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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
So timely was Harding’s end in the light of the approaching nemesis that those in the know soon began to whisper that he had committed suicide. Such rumors were stiffened by certain anomalies about his death. There were contradictory reports of his symptoms. It was uncertain, rumor said, just who had been with him when he died. Afterward Mrs. Harding had refused to allow an autopsy, had refused even to allow a death mask to be made. Even darker rumors followed, hinting that Harding’s death had really been a mercy killing and that the iron-willed Duchess had poisoned him to save his reputation. Fifteen years later Samuel Hopkins Adams found a number of people in Ohiosome of them friends of the Hardings—still convinced that Harding had been murdered by his wife. Many Washington insiders accepted the story at the time, although it did not gain nationwide circulation until the publication in 1930 of The Strange Death of President Harding , by Gaston B. Means.
Means, a perjurer and trickster whose devious career included a trial for murder, was officially an operative in the Bureau of Investigation, but his real function was to operate under cover for Burns and Jess Smith. Though his word was always dubious, he maintained in his book that he had also been employed by Mrs. Harding to investigate Nan Britton. Means was to spend two post-Harding periods in a Federal penitentiary, the last (during which he died) for swindling Evalyn Walsh McLean of $100,000 by concocting false clues in connection with the Lindbergh kidnapping. Without saying it in so many words, Means implied that Mrs. Harding had poisoned her husband. Following Nan Britton’s revelations, Means’ book tore up the last shreds of Harding’s reputation.
It seemed reasonable enough, after all the other scandals, to believe that Harding had met an unnatural end. Yet the skilled diagnostician Dr. Emmanuel Libman, observing him at a dinner party in the autumn of 1922, had predicted to friends that the President would be dead of a coronary ailment within six months. The year 1923 found Harding oppressed both mentally and physically. He had always played golf with the same compulsive zest that he played cards. Now he tended to become tired after nine holes and often quit at the twelfth or thirteenth. He was unable to sleep except when propped up with pillows. His face aged and grew slack. To his essentially indolent nature the demands of the Presidency had become a relentless burden. With morbid uneasiness he began to doubt himself and to sense the menace to his administration and to his name of the friends he had trusted. Although he still attended the Calvary Baptist Church, he would not go on Communion Sunday, saying that he felt unworthy. He forswore liquor and gave up his poker parties. For some time he had been thinking of a trip across the continent and to Alaska, “a voyage of understanding,” he called it, in which he imagined himself escaping from the isolation of the White House and renewing himself by seeing again the ordinary men and women of America who had elected him.
Originally he had planned the trip as a junket to be made with cronies like Daugherty, Jess Smith, and the court-jester husband of Evalyn Walsh, Ned McLean. The shift to the voyage of understanding developed with the darkening mood of 1923. It was as if Harding were trying to break out of the web of his old associates. Instead of Daugherty, Harding now invited soberminded men like Speaker of the House Frederick GiIlett, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace (father of the present Henry Wallace), and Dr. Hubert Work, the former physician who was now Secretary of the Interior. Secretary of Commerce Hoover, then on the West Coast, was asked to join the party there. Dr. Charles Sawyer, the President’s personal physician, accompanied him, as did a young Navy doctor, Commander Joel T. Boone. Sawyer was a Marion friend, a diminutive country doctor of about the standing of the elder Harding, whom the President had brought to Washington and made Surgeon General. Sawyer cut an absurd figure in his uniform, but he was an honest man. Mrs. Harding of course made the trip, one of her maxims being, Never let a husband travel alone.
The special train with the presidential car Superb left Washington on June 20. But before then Harding had had two ominous shocks. In March Charles F. Cramer, Forbes’ closest associate in the Veterans’ Bureau, had committed suicide. Two months later Jess Smith’s improprieties had become so flagrant that they finally reached even the President’s insensitive ear. Summoned by the White House, Smith confessed, blubbering out the catalogue of iniquities of the Ohio gang. Harding, aghast, dismissed him with the warning that he would be arrested next day. The next day Smith shot himself dead in Daugherty’s hotel room.
To the correspondents and those aboard the Superb the voyage of understanding seemed more a voyage of doom. Harding in his restlessness insisted on playing bridge steadily, interrupting his game only to make a speech at each town and whistle stop. He prided himself as an orator, but this time his phrases—always resounding platitudes—had lost their resonance. When he spoke in Kansas City, William Allen White noticed that his lips were swollen and blue and his eyes puffed.