Friday, August 2, 2013

The Mysterious Death of Warren Harding

President Warren Harding and his wife, Florence

Today is a milestone anniversary of a presidential death that is still shrouded in mystery.

No, I am not speaking of the Kennedy assassination.

Here in Dallas, we know (or most of us do) that this year is the 50th anniversary of that assassination — which is, of course, still a subject for debate, but this year it seems to be even more of an industry than usual (until just recently, the city was taking applications for free tickets for people who want to be in Dealey Plaza at the precise moment on November 22 — 50 years later, of course — when the president was shot).

Before we turn our full attention to that anniversary, let us pause for a minute or two to think about another presidential death that happened 90 years ago today.

I'm speaking of Warren Harding, America's 29th president, of whom H.L. Mencken wrote
"He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash."

Based on what I have read of President Harding, he was an amiable, well–meaning individual, but he was also someone who was easily manipulated.

He was a journalist by trade and had a relaxed management style as publisher of a newspaper in Marion, Ohio. It has been said that, in some 30 years as the newspaper's publisher, Harding never fired anyone. He seemed to like people, and they liked him. But, as I say, there were those in his administration who took advantage of him.

On Aug. 2, 1923, President Harding died of an apparent heart attack in San Francisco. But there were suspicions at the time of other causes — and those suspicions have lingered. It might have been a stroke, some thought, or it might have been ptomaine poisoning.

Or it might have been a deliberate act.

Harding had been on a speaking tour of the western United States that summer. It could have been anything, people said at the time — heat, food, whatever — and an autopsy would have clarified things considerably. But, as Kennesaw State professor Russell Aiuto observes at Crime Library, there was no autopsy. The president's widow, Florence Harding, would not allow it.

"Within an hour of [Harding's] death, he was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed and in his casket," Aiuto writes. "By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C."

That got suspicious tongues wagging. Think the Kennedy assassination is awash in conspiracy theories? For nearly a century now, Harding's death has variously been attributed to natural causes, negligent homicide, suicide and murder. There is a solution to suit every taste.

President Warren Harding and
Vice President Calvin Coolidge

Natural causes is supported by the knowledge that, as Aiuto observes, Harding "lived the fat–filled, tobacco–infused and alcohol–drenched life of early 20th Century America with gusto." There are indications that Harding suffered from coronary artery disease that went undiagnosed and, consequently, untreated.

Negligent homicide had its defenders, too — like one of Harding's physicians, who believed Harding could have been saved had it not been for medical treatment he had been given, treatment that would have been effective if Harding suffered from indigestion but not effective for angina.

Then there have been suggestions that Harding may have killed himself.

It seems to be beyond dispute that Harding was despondent, presumably about Cabinet members whose conduct was under fire, during his tour of the West. And his behavior during that time prompted questions at the very least. He had made out a new will before leaving Washington in June. He sold his newspaper, which he had owned and published for decades, a few weeks earlier — and for far less than its value.

But suicide seems less likely when one considers that the signs pointed to his intention to seek re–election the next year.

That brings us to the last prospect, murder. Like the current occupant of the Oval Office, Harding's administration was beset by numerous scandals, any one of which could have led to homicide.

Even Mrs. Harding has been mentioned as a suspect. A book that was written by a man with a checkered past and published several years after her husband's death alleged that Mrs. Harding had two motives: 1) to save his reputation by having him die while he was at his most popular, and 2) to get even with him for his extramarital affairs, especially one that supposedly produced an illegitimate child.

Mrs. Harding died a year after her husband so it wasn't possible for her to defend herself against the charges — which don't seem to have been given much credibility.

Aiuto describes Harding's life and presidency as both comic and tragic. "Harding had many admirable traits — kindness, charm, generosity — but he was basically an inept man, without many talents," Aiuto writes.

"Besides the buffoonery of his days in the Senate and the White House," Aiuto goes on, "there is the tale of a man in over his head, trusting of untrustworthy associates, trying to do his best."

It's possible that one of those untrustworthy associates — with unguarded access to the president — poisoned him. It's just as possible — maybe even moreso — that Harding's lifestyle or medical malpractice hastened his demise.

After 90 years, though, it seems highly unlikely that the truth of the matter will ever be known.

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