- Historic Sites
The Four Mysteries Of Warren Harding
In the life a and death of a scandal-haunted President, some dark regions still remain
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Like the earlier circular, the book was distributed surreptitiously. Most of the copies were sold by door-todoor salesmen through the main cities of Ohio. Some copies even reached Washington. In the book Chancellor now maintained that there were several Negro strains in the Harding clan, but his chief claim was that the President’s great-grandmother, Elizabeth Madison Harding, born in 1799, was a Negress. Chancellor in his delvings had spent several weeks in Blooming Grove interviewing the oldest inhabitants, some of whom claimed to have known Elizabeth Madison Harding.
With Harding’s inauguration Harry Daugherty had attained his own goal of becoming Attorney General of the United States. When he learned of the publication of Chancellor’s book, he at once sent out agents of the Justice Department and the Post Office to gather up the whole edition. They spread out all over Ohio buying, borrowing, and even confiscating every copy they could find. They finally managed to locate the Seminal Press, bought all the unsold copies, burned them, and destroyed the plates. So thorough was the Justice Department in its search, so carefully did government agents comb Ohio, that this sub rosa volume has become one of the rarest items in American historical bibliography.
Harding himself was troubled all his days by the shadow across his lineage. His father-in-law remained for years Harding’s bitterest enemy. Just before the marriage Kling, on meeting Harding in the courthouse, elaborated profanely on the young man’s mixed blood and threatened to kill him. Kling was probably responsible for a full-page article that appeared about that time in the rival Mirror alleging that the Harding family had always been regarded and treated as Negroes in Blooming Grove. Twelve years later, when Harding was running for lieutenant governor of his state, Kling remarked with open bitterness that he hoped to God he would never live to see a Negro governor of Ohio.
Whatever Harding’s frustrations and anger at these mocking accusations, he always followed the manly course of disregarding the rumors about his heredity. He himself did not know whether they were true or not. “How do I know, Jim?” he once told his old friend James Faulkner of the Cincinnati Enquirer . “One of my ancestors may have jumped the fence.” Nor, in a day when such matters have come to be of less concern, is there anything more to add to that honest comment.
No President of the United States ever suffered such a loss of reputation in so short a time as did Harding after his death. Aloof insiders like Alice Roosevelt Longworth might sum him up waspishly as “just a slob,” but when he died suddenly in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, he was as popular and respected among the mass of people as three years before, when he had been elected by a record plurality. Three million people from cities, hamlets, and open prairie came to watch his funeral train as it slowly crossed the country; “the most remarkable demonstration in American history of affection, respect, and reverence for the dead,” according to the New York Times . The day of Harding’s funeral was proclaimed a day of public mourning. He would, it seemed, be remembered in history as another Garfiekl or McKinley.
Yet within months the scandals long simmering beneath the amiable “normalcy"—the President himself had coined the word—of the Harding administration boiled over. Harding had surrounded himself with his friends, and now it turned out that many of his friends were vultures. Ominous questions arose concerning the Teapot Dome oil leases; Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, was sent to prison for bribery. Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby retired in disgrace. There were revelations of graft and corruption in the office of the Allen Property Custodian and the Veterans’ Bureau. There were suicides. Under Daugherty and his bagman, Jess Smith, the Justice Department had become—in Senator Henry Fountain Ashurst’s phrase—the Department of Easy Virtue, with pardons and bootleggers’ permits for sale over the counter. Only two hung juries kept Daugherty from going to jail when he retired to Ohio.
As an aftermath to all the other scandals a book appeared in 1927, The President’s Daughter , published by an otherwise unknown organization called the Elizabeth Ann Guild. It was written by a former Marion resident, Nan Britton, who claimed that for years she had been Harding’s mistress and that her eight-year-old daughter Elizabeth Ann—whose photograph served as a frontispiece—was Harding’s child. By this time, as The President’s Daughter circulated briskly, if for the most part under the counter, the public found it easy to believe almost anything of Harding. Nan’s 44o-page book was convincing not only through its elaboration of details but by its very naïveté. She was a determined young woman, she had determined to become Harding’s mistress, and she had achieved that inglorious goal. She had no regrets. Such was the theme of her book; its major details were as follows.