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.

10 Facts About Lyndon B. Johnson

Born in a farmhouse and destined for the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

His presidency was marked by successes in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, environmental and consumer protection laws, gun control, and the creation of Medicaid and Medicare. But it was also marred by an inherited Vietnam War, which he expanded. Its profound unpopularity, transposed onto Johnson himself, led him to refuse standing for reelection in 1968, ending an extensive and monumental political career.

1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEACHER.

To pay for his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (which is now Texas State University), Johnson taught for nine months at a segregated school for Mexican-American children south of San Antonio. The experience, as well as his time teaching in Pearsall, Texas, and in Houston, shaped his vision of how the government should help educate the country's youth. After signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which used federal funds to help colleges extend financial aid to poor students, he remarked on his time teaching at the Welhausen Mexican School, saying, “It was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”

2. HE WAS ALSO A JANITOR.

Johnson not only shared in the unfortunate tradition among teachers of using his own paycheck to pay for classroom supplies, he also wore multiple hats during his tenure as an educator. He taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, managed a team of five teachers, supervised the playground, coached a boys’ baseball team and the debate team, and mopped floors as the school’s janitor.

3. HE HAD A HEAD START IN POLITICS.

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

Johnson’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a member of the Texas State House of Representatives for nine non-consecutive years. His guidance and connections helped Johnson enter politics, and at the age of 23, just one year out of college, Johnson was appointed by U.S. Representative Richard M. Kleberg as his legislative secretary on the advice of Johnson’s father and another state senator whom Johnson had campaigned for.

Johnson became a leader of the congressional aides, a dedicated supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who became president a year after Johnson began work in the House), and the head of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration—a New Deal agency meant to help young Americans find work and education.

4. HE WAS AWARDED A SILVER STAR DURING WWII.

Johnson won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1937, representing a district that encompassed Austin and the surrounding hill country. He would serve there for 12 years, but he would also serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve in the middle of his tenure as a representative. He was called to active duty three days after Pearl Harbor, eventually reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, and on June 9, 1942, volunteered as an onboard observer for an air strike mission on the south shore of New Guinea that had fatal consequences.

Possibly because of heavy fire or a mechanical failure, the B-26 bomber Johnson was on returned to base while another (which carried Johnson’s roommate at the time) was shot down with no survivors. MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his involvement, although some view it as a political trade for Johnson lobbying President Roosevelt for more resources in the Pacific.

5. HIS ENTRY INTO THE SENATE WAS A “LANDSLIDE.”

Johnson toured Texas in a helicopter for a 1948 Senate primary race that pitted him against former Governor Coke Stevenson and state representative George Peddy. Stevenson led the first round of voting, but, without a majority, a runoff was called. Johnson won it (and the nomination) by only 87 votes out of 988,295 (.008 percent) amid accusations of voter fraud. Biographer Robert Caro noted that Johnson’s campaign manager (and future governor) John B. Connally was connected with over 200 suspicious ballots from voters who claimed they hadn’t voted, with election judge Luis Salas claiming almost 30 years later that he’d certified 202 phony ballots for Johnson. Stevenson challenged Johnson’s win in court but lost, and Johnson went on to beat Republican Jack Porter in the general election. The accusations of fraud and the tight margin of his primary victory earned him the ironic nickname [PDF] “Landslide Lyndon.”

6. HE ALMOST DIED WHILE SERVING IN THE SENATE.

Emperor Haile Selassie saluting and US President Lyndon B Johnson holding his hand to his heart as the National Anthems are played, at the White House in Washington DC, February 18th 1967
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A demanding boss, workaholic, and chain smoker, Johnson had a heart attack in the summer of 1955 during his time as Senate Majority Leader. Within a few days of the health scare, he had telephones and mimeograph machines brought to his hospital room so he could resume an intensely long work day. He stopped smoking, but he would later describe his heart attack as “the worst a man could have and still live.”

7. HE WAS ONE OF FOUR PEOPLE TO HOLD FOUR DISTINGUISHED OFFICES.

Among the most trivial of trivia (be sure to memorize it for your pub quiz night) is Johnson’s rare, strange distinction of the combination of offices held. Following John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, and followed by Richard Nixon, Johnson is one of only four people to have been a United States representative, the Senate Majority Leader, the vice president, and the president of the United States. At age 44, Johnson also became the youngest person ever to serve as Senate Minority Leader. Don’t ever say we haven’t helped you win bar trivia.

8. HE VOTED AGAINST EVERY CIVIL RIGHTS BILL IN HIS FIRST 20 YEARS AS A LEGISLATOR.

Johnson’s legacy is tied directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he was an imperfect vessel for change. As a representative and senator, he’d voted down every civil rights proposal set before him, aligning with the post-Reconstruction south, calling President Truman’s civil rights program “a farce and a sham—an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” Johnson changed his tune as a senator in 1957 and stridently coerced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights expansion since Reconstruction, as president.

9. JOHNSON’S STYLE OF COERCION WAS CALLED “THE TREATMENT.”

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Johnson towered over most colleagues, and he used that physicality to his benefit. When he needed to extract a favor from someone, he'd simply stand over them with his face inches from their own and tell them just what he needed, in a move dubbed "The Johnson Treatment." Beyond bodying his opponents and friends, Johnson would also promise to help them, remind them of times he’d helped them, coax, flatter, goad, and predict doom and gloom for those who weren’t on his side.

10. HIS REELECTION WAS A TRUE LANDSLIDE.

After the 87-vote debacle that launched him into the Senate, Johnson experienced a genuine electoral phenomenon befitting someone nicknamed “Landslide.” In the 1964 campaign, Johnson faced not only Republican Barry Goldwater, but also questionable popularity. He’d never been elected president in his own right, and his leadership on the Civil Rights Act had southern supporters questioning their loyalty. To counteract the latter development, Johnson deployed his greatest political ally, his wife Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, to tour the south in a train, passing out her pecan pie recipe alongside campaign buttons. After the final tally, Johnson kept Texas and half the south, winning 44 states and 61.05 percent of votes cast—the largest-ever share of the popular vote.

10 Facts About Gerald Ford

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Former president Gerald Ford (1913-2006) had the unenviable task of following a disgraced Richard Nixon, the first man to resign from the presidency, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. During his relatively short 895 days as president, Ford had to attempt to restore American confidence in the Oval Office. For more on our 38th president, take a look at some of the more unusual facts about his early years, his political feats, and why he once considered being a co-president with Ronald Reagan.

1. HE WASN’T BORN GERALD FORD.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Junior, son to Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy King, on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. After his parents got a divorce, his mother remarried a paint salesman named Gerald Rudolff Ford. After his mother remarried, the future president was referred to as “Junior King Ford.” According to his autobiography, around the age of 12, Ford found out that Ford Sr. wasn’t his biological father. But the fact didn’t sink in until 1930, when King visited him. Ford recalled their conversation as “superficial.” His birth-father handed him $25 and disappeared. The future President legally changed his name to Gerald Ford in 1935.

2. HE WAS A SEXY MALE MODEL.

A young Gerald Ford poses while wearing his football uniform
Michigan University/Getty Images

Ford was always on the lookout for ways to earn money to make his way through law school—so when he was asked to pose for a Look magazine photo spread with girlfriend and model Phyllis Brown in 1940, he did it. The 26-year-old Ford cavorted in the snow with Brown as part of a layout on winter vacationing.

3. HE HAD AN ODD WEDDING.

After attending Yale and entering law practice in Michigan, Ford became interested in politics. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1948, a post he would occupy for the next 25 years. That same year, Ford married Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer, a former dancer and model. Ford later recalled that he was so busy campaigning that he arrived only minutes before the ceremony with mud still on his shoes. The wedding had been delayed until just before the 1948 House election because Ford was concerned conservative voters might take issue with marrying an ex-dancer who had already been divorced.

4. PARDONING NIXON EARNED HIM A TON OF GRIEF.

Gerald Fold waves while standing next to Richard Nixon
Ian Showell, Keystone/Getty Images

When Ford took office in August 1974, the American public looked on to see how he would adjudicate the fate of the man he was replacing. Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment, could have been up on federal criminal charges. But Ford opted to grant him a full pardon, reasoning that a prolonged trial and punishment wouldn’t allow the country to move past the controversy. Immediately, his White House Press Secretary, J.F. TerHorst, left his job after determining that he could not “in good conscience support [Ford’s] decision to pardon former President Nixon.”

5. HE TOOK BEING A COMEDIC TARGET IN STRIDE.

Despite his background as an athlete—he played football at Michigan—Ford had the misfortune of being caught on camera when he suffered an occasional lapse into klutziness. He once tripped down the stairs while de-boarding Air Force One; while skiing, a chair lift hit his back. The footage inspired Chevy Chase’s portrayal of Ford as a klutz on Saturday Night Live, which Ford took in stride. Sensing the American public wanted someone less like the studious, humorless Nixon, he appeared on SNL and once pulled up a tablecloth next to Chase during a formal dinner in 1975. “The portrayal of me as an oafish ex-jock made for good copy,” Ford wrote. “It was also funny.”

6. HE DIDN’T SPEAK THE MOST GOOD.

Gerald Ford makes a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

In addition to Ford’s clumsiness, satirists had a lot to dine out on when it came to some of Ford’s Yogi Berra-esque tongue slips. Americans, he once said, were possessed of a strong “work ethnic,” while “sickle-cell Armenia” was a disease for which he offered sympathy.

7. HE ONCE LOCKED HIMSELF OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE.

Ford, a dog lover, adopted a golden retriever the family named Liberty after he had already taken office. (Calling a breeder in Minneapolis, the White House photographer and friend of Ford’s, David Kennerly, told the kennel’s owner he was acting on behalf of a middle-aged couple that “live in a white house with a big yard.”) One night, the trainer was absent, and Liberty approached Ford at 3 a.m. to be let out. After doing her business on the south lawn, she and Ford tried to get back inside. When no one sent the elevator back down, Ford decided to take the stairs. The door to the second floor swung only one way: He got out, but couldn’t get back in. Eventually, the Secret Service was alerted to his absence and let him inside.

8. HE WAS THE TARGET OF TWO ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS IN THE SAME MONTH.

Gerald Ford stands in front of an American flag while delivering a speech
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Had it been up to two different women, Ford wouldn’t have lived to the ripe age of 93. On September 5, 1975, a disciple of Charles Manson’s named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled out a .45 pistol during Ford’s visit to Sacramento, California in the hopes of winning Manson’s approval. She was unable to fire a shot before the Secret Service apprehended her. In San Francisco 17 days later, Ford’s life was again threatened by a woman named Sara Jane Moore, a left-wing activist prone to mood swings. Moore was able to fire, though the bullet didn’t land anywhere near Ford. Both women were charged with attempted murder and stood trial. Fromme was sentenced to life and was released in 2009. Moore was also sentenced to life but got paroled in 2007.

9. HE CONSIDERED A CO-PRESIDENCY WITH REAGAN.

A former president has never gone on to become a running mate for a presidential candidate, but Ford thought about it. In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was preparing for a Republican nomination, his team thought Midwesterner Ford would be appealing to voters who felt distanced by Reagan’s West Coast presence. Ford, however, chafed at the diminished powers of a vice-president and instead asked that Reagan’s campaign consider a “co-presidency” ticket that would give him greater influence in office. The idea was floated, but Reagan was ultimately unwilling to cede so much influence to Ford. He ran—and won—with George H.W. Bush instead.

10. HE PLAYED HIMSELF ON DYNASTY.

Gerald Ford stands next to wife Betty during a public appearance
Lucy Nicholson, AFP/Getty Images

It’s rare that former presidents accept acting roles on primetime soaps, even when playing themselves. Ford was willing to buck that trend in 1983 when he appeared on Dynasty, the ABC series about the wealthy Carrington family of Denver, Colorado. The series was shooting a scene at a real charity ball in Denver in 1983 when producers spotted Ford and his wife, Betty, among those in attendance. They pitched him a scene in which he would briefly greet actors John Forsythe and Linda Evans. After being promised Betty would be on camera as well, Ford agreed. Both were paid scale: $330.

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