- 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
Slowly the Superb moved across the continent in the rending summer heat. At St. Louis Harding delivered a ghost-written speech on the World Court. Later the wife of former Secretary Fall, evidently much troubled, visited him incognito at his hotel. The veiled elderly woman spent over an hour talking with him, and when she left, Harding appeared profoundly disturbed. Afterward on the train, as if he were thinking aloud, he remarked that it was not his enemies but his friends who were keeping him awake nights.
On July 3 Secretary Hoover and his wife joined Harding at Tacoma just before the party embarked for Alaska. Aboard ship the Secretary was forced to play bridge with the President each day, beginning immediately after breakfast and continuing until after midnight. So surfeited of cards did Hoover become on the voyage that he never played bridge again. One evening Harding sent for him and in the privacy of his cabin asked him what he would do if he knew of a great scandal in the administration. Would he for the good of the party expose it or bury it? Hoover replied that the only thing to do would be to publish it and at least get credit for integrity. Harding gave no further details. But Hoover noticed that as the trip continued the President grew increasingly nervous. In Alaska a long, coded message came to Harding by plane from Washington. After reading it he almost collapsed and for the rest of the day seemed half-stunned. He did not recover on the voyage back. His speeches were listless, their banalities no longer covered by his personal magnetism. In Seattle, on a searing afternoon, he faltered and was barely able to finish reading his manuscript.
That night Harding suddenly experienced such pain that Dr. Sawyer was summoned in haste. Then the doctor announced that the President was suffering from acute indigestion after having eaten crab meat—although later it turned out there had been no crab on the presidential menu. Dr. Boone, noting symptoms of high blood pressure and an enlarged heart which had been passed over by the homeopathic general, insisted over Sawyer’s objections that it was much more serious and that Harding had had a cardiac attack.
As the Superb moved south all speaking dates were cancelled. Dr. Boone and Dr. Work arranged to have two specialists meet the train at San Francisco: Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of Stanford University and afterward president of the American Medical Association; and a well-known heart specialist, Dr. Charles Minor Cooper. Harding arrived in San Francisco on Sunday, July 29, walking unaided from the station to the street, although reporters noted that he looked “gray and worn.” He was taken to the Palace Hotel, where Dr. Wilbur and Dr. Cooper examined him and at once diagnosed his condition as a coronary attack aggravated by bronchial pneumonia.
Under treatment the President seemed to improve. On Wednesday Dr. Sawyer announced that the crisis was past. The President’s lungs cleared up and on Thursday his improvement continued. He was able to sit up. Then, without warning, at 7:35 in the evening, he suddenly died of what his death certificate described as cerebral apoplexy.
According to the newspaper accounts by reporters at the hotel, his wife had been sitting at his bedside reading an article about him by Samuel Blythe in The Saturday Evening Post . It was called “A Calm View of a Calm Man,” and it pleased Harding, for he remarked, “That’s good! Go on, read some more.” And in that instant a change passed over his face; he shuddered and collapsed. Mrs. Harding ran shrieking into the corridor. A few seconds later Dr. Boone and Dr. Sawyer arrived to find him dead. Doctors Wilbur and Cooper were sent for. They with the other two doctors and Secretary Work signed the death certificate.
“Nothing could be more absurd than the poison theory,” Dr. Wilbur wrote long afterward. And as Samuel Hopkins Adams pointed out, to accept it is to assume that five doctors—four of whom at least were distinguished members of their profession—would violate their ethics to cover up a capital crime. Even if they had done so, there would still be the problem of how either Harding or his wife could have obtained possession of a lethal drug without the knowledge of others. As for the suicide hypothesis, Harding for all his faults was not the suicidal type.
After Harding’s funeral, Florence Kling Harding wasted no time in unprofitable grief. The Coolidges did not press her, and she spent the first few weeks of her widowhood in the White House gathering up and destroying every bit of her husband’s correspondence, official and unofficial, that she could lay hands on. Once back in Marion, she performed a similar operation on the files of the Star . She employed a corps of secretaries to trace Harding’s correspondents, to whom she appealed on sentimental grounds for any surviving letters. Her last year of life—she died on November 21, 1924—was a busy one, but her motives were incendiary rather than sentimental. When the publishing house of Doubleday, Page asked if it might publish a volume of Harding letters, she refused to consider it. She admitted to Frank N. Doubleday, the head of the firm, that she had burned her husband’s correspondence, saying she feared some of it might be misconstrued and harm his memory.