- Historic Sites
In San Francisco Warren G. Harding lay dead, and the nation was without a Chief Executive. In the early morning hours, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, an elderly Vermonter swore in his son as the thirtieth President of the United States
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
On colliding with his chauffeur in the dimly lighted hallway, Coolidge seemed pleased to find McInerney also looking for a lamp, and at least that once went so far as to pat the driver’s shoulder. Having located the extra lamp, the Vice President struck another torch match to light it, walked down the stairs, and took a pail of cold water from the buttery shelf in the lower hallway. He carried the water upstairs to the bedroom, partly filled a porcelain basin, and splashed water on his face. He then took a straight razor from the top dresser drawer and began giving himself a dry shave, wholly without benefit of soap. That done, Coolidge again splashed his face with cold water, combed his rather silky, carrot-red hair, slipped on a white shirt, and attached a hard-starched, medium-high, detachable collar, size 15. Having carefully donned a narrow knitted blue tie, he slipped into his double-breasted blue serge jacket and roused his wife. Then he went clopping downstairs into the airy little parlor, walking (as his temporary chauffeur recalls) “like a tomcat stepping through wet grass.”
Joe McInerney took a guarding position just outside the front screen door. Meanwhile E. C. Geiser, the Vice President’s young assistant secretary, was standing by in the parlor. He answered a knock at the side door, to find Florence Cilley waiting with a longdistance telephone message which she had written in longhand on a piece of brown wrapping paper. She hurriedly returned to the store and the wall-box telephone, which was on the verge of becoming very busy. The telephone man had returned to his home, leaving an equipment case and promising to be back very early the next morning.
At this point, the press began to assemble. Several reporters covering the Vice President for the major news services and the Hearst papers were established at the Okemo Tavern in Ludlow, twelve miles away. (The Coolidge homestead had no accommodations for newspapermen, and neither Plymouth Notch nor any village nearby had rooms with telephones, liquid refreshments, or other necessities of the working reporter.)
As the news-service men gathered outside the house after the trip from Ludlow, Coolidge announced that he would make a statement; he retired with Geiser, who took it down directly on a typewriter. The message read: Reports have reached me, which I fear are correct, that President Harding is gone. The world has lost a great and good man. I mourn his loss. He was my Chief and friend.
It will be my purpose to carry out the policies which he has begun for the service of the American people and for meeting their responsibilities wherever they may arise.
For this purpose I shall seek the co-operation of all those who have been associated with the President during his term of office. Those who have given their efforts to assist him I wish to remain in office that they may assist me. I have faith that God will direct the destinies of our nation.
It is my intention to remain here until I can obtain the correct form for the oath of office, which will be administered to me by my father, who is a notary public, if that will meet the necessary requirement. I expect to leave for Washington during the day.
Copies of the statement were handed to the reporters, and they left to file their stories, thinking that Coolidge would not take the oath until the next morning.
But another reporter was making his way to Plymouth Notch that night. Late in the evening, G. B. Littlefield, Associated Press bureau chief at Boston, had telephoned one of his most dependable Vermont correspondents, or stringers, Joseph H. Fountain, then the twenty-two-year-old editor of the weekly Reporter in Springfield and now public relations director for the Canadian National Railways. Fountain was to go to Plymouth Notch to backstop the reporters already on the scene.
Soon afterward, young Fountain headed for the Coolidge homestead with three companions: Herbert P. Thompson, commander of the Springfield American Legion Post; Porter Dale, a loquacious Vermont congressman whose sights were already set on the U.S. Senate; and L. L. Lane, a union official.
A lamp was burning brightly in the prim white house when they arrived, and moving shapes were clearly visible through the bay window of the front room. Congressman Dale headed for the doorway, with the slender young newsman keeping pace. Lane and Thompson waited discreetly on the rather narrow porch as the Congressman closed in on Calvin Coolidge, clutched his hand, and began speaking: “The country is without a President, Mister Coolidge: The United States has no President … No President … The country should never be without a President …”