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Warren G. Harding's Death: Conspiracy Or Heart Attack? Did His Wife Poison Him?

1920s | August 3, 2020

President-elect Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence, look over election reports following the 1920 presidential election. Harding served as president from 1921–1923. (Getty Images)

In the history of the United States, eight presidents have died while in office. Four of them (Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, James Garfield, and John F. Kennedy) were assassinated, while the other four (William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Franklin Roosevelt, and Warren G. Harding) succumbed to illness. Supposedly, at least. Plenty of people think Warren Harding is on the wrong list, and shockingly, they point the finger at Harding's own wife.

Warren G. Harding was the 29th president. (Library of Congress)

President Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding, a rural Republican from Ohio, took the office in 1921. Although the American people generally liked Harding, his administration was hit with several scandals, including allegations of bribery in the Teapot Dome incident. His political appointments were based on nepotism and favoritism, and he allowed his cabinet member to assume nearly total control of their departments so he could spend more time golfing and fishing. Historians typically rank him among the worst U.S. presidents.

Florence Harding was five years older than her husband. (The White House)

Florence Harding

Florence Kling DeWolfe was a divorced failed concert pianist with a young son when she married Warren Harding, the brother of one of her piano students and then-owner of the Marion Star newspaper. Florence was five years older than Harding and, by all accounts, much smarter. She immediately assumed leadership of the newspaper operation, in practice if not in title, and orchestrated her husband's political moves. He called her "The Boss," and she referred to his as "Sonny." It might have been a weird power dynamic between a husband and wife, but who are we to judge? You know, aside from the potential murder.

Florence accompanied her husband on a cross-country speaking tour. (Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons)

Death Of The POTUS

In summer 1923, Warren and Florence Harding embarked on the "Voyage of Understanding," a road trip across the country to meet with constituents and deliver rousing speeches. On August 2, 1923, when the Hardings were in San Francisco, Harding complained of fatigue, body aches, and shortness of breath. According to Florence's account, she excused the two of them to their room at the city's Palace Hotel, where she read a news article to her husband as he lay in bed. Suddenly, he gasped, shuddered, and died. She rushed to get help, and the room was soon flooded with hotel staff, members of the presidential entourage, and reporters. Even Herbert Hoover, the secretary of the treasury, was present.

Was it a heart attack or poison? (Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons)

Suspicious Behavior

Right from the start, several people noted that Florence Harding behaved oddly for a woman who just lost her husband. She declined an autopsy, instead opting for Harding's immediate embalming, but then immediately started screaming bloody lawsuit at anyone within earshot (after a quick break to destroy several of her husband's files, that is). She accused the owners of the Palace Hotel of food poisoning and then called Janet Johnston, the wealthy socialite granddaughter of the hotel owner, into the room and threatened to sue the hotel. According to stories, Johnston then picked up a half-filled glass from the bedside and, noting the odd smell, told Florence that she would have the contents of the glass analyzed, after which Florence snatched away the glass and dropped her threat of lawsuit. Later, at the funeral, Florence was overheard saying to a friend, "Now that it is all over, I think it was for the best."

Was Harding murdered? (Skoblentz/Wikimedia Commons)

Did Florence Get Away With Murder?

It's not hard to see why Florence Harding might have wanted to kill her husband. He was a known ladies' man who had numerous affairs during their marriage, at least one of which resulted in a child, and he was so constantly embroiled in scandal that it would have taken drastic (and possibly murderous) action to preserve their legacy before it was irreversibly tarnished.

It also would have been easy for Florence to poison her husband right in front of him. She had enlisted the help of the presidential physician, Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, to prescribe Harding a stimulant to keep him going during their grueling cross-country journey. She could have easily slipped something else into her husband's drink without him questioning it.

Officially, Warren Harding's death has been listed as heart attack, but his body has never been examined for evidence of poisoning. If Florence Harding did, indeed, kill her husband, she got away with murder.

Tags: 1920s | American presidents | death

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Josh Robertson

Writer

Josh Robertson is a freelance writer who lives in the past -- and likes it there. He's a former Playboy and Yahoo! Internet Life editor and current social media whiz/hack. He prefers Martin Denny to Herb Alpert, still reads his Kurtzman-era Mad magazines, thinks margarita mix is an abomination and believes Lazenby was the second-best Bond, deal with it.