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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Story Behind Warren G. Harding's Mysterious Death

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During the summer of 1923, President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Harding did what many do during the warmer months: They decided to take a road trip. The couple, along with a presidential entourage, embarked upon a journey they called the "Voyage of Understanding," a cross-country speaking tour that included stops in Alaska. Though much of the trip went well, by the end of the summer, Harding would end up dead and his wife's reputation under attack.

There were signs that something was amiss with the 29th U.S. president early in the trip. He tried to play golf on July 26, but was so tired he could only manage a couple of holes. He fumbled during a speech the following day, mistakenly calling Alaska "Nebraska" and clutching the podium for balance. He became ill later that night, which his doctors blamed on spoiled seafood.

And on August 2, 1923, the 57-year-old president died suddenly at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Doctors declared a stroke the cause of death, and, per his wife’s wishes, he was embalmed just an hour later. The rush to embalm, combined with Florence's refusal to allow an autopsy or even a death mask, raised more than a few eyebrows. She engaged in more suspicious behavior after his death, when she systematically went through Warren's papers and destroyed a wealth of files and correspondence.

After the funeral was over, Florence was said to remark to friend Evalyn McLean, "Now that it is all over, I am beginning to think it was for the best."

In 1930, former F.B.I. agent Gaston Means wrote a book that accused Florence of offing her husband. It wasn't accidental food poisoning that had made Harding sick a few days before his death, he argued—it was Florence's ambition. Unlike other First Ladies of the era, Florence was deeply involved with her husband’s presidency and once told the press, "I have only one real hobby—my husband."

Her vested interest in Warren's legacy lends a bit of credence to the "motive" Means alleged Florence had—his reputation. Killing off her husband, Means suggests, was the only way to protect his name. Florence was worried that Warren's affairs—including one that resulted in a child—were going to tarnish his legacy, one that was already sullied by the Teapot Dome bribery scandal and other controversies that happened during his administration.

Means’ ghostwriter later admitted that the book had been largely fabricated, but the damage had been done. The public already believed that Harding's sudden death was suspicious; Means' book had simply added fuel to the fire. And Florence wasn't around to refute the accusations. She died in 1924, a little over a year after Warren's untimely demise.

But if there was no foul play afoot, why deny an autopsy? According to the National First Ladies’ Library, Florence may have been trying to protect the reputation of her husband’s doctors. Dr. Sawyer, in particular, is thought to have given Harding some stimulants that may have helped induce the president’s fatal heart attack on August 2. Rather than drag Sawyer’s name through the mud—and perhaps bring her own judgment into question—Florence could have opted to simply close the book on the whole thing.

If that truly was her goal, however, denying the autopsy may have done more harm than good. Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur was present the night of Harding’s death and later recalled how the public immediately blamed the doctors for his untimely demise. “We were accused of starving the President to death, of feeding him to death, of assisting in slowly poisoning him, and of plying him to death with pills and purgatives. We were accused of being abysmally ignorant, stupid and incompetent, and even of malpractice,” he wrote in his memoirs.

Unlike fellow possible poison victim Zachary Taylor, Harding's body has never been exhumed and tested for poison—but modern-day doctors believe Harding suffered a heart attack.

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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History
3 Fascinating Items in Abraham Lincoln's Newly Released Archives

The Abraham Lincoln collection in the Library of Congress just got a major boost. The 16th president’s full papers are now entirely available online in full color for the first time, giving you high-resolution access to his letters, campaign materials, speeches, and more.

Lincoln’s papers took a roundabout route to the Library of Congress. After his assassination, Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln sent the president’s papers to one of the former congressman’s associates in Illinois, Judge David Davis, who worked with Lincoln’s presidential secretaries to organize them. Robert Todd Lincoln gave them to the Library of Congress in 1919, and in 1923, deeded them to the archive, mandating that they be sealed until 21 years after his death. They were opened in 1947.

This isn’t the first time some of these documents have been available online—scanned images of them first appeared on the Library of Congress’s American Memory website in 2001—but this 20,000-document collection provides higher-resolution versions, with new additions and features. Previous papers were uploaded as image scans from microfilm, meaning they weren’t particularly high quality. Now, researchers have better access to the information with scans from the original documents that you can zoom in on and actually read.

There are searchable transcriptions for about 10,000 hand-written documents in the collection, including those written in Lincoln’s hand, along with annotations that provide contextual explanations. Here are three items in the collection not to miss:

1. THE EARLIEST VERSION OF THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION

Lincoln read this early version of the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet in July 1862, telling them he was going to propose freeing slaves held by Confederate rebels. Secretary of State William Seward convinced him that he should wait until there was a major Union victory to announce the proclamation.

2. A LETTER FROM MRS. LINCOLN

In the fall of 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln wrote her husband during her month-long trip to New York and Boston about her dressmaker and confidant, a former slave named Elizabeth Keckley, asking him for money to give to her to buy blankets for escaped slaves, then referred to as “contrabands.”

3. A DRAFT OF THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

This may be the only copy of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address that was drafted before he delivered it. There are five known drafts of the speech, but three were written out for people who requested copies afterward. It’s unclear if one of the other copies was made before or after the speech, but this one was definitely drafted beforehand. It belonged to Nicolay Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, who also helped organize his papers after the president’s death. It differs a little from the speech we’re familiar with, so you should definitely read the transcript. (Click “show text” above the image on the Library of Congress page for the text and annotations.)

You can see all the documents here.

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