Decades before John F. Kennedy, another president’s death was shrouded in mystery

In the decades immediately after his death in 1923, President Warren G. Harding experienced what may be called the opposite of an image rehabilitation. For most presidents, death brings with it a certain eulogizing tendency to gloss over their flaws, at least initially. In the case of Harding’s untimely death, the public instead became fixated on his scandals. Suddenly, the two-and-a-half years of his presidency faded into the background, even though these included historic events like keeping America out of the League of Nations, imposing stringent new anti-immigration policies and granting clemency to the imprisoned anti-war socialist Eugene Debs.

Regardless of one’s political stance, these accomplishments are probably more relevant to Harding’s legacy than the fact that he cheated on his wife. Yet it is that last detail — along with a series of corruption scandals involving members of Harding’s cabinet, but in which Harding was not involved (and to which he never had time in his own life to respond) — that wound up shaping the man’s reputation after his untimely death of a heart attack at the age of 57.

From a strictly legal standpoint, only the cabinet and sub-cabinet level corruption actually counted as “scandalous”: Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall accepted bribes in the so-called Teapot Dome scandal, which emerged two months after Harding’s death (Fall was later the first presidential cabinet member to ever go to jail); Veterans’ Bureau director Charles R. Forbes was later convicted of defrauding the federal government; and Attorney General Harry Daugherty likewise enriched himself to an unseemly degree while in office, although he managed to avoid any convictions. While most historians agree that Harding was probably guilty of little more than poor judgment in character in these situations, his death always left lingering questions about the extent of what he actually knew.

During his presidency, he became so fond of one mistress’s vagina that he informally named her genitals “Mrs. Pouterson.”

For obvious reasons, Harding does not receive that benefit of the doubt when it comes to awareness of his marital infidelities.

Indeed, Harding had so many affairs that it is likely we will never know the true extent of his philandering. It was known as far back as the 1920 election, when Harding’s campaign managers secretly bribed a mistress of a decade-and-a-half and her husband (both longtime Harding friends) to retain their silence. During his presidency, he became so fond of one mistress’s vagina that he informally named her genitals “Mrs. Pouterson.” Even more memorably, both prior to and after entering the White House, Harding regularly had sex with a secretary in her 20s named Nan Britton — including frequent trysts in a White House closet. That last relationship eventually produced an illegitimate child and the first ever kiss-and-tell book about a president, which Britton published in 1927.

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It is here that the conspiracy theories about Harding’s death take center stage. The deceased president’s wife, First Lady Florence Harding, famously refused to allow an autopsy, fueling speculation that she had murdered him out of revenge. Misogyny played a major role in that rumor mill: Florence Harding was a well-educated and affluent woman whom even Harding referred to as “boss” because of her ambition and work ethic. Florence Harding also took unpopular stands considered “radical” at the time (such as supporting animal rights and opposing the patronage appointment of a white supremacist), which further alienated much of the public. Between this unfavorable public image and the public’s natural tendency to vilify powerful women, much of the public held that Harding must have played a role in her husband’s death.

The whispers became roars in 1930 when a former FBI agent named Gaston Means wrote a book in which alleged that Florence Harding had poisoned the president to protect his reputation from disclosure of his affairs. Means’ ghostwriter quickly came forward and admitted that Means had lied about his account for sales, but the public’s love for salacious hearsay outweighed any sense of propriety to Harding’s loved ones. Until another president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, few presidential deaths inspired as much public speculation and outright misinformation as Harding’s death. 

Nothing in Florence Harding’s life or character indicated that she was violent, and none of the other details surrounding the case would naturally lead someone to the conclusion that Harding was murdered.

This story is espeically notable because, unlike other mysterious political deaths, Harding’s had a pretty routine explanation.

Despite his relatively young age, Harding had a long history of heart-related problems, with doctors diagnosing him with an enlarged heart well before he took office. (This, like his affairs, was kept secret from the public.) Even though no qualified doctor in the 1920s would have encouraged strenuous activity to a man with Harding’s medical history, the president went on a political tour of the western states in the summer of 1923 — including the first ever presidential trip to Alaska. On July 27, he began to complain of pain in his upper abdomen, but refused to do anything about it until July 29 after suffering a relapse. His doctors quickly realized that the problem was with his heart, and exacerbated by pneumonia, and urged him to rest. Initially this seemed to work, and Harding’s health seemed to have improved on August 2nd when he was listening to a pro-Harding article from the “Saturday Evening Post” as read to him by the First Lady. Enjoying the piece, Harding urged Florence to continue — his final words: “That’s good. Go on, read some more.” — and a few moments later fell back on his bed while convulsing. He died shortly thereafter.

If there is any “mystery” here, it is that his doctors initially attributed his death to a cerebral hemorrhage, even though his symptoms are clearly consistent with those of a cardiac arrest. Then again, doctors in the 1920s were not as familiar with cardiac arrest symptoms as they are today; by contemporary standards, Harding’s cause of death would be an open-and-shut case.

To the extent that anything can be learned from this story, it’s that people often prefer more sensational narratives to anodyne realities. This is true of many death conspiracies surrounding celebrities and politicians, including Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney (who is not dead), and Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Not to say that spooks aren’t out there committing assassinations; just that they are not the norm for celebrity or political deaths. Indeed, even before doctors could reasonably conclude that Harding had died of a heart attack, there was still no sound basis for attributing his death to murder. Nothing in Florence Harding’s life or character indicated that she was violent, and none of the other details surrounding the case would naturally lead someone to the conclusion that Harding was murdered.

Beyond the need for prudence, perhaps the real lesson here is to avoid strenuous activity if you have an enlarged heart.

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