The Conspiracy That Never Was: How Debunked Rumors Haunt Warren Harding’s Death

The annals of history are rife with conspiracy theories, rumors and scuttlebutt. Some may be true, others might be half-truths and plenty are just plain made up. But the allure of spinning the mundane into the preposterous lingers long after lies are disproven, a reminder of the fragility of truth’s position in our collective memory. On the centennial of Warren Harding’s death, we explore the stories that haunt his legacy until today. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

“Was President Harding murdered by his wife?”

It’s a question that Sherry Hall’s heard as long as she’s been at the Warren Harding Presidential Sites — and it goes back decades farther than that.

“Even now, that story is alive and kicking,” Hall, the site’s director, said.

It’s the kind of story that journalists and historians would kill to write, involving massive corruption, illicit affairs and a cast of shady characters. Missing from the telling of the story, however, were the two primary figures: Harding and his wife Florence, whom he called the Duchess. And that enabled one of those unsavory characters to spin a tale of revenge and murder virtually out of whole cloth.

“It really was the perfect storm,” Hall said.

August 2nd marks the centennial of Harding’s death, which occurred on a West Coast trip. He’d become the first president to see Alaska, visiting Mount McKinley National Park, which was named for the man who’d given Harding, a local newspaper editor and owner, his start in politics. Harding campaigned throughout Ohio for William McKinley in 1896 (McKinley, like many presidential candidates of the day, held a “front porch campaign,” with crowds visiting to listen to him speak at his home in Canton), and became popular enough to win a seat in the Ohio Senate in 1899.

From there, he’d risen through the ranks, not necessarily as an able politician, but as an agreeable one. He was elected lieutenant governor and became a U.S. Senator in 1915 — the first senator from Ohio directly elected by voters, following the passage of the 17th Amendment. In 1920, he emerged as the compromise Republican candidate for president, thanks to the proverbial smoke-filled room, and after a front-porch campaign from his home in Marion modeled on McKinley’s (he even used the flagpole from McKinley’s home in Canton), defeated another Ohioan, Gov. James Cox, in the general election.

Harding ran on “a return to normalcy,” following a world war (at the time, the World War) and flu epidemic, and by 1923, it appeared he was delivering on that promise. That June, he embarked on what was termed “The Voyage of Understanding,” a trip through the American West, Canada (he was also the first U.S. President to formally visit our neighbors to the north) and Alaska. The Hardings left June 30, but by the end of July, Harding was feeling ill. He was rushed from Washington to San Francisco, where he died.

The death of a president while in office always results in an outpouring of grief, and Harding’s was no exception. He was heralded as he laid in state in Washington D.C., and millions watched his funeral train, which traveled from the west coast to Washington, and then to his hometown for burial. But within months, Congress was investigating his administration.

Harding was known for a bland amiability, but even he acknowledged his own questionable judgment in his friends and advisers, telling newspaper editor William Allen White, “I have no trouble with my enemies. I can take care of my enemies all right. But my d***, my godd*** friends, White, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights!”

Harding’s friends, led by his close political advisor, Harry Daugherty, became known as the “Ohio Gang,” and many ended up highly placed in his administration. Daugherty became Attorney General, Albert Fall was named secretary of the interior and Charles Forbes became head of the Veterans Bureau.

As secretary of the interior, Fall convinced Harding to change oversight of oil reserves from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. He leased a large oil field in Wyoming, near a rock formation called Teapot Dome, to Sinclair Oil. He made a similar deal in California, and in both instances, the leases were not put out for competitive bid. (Sinclair’s corporate website notes they lost money on the deal.)

Forbes took bribes from contractors as new veterans hospitals were built, and sold off government medical equipment for his own profit. There was no conclusive evidence that Harding was in on either plan, nor did he benefit from them, but he was tarred with the brush of scandal as his Cabinet members faced criminal charges (Fall and Forbes were convicted and did time; Daugherty was acquitted at his second trial after a hung jury).

And there was no way for Harding to defend himself against the allegations. He was dead, and little more than a year later, so was his wife, who had chronic kidney disease. Harding’s presidential papers were property of the family, and after Florence Harding died, they passed to a newly-formed Harding Memorial Association; so, too, did the family home, which would become a museum to Harding.

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence, between 1921 and 1923. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dr. Carl Sawyer, whose father Charles was the doctor who treated Warren and Florence Harding, was president of the association, and for years, Hall said, he didn’t permit any research using Harding’s papers.

“I don’t know why, but I feel like he thought he was protecting the president,” Hall said. “In reality, I think it would have cleared things up. That gave the appearance that there might be something to hide. Legitimate authors want to write a balanced book, but didn’t have access to the papers for decades. And that opened the door for other stories.”

In 1927, Nan Britton wrote “The President’s Daughter,” a tell-all book that alleged a long-running affair with Harding that produced a daughter. (Warren and Florence Harding had no children of their own.) The reaction, as expected, was disbelief and scorn, but it wasn’t until nearly a century later that DNA testing from Britton’s grandson and Harding family members confirmed that Britton did give birth to Harding’s daughter.

In 1930, Gaston Means wrote a book called “The Strange Death of President Harding.” Means was a self-described investigator who’d been installed by Daugherty at the Bureau of Investigation — the forerunner of the FBI — during Harding’s presidency. One of his co-workers there, J. Edgar Hoover, would call him “the most amazing figure in contemporary criminal history.” He was a bootlegger and con artist, and admitted in the book that he had done prison time and lied a lot.

In the book, Means described himself as an all-around troubleshooter, sort of the Hardings’ Michael Clayton. (Although when Means was depicted on film, it would be not by George Clooney, but by Stephen Root in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”) He had investigated the illicit activities in and around the Harding White House, including the president’s affairs, and the book’s ending implies strongly that Florence Harding had told him that she’d poisoned the president with help from Charles Sawyer (who had died two months before Florence Harding in 1924) to save him from further scandal.

“Warren Harding died – in honor,” Means claimed Florence Harding said. “Had he lived 24 hours longer — he might have been impeached. I have not betrayed my country or the Party that my husband loved so much. They are saved. I have no regrets.”

The allegations Means made could never be proven –—there was no autopsy after Harding’s death — and when his co-author May Dixon Thacker said she’d been duped not only in the writing of the book, but also out of royalties for her work, the book seemed totally discredited. Means didn’t help his own case by getting convicted of grand larceny after inserting himself into the most notorious crime of the 1930s: the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. He’d swindled thousands from a family friend of the Lindberghs, promising that he could get the baby back. (The child turned up murdered, a crime for which Bruno Hauptman was tried, convicted and executed.) Means died in prison in 1938, but his story of how the president was poisoned by his wife lived on for generations.

The Hardings’ home on Mount Vernon Street is a treasure by presidential history standards. The home is original to the time the Hardings lived there, with more than 5,000 original objects that were used by the Hardings — from furniture to the President’s golf clubs to suits he wore.

It’s also a modest home, the type of house that an upper-middle-class businessman like Harding, who owned the local newspaper, the Marion Star, would have. And that was part of the problem telling Harding’s story, Hall said.

“In reality, the house is the story of the Hardings for the 30 years they lived there,” she said. “It’s very much a newspaper editor’s home. It’s not a president’s home. The story at the home ends on March 2, 1921 when he and Florence say good-bye and head to Washington for the inauguration. They never set foot in that house again.”

The Harding home at 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue in Marion, Ohio circa 1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Harding home, now restored and part of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites, as it looks today. Image courtesy of Google Maps.

In 2021, on an adjoining property, the new Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum opened. It enables the museum to tell the story of Harding’s presidency — and properly tell the story of his death.

During the western trip, Harding had complained of indigestion, and reports of the day indicated that he’d had food poisoning. (Indeed, Means’ book notes that food poisoning doesn’t kill someone after a week.) Contemporary reports said Harding had a fatal stroke.

In reality, Harding had had pneumonia and the flu earlier that year, on top of what Hall said was likely congestive heart failure: “They didn’t know as much about cardiac health then … but the symptoms were all there,” according to Hall.

“I think once people go through our museum, that helps,” she said. “We refer to all the medical records and that helps clear things up. We’re able to put a lot of information in that museum.”

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