Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Strange Life and Death of President Harding

A Mysterious Death

President Warren G. Harding
President Warren G. Harding
Within minutes of Warren G. Hardings death at either 7:10, 7:20, or 7:30 p.m. on August 2, 1923, rumors began to circulate. No one present at his demise could give the correct time of death. No one seemed to be sure who was on hand in the San Francisco hotel room when he breathed his last. Most of all, the four physicians who had been caring for Harding for the previous week could not agree on the cause of death. It had something to do with his heart. On the other hand, perhaps it was a stroke. Alternatively, it could have been both, exacerbated by the ptomaine poisoning that he may or may not have experienced a few days earlier in Vancouver. Despite the confusion over the time of death, surely an autopsy would resolve the uncertainty about what killed Warren G. Harding.

Portrait of Florence Harding
Portrait of Florence Harding
Except --- there was no autopsy. Mrs. Harding --- the Duchess, as her husband called her --- would not permit it. Within an hour of his death, he was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed, and in his casket. By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C.

It is little wonder that newspaper reporters, servants, and minor attending officials speculated about the circumstances of the death of the 29th President of the United States. How could an event so important to the life of the nation be so shoddily handled? Or was there some secret, something about this death that needed covering up?

The entire affair was so bizarre that it was inevitable that conspiracy theories arose. Was it suicide? If so, why? Was it murder? If so, who did it?

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