With the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, no president’s death generated more speculation and controversies than that of Warren G. Harding.
The President Dies
On August 2, 1923, the country was stunned when the news came over the telegraph and telephone wires: President Warren G. Harding had died in San Francisco. He had seemed the picture of health.
Within hours, however, rumors began to circulate. He had been murdered. He had committed suicide. He had been poisoned. It was his wife who killed him. The buzz was further compounded when Mrs. Harding refused to permit an autopsy.
The train draped in mourning bunting made its way back to Washington. More than nine million people lined the tracks in respect to a man they sincerely liked. Mrs. Harding remained secluded and made no public appearances.
When they returned to the White House and the body lay in state in the East Room, Florence Harding was said to have sat beside the body, murmuring “Nobody can hurt you now, Warren.”
She vacated the White House quickly, and stayed for a while at the Georgetown home of Evalyn Walsh McLean, her closest friend. Even though it was August, a huge fire was lit in the fireplace, and she began to destroy boxes and boxes of papers. She later claimed they were only personal documents.
But within weeks, indications of scandal, intrigue, malfeasance and out-and-out criminal corruption began to surface. First they dribbled out, then the floods began. Wrongdoing on a grand scale had obviously occurred on Warren Harding’s watch.
Was he murdered to keep him quiet? Was he murdered because he was complicit? And when word leaked out that Harding had fathered an illegitimate child, even more rumors circulated. Did Mrs. Harding do it out of revenge and fury?
The Hardings: A Mismatched Match
Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was not a bad or corrupt man, but he was a weak one. He was also good looking, genial, and an easy mixer with literally hundreds of friends.
He was twenty-five when he married Florence Kling (1860-1924) five years his senior and a divorcee. It is easy to understand her attraction to him, but harder to determine what he saw in her. She was nice enough looking, but bossy and domineering, and the obvious pursuer in whatever courtship there was. It may have been exactly what Harding’ father once said about his son: “He can’t say no to anyone.”
From the outset, it was not particularly happy. Florence (who Harding nicknamed “Duchess” for her imperious ways) developed a serious and chronic kidney ailment that necessitated the removal of a kidney in 1905. Because of the nature of her illness, the “marital” part of their marriage was curtailed. They would share a room, but not a bed.
The handsome Harding found his pleasures elsewhere, which manifested in periodic bitter and rancorous arguments. But mostly, the Harding marriage was an armed truce, bound by the Marion Star, their growing-in-influence daily newspaper – and politics.
Charles Sawyer was a homeopathic doctor in mid-Ohio, and had known the Hardings for many years, both as physician and as family friend.
Sawyer had a thriving practice, which included his own sanitarium. But as a homeopathic doctor, he lacked an academic medical education, which by the late 19th century, was considered essential. Homeopaths may have been scorned by their peers, but they continued to practice.
It was “Doc” Sawyer who treated Florence during her several bouts with failing kidneys. He also treated Warren Harding for vague and various stomach ailments, which may have been exacerbated by emotional strife.
By the time Warren Harding became a U.S. Senator in 1914, “Doc” Sawyer was a permanent fixture in their life. When Harding became President in 1920, the new Commander-in-Chief inducted the sixty-year-old doctor into the Army, and promoted him to Surgeon General. The Ohio homeopath was thrilled by his new title, and took full advantage of appearing “in uniform.” The medical community was horrified at the appointment, but The Duchess insisted she literally could not live without “Doc.”
The Ailing President
On the surface, the Presidency agreed with the affable Harding; physically, however, it was grueling. He knew, and privately admitted that he was “unfit” and unqualified for the office. Now he was learning that some of his best pals and long-time associates, appointed to relieve him from burden, were dipping sticky fingers into the public till.
Harding had put on a fashionable paunch, not uncommon to politicking and presidential entertaining. But Harding had enormous stress as well: presidential, marital, extra-marital (which now included a child), false-friends and financial problems. He developed acute insomnia, chronic indigestion and trouble breathing. He was lethargic and began complaining of chest pains.
“Doc” insisted that Harding’s symptoms were from stress, worry and too much rich food. He counseled a healthier diet, rest and relaxation. Dr. Joel T. Boone, one of the naval doctors assigned to the White House immediately recognized signs of heart problems, and he and his colleagues were alarmed. Sawyer disagreed vehemently and insisted he knew Harding longer and better: stress and diet.
The Fatal Trip
In July, 1923, to fulfill a campaign promise, to escape the growing realization that his best friends were betraying the country, and as a respite for his wife who had recently undergone another bout of kidney blockage, the Hardings took a trip to Alaska.
Harding felt horribly ill. When he collapsed, “Doc” Sawyer said “food poisoning.” The other doctors were frantic and knew better, but the Surgeon General outranked them, and they were powerless.
A few days later, outside of San Francisco, Harding was having an early night, propped up in his special car. Florence Harding was reading aloud. Then he slumped over.
It was a heart attack. The symptoms had been there for more than a year.
Ferrell, Robt. H. – The Strange Deaths of President Harding – University of Missouri Press, 1996
Russell, Francis – The Shadow of Blooming Grove – McGraw Hill – 1968