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

In the decades immediately following his death in 1923, President Warren G. Harding experienced what might be called the opposite of image rehabilitation. For most presidents, death comes with a certain glowing tendency to cover up their flaws, at least initially. In the case of Harding’s untimely death, the public has instead become obsessed with his scandals. Suddenly, the two and a half years of his presidency faded into the background, even if it was about historic events such as keeping America out of the League of Nations, imposing new strict anti-immigration policies and the granting of clemency to imprisoned anti-immigrants. war socialist Eugene Debs.

Regardless of his political standing, these accomplishments are probably more relevant to Harding’s legacy than the fact that he cheated on his wife. Yet it is this 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 to respond) – which ended up shaping the man’s reputation. after his untimely death from a heart attack at the age of 57.

From a strictly legal point of view, only corruption at the cabinet and sub-cabinet level really counted as “scandalous”: Harding’s Home Secretary, Albert Fall, took bribes in the so-called Teapot Dome scandal, which broke two months after Harding’s death (Fall was later the first presidential cabinet member to go to jail); Veterans Affairs Director Charles R. Forbes was later convicted of defrauding the federal government; and Attorney General Harry Daugherty also enriched himself to an unseemly degree while in office, although he managed to avoid conviction. While most historians agree that Harding was likely guilty of little more than poor character judgment in these situations, his death still left lingering questions about the extent of what he actually knew.

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

For obvious reasons, Harding doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to realizing his marital infidelities.

Indeed, Harding had so many adventures that it’s likely we’ll never know the true extent of his adventures. It was known from the 1920 elections, when Harding’s campaign managers secretly bribed a decade-and-a-half-old mistress and her husband (both longtime friends of Harding) to keep quiet. During his presidency, he became so fond of a mistress’s vagina that he unofficially named her genitals “Mrs Pouerson.” Even more memorably, both before and after entering the White House, Harding regularly had sex with a secretary in her 20s named Nan Britton — including frequent dates in a White House closet. This latter relationship eventually produced an illegitimate child and the first-ever book about a president, which Britton published in 1927.

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

Whispers turned to roars in 1930 when a former FBI agent named Gaston Means wrote a book in which he alleged that Florence Harding poisoned the president to protect his reputation from exposure of his affairs. Means’ ghostwriter quickly came forward and admitted that Means had lied on his sales account, but the public’s love of salacious hearsay outweighed any sense of decorum towards those close to Harding. 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 anyone to the conclusion that Harding was murdered.

This story is particularly notable because, unlike other mysterious political deaths, Harding had a fairly routine explanation.

Despite his relatively young age, Harding had a long history of heart problems, with doctors diagnosing him with an enlarged heart long before he took office. (This, like his business, was kept secret from the public.) Although no qualified physician in the 1920s would have encouraged strenuous activity in a man with Harding’s medical history, the president made a political tour of the states. west in summer. of 1923 – including the very first presidential trip to Alaska. On July 27, he began complaining of pain in his upper abdomen, but refused to do anything until July 29 after suffering a relapse. His doctors quickly realized the problem was with his heart, and aggravated by pneumonia, and urged him to rest. Initially this seemed to work, and Harding’s health appeared to have improved on August 2 when he listened to a pro-Harding “Saturday Evening Post” article read by the First Lady. Appreciating the play, Harding urged Florence to keep going — her last words: “That’s good. Go ahead, read some more.” – and a few moments later fell back on his bed convulsing. He died shortly afterwards.

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

To the extent that anything can be learned from this story, it is that people often prefer more sensational tales to benign realities. This is true of many deadly conspiracies surrounding celebrities and politicians, including Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney (who is not dead) and Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. That’s not to say ghosts aren’t committing assassinations; just that they are not the standard for celebrities or political deaths. Indeed, even before doctors could reasonably conclude that Harding had died of a heart attack, there was still no solid basis to attribute 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 anyone to the conclusion that Harding was murdered.

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

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