albert Fall, it was discovered, had received $400,000 in gifts and "loans" from the oil company for his decision on the leases. Eventually this will bring down Fall and his imprisonment.
So by 1923 the reputation of the Harding administration was dangling 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 presidency.
There's nothing like the death of a President under odd circumstances to blur the focus of the press and the public.
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)
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