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1923 Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The Death and Demise of Harding

At 17:30 P.M. on August 2, President Warren G. Harding died suddenly, from either a stroke or a heart attack, in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. His death came near the end of a planned seven-week tour of the Midwest, the West, and Alaska, after which he would have sailed back to Washington through the Panama Canal. The trip had been intended to lift the President’s spirits and revive his failing health, but aides had packed his schedule with political events, leaving him little time for rest. In lackluster speeches along the way, Harding endorsed the World Court, discussed agricultural policy and railroad consolidation, and vigorously endorsed Prohibition. To support this last goal, he tried to give up drinking himself, with frequent but not total success. In an era before air conditioning, stifling heat plagued the presidential party throughout the trip. Even in Fairbanks, Alaska, the temperature reached ninety-four degrees.

As the journey went on, the President’s condition deteriorated. Alaska’s midnight sun severely disrupted his already troubled sleep, and during a speech in Seattle on July 27, he was noticeably worn out, pausing several times to compose himself. That evening his doctor, Charles Sawyer, confined him to bed, though Harding insisted on continuing to San Francisco as planned. Headlines from the San Francisco Chronicle give the remainder of the grim story. July 29: HARDING ILL, DUE HERE TODAY . July 30: HARDING CANCELS STATE TRIP; SAWYER CALLS IN SPECIALISTS . July 31: HARDING HAS PNEUMONIA; CONDITION THREATENING . August 1: PRESIDENT HARDING BETTER, THOUGH DANGER NOT PASSED . August 2: PRESIDENT RAPIDLY IMPROVING . August 3: HARDING DEAD .

Workmen tore down the festive bunting that had decorated the city and replaced it with funeral wreaths. In Plymouth Notch, Vermont, Calvin Coolidge took the presidential oath (administered by his father, a notary public) on the family Bible by the light of two kerosene lamps in the kitchen of his father’s farmhouse. An estimated three million Americans lined up to watch the train that had taken Harding across the country, now draped in black, carry his coffin back to Washington. Many laid coins on the tracks to be flattened and retrieved for souvenirs. In Omaha forty thousand people saw the train arrive at 3:00 A.M. After lying in state in the White House and the Capitol, Harding’s body was taken back to Marion, Ohio, for burial. The engineer on that trip, J. H. Cronenwett, had been a grade school classmate of the late President.

Although portents of scandal had been a great strain during his final months, Harding enjoyed a clean reputation and was widely beloved at his death. The ensuing years were not kind to him. His widow, who had been in poor health herself before the fatal trip, obtained many of his public and private papers and methodically destroyed anything embarrassing before she, too, died in November 1924. By then Teapot Dome and related scandals had diminished Harding’s stature considerably. While there was little evidence that Harding himself had been directly involved, a public unaccustomed to presidential wrongdoing was stunned at the extent of the corruption.

Then in 1927 came another shocker: Hoarding’s mistress Nan Britton published details of their years-long affair and supposed illegitimate child. At that time Americans expected their President to be faithful to his wife, and since Britton’s correspondence was not available, it could not be quoted to blacken her reputation. Harding’s memorial tomb in Marion was finished that year, but President Coolidge declined an invitation to dedicate it. Not until 1931 did President Herbert Hoover, who had served in Harding’s cabinet, agree to participate in installing the former President’s remains in their final resting place.

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