There have always been conspiracies and strange mysteries tied to people in power, and considering their high profile they more often than not attract quite a bit of attention. Among these U.S. presidents certainly rank high, and there have been myriad conspiracies spun around the leaders of the United States of America. One of these must certainly be the mysterious death of a lesser talked about president, whose passing has long been moored in tales of conspiracy, intrigue, and suspense.
A U.S. president that often gets sidelined and forgotten is Warren Gamaliel Harding, who served as the 29th president of the United States from 1921 until his death in 1923. Born in 1865 on a farm in Ohio, Harding was a self-made man who as a young man bought The Marion Star newspaper and built it into a successful media empire. After this he got into politics and steadily moved up the 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. Harding ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1920, but was considered at the time a long shot, yet the delegates to the 1920 Republican National Convention deadlocked during the presidential nominee balloting and therefore turned to Harding as a compromise candidate. Harding sebsequently would go 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, making him the first sitting senator elected president.
During his actual presidency, Harding was actually one of the most popular sitting U.S. presidents there had ever been at that point, appointing a number of respected figures to his cabinet, and he made a lot of sweeping changes, including signing bills that reduced taxes for both individuals and corporations, setting high protective tariffs, creating a federal budget system, imposing stringent new anti-immigration policies, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, releasing political prisoners who had been arrested for their opposition to World War I, hosting a disarmament conference in which the world's major naval powers agreed on a naval limitations program that lasted a decade, and keeping America out of the League of Nations, all of which proved popular with the public at the time. He was mostly seen as a popular, reliable president in life, but dark days were ahead, and he would end up being more well-known for his myriad secret scandals and his mysterious death.
It started in June of 1923, when Harding came down with a case of the flu but nevertheless pushed forward with a planned trip across the country to talk about his policies and get in touch with the pulse of America, including the territory of Alaska, the first time a U.S. President had visited that part of the nation, in what he was calling his “Voyage of Understanding.” He and his entourage departed on June 20, 1923 on their multi-city mission, along the way giving speeches, meeting with official delegations, engaging in photo ops, touring hospitals, and generally trying to get in touch with the people of the places they were visiting. During this time there was much talk of the president looking tired and worn down, as well as sporting swollen lips and puffed eyes, but this was just chalked up to stress and travel, and Harding’s own physician proclaimed that he was healthy and fit.
They continued on to Alaska, where Harding gave several speeches to packed stadiums, but by all accounts his health seemed to have been deteriorating. He was reported as being ill with cramps, indigestion, fever, and a distressing shortness of breath, but he waved off any worries and insisted it was just the stresses of his journey and perhaps a bout of food poisoning. He pressed ahead, wrapping up the Alaska leg of the journey and heading on to Vancouver, Canada, where he gave a speech to some 40,000 people at Stanley Park, and then moving on to the University of Washington, where he gave another speech to an audience of 60,000. It was here where the first real signs of trouble materialized, when on July 27 he seemed disoriented and referred to Alaska as “Nebraska,” before slouching over and grabbing the podium while he tried to catch his breath. He would snap out of it, but later on after an appearance at the Seattle Press Club he would complain of abdominal pain and retire early for the evening.
At the time, his personal physician Charles E. Sawyer diagnosed him with having an acute gastrointestinal attack from some bad seafood, but another doctor on the scene, Dr. Joel T. Boone, thought it was the more serious prognosis of an enlarged heart. As they attended to the president they arranged to have him meet with Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of both Stanford University and the American Medical Association, and Dr. Charles Cooper, a leading cardiologist, as soon as they arrived at their destination in San Francisco, California. The following day, Harding was visibly better, and even refused a wheelchair offered to him on arrival, and rather than go directly to the hospital he made his way straight on to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. There he had a bit of a relapse, and was once again feeling terrible, this time displaying symptoms of pneumonia and with a high fever. Once again, the next day he was better, his fever gone and his lungs seemingly clear. Nevertheless, he was tentatively confined to his hotel room for recovery despite his objections and desire to get out and continue on with his business.
The next day, on August 2, Harding seemed to be on the mend again, but was nevertheless kept in bed just to be sure. That evening, at around 7:30 pm, his wife Florence was reading to him a flattering article about him from The Saturday Evening Post, which seemed to please him, but then Harding suddenly twisted convulsively and collapsed back in the bed, gasping for air. Florence immediately called for his attending physicians, but there was nothing they could do and Harding was pronounced dead a few minutes later. At the time his cause of death was given as a cerebral hemorrhage, and it was considered to be baffling as he seemed to have been healthy and recovering nicely. Considering the suddenness of it all and Harding’s relatively young age of 57, as the news hit a shocked nation it was not long before conspiracy theories on the death started making the rounds, and it was being suggested that the abrupt death had been orchestrated by nefarious parties.
Fingers were immediately being pointed at Harding’s infidelity. Even before his death he had been known as a bit of a womanizer, but it wasn’t until after that people began to realize what an incorrigible horndog Harding had actually been that it seemed to be a real problem. Women were coming out of the woodwork claiming to have had affairs with him, including one 30 years his junior who claimed to be pregnant with his child, a secretary in her 20s named Nan Britton, who claimed they had frequently had trysts in the White House. For decades this would be debated until in 2015 new genetic tests confirmed for the first time that Ms. Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. It also came out that Harding's campaign managers had secretly bribed a mistress of a decade-and-a-half and her husband to retain their silence during his 1920 election. These numerous alleged infidelities, plus another scandal which had Harding frequently drinking alcohol in the White House during Prohibition, was not a good look for him, and he was increasingly seen as a president using his position for all manner of debauchery, which his wife would not have taken well at all.
The idea was that Florence Harding had been consumed by jealousy over these dalliances, and had subsequently poisoned her husband during the Voyage of Understanding out of revenge. On the surface it seemed to make sense. After all, she had been present during the entire trip and indeed she was the last person to have been with him while he was alive. Making it even more suspicious is that she had outright refused to allow an autopsy to be done on Harding, not allowing it under any circumstances, and indeed his body had been sent out for embalming at the very same hour of his death. There were also several things from supposed insiders corroborating this theory, such as a former FBI agent named Gaston Means, who wrote a book claiming that indeed Florence had poisoned the president, but he would later admit that he had made it up for book sales. Nevertheless, the rumor mill was by now in full swing. Florence Harding of course denied these accusations, and there was absolutely no evidence of foul play, but the gossip was going strong, fueled by numerous salacious articles on the matter, and in the meantime the doctors who had attended Harding were also being accused of having had something to do with it. Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur would say of it:
We shall never know exactly the immediate cause of President Harding's death since every effort that was made to secure an autopsy met with complete and final refusal. We were belabored and attacked by newspapers antagonistic to Harding, and by cranks, quacks, antivivisectionists, nature healers, the Dr. Albert Abrams electronic-diagnosis group, and many others. 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. We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice.
As all of this was going on, Harding's previous watertight reputation was further disintegrating as a series of scandals his administration was allegedly involved in began to come to light. It would turn out that during his time in office there had been several scandals going on, including corruption with several prominent officials taking 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 selling government hospital supplies at artificially low prices, among other various shady things. It is not clear just how much Harding actually knew about any of these illicit activities or how much he was personally involved with them, but the point was that he perhaps had many reasons to have enemies that would want him out of the picture enough to have him poisoned, perhaps even someone close to him who wanted to cover up their scandalous activities. Indeed, even Harding himself had once lamented, “I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends … they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.”
Rather spookily, it was also alleged that one of the doctors who attended Harding on his trip also died shortly after him in nearly the same way as Harding. Coincidence or not? The problem with all of these conspiracies is that Harding was not in the best of health to begin with. He had long suffered from an overly nervous condition then known as neurasthenia, he had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart before he had even taken office, and since at least 1918, he had suffered from occasional bouts of shortness of breath, bouts of chest pain, and difficulty sleeping. This all seems to point to that he most probably suffered from congestive heart disease, with a heart attack finally doing him in and the original cause of death due to the lack of understanding of the symptoms of cardiac arrest at the time. Was this just a heart attack or was it something more? Can this just be explained to his health problems, or were there nefarious parties working behind the scenes? Although most agree that this was nothing more than cardiac arrest, it has been debated and discussed to this day, and adds to the long tradition of conspiracies and sinister agendas linked to U.S. presidents.