What do President Zachary Taylor and Warren G. (Gamaliel) Harding have in common, other than being president? Yes, both were somewhat heavyset. But more importantly, both of their deaths have stirred the pot of conspiracy. Taylor, who died in 1850, was believed to have died from overeating in hot weather. Harding officially died of a stroke or heart attack. But were their deaths really natural, or were they murder? In Taylor’s case, the exhumation and forensic exam of his body proved without doubt that he had indeed died of natural causes. But the whispers of murder still float around Harding. Could the notorious womanizer-in-chief have been murdered? Or were his well-known blood pressure issues really to blame?
Warren G. Harding had his share of enemies, most of whom were self-created . Elected in 1920 on a platform of returning the nation to “normalcy” after World War I, he packed his government with a mixture of bright administrators and Ohio cronies. His attorney general, Harry Daugherty, fought off a couple of impeachment attempts. Probably the worst of his appointments was Secretary of the Interior Albert Falls, who accepted bribes in regards to oil rights in Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and eventually went to prison. And most scholars agree that Harding had extramarital affairs with four women, two of them close friends with his wife, Florence.
Okay, so he wasn’t the greatest of presidents or husbands for that matter. But while these legal troubles might have warranted impeachment and removal from office, it’s hard to make a case for murdering him. Yet even may skeptics don’t rule out that Harding’s death was the result of foul play. So, where does the murder talk come from?
In brief, here are the facts. In the summer of 1923, barely two years into his first term, Harding was in big trouble. Multiple members of his administration were under criminal investigation, most prominently his Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall. Harding determined that a tour of the west and Alaska might help right the sinking ship of his presidency. So, despite the fact that he suffered from high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, he and his wife, Florence, set out on their tour. He was accompanied by two doctors—Charles Sawyer, a homeopathic physician, and Dr. Joel Boone, a Naval officer assigned to the White House. It was, by all accounts, a successful journey, until late July, when Harding fell ill from, his doctors said, ptomaine poisoning from a crab dinner in Vancouver.
They arrived in San Francisco on August 2nd. Harding was immediately put in bed at the Palace Hotel.
Florence had been reading Harding an article. Most accounts say that she left the room and went across the hall to her suite. A nurse came in to administer Harding his medicine and either found him already dead or walked in at the precise moment that he died.
Sounds pretty simple, right?
Here’s where it all gets murky. The nurse sent for Dr. Boone. He does not remember Sawyer being in the room. In fact, Boone claimed that Harding was already laid out with a sheet over him by the time he arrived. But Herbert Hoover said that Sawyer was there, noting that Sawyer appeared to be lying on the bed with Harding. Kind of a strange place for a doctor to be. Regardless of who was where when, four doctors signed a statement swearing that he died of a heart attack or a stroke. But Florence Harding refused to allow an autopsy and even refused to allow a death mask to be cast.
Conspiracy theorists point to these widely varying stories, and, oh yeah, a couple of other things. Just over a year after the president’s death, Dr. Sawyer died in very nearly the same manner as Harding, while Florence Harding was visiting at his home. She died but a couple of months later. The primary theory is that Florence poisoned her husband with Sawyer’s aid, and she killed him to remove her accomplice. A former FBI agent, Gaston Means, wrote a book in the 1930s claiming that Florence had murdered her husband to protect his reputation. But Means’s book was pretty quickly discredited.
Still, many people believe that Florence orchestrated her husband’s death because she was afraid he would be impeached and his reputation shot. Though, it was too little, too late, as Harding is routinely ranked as one of our worst presidents. It is conceivable that one of his wayward cabinet members could have arranged his death. During that last trip, Harding asked Hoover whether a president who became aware of corruption in his own administration had an obligation to expose it. Most people believe that Harding was talking about Albert Fall. But the train wreck that was Teapot Dome had already left the station. Could Harding have been talking about another , undiscovered scandal? We’ll never know.
Like so many of these questionable deaths, the only way to get at the truth would be a forensic examination of Harding’s remains. And that is not going to happen. So the issue will remain open, further scarring the memory of Harding’s scandal-ridden two years in office.
When Tony Hays isn’t traveling the world, teaching students, and adopting puppies, he takes time out to write the Arthurian Mystery series from Tor/Forge.
See all posts by Tony Hays for Criminal Element.