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The Scandalous Life and Death of President Harding

On July 29, 2014, the Library of Congress will release 106 love letters from President Warren G. Harding to his mistress Carrie Fulton Phillips, many written on official Senate stationery. The letters were donated by Phillips' family with an agreement that they remain sealed for 50 years. On July 7, the New York Times published excerpts taken from microfilm copies of the letters in the collection of Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. Both Harding and Phillips were married to others. Their affair lasted 15 years, through Harding's terms as Ohio’s lieutenant governor and U.S. senator and his nomination for president of the United States. Harding was so incredibly stupid that he wrote how she caressed "Jerry," which is what he called his penis.

Harding was president for only two years (1921-1923) and when he died, he was rumored to have been poisoned, perhaps by his wife, or to have committed suicide because of the scandals that surrounded his administration. He probably died of a heart attack.

While Harding was running for president, the Republican National Committee paid Phillips and her husband $25,000 (equal to almost $300,000 today) to hide the letters. Harding also offered to pay her $5,000 a year for as long as he was in public service. Mrs. Phillips was a strong supporter of Germany during World War I and was even suspected of being a German spy. She lived in Berlin before the war and kept extensive ties with Germans living in the United States.

An Incredibly Promiscuous President
Harding was known to have had at least five mistresses, including Grace Cross, one of Harding's secretaries, who also received a lot of money for not releasing Harding's inane love letters. Nan Britton claimed in her 1928 book, The President's Daughter, that she was Harding's mistress throughout his presidency, and that he was the father of her daughter, Elizabeth Ann. Harding had at least one other illegitimate child with one of his wife's best friends. He had numerous documented and undocumented one-night stands. After his sudden death, his wife tried to protect his reputation by burning as many of her husband's papers as she could.

Warren Harding spent so much time carousing that he had little time or competence to be president. He knew that he was known as the worst U.S. President and stated publicly: "I am not fit for this office and should never have been here.” He was so incompetent that he had to trust associates who were dishonest and self-serving. Three of them committed suicide and others went to jail.

Nobody Knows What killed President Harding
In August 1923, Harding died at age 57 on a trip through the Western states and Alaska. The president started this trip after recovering from a bout of influenza that had almost killed him. After leaving Alaska, he went to Seattle where he had to stop in the middle of a speech because of belly cramps and diarrhea. One of Harding's doctors diagnosed ptomaine poisoning from crabs he had eaten. Another doctor claimed that Harding had had a heart attack because his heart was too large. He was so sick that he cancelled all his upcoming speeches. They then left for California where he died on the evening of August 2.

Just a few hours after his death, Harding's body was embalmed, covered with rouge and other powders, dressed and put in his casket. The next morning, he was on a train back to Washington. His wife, Florence, refused an autopsy to determine the cause of death and burned as many of his papers as she could, along with the contents of a safe-deposit box and a large suitcase.

Was He Poisoned?
In spite of the rumors, it is extremely unlikely that his wife killed him. She loved her agenda as First Lady and seemed to be able to handle his endless succession of affairs. She was the strongest reason that he became president. As incompetent as Harding was, she was extremely competent.

Florence Kling DeWolfe had met Harding at a skating rink and married him less than a year later. She was the daughter of Amos Kling, the richest man in Marion, Ohio. She was five years older than Harding and recently divorced. An excellent businesswoman, she took over and saved Harding's floundering newspaper, while he charmed people with his speeches. His glib tongue helped him win a place in the Ohio State Senate, followed by a term as lieutenant governor. Eventually, with his wife's help, the tall and handsome Harding was elected president of the United States.

Could Harding have Committed Suicide?
Harding was treated for depression at John Kellogg's Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, but it is very unlikely that Harding committed suicide. He certainly was headed for big trouble. His Attorney General Harry Daugherty and his assistant Jesse Smith, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, and Director of Veteran Affairs Charles Forbes were soon to be charged with stealing money from the U.S. government. He had already fired Forbes and no evidence suggests that he intended to kill himself.

Classic Heart Attack Signs and Lifestyle
It is most likely that he died of a heart attack. He had chest pains called angina (heart pain from blocked arteries leading to the heart), was short of breath and had to sleep with his head propped up on pillows. He had swelling in his legs and probably also had swollen neck veins and a palpable liver. He ate roast beef sandwiches several times a day, smoked cigars constantly and drank an incredible amount of alcohol. His exercise program consisted of golf using a cart and making love whenever and wherever he could.

On his fatal trip, Harding was accompanied by two White House physicians, Dr. Charles Sawyer and Dr. Joel Boone. Sawyer diagnosed ptomaine poisoning when he should have recognized heart failure and angina. Dr. Boone correctly diagnosed the angina and told Harding. Harding then telegraphed Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, the president of the American Medical Association, and two heart specialists, Dr Wilbur and Dr. Charles Minor Cooper met the train in San Francisco. He immediately was put to bed at the Palace Hotel.

When Harding was able to sit up in bed, the foolish Dr. Sawyer announced that Harding was better. The other three doctors, Boone, Wilbur, and Cooper knew that Harding had a heart attack. Dr. Boone's diaries and memoirs show that he thought that Harding could have been saved. Dr. Sawyer claimed that Harding's heart pain was really indigestion and treated him with laxatives. Harding's worsening symptoms did not alarm Sawyer enough to stop the laxatives, which can kill a heart attack patient. Sawyer was an expert on herbals, purgatives and laxatives, none of which are effective for treating heart attacks. It is true that doctors had very little to treat heart attacks in 1923. They had no anti-clotting agents other than aspirin and had no way to unblock blocked arteries.

A Legacy of Crooks and Cheaters
Several of Harding's appointees got into serious trouble with the law. Albert B. Fall, a New Mexico senator, was appointed Secretary of the Interior and Edwin C. Denby was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Originally the US Navy supervised the oil fields. Falls duped Denby to agree to transfer the oil fields from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Then Falls sold oil leases on the federal lands to oil companies without competitive bidding. The oil companies made huge amounts of money on the deal, called the Teapot Dome Scandal. After looting the government, Falls quit his cabinet post and went to work for Sinclair Oil. After Harding's death, Fall was charged with corruption, convicted and jailed.

Harry Daugherty, Harding's campaign manager was appointed Attorney General. He hired Jesse Smith, who became famous for kickbacks and whiskey distribution. Smith made a lot of money arranging paroles for convicts without checking with the President. Prohibition had started in 1919. Daugherty shared Jesse Smith's bribes and sold off government surplus goods at ridiculously low prices. The monies were transferred through Jesse Smith's brother's bank. Daugherty was tried twice for corruption. The first trial had a hung jury and the second found him not guilty. The records from Jesse Smith's brothers bank could not be found and Jesse Smith killed himself in 1923 before the trial, one of three known suicides by people in the Harding administration.

Billy Burns became director of the FBI and continued to run his private detective agency at the same time. He hired Gaston B. Means to check up on President Harding as he went from one affair to the next. He also delivered blackmail payments to Harding's mistresses.

Charlie Forbes was director of the Bureau of Veterans. Forbes sold hospital supplies owned by the United States government's Veterans' Bureau for profit without consulting the congress or the president. They were supposed to be sent to veterans hospitals. He also accepted bribes for hospital construction. Forbes was sentenced to two years in prison.

Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States
November 2, 1865 – August 2, 1923

July 27th, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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