Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (2024)

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (1)

When President Warren G. Harding died suddenly on August 2, 1923, the nation was shocked and baffled. Not only was the handsome, popular president relatively young, at age 57, but to the general public, he appeared far more fit than many of his predecessors. “In physique, President Harding was unquestionably one of the most powerfully built occupants of the White House of modern times,” wrote the Washington, D.C. Evening Star the day after his death. “He at all times gave every evidence of good health and good spirits.”

Almost immediately, rumors of foul play began to circulate. Some suggested the president had been murdered, others that he had committed suicide. Though historians today generally agree that Harding died of natural causes, suspicions to the contrary would linger for decades, fueling several of the most durable conspiracy theories in American history.

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (2)

Harding’s death came at a point when the United States may have been especially susceptible to such theories. “In the 1920s, a lot of Americans were looking back on World War I and thinking they’d been sold a bill of goods, that the government had whipped the country into a frenzy and gotten it into a war when it wasn’t necessary,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a historian at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11. Later, she adds, when the public began to learn about all the “skullduggery, lying and criminal activity” that had occurred during the Harding administration, it was easy to wonder if the president had been a victim of his own corrupt cronies, collectively known as the “Ohio gang.”

At the time of his death, however, Harding was largely revered by the American public, which had elected him and his Republican running mate, Calvin Coolidge, in a November 1920 landslide. Formerly an Ohio newspaper publisher and one-term senator, Harding had promised a return to “normalcy” following the horrors of World War I—and he seemed to be delivering. While the U.S. economy suffered a serious recession in 1920 and 1921, by 1923 it was booming, setting the stage for the decade that came to be known as the Roaring Twenties.

The first official news of Harding’s death came at 7:51 p.m. on August 2, in a three-sentence bulletin signed by five doctors, including his personal physician, Charles E. Sawyer, a homeopath who shared the president’s hometown of Marion, Ohio. Harding had died “instantaneously and without warning and while conversing with members of his family,” the statement said, giving the probable cause as an apoplexy, or stroke. “During the day,” it added, “he had been free from discomfort, and there was every justification for anticipating a prompt recovery.”

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (3)

Harding had been laid up at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel since July 29, suffering from abdominal pain and other symptoms. He’d recently concluded a historic visit to the Territory of Alaska, and Sawyer suggested he’d contracted food poisoning from tainted crab meat.

Over the next several days, the physicians issued a series of bulletins on his condition, including a relatively optimistic one on the morning of August 2, which stated that Harding’s recovery “will inevitably take some little time,” but his team was “more confident than heretofore as to the outcome of his illness.” Newspapers took it a step further, reporting that the doctors were “markedly cheerful” as they left the patient’s room.

Nine hours later, Harding was dead.

In the confusion that followed, officials issued a series of contradictory reports, offering differing times of death and varying accounts of who was with Harding when he died. The cause of death was still unknown and could only be determined through an autopsy, which the president’s widow, Florence Harding, refused to authorize. Instead, she had his body embalmed, then put aboard a train back to Washington. Harding’s closed, flag-covered coffin would lie in state in the East Room of the White House on August 7, then in the Capitol rotunda on August 8, after which another train carried it to Marion for burial. The first lady also began burning her husband’s personal papers.

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (4)

Meanwhile, the rumor mill had been grinding away, with a “whispering campaign” pointing to either suicide or murder, wrote journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams in 1939. The suicide theory—that Harding might have deliberately poisoned himself—hinged on the belief that he couldn’t face the humiliation he saw coming as his administration’s breathtakingly pervasive corruption became public knowledge. Two members of the administration had shot themselves earlier that year, apparently for the same reason.

In particular, Congress had begun investigating suspicious deals in which Harding’s secretary of the interior, Albert B. Fall, arranged to lease U.S. Navy petroleum reserves in Wyoming and California to private oil companies in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. Harding wasn’t implicated in the affair, but he’d facilitated it by transferring the management of the reserves from the Navy to the Interior Department and by appointing Fall to the job in the first place. Fall was tried and convicted of bribery in 1929, making him the first person sent to prison for a crime committed as a U.S. cabinet member. The Teapot Dome scandal, named for the site in Wyoming, would forever blight Harding’s reputation.

While Harding didn’t live to see the scandal play out, the first hints of it put him into “a state of nervous dread,” according to Adams. “He could hardly have failed to foresee that the oil leases, if proven fraudulent (as they were proven), would react upon him with the probable result of his impeachment.”

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (5)

The murder theory, meanwhile, took several forms. One was that Harding had been killed by either political enemies or loyal associates, possibly including his own wife, who wanted to spare him the embarrassment of impeachment. Another theory was that he was the victim of his doctors. “We were accused of starving the president to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives,” recalled one of Harding’s physicians, Ray Lyman Wilbur, in his memoirs. “We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice.” Wilbur, who had been called in to consult on the case was, at the time, president of both Stanford University and the American Medical Association.

“Pop theories about Harding’s death became a national pastime,” wrote Carl Sferrazza Anthony in his 1998 biography, Florence Harding: The First Lady, the Jazz Age and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President. “The [Ku Klux] Klan said it was a papist plot. Others said it was the Klan.”

As Adams observed, the rumors were largely just that until 1930, when former federal investigator and Harding administration insider Gaston Means published a book titled The Strange Death of President Harding. The account, which became a sensation, suggested that Harding had been poisoned by his wife and that she had confessed as much to Means. Conveniently for Means, Florence had died of kidney failure in November 1924, allowing him to libel her with impunity.

“Warren Harding died—in honor—as Madame X said he would,” Means claimed Florence had told him, alluding to a prediction supposedly made by one of the many astrologers she consulted throughout her life and even invited to the White House for horoscope readings. “Had he lived 24 hours longer—he might have been impeached.” She supposedly added, “I have no regrets—I have fulfilled my destiny.”

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (6)

Means, who had recently served three years in the Atlanta Penitentiary for bootlegging and conspiring to bribe government officials, already had a well-established reputation as a con man. The journalist Mark Sullivan singled him out as “the most monumental liar and facile criminal of his time,” while FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover called him “the greatest faker of all time.” Time magazine, in 1932, reported that at “one time or another,” Means had been “indicted for breach of promise, impersonating an officer, fraud, bribery, forgery, murder. He once told a Senate committee that ‘being indicted’ was his business. Last November, he was arrested for beating his wife.”

Even Means’ co-author on The Strange Death of President Harding, novelist and magazine writer May Dixon Thacker, soon denounced him as a liar, saying he had duped her. In a magazine article published in October 1931, she branded their book a hoax.

The idea that Harding might have been assassinated wasn’t confined to craven opportunists or the crackpot fringe. Frederick Lewis Allen, a historian and later the editor of Harper’s magazine, wrote in 1931 that either murder or suicide was “very plausible.” Oswald Garrison Villard, onetime editor of the Nation magazine, wrote in 1939 that “I am of those who lean to the belief that there was foul play in his death” but added, “We shall probably never learn the truth.”

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (7)

More recent scholars think otherwise. As the late Indiana University historian Robert H. Ferrell concluded in his 1996 book The Strange Deaths of President Harding, “It is now clear that Harding died of a heart attack.” He pointed out that cardiology was then in its infancy, and the symptoms of heart attacks were only beginning to be understood.

Howard Markel, a physician and the director of the U-M Center for the History of Medicine in Ann Arbor, Michigan, agrees with Ferrell. “Cardiac medicine was just beginning in those days, and [electrocardiograms] were new,” he says.

“Harding also had a weird doctor who might have missed the diagnosis,” Markel adds in a reference to Sawyer. “But I think it was more the state of medicine and technology in terms of making the diagnosis.”

Anthony, Florence’s biographer, also accepts the heart attack theory but writes that it’s plausible death was brought on accidentally by an injection of the “mysterious purgatives,” or powerful laxatives, Sawyer had been using to treat the president since his food poisoning diagnosis. That possibility might also help explain the first lady’s decision to forgo an autopsy, which Anthony says she reached after a private conversation with Sawyer.

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (8)

Today, the Hardings are buried side by side in a circular, marble-columned memorial in Marion. As evidence of the president’s popularity at the time of his death, more than one million individuals sent in contributions for its construction, including some 200,000 schoolchildren who collected pennies for the cause.

But by 1931, when then-President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the memorial, the full scope of the Teapot Dome scandal had come to light, and the late commander in chief’s reputation was in ruins.

Hoover, who’d served as Harding’s secretary of commerce, had accompanied the president to Alaska and stayed with him in San Francisco during his final days. “We saw him gradually weaken not only from physical exhaustion but from mental anxiety,” Hoover told the assembled crowd. “Warren Harding had a dim realization that he had been betrayed by a few of the men whom he had trusted, by men whom he had believed were his devoted friends. … That was the tragedy of the life of Warren Harding.”

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Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (9)

Greg Daugherty | READ MORE

Greg Daugherty is a magazine editor and writer, as well as a frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine. His books include You Can Write for Magazines.

Why President Warren G. Harding's Sudden Death Sparked Rumors of Murder and Suicide (2024)


What events happened when Warren G Harding was President? ›

In 1923, Harding formally ended the American occupation of Germany and negotiated the payment of World War I reparations. In June 1923, he undertook a months-long Voyage of Understanding to tour the Western United States and the Territory of Alaska, also visiting British Columbia.

What happened to Warren G. Harding? ›

Harding released political prisoners who had been arrested for their opposition to World War I. In 1923, Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco while on a western tour, and was succeeded by Vice President Calvin Coolidge.

What issues did Warren G Harding focus on in his campaign for President in 1920? ›

World War I and the Spanish flu had upended life, and Harding said that it altered the perspective of humanity. He argued that the solution was to seek normalcy by restoring life to how it was before the war. Harding's conception of normalcy for the 1920s included deregulation, civic engagement, and isolationism.

What is Warren G Harding known for quizlet? ›

He was President for only 2 years, dying of an apparent heart attack in 1923. Under Harding, (1) taxes were reduced especially for corporations and the wealthy (2) high protective tariffs were enacted to help promote the success of American businesses.

Who became president after the death of Warren G Harding quizlet? ›

After Harding's death in August 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became President.

What was the original name for the president? ›

How many terms did Warren G Harding serve? ›

Who did Warren G Harding marry? ›

Florence Mabel Harding (née Kling; August 15, 1860 – November 21, 1924) was the first lady of the United States from 1921 until her husband's death in 1923 as the wife of President Warren G. Harding.

What was the famous Harding quote? ›

Harding recorded several speeches for the Nation's Forum. The speech featured here is the most notable of his campaign, containing his famous plea for normalcy: "America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration...not surgery but serenity."

What was the political scandal for President Harding? ›

Before the Watergate scandal, Teapot Dome was regarded as the "greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics". It permanently damaged the reputation of the Harding administration, already hurt by its handling of the Great Railroad Strike of 1922 and Harding's 1922 veto of the Bonus Bill.

Who ran for president in 1920? ›

Harding of Ohio defeated Democratic Governor James M. Cox of Ohio. It was also the third presidential election in which both major party candidates were registered in the same home state; the others have been in 1860, 1904, 1940, 1944, and 2016.

How did Warren G Harding win the presidency quizlet? ›

Warren G. Harding was able to win the 1920 election by a landslide because he promised Americans restoration and a return to "normalcy". By promising tax revision, higher tariffs, limited immigration, and aid to farmers, Harding won the votes of many middle-class citizens and farmers.

What was the state of individual American financial savings at the end of the 1920s? ›

The state of individual American financial savings by the end of the 1920s was relatively low.

Who became president in 1920 by campaigning on the desire to return to normalcy quizlet? ›

Warren G. Harding. In the 1920 presidential election, he was the Republican nominee who promised Americans a "return to normalcy," which would mean a return to conservative values and a turning away from President Wilson's internationalism.

What was the Teapot Dome scandal Quizlet? ›

scandal where Albert Fall secretly gave oil drilling rights on government oil field in Elk Hills, California and Teapot Dome, Wyoming, to two private oil companies.

Why did Harding win the 1920 presidential election? ›

Harding all but ignored Cox in the race, and essentially campaigned against Wilson by calling for a "return to normalcy". Harding won a landslide victory, sweeping every state outside of the South and becoming the first Republican since the end of Reconstruction to win a former state of the Confederacy, Tennessee.

What happened in 1923 in American history? ›

August 3: Calvin Coolidge becomes President of the US after the death of Warren Harding. August 6: Henry Sullivan becomes the first American and the third person ever to swim the English Channel. August 6: Gustav Stresemann becomes Chancellor and Foreign Minister in Germany.

Who was president during the Great Depression? ›

The biography for President Roosevelt and past presidents is courtesy of the White House Historical Association. Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt helped the American people regain faith in themselves.

Who was president from 1923 to 1929? ›

As America's 30th President (1923-1929), Calvin Coolidge demonstrated his determination to preserve the old moral and economic precepts of frugality amid the material prosperity which many Americans were enjoying during the 1920s era.

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