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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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Mark Wilson, Getty Images
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Barack and Michelle Obama's Next Move: Producing Content for Netflix
Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Barack Obama's first talk show appearance after leaving office was on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, David Letterman's six-part series on Netflix. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that one of the Obamas' first projects since moving out of the White House will be a storytelling partnership with Netflix.

On Monday, the streaming service announced that they've entered into a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama, who produce films and series under a company called Higher Ground Productions. So what can we expect from the former president and first lady? According to Netflix, they will be producing a "diverse mix of content," which could take the form of scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and features.

"One of the simple joys of our time in public service was getting to meet so many fascinating people from all walks of life, and to help them share their experiences with a wider audience," Barack Obama said in a statement. "That's why Michelle and I are so excited to partner with Netflix. We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world."

The former first lady added that Netflix was a "natural fit" for the kinds of stories they want to tell. According to The New York Times, Barack Obama said he does not intend to use the platform for political ends.

Last year, the Obamas signed a joint book deal with Penguin Random House worth $65 million. Michelle's memoir, Becoming, will be published on November 13, while details about Barack Obama's memoir are forthcoming.

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Alexander Gardner, U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
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The Lincoln Library May Have to Sell the President's Hat and Blood-Stained Gloves to Pay Off a Loan
Alexander Gardner, U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images
Alexander Gardner, U.S. Library of Congress/Getty Images

Two of the most valuable artifacts in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum may be shut away from the public for good if the institution can't pay off its debt. As the Chicago Tribune reports, the presidential library's foundation took out a $23 million loan in 2007 to acquire a collection of items that once belonged to the 16th president. Over a decade later, the Springfield, Illinois institution has yet to pay back the entirety of the loan—and it may have to auction off some of the very items it was used to purchase to do so.

The 2007 loan paid for most of the $25 million Barry and Louise Taper Collection, which before moving to the library was the largest private collection of Lincoln memorabilia compiled in the last half-century. It features 1500 items, including many of Lincoln's personal belongings and writings.

The foundation still owes $9.7 million on the loan, which comes up for renewal in October 2019. In order to avoid financial trouble and retain the majority of the artifacts, the foundation is considering auctioning off two of the most valuable pieces in the collection: A stovetop hat thought to have belonged to Lincoln and the blood-stained gloves he wore on the night of his assassination.

As long as they're in the museum's possession, the artifacts are available for the public to view and researchers to study. If they end up on the auction block they will likely go home with a private buyer and become inaccessible for the indefinite future.

While the Lincoln library is run by the Illinois government, the foundation is privately funded and run independently. The foundation appealed to Governor Bruce Rauner for financial assistance earlier this month with no success. Springfield-area Representative Sara Wojcicki Jimenez, however, tells the Chicago Tribune that she is looking into ways to relieve the museum's financial burden.

If the state doesn't follow through with funding, the foundation does have a backup plan. The Barry and Louise Taper Collection also includes a handful of Marilyn Monroe artifacts sprinkled in with the Lincoln memorabilia and some of those items are going up for auction in Las Vegas on June 23. Revenue from a dress worn by Monroe, pictures of her taken by photographer Arnold Newman, and a bust of poet Carl Sandburg that once belonged to the icon will hopefully offer some relief to the foundation's outstanding debt.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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