Ever wonder if what you’ve read about President Warren G. Harding in your history books or what your Aunt Martha twice-removed told you about our 29th president is true? Now you’ll know. We’ve listed a lot of questions that we hear at the Harding Home from our thousands of visitors and those posed by researchers, along with the most accurate information you’ll find anywhere.
We do constant research – history doesn’t stop just because a president died in 1923 – and do our best to give our visitors, historians and history buffs the most up-to-date and accurate information possible. Please note that our goal is to be accurate, not to paint a particular portrait of the President, pro or con.
1) Did Florence Harding poison President Harding, causing his death, on August 2, 1923? No, Florence was not dabbling in poison recipes. President Harding had congestive heart failure and suffered a fatal heart attack. Harding’s medical records from the western trip (the six-week trip during which he died) exist, and they show a man suffering from high blood pressure, chest pains, respiratory discomfort, indigestion, etc. Cardiac medicine was in its infancy, and these very recognizable symptoms to us were not automatic signals then for an impending catastrophic event.
The perpetrator of the Florence-poisoning story was Gaston Means, who dictated his “inside information” to May Dixon Thacker, who then wrote, The Strange Death of President Harding in 1930. Thacker was studying prison conditions in the South when she met Means, who was an inmate at the Atlanta Penitentiary. Thacker herself, shortly after publication, discredited the book, saying Means had duped her. The damage had been done, however, and the sensational story has remained a part of Harding lore.
2) Did President Harding shoot himself, drink tea laced with shards of glass, or become the victim of an elaborate government plot? No, no and no. See above.
3) Is the presidential dog, Laddie Boy, buried in the Harding Memorial in Marion? No, Laddie is buried in an unknown location near Boston. In fact, Laddie never put a paw in Ohio. After the president’s death in 1923, Florence Harding gave the Airedale to Harry Barker, her favorite secret service agent. She knew her poor health wouldn’t allow her to care properly for the dog. Harry took Laddie home to his family in Boston, and the dog lived a very normal life and was much loved by the Barker family. Laddie’s death in 1929 was proclaimed in newspaper headlines across the country.
4) Was President Harding a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Although he belonged to many fraternal organizations, he never was a Klansman. In 1922, the Klan spread the story that the president was a Klansman, and that allegation was published in newspapers across the country. The president adamantly denied the story. The Klan’s smear campaign seemingly was retribution for an October 1921 speech Harding gave in Birmingham, calling for an end to inequality between the races in regard to political, economic and educational opportunities. The Klan also found that telling people the president was a Klansman was helpful in recruiting new members. The Klan was at the height of its popularity and membership in the early 1920s, with 4 million members and chapters in all 48 states.
5) Did President Harding have African-American heritage? While the rumor of Harding having African-American heritage had been around for much of his life, it did not gain much attention until the 1920 presidential campaign. College of Wooster professor William Estabrook Chancellor collected unsubstantiated statements from residents of his boyhood home in Blooming Grove that stated Harding had black ancestors. Harding did not give much attention to the rumors and Chancellor was asked to resign from the College of Wooster after he admitted to publishing his research with the college’s name attached to it without its permission. The rumor would continue to be in Harding lore for decades with authors arguing that Harding had mixed heritage. In 2015, DNA testing with two members of the Harding family and found “no detectable genetic signatures of sub-Saharan African heritage” and that there was less than a 5 percent chance that Harding had a black ancestor within four generations.
6) Was Warren Harding a womanizer? It’s true that he had a longtime affair (prior to the presidency) with a Marion woman named Carrie Phillips (she, like Harding, was married). The affair was off and on, with the pair often having long lapses between meetings. However, they communicated with long letters, as was the fashion in pre-email and cell phone days. Many of Harding’s side of the correspondence exist, but just a few drafts of letters from Phillips to him exist.
Marion native Nan Britton publicly stated (after Harding’s death) that the president was the father of her daughter, and much speculation existed through the years among historians over whether the allegation is true. Harding did not acknowledge a child in his will, which he updated in 1923 just two months prior to his death and left no instructions with anyone about providing financially for the child. Nan sued the Harding estate for money, but lost in court. She then wrote a book in 1927 entitled “The President’s Daughter.” In 2015, DNA testing was completed on two members of the Harding family and one from Britton’s family, confirming that the they are related. The paternity question now is settled, but questions still remain about Britton’s romanticized version of the relationship as related in her book.
7) Was President Harding part of the Teapot Dome Scandal? The Teapot Dome Scandal, listed in tandem with Harding’s name in many history books, did not involve the president, research shows. In a nutshell, the scandal centered around Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall (who served a year in the Harding Administration as he had planned). After Harding’s death in August 1923, Fall was investigated by Congress (and then tried in a criminal court) for accepting a $100,000 bribe in exchange for bypassing the open bid process. He awarded oil leases at Teapot Dome, Wy. to a pair of oilmen. Leasing government-owned oil lands was perfectly legal — the problem was the open-bid process.
The court proceedings, often involving comical and outlandish witnesses and bizarre behavior by Fall, were in the news during most of the 1920s. In the end, Fall was convicted of accepting the bribe; the oilmen were acquitted of giving it to him. Fall became the first Cabinet member to go to prison.