Poisoning the President? Florence Harding & Her Husband's "Strange" Death, August 2, 1923

Florence Harding in veil and pince-nez glasses.

(This material is copyrighted)

She was so inexplicably, almost mystically drawn to Alaska, First Lady Florence Harding had visions of the territory’s snow-capped mountains in her dreams. And nibbling on the frozen treat sensation of 1923 – the Eskimo Pie, was amusing but did not placate her. After surviving a near-death experience in the fall of 1922, the steely ambition that led her to push her husband towards the presidency was now driving her determination to requite her Alaskan dream.

Florence and Warren Harding.

President Warren G. Harding acquiesced to his wife’s pressing forward with plans for what was billed to the public as a “Voyage of Understanding.” The ten-car presidential train left Washington’s Union Station on June 20, 1923 for a three-month trans-continental train trip, voyage to Alaska, exploration of its interior, a return via Canada, excursion down the full length of the West Coast, and return by a southern route. Many had misgivings. Florence didn’t.

Dr. Charles “Doc” Sawyer who functioned like Rasputin to the First Lady.

She’d long managed to repress the prediction made by astrologer Madame Marcia during Warren’s 1920 presidential campaign – namely that if elected, he would die “by sudden, violent and peculiar death by poison.” Nothing could go wrong, however, with Charles “Doc” Sawyer, watching over her and Warren. Months earlier, Doc had saved her life even after the famous Mayo Brothers predicted her imminent death to kidney failure.

For Florence Harding, Doc became a bit of a mystical Rasputin, “the only one who keeps me alive” who she believed sensed truths about bodily well-being beyond the realm of science.

The white-bearded, thick-spectacled homeopath had declared Warren fit as a fiddle. An old Ohio friend and owner of his own sanitarium with signs that read, “Please Don’t Feed the Patients,” Doc was highly suspicious of anyone attempting to usurp his hold on the Hardings.

Only begrudgingly had he accepted the annoying presence of the young and ambitious naval physician Joel Boone on the trip. Like the Mayo Brothers, however, Boone was an allopath. He was politely tolerated by Florence in the brief moments that Doc ever permitted them direct contact without his own presence. Boone was never able, for example, to directly tell the First Lady about his findings before the trip began that President Harding showed troubling signs of a weakening heart.

So, from Washington, D.C. to West Virginia to Ohio to Missouri, the Harding junket chugged along into the nation’s heartland in the blistering summer.

Charlie Forbes who betrayed the Hardings and the disabled veterans.

If emotional depression or heartbreak can affect the organ of the heart, Warren Harding was in great trouble. Florence later admitted that the “greatest betrayal” had come in February when Doc provided irrefutable proof of the massive kickbacks and corruption of Charlie Forbes, whom she’d personally insisted on being named the first director of the newly formed Veterans Bureau. The care of the wounded and disabled World War I veterans was – along with animal protection and rights, and fuller political integration of women – was the First Lady’s signature policy issue. Warren had literally choked and shaken Forbes against the wall of the Red Room – but permitted him to flee to Europe, where he tendered his resignation. His legal counsel Charles Cramer committed suicide – in the home where Harding had lived with Florence while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Albert Fall, the Interior Secretary who took bribes for leasing the oil reserves at Elks Hill and Teapot Dome.

Some friends later suggested that Warren and Florence had also heard enough to stir suspicions about their other old friend, Interior Secretary Albert Fall and the leases he’d signed with Doheny and Sinclair oil companies for naval oil reserves in Elks Hill, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming.

It wasn’t so much the leases but the sudden improvements to and expansion of his New Mexico ranch that seemed odd.  Fall had resigned and gone to Red Russia in pursuit of other oil deals.

It would be discovered in congressional investigations which began months later that Fall had taken bribes totaling some $100,000 from the oil companies in trade for the leases. He would become the first Cabinet officer convicted and sent to prison.  If the Harding scandals were painful because Forbes and Fall were close enough to vacation and play poker regularly with Harding, the absence on this trip which rang a deafening silence was of the breezy, humorous dandy of a bachelor, Jess Smith and his companion the Attorney General Harry Daugherty.

Jess Smith, a close friend of the Hardings – and facilitator of confiscated liquor during Prohibition.

Jess helped pick Florence’s wardrobe for the trip with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic motifs, reflecting the popular craze for all things “Tut,” a result of the recent discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. He was also later accused of supplying the Hardings with confiscated liquor in this era of Prohibition. Despite having no official position in Harry’s Justice Department, Smith was enmeshed in nefarious activities related to its Prohibition division. He never had a chance to tell his side of the story.

In May, he had blown his brains out.

Former Bureau of Investigation agent Gaston Means.

A soured associate, ex-Justice Department Bureau of Investigation agent, however, later suggested he pulled the trigger. His name was Gaston Means, and he proved to be the lynchpin in shaping the legacy of Florence Harding. No less than her beloved confidante, the owner of the “cursed” Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean, for one, believed Means had murdered Smith.

In the transcripts of her tape-recorded recollections which she ultimately struck from her memoir in fear of lawsuits, Evalyn spilled all the beans. She told of President Harding’s one great love affair with Florence’s former best friend in Ohio, his ongoing one-nighters in Palm Beach with other beauties, the accidental murder of a showgirl in Washington, and how Smith, Means, and her own husband – owner of the Washington Post, had stolen Harding’s love letters from his former Senate secretary and mistress Grace Miller Cross and intimidated her enough to prevent another blackmail.

Evalyn McLean and Florence Harding at a luncheon in 1920.

In her misguided effort to protect Florence from the stress of fearing women around the President in the White House, Evalyn had let Harding use her vast estate “Friendship” for golf – or for whatever he wished. According to both Margaret Palmer, a former Attorney General’s wife, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who’d been McLean’s primary companion before being replaced by the First Lady, Harding had at least one meeting with a “niece from Ohio” at Friendship.

Alice Longworth made no secret of her dislike of the Hardings.

Madame Marcia, Florence Harding’s astrologer also used a crystal ball.

And after Alice casually mentioned this during a February call on the convalescing Florence, Evalyn was not invited to Alaska but she followed daily reports of her friend as the presidential trip proceeded west.

Sharing Florence’s belief in metaphysics and having introduced her to Madame Marcia, she believed the poison prediction. Unable to serve her usual role in calming Florence and serving as her confidante, Evalyn worried about the toll of the trip on her physical and emotional state.

Florence Harding on the western tour.

Florence Harding on the western tour.

She was as startled as anyone as newspaper stories and newsreels showed that, as the President seemed to weaken, the First Lady seemed to strengthen the further they got from Washington and the closer they got to Alaska.

Florence Harding atop a stagecoach on Old Oregon Trail.

In Kansas, the President seemed badly fatigued and blistered his lips after riding a tractor for cameramen. Doc said it was just too much sun. In Montana, he had fatigued while shaking hands with silver ore miners, while Florence kept going, save for a change of gloves now and then.

She also altered the schedule in Utah, insisting they detour south to see the vast lands of Zion, which she agreed with Senator Reed Smoot should be declared a federal National Park. In Meachem, Oregon, On July 3, she was animated atop an old-time stagecoach in a celebration of the old Oregon Trail.

There were some tense moments between the couple, witnessed by minor state and city officials in private.

At Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, after being stopped by a dozen young waitresses who giddily pressed themselves against the car windows, the First Lady was angry.

“I saw you with those waitresses Warren! It took you just as long to say hello to them as it did those tourists at Old Faithful yesterday!”

The Hardings aboard their ship to Alaska.

Setting sail for Alaska from the pier at Tacoma, Washington, on July 5, life on the Hendersonslowed the trip’s pace. Learning that the ship had once been abandoned after a fire gutted it only added to a sense of dread, however. In Colorado, on June 24, a car carrying four secret service agents along on the trip had driven off Lookout Mountain and all in it were killed.

In Alaska, Florence Harding continued to flourish, recovering from a brief setback.

She relished the scenery, suggested the territory was ready for statehood and, with her knowledge of astronomy, spent hours nightly star-gazing.

Harding became increasingly weak in Alaska and violently ill after eating crabmeat.

Harding was made to walk up an endless flight of wooden steps in Alaska which further strained his heart.

At Doc’s insistence, the President continued to “exercise,” once climbing a steep wooden outdoor staircase of several hundred steps to view the scenery from a summit. He could barely catch his breath.

Florence Harding still believed that her husband was in good care, so implicit was her faith in Doc Sawyer. Both Hardings ate heartily, especially enjoying the fresh seafood, caught and delivered daily.

Florence Harding began to substitute for the President and address crowds from the train’s back platform.

It was after July 16, when the ship arrived and docked in Vancouver, making Harding the first incumbent President to visit Canada, that the affects of what most believed to be tainted crabmeat took hold of him.

A secret message delivered to him by a seaplane and the Henderson’s hitting another vessel while in the fog on its way to Seattle, left him even more depressed.

His July 27 address in a stadium in that city had him confusing words and now obviously failing. Florence Harding insisted on canceling their itinerary in Portland.

The next day when their train was speeding down to San Francisco, it stopped briefly for servicing.

The naval physician was able to make a quick check on the President without Doc Sawyer or the First Lady the wiser. Dr. Boone was alarmed to learn that Harding had an enlarged heart.

He told Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, along on the trip, who alerted several top physicians to join the party at Palace Hotel and assist as consultants.

Along the way, it was the First Lady who substituted for the President in addressing crowds.

When they arrived in San Francisco, Harding insisted on walking from the back train platform to his car, and then from the car up the hotel steps.

It was the last the public would see him.

Barely containing his frustration at being literally pushed out from the inside of the door by Doc Sawyer, Boone had made several attempts to offer his fear of the President’s condition.

Despite the presence of several leading medical experts, when the First Lady and President were alone, it was only Doc who was permitted to treat Harding.

A newspaper illustration of Harding's sick room at the Palace Hotel with the consulting physicians, Doc Sawyer (standing, far left) and Florence Harding (standing far right)

A newspaper illustration of Harding’s sick room at the Palace Hotel with the consulting physicians, Doc Sawyer (standing, far left) and Florence Harding (standing far right)

Sawyer continued to ply the sick man with “purgatives” and heart “stimulants” by hypodermic needle.

On the night of August 2, Florence was alone with Warren when he raised his hand and made a sudden jerking movement, then collapsed. In the moment of truth, the First Lady ran screaming from the room, calling for Boone. When Doc arrived, he tried to revive the President with an unspecified stimulant, but Harding had died. After time alone with Doc, Florence Harding refused to permit an autopsy.

In fact, a local undertaker was quickly contacted and within minutes began work on the late President. There was no time permitted for the other physicians to conduct any post-mortem. The official cause of death was given as “apoplexy,” or stroke. All the attending physicians signed it, although there was some dispute behind the scenes.

Florence Harding draped in her widow’s veil.

The Harding funeral train.

Florence Harding shrouded herself in a long, black veil and sat close to her husband’s body during the four-day funeral train ride across the nation. Hundreds of thousands lined the train track – cowgirls, mine workers, farmers, veterans, factory workers, schoolchildren.

When she arrived back in Washington, without any forewarning, Evalyn was there waiting for her. In the wee hours of the morning, the two women descended the grand staircase and entered the East Room.

There Florence had the casket opened and began to speak to her late husband, concluding that “Nobody can hurt you now.”

Strangely, she told Evalyn, “Now that it is all over, I am beginning to think it was all for the best.”

The late President's casket in the East Room, which Florence Harding had opened and spoke to his corpse.

The late President’s casket in the East Room, which Florence Harding had opened and spoke to his corpse.

Rumors began almost immediately implicating the First Lady, many claims suggesting she had been poisoning the President all along.  With the impending Senate investigation into Albert Fall’s oil leases, some later whispered that it was a mercy killing. With widening knowledge of his real love affairs (some of which were fraudulently claimed), others thought she may have acted out of jealousy.

Her friend Evalyn McLean, however, later spoke of Florence’s utter adherence to astrology and thought that the power of her astrologer’s initial suggestion that Warren would die by poison may have led Florence to remain passive while subconsciously realizing Warren was dying – and simply let him.

The back garden at Friendship.

Evalyn McLean’s intense bond to Florence Harding made her both protective and defensive of her friend.

In loyalty to Florence, Evalyn helped maintain a loyalty to Warren, for it was on the vast manicured lawns of her “Friendship” estate where the widowed First Lady had several dozen long wood boxes of presidential correspondence transported.

There, culling those papers which she feared might incriminate Harding, Florence was again helped by Evalyn as the two women burned them in bonfires that August.

Initially returning home to Ohio for several months, Florence Harding returned to Washington with plans of remaining at the McLean estate. Finding himself under greater suspicion as whispers about his incompetence circulated, however, Doc Sawyer had become persona non grata in political circles and resigned his official position. When he returned to his Ohio sanitarium, Florence feared she could not live without his seemingly miraculous treatment of her. Ironically, Doc Sawyer died alone in her presence in September of 1924. Florence Harding died two months later.

The Strange Death of President Harding, the open title page.

Seven years later, however, Gaston Means wrote and published the scandalous book The Strange Death of President Harding. In it, he made up the false story that Florence Harding had poured poison into a spoon and murdered her husband. Weaved between this tale, however, were thinly-veiled references to many other powerful figures whose embarrassing exploits were known to Means. Nobody in official Washington came out to defy Means. Even his claim against Florence was an artful metaphor. Yet it also deteriorated her own substantial work in support of disabled veterans, Armenian relief, the education, employment and economic empowerment of women, and the protection of abused and neglected animals.

Wearing her Hope Diamond, Evalyn Walsh McLean waited almost ten years – but she retaliated in her own way against Means, who double-crossed her and ruined Florence Harding’s legacy.

Evalyn McLean notation on envelope of alleged glass from Lindbergh baby’s window given her by Means.

Gaston Means’ book, however, was eclipsed a year later by his sensational role in the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Desperate to help find the child, Evalyn McLean put her Hope Diamond and other jewels into hock, to raise the $100,000 that Means claimed he needed to pay the kidnappers and get the child released. Evalyn called Means the “best criminal mind in America,” but she may have been crazy as a fox herself. After several days of a wild goose chase following Means in her chauffeur-driven limousine through the Dustbowl of Texas and Oklahoma  in the depths of the Great Depression, however, the gig was up.

Ensconced in an El Paso hotel with her nurse Inga and secretary Miss Poor, Evalyn refused to cross the border to meet Means in Laredo – even though she heard a baby crying the background of his phone call pleading that she come….and bring nearly $40,000 more. Evalyn went home to Washington and called her friend – and the nemesis of Gaston Means….J. Edgar Hoover. When eventually Means’ car crossed the District of Columbia line, a phalanx of federal agents led him to a federal jail. Out on bond, a trial ensued and Means was finally sent up the river by Evalyn.

In her way, Evalyn McLean righted the wrong Means had done her friend Florence Harding – even though she never got back her $100,000.

It was never found.

The above article is adapted from the author’s book, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President, and his full-length feature screenplay, both copyrighted materials.

Evalyn McLean and Florence Harding, in Florida 1922.

Evalyn McLean and Florence Harding, in Florida 1922.


Categories: Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, First Ladies, Florence Harding, Individual Presidents, Presidential Foods, Presidential Mythology, Presidents, The Hardings, Today in FLOTUS History, Warren G. Harding

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20 replies »

  1. “humorous dandy of a bachelor, Jess Smith”? That’s kind of tippy-toeing around the issue, isn’t it? :-)

    • Well, to be fair and accurate, I wrote that based on what is factually established. He was married, then divorced and spent most of his life as a bachelor. But yes, he was a “dandy,” in terms of always being neatly dressed and always offering commentary and advice to Mrs. Harding and Mrs. McLean and traveled with the presidential party on junkets to Florida. It was also his business, owner of a dry goods store in Washington Court House, Ohio. However, he also seemed to be a somewhat asexual guy from anecdotal observation. I would say he definitely was affectionately attached to Harry Daugherty, the Attorney General, and sincerely devoted to the care of Daugherty’s utterly disabled wife. There are some posthumous stories claiming he was in the park and wore a purple tie as a signal for assignations – but again, those in and of themselves only suggest that he was perhaps gay or bisexual….short of proving it. Sometimes, I think of people who are long gone and “historical” as if they were alive today, so I do strive to respect the boundary of what is fact and what is speculation.

      • Great article and also interesting commentary about Jess Smith’s personal life. Based on similar anecdotal evidence, I’ve often drawn conclusions about the true nature of the relationship between Archie Butt and Frank Millett–I mean, a memorial fountain to both of them, afterall.

        Ever since your Florence Harding book came out, I’ve imagined who might be cast in a film version. I used to picture Nick Nolte as Warren–until Nolte sort of went off the rails. And I just can’t ever think of a better female actor to play Florence than Betty Buckley. A musical adaptation perhaps ;-)

        As always, my best to you Carl.

        Nick

        • Hey thanks Nick for your observations. Just like we among the living are all judged on one or two categories, like age, race, profession – hell even astrological sign – so too can we make general judgments about the lives of those long gone. One thing biography has really trained me in thinking is that, even those who assiduously follow and research someone else will only be able to present a view of that person through their own filters and perspective. I think we all forget that when we read a “profile” (as opposed to a straight-forward q-and-a interview) or a full biography. And you also have to look at what sources have been “kept” and which are “missing.” We will always get just a judgement. Really, memoirs of the most respectable and honest people which mention other people is really just a perhaps more thoughtful and honest assessment that others can call gossip. So I find it can be hard to be definitive about many aspects of people from the past. I think it is fair for biographers to heavily hint or suggest their own inclination and assessment – if it is based on at least three sources. As far as casting – who knows…..screenwriters have little final say in that, that I feel such a palpable sense of the Hardings as I wrote and still write about them that I honestly think of nobody except them.

  2. I was recently reviewing a local newspaper for the Harding years. I was impressed by the many serious social, economic, and political problems that Harding had to confront in returning America to normalcy. In particular, the coal and an shopmen’s strikes of 1922 come to mind, which, as I recall, occurred at the same time that Mrs. Harding was a death’s door. To me, President Harding’s time in office appears to have been a most difficult and trying one. After Harding’s death, it was said that the pressure of the job killed him. I am wondering if their was not some truth in that.

    • Thank you so much Mr. Wallace for providing important context. People can joke all they want about Harding loafing and playing golf too much and in fact, during his own life and through his presidency, one finds such commentary. Like all politicians, he did craft a public Persona and that sense of ease and relaxed trust was part of what he cultivated. But like all of us, what he put forth in public masked the reality of an intensive and brutal working life. In fact, part of Florence Harding’s fear of the astrological prediction of his death was due to what she had observed of the work load of, and its toll on Wilson, “as sure as if he were stabbed at his desk,” is how she put it. What is remarkable about Harding – and about the failure of historians to consistently point out – is his great courage and foresight. In my biography of Florence Harding, I extensively explored Harding’s vision of greater racial equity as he first stated to a rather stunned – and segregated – audience in Alabama. Did you know that he had also begun informal discussions for the concept of a Department of Social Welfare, relying on the field work and reports of his sister Carolyn in terms of her observations of the primary medical necessities of the working poor which were going unmet? The transition from a wartime to a productive peacetime economy is a difficult one and making economic policy in this direction cannot be done with any immediately obvious predictions, since other factors, like the 1922 strikes you mention, can have an unforeseen impact. When one considers all of this and then the brutal pace Harding was told to maintain by the ignorant and selfish Dr. Sawyer during the Alaskan trip, there is no dearth for reasons why Harding died. One fact which I think people overlook is the degree to which the flaws and attributes and mental and physical factors of all humans are equally applicable to those whose deeds have the potential to shift the direction of the masses.

  3. I really liked the newsreel. Where did you get that?

    Harding’s death does not seem particularly sinister or mysterious.
    He had symptoms of congestive heart failure, enough to cause him to make his will five weeks before his death.
    Most likely had a myocardial infarct in Vancouver, developed increasing pulmonary edema (which improved somewhat with the digitalis and bed rest with which he was treated) and then died of acute arrhythmia or myocardial rupture with tamponade. No amount of 1923 medicine could have prevented that outcome.
    I think it is interesting to compare Harding’s medical treatment with that of FDR in 1944/45 who was also dying of congestive failure over a period of time, as President, and note that there was not very much difference at all. (This is well documented in the great Jim Bishop book FDR’s Last Year).

  4. Dear Mr. Anthony:
    Very nicely done post.
    That’s a great newsreel; how did you find it?

    A couple of things:
    The picture labeled Seattle was taken in Kansas.
    Harding was in Vancouver July 26, not July 16.
    As to Harding’s sickness and death, there were several publications by the physicians in attendance shortly thereafter memorializing those events, as I am sure you know, and he had the best care possible, for the time. But that was just so different than today.
    Harding’s treatment at the Palace Hotel suite: no oxygen, no telemetry (didn’t exist), no lines, no iv, one xray exam, no chemistries, two blood counts (artisan one offs), one stool exam and culture (ditto), one ua, no antibiotics, no cardiac or blood pressure meds except for digitalis and caffeine, with intervention limited to obtaining and recording vital signs, other physical examination, and nursing support.
    The point though is a very likely explanation of Harding’s illness sequence was a myocardial infarction July 25, with attendant cardiac failure and pulmonary edema treated with digitalis injections and bed rest with gradual improvement, with terminal rupture of the left ventricle with cardiac tamponade, a week after the infarct. This was unfixable in 1923 and salvage even today would be problematic.
    I think it is interesting to compare Hardings care with that of the next President who was dying in office with congestive heart failure until his fatal stroke. If you read the great Jim Bishop book FDRs Last Year, you can see that the treatment Roosevelt got twenty years later was very similar to Harding’s care.
    It is different, today.

    • Thanks David – I appreciate that – and will make the date correction. On the newsreel, it was on an old VHS tape I had for years and whatever label was on it fell off – I can’t recall where I got it but I think it was that somebody out there sent it to me when my book Florence Harding was published in 1998 – a lot of people sent and gave me many and various Harding-related and McLean-related memorabilia and photographs and letters and documents of all sorts. I appreciate your effort as well as that of someone who was “anonymous” (might be you – since it is almost exact same information – so thank you twice if it was) to provide those medical details. I worked directly from the handwritten, un-expunged diary of Dr. Boone in the Library of Congress – later someone wrote to me and pointed out that there was a very mad professor who took to the media and raged against my findings because it exposed his failure to consult the unedited material and instead use the easier and quicker to read typed manuscript intended for a public book. I also examined the public statements and private letters of the consulting physicians (both at the time of Harding’s death and the years to follow) and went through thousands of individual items in the McLean Papers. Finally, all of this was reviewed and assessed by leading heart specialist Dr. Kenneth Berg, formerly of the Mayo Clinic. I entirely agree he died because of his heart – not because Florence Harding or anyone else poisoned him. But as Evalyn McLean later asked a friend rhetorically. “People can be killed by ways other than poison, and people can be poisoned in ways other being given poison. Was it an accident if he was?” The issue – and the area where suspicions about motive legitimately arise….if there was, in fact, any “motive” – is why Dr. Sawyer refused to acknowledge Boone’s concerns and why he only encouraged rather than prevented the insanely rigorous activity of Harding in Alaska – especially that long, steep walk up those wood stairs. At one point, just when the train briefly stopped while heading south to San Francisco, Boone managed to slip into Harding’s room and again check his heart. When he tried to later enter the room where Sawyer was speaking alone to Florence, Boone said he gently pressed the door open – and that Sawyer more firmly pushed against it from the inside. literally and figuratively shutting him out. I think the reason many wondered about Florence Harding so completely entrusting Sawyer might be – and I say might – is that she felt there was nothing that could save him from fate – which is a big difference from wishing or conspiring for his death, which of course is something she never showed by word or deed. There is also no question that Florence Harding believed entirely in the astrological prediction of her husband’s inevitable death as President….in fact, there is correspondence between her and Marcia Champrey on this, and a public acknowledgement of it by Mrs. Harding at the 1920 convention and a news story several weeks later in which Marcia’s prediction is explicitly stated. What is also interesting and rarely looked at is the postscript to Harding’s death. Sawyer became persona non grata. President Coolidge – according to Boone – did not want Sawyer near him! I think Gaston Means, as an insider and certainly an acquaintance of Mrs. McLean, heard about all this and used it as metaphor in his book. Whew…I could go on, as you see. Anyway, I appreciate the time and effort you put into providing that information and appreciate your making the effort to share it.

  5. Dear Mr. Anthony:
    Thank your for your considered reply.
    Yes, that was my two separate but similar inquiries, due only to me being maladroit with blogs; this is the first one to which I have responded. I didn’t think my first inquiry went through, so I tried a second similar one later. Sorry.
    Anyway, I have been working on a collection re Warren Harding and his circle and have found several hundred items. Most of it is popular culture totchkies, but I have a few more interesting things, several quite central to the Harding story. I suppose the material that most closely touches on Harding’s demise and afterwards is that I did get the signed and witnessed (but not probated) initial version of WGH’s last will and testiment from June, 1923, that was sold at one of the Malcomb Forbes sales, a scrapbook of 130 personal photographs taken by a man named Harold Santee who took these pictures as the head of Harding’s sound team for the Voyage of Understanding and was up him in Alaska, and what I think are the complete Palace Hotel medical records when they were at auction a few years back. This year my big hit was the remaining significant items found in a rummage through the residual papers of Nan Britton (the ones that were not at UCLA), being sold by one of her grandchildren. Britton was a magpie and kept everything. The material I got was the Richard Wightman affidavit denying his authorship of The President’s Daughter and um personal relations with Ms. Britton, and Britton’s signed stock certificates establishing the Elizabeth Ann League (the publishing corporation that issued the book). It has been proposed that because of matching stylistic similarities with other published material that Wightman was the true author of TPD, but that is controversial..
    If ever you are up in the Seattle area with an hour to spare, I would be most glad to show the material. In aggregate it is a window on an interesting period.
    Best wishes.

  6. WONDERFUL Post.thanks for share..extra wait .. …

  7. mrs harding did it prez harding was a good looking man and she feared she might lose him to another women she was always like a doberman on high alert whe she was around him that old bag did it lol

  8. Carl once again you’ve done a fantastic job in highlighting the “Strange Death of President Harding!” I have always been somewhat surprised that Hollywood never touched this story. It would make a fantastic film. The closest we’ve seen of a portrayal of Warren and Florence Harding was in the 1970s mini-series, “Back Stairs at the White House.” George Kennedy played Harding, Celeste Holm portrayed a too-pretty Florence. You have it all here: infidelity, the occult, jealousy, and finally, a supposed murder!

    • This must be a fortuitous day because guess what I was working on today A second draft of Friendship, the perhaps-temporary title of my feature film screenplay based on my book Florence Harding. I think the most important thing in casting issues for historical figures might be less an exact replication of their physical look but an absolute capture of their mood, sensibilities – essence, what motivated and compelled them. I’ve done some articles on the website about those who’ve played Presidents in film and television productions in the past and sometimes I think producers have focused so much on getting the ‘look’ right but miss the boat on capturing the personalities of Presidents. I once thought that Glenn Close could do a great Mrs. Harding but I think there are many talented women (Streep among them) who could interpret her well. Really appreciate your writing. Hope you can “follow” or “subscribe” for free email updates on new stories but I appreciate your contribution here. Cheers.

  9. I have just begun to do reading about the Hardings and their entire relationship was – bizarre by any standards. Honestly I’m uncertain as to what we can accept as fact and what has been accepted as fact over time because the salacious rumor was so incredible at the time. The case reminds me of allegations regarding Lyndon Johnson’s involvement with a group of various and sundry supposedly nefarious men whose powerful influence can only be imagined. Even today there are those in Dallas who really don’t want their influence to be acknowledge. Their children and grandchildren are still very prominent here. I wonder about Evalyn Walsh MacLean’s telling comment that deaths occur for many reasons. Certainly using emotional appeals to spur Harding on, using his inflated sense of self was easy for Mrs. Harding to do. An already dicey heart condition – let’s be factual here – she knew he was a sick man. Extensive investigation by allopaths prior to his departure would have prevented the trip altogether. Even today a healthy man of forty would have had trouble with the physical demands of the cross country tour. He was under pressure because his world was quickly falling in on him. I think this happened to Lyndon Johnson as well. He was very close to dire circumstances – including perhaps a full court censure and perhaps even impeachment. I’m not sure Flossie Harding had to actually administer a fatal dose of anything. She was no idiot – she had ran the newspaper at a time when men did those things. She masqueraded behind him, she was the seat of power, remarkably enough similar to Nancy Reagan in that respect. Interesting that both said, I have one hobby / vocation, my husband. So women who might not ordinarily been so close to power, so able to control a growing government at that time. I think it’s interesting how both she and her father insured that her alcoholic son disappeared from public view. Her father (and she) knew that such a son would be used against them. Certainly Andrew Jackson had his hands full with wife Rachel’s prior marriage – which his enemies used against him. Bess Truman had her father’s suicide. Our Presidents and their wives have had scandal after scandal that would have destroyed their futures. I think Florence Harding did murder her husband – but not using poison – I think she insured that his already faltering health would fail entirely with the trip. Why? Because things were closing in and she was part of it – her prints are probably all over some of the most damaging aspects of his administration. He really wasn’t the President – she was.

    • From my point of view, I think that Warren and Florence Harding were very much partners. In my biography of her, Florence Harding, I do have a section where I go into detail about the sort of policy issues, federal appointments, budget matters, and even relationship with Russia where she weighed in and took an interest. That said, I’m not sure she had the big-picture on the nation which he did, nor the warm yet strong way of presenting his ideas – a gift which helped elect him. However, I do agree with you about how vulnerable she was to the the power of suggestion, as Evalyn McLean assessed of her best friend and confidante. All that said, there’s no question that she had talents which, in a later era, would have surely led her into a successful public service career on her own and I do think that she had a displaced ambition because of it, working through her husband – although it was all in a way which credited him. I think that vague term “manager” is pretty accurate in explaining the wide range of talents she had and used to elect him President and then while he was in office. And, all that said, I think both really did take too much said to them by politically ambitious figures at face value, not always recognizing or wanting to recognize the darker side of that world.

      • Dear Carl:

        Reading the continuing thread re FKH/WGH reminds me that I recently found what must be an uncommon authentic contemporary letter of Harding re astrology. It is bemused rather than credulous. I thought you might be interested in a transcript. It is a typed letter on Senate stationary. The text is

        February 18, 1920 My dear Father: Some fellow in Boston wishes very much to know the hour of my birth. I assume that he has some hidden knowledge upon which he is able to base predictions. I should be glad to humor him with the information. Would you kindly drop me and note and tell me at what hour I arrived in this troublesome world? I hope you are well. Give my best to sister Daisy. Devotedly, (signed) WGHarding

        On the base is back is written “Handed to me by the President’s father. L. W.” Would you have any idea who LW was?

        Best wishes. David

        On 9/8/12, Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic

        • David: Thank you very much for your inquiry. As to who L.W. could be – well, it could be anyone. It just seems that President Harding’s father, Dr. George Harding, who outlived his son, may have simply given it to one of the thousands of citizens who came to Marion beginning with the front-porch campaign in the summer of 1920 and continued to visit the town during and after his presidency, and sometimes just ring the doorbell of the President’s father to meet him. It was quite common for the general public to often ask a family member – a presidential widow, a child, a parent, a sibling, a niece or any other relative for that matter, or a former staff member – for some relic, some object or item or most often an autograph. In fact during the 19th century many widowed First Ladies often responded to the public who wrote requesting an autograph of their late husbands by clipping the signatures from their mountains of correspondence. In particular, Anna Harrison and Lucretia Garfield did this for many years after their husbands’ deaths until they literally ran out of letters and documents to cut the signature from. So that’s what this seems to be.

          That said, you have, in fact, almost certainly stumbled upon an important clue in an interesting storyline of history because the date of the letter, February 18, 1920, dovetails perfectly into a larger timeline. Within a week or so after that letter was written, Florence Harding went with three other political wives to visit the R Street home of Marcia Champrey, a tarot card, crystal-ball and zodiac reader, a “seeress,” as they were called back then. “Madame Marcia” was often consulted by Evalyn Walsh McLean and it was through the recommendation of this confidante that Mrs. Harding went to visit her for a consultation not about herself – but about her husband, and specifically what his chances were of winning the Republican nomination for President at the convention that coming June, four months away. Not only did Florence Harding have a long history of consulting such “mystics” but she was an avowed spiritualist, having even gone in earlier years to a spiritualist camp in Indiana. She took it with dead seriousness and she followed any number of rituals to bring “good luck” and avoid “bad luck.” While researching my 1998 biography of her, I was given a datebook by a sharp and wise collector who found it in the bottom of a box of Harding memorabilia – in it the pages were filled with personal reflections but also details and specifics of her own astrological dates for various predicted things to happen or to avoid. We know the date of her first consultation with Marcia was in February 1920, as the primaries were just underway, not only from the published recollections of Marcia in Liberty magazine which she wrote ten years later but – and this is crucial in terms of veracity of those two articles she wrote – from news stories which broke in major media in August of 1920. The stories were about Mrs. Harding consulting Marcia the previous winter and a reporter confronted Florence Harding about whether reports, spoken and printed, in Washington about her visits were true. Florence Harding tried to laugh it off as just a personal quirk of her’s but she was honest and confirmed that she had done so.

          What your letter seems to indicate is that perhaps Florence Harding had asked her husband for this specific detail – the time of his birth, and that rather than tell his father that it was his wife who wanted the information he claimed it was for some unnamed “fellow in Boston.” Or, it may be that Florence Harding told her husband that “some fellow in Boston” had written her and requested the information. In fact, according to Marcia’s articles, one of the details which she did request of Florence Harding was the time of birth about “the person” whose astrological chart she would begin her research (initially when Mrs. Harding came for the first consultation, she did not give her real name nor did she clarify whether the reading was for herself or someone else). I hope this helps. For me, it also confirms that Warren Harding never personally took much stock in the value of astrology but humored those who did.

      • Dear Carl: Thanks for your reply. Some times odd bits of the past like this short letter can fill in the historical narrative. Best wishes. David

Trackbacks

  1. The First President To Win With Actors: Al Jolson’s 1920 Campaign Song for Harding « Carl Anthony Online: Presidential Pop Culture, Mythic Americana, Holidays, Legends, Pie & Dogs
  2. The First President To Win With Actors: Al Jolson’s 1920 Campaign Song for Harding « Carl Anthony Online
  3. After 90 years, President Warren Harding’s death still unsettled

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