When President Warren G. Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923, the nation was shocked and baffled. Not only was the handsome, popular president relatively young, at age 57, but to the general public, he appeared far more fit than many of his predecessors. “In physique, President Harding was unquestionably one of the most powerfully built occupants of the White House of modern times,” wrote the Washington, D.C. Evening Star the day after his death. “He at all times gave every evidence of good health and good spirits.”
Almost immediately, rumors of foul play began to circulate. Some suggested the president had been murdered, others that he had committed suicide. Though historians today generally agree that Harding died of natural causes, suspicions to the contrary would linger for decades, fueling several of the most durable conspiracy theories in American history.
Harding’s death came at a point when the United States may have been especially susceptible to such theories. “In the 1920s, a lot of Americans were looking back on World War I and thinking they’d been sold a bill of goods, that the government had whipped the country into a frenzy and gotten it into a war when it wasn’t necessary,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11. Later, she adds, when the public began to learn about all the “skullduggery, lying and criminal activity” that had occurred during the Harding administration, it was easy to wonder if the president had been a victim of his own corrupt cronies, collectively known as the “Ohio gang.”
At the time of his death, however, Harding was largely revered by the American public, which had elected him and his Republican running mate, Calvin Coolidge, in a November 1920 landslide. Formerly an Ohio newspaper publisher and one-term senator, Harding had promised a return to “normalcy” following the horrors of World War I—and he seemed to be delivering. While the U.S. economy suffered a serious recession in 1920 and 1921, by 1923 it was booming, setting the stage for the decade that came to be known as the Roaring Twenties.
The first official news of Harding’s death came at 7:51 p.m. on August 2, in a three-sentence bulletin signed by five doctors, including his personal physician, Charles E. Sawyer, a homeopath who shared the president’s hometown of Marion, Ohio. Harding had died “instantaneously and without warning and while conversing with members of his family,” the statement said, giving the probable cause as an apoplexy, or stroke. “During the day,” it added, “he had been free from discomfort, and there was every justification for anticipating a prompt recovery.”
Harding had been laid up at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel since July 29, suffering from abdominal pain and other symptoms. He’d recently concluded a historic visit to the Territory of Alaska, and Sawyer suggested he’d contracted food poisoning from tainted crab meat.
Over the next several days, the physicians issued a series of bulletins on his condition, including a relatively optimistic one on the morning of August 2, which stated that Harding’s recovery “will inevitably take some little time,” but his team was “more confident than heretofore as to the outcome of his illness.” Newspapers took it a step further, reporting that the doctors were “markedly cheerful” as they left the patient’s room.
Nine hours later, Harding was dead.
In the confusion that followed, officials issued a series of contradictory reports, offering differing times of death and varying accounts of who was with Harding when he died. The cause of death was still unknown and could only be determined through an autopsy, which the president’s widow, Florence Harding, refused to authorize. Instead, she had his body embalmed, then put aboard a train back to Washington. Harding’s closed, flag-covered coffin would lie in state in the East Room of the White House on August 7, then in the Capitol rotunda on August 8, after which another train carried it to Marion for burial. The first lady also began burning her husband’s personal papers.
Meanwhile, the rumor mill had been grinding away, with a “whispering campaign” pointing to either suicide or murder, wrote journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams in 1939. The suicide theory—that Harding might have deliberately poisoned himself—hinged on the belief that he couldn’t face the humiliation he saw coming as his administration’s breathtakingly pervasive corruption became public knowledge. Two members of the administration had shot themselves earlier that year, apparently for the same reason.
In particular, Congress had begun investigating suspicious deals in which Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, arranged to lease U.S. Navy petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California to private oil companies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Harding wasn’t implicated in the affair, but he’d facilitated it by transferring the management of the reserves from the Navy to the Interior Department and by appointing Fall to the job in the first place. Fall was tried and convicted of bribery in 1929, making him the first person sent to prison for a crime committed as a U.S. cabinet member. The Teapot Dome scandal, named for the site in Wyoming, would forever blight Harding’s reputation.
While Harding didn’t live to see the scandal play out, the first hints of it put him into “a state of nervous dread,” according to Adams. “He could hardly have failed to foresee that the oil leases, if proven fraudulent (as they were proven), would react upon him with the probable result of his impeachment.”
The murder theory, meanwhile, took several forms. One was that Harding had been killed by either political enemies or loyal associates, possibly including his own wife, who wanted to spare him the embarrassment of impeachment. Another theory was that he was the victim of his doctors. “We were accused of starving the president to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives,” recalled one of Harding’s physicians, Ray Lyman Wilbur, in his memoirs. “We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice.” Wilbur, who had been called in to consult on the case was, at the time, president of both Stanford University and the American Medical Association.
“Pop theories about Harding’s death became a national pastime,” wrote Carl Sferrazza Anthony in his 1998 biography, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President. “The [Ku Klux] Klan said it was a papist plot. Others said it was the Klan.”
As Adams observed, the rumors were largely just that until 1930, when former federal investigator and Harding administration insider Gaston Means published a book titled The Strange Death of President Harding. The account, which became a sensation, suggested that Harding had been poisoned by his wife and that she had confessed as much to Means. Conveniently for Means, Florence had died of kidney failure in November 1924, allowing him to libel her with impunity.
“Warren Harding died—in honor—as Madame X said he would,” Means claimed Florence had told him, alluding to a prediction supposedly made by one of the many astrologers she consulted throughout her life and even invited to the White House for horoscope readings. “Had he lived 24 hours longer—he might have been impeached.” She supposedly added, “I have no regrets—I have fulfilled my destiny.”
Means, who had recently served three years in the Atlanta Penitentiary for bootlegging and conspiring to bribe government officials, already had a well-established reputation as a con man. The journalist Mark Sullivan singled him out as “the most monumental liar and facile criminal of his time,” while FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover called him “the greatest faker of all time.” Time magazine, in 1932, reported that at “one time or another,” Means had been “indicted for breach of promise, impersonating an officer, fraud, bribery, forgery, murder. He once told a Senate committee that ‘being indicted’ was his business. Last November, he was arrested for beating his wife.”
Even Means’ co-author on The Strange Death of President Harding, novelist and magazine writer May Dixon Thacker, soon denounced him as a liar, saying he had duped her. In a magazine article published in October 1931, she branded their book a hoax.
The idea that Harding might have been assassinated wasn’t confined to craven opportunists or the crackpot fringe. Frederick Lewis Allen, a historian and later the editor of Harper’s magazine, wrote in 1931 that either murder or suicide was “very plausible.” Oswald Garrison Villard, onetime editor of the Nation magazine, wrote in 1939 that “I am of those who lean to the belief that there was foul play in his death” but added, “We shall probably never learn the truth.”
More recent scholars think otherwise. As the late Indiana University historian Robert H. Ferrell concluded in his 1996 book The Strange Deaths of President Harding, “It is now clear that Harding died of a heart attack.” He pointed out that cardiology was then in its infancy, and the symptoms of heart attacks were only beginning to be understood.
Howard Markel, a physician and the director of the U-M Center for the History of Medicine in Ann Arbor, Michigan, agrees with Ferrell. “Cardiac medicine was just beginning in those days, and [electrocardiograms] were new,” he says.
“Harding also had a weird doctor who might have missed the diagnosis,” Markel adds in a reference to Sawyer. “But I think it was more the state of medicine and technology in terms of making the diagnosis.”
Anthony, Florence’s biographer, also accepts the heart attack theory but writes that it’s plausible death was brought on accidentally by an injection of the “mysterious purgatives,” or powerful laxatives, Sawyer had been using to treat the president since his food poisoning diagnosis. That possibility might also help explain the first lady’s decision to forgo an autopsy, which Anthony says she reached after a private conversation with Sawyer.
Today, the Hardings are buried side by side in a circular, marble-columned memorial in Marion. As evidence of the president’s popularity at the time of his death, more than one million individuals sent in contributions for its construction, including some 200,000 schoolchildren who collected pennies for the cause.
But by 1931, when then-President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the memorial, the full scope of the Teapot Dome scandal had come to light, and the late commander in chief’s reputation was in ruins.Hoover, who’d served as Harding’s secretary of commerce, had accompanied the president to Alaska and stayed with him in San Francisco during his final days. “We saw him gradually weaken not only from physical exhaustion but from mental anxiety,” Hoover told the assembled crowd. “Warren Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he had believed were his devoted friends. … That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.”