History In The Headlines

The Unexpected Death of President Harding, 90 Years Ago

By Jesse Greenspan
On August 2, 1923, Warren G. Harding became the sixth of eight presidents to die in office, suffering an apparent heart attack while holed up in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. That June he had set out on an intended 15,000-mile cross-country speaking tour labeled the Voyage of Understanding, which included the first-ever presidential visit to Alaska. Upon returning to the Lower 48, he began suffering from cramps, indigestion, a fever and shortness of breath. His chief physician chalked it up mainly to food poisoning, but other doctors believed it to be more serious. A few days later, just as he appeared to be improving, Harding suddenly shuddered and slumped over in bed lifeless. Though his wife refused to allow an autopsy, precipitating rumors of foul play, no evidence has ever emerged that his death was anything but natural.

warren-hardingBorn on a farm in Ohio, Harding purchased a struggling local newspaper soon after graduating from college and turned it around financially. He then steadily moved up the political ranks, serving as an Ohio state senator for four years, as lieutenant governor for two years and as a U.S. senator for six years. Only a failed campaign for governor in 1910 marred his resume. As luck would have it, the delegates to the 1920 Republican National Convention deadlocked during the presidential nominee balloting and therefore turned to Harding as a compromise candidate. Promising a “return to normalcy,” he went on to win the general election against Democratic opponent James M. Cox in a landslide, garnering about 60 percent of the popular vote and 404 of 531 electoral votes.

As president, Harding signed bills that reduced taxes for both individuals and corporations, set high protective tariffs, created a federal budget system and limited immigration, particularly from southern and eastern Europe. He also hosted a disarmament conference, at which the world’s largest naval powers agreed to reduce their arsenal of warships. It is for wrongdoing, however, that Harding’s administration is best remembered. During his time in office, several prominent officials took bribes, including his interior secretary, who granted favorable leases to oil companies in what became known as the Teapot Dome scandal, and his Veterans Bureau director, who, among other things, sold government hospital supplies at artificially low prices. “I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends … they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights,” Harding reportedly complained to a journalist. Harding himself was never personally implicated in these affairs, but he faced his own allegations of drinking alcohol in the White House during Prohibition and of extramarital affairs. A woman 31 years younger even claimed to be the mother of his only biological child.

In early 1923, just before the first whiff of scandal began hovering, Harding came down with the flu. He also apparently had trouble sleeping. Nonetheless, he decided to go ahead with his so-called Voyage of Understanding, aimed, perhaps with a second term in mind, at explaining his policies and getting a feel for the pulse of the nation. On June 20, Harding’s 10-car presidential train left Washington, D.C., for St. Louis, where he gave one of the first presidential speeches to be broadcast live by radio. In it, he toed the line between isolationism and internationalism, advocating for U.S. membership in the Permanent Court of International Justice but not the League of Nations. The train then continued on to such cities as Kansas City, Denver, Salt Lake City, Helena and Spokane. Besides giving speeches and meeting with official delegations, Harding engaged in photo ops, including driving a wheat binder, visiting a mine, touring veterans’ hospitals and participating in an Oregon Trail dedication. The president also took time out to explore Yellowstone and Zion national parks. At the later, he took a horseback ride, only to aggravate his hemorrhoids and become sunburned. “Warren, you look just like a great big Indian,” his wife, Florence, unceremoniously scolded upon his return.

Some observers along the route later claimed that Harding looked tired, and a journalist described him as having swollen lips and puffed eyes. But his personal physician, Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, a close friend of the Hardings who practiced homeopathy, remarked that the president was “feeling fit and in splendid physical trim.” On July 4, Harding boarded the USS Henderson for the four-day voyage to Alaska, accompanied by his wife, his staff, reporters, three cabinet members, 460 sailors, 21 officers, 72 Marine guards and a Navy band. According to Commerce Secretary and future President Herbert Hoover, Harding insisted on playing the card game bridge all day and night. “There were only four other bridge players in the party, and we soon set up shifts so that one at a time had some relief,” Hoover later wrote. “For some reason I developed a distaste for bridge on this journey and never played it again.” Harding also apparently asked Hoover, “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?”

While in Alaska, Harding toured a number of coastal towns and traveled by train as far north as Fairbanks. He then sailed back down to Vancouver, Canada, where he gave a speech to some 40,000 people at Stanley Park. He also tried to play a round of golf but only had the strength for a few holes. The next day, July 27, the Henderson collided with another ship in a heavy fog. More ominous signs came later that day, when, as he delivered a speech to over 60,000 people at the University of Washington, Harding referred to Alaska as “Nebraska,” dropped his manuscript and grasped the podium to keep his balance. Following an appearance at the Seattle Press Club, he went to bed early complaining of upper abdominal pain.

Dr. Sawyer attributed the illness to bad seafood and began administrating laxatives. But another White House physician, Dr. Joel T. Boone, believed that Harding had an enlarged heart. As a result, Boone helped arrange to have Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of both Stanford University and the American Medical Association, and Dr. Charles Cooper, a leading cardiologist, meet them in San Francisco. When the train arrived there on July 29, Harding declined the offer of a wheelchair and walked to a waiting limo, which whisked him to the Palace Hotel in the city’s Financial District. The next day he had a fever of 102 and was diagnosed with pneumonia, prompting the remainder of his California appearances to be canceled. This was followed, however, by a slight recovery. On August 1, his temperature was back to normal, his lungs were clearing up and he was capable of sitting up in bed, reading and eating solid food.

At around 7:30 p.m. a day later, Harding abruptly died in bed, supposedly as his wife read to him a flattering article about himself. Accounts differ as to who was in the room at the time and the exact sequence of events. Sawyer, still discounting his colleagues’ theories about heart problems, believed the cause of death to be a cerebral hemorrhage. Though the other four doctors on hand signed a joint bulletin with Sawyer, which said the “death was apparently due to some brain evolvement, probably an apoplexy,” they later backed away somewhat from this assessment. Today, nearly all experts place the blame on congestive heart failure. Harding may, in fact, have suffered a series of undiagnosed heart attacks going back months.

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