Was President Harding Murdered?

by Michael Patrick O'Leary


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 9 2017.

Rajiva Wijesinha made a kind comment on my article last week about Warren Harding and also gave me a heads-up about a novel which incorporates Harding’s death. The novel proved an entertaining read. It is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold which is about the illusionist Charles Carter, admired by Houdini himself, who persuades the president to participate in an illusion at his San Francisco performance on August 2 1923 which seems to involve Harding being eaten by a lion. Two hours later Harding dies and Carter attracts the interest of the Secret Service.



Conspiracy Theories

There have been many bizarre theories about Harding’s death. Many conspiracy theories propose that world events are being controlled and manipulated by a secret society calling itself the Illuminati. Henry Makow PhD believes that Harding (and Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and several other presidents) was murdered by the Illuminati because he was a Mason. The real-life Carter’s first theatrical appearance was at Pat Harris’s Masonic Temple in Baltimore at the age of ten, where he appeared as “Master Charles Carter the Original Boy Magician”.

Dr Hugo Pecos of The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency (FVZA) has his own theory. On the night of August 1 1923, Franklin Prevost, Director of the FVZA office in San Francisco, was told by Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith that President Harding had been bitten by a vampire some time the previous evening. Smith told Prevost that a Norwegian sailor named Olaf Johans, had done it. Prevost entered the Presidential Suite and found Harding in a coma, with puncture wounds on his neck, his wife Florence at his bedside. The President was put out of his misery with a dose of cyanide.

Vampires and Gangsters

Prevost left San Francisco for Washington on September 12, 1924, but as he stepped off the train in St. Louis, two men with tommy guns shot him 12 times, and died a short time later at a nearby hospital. Eyewitness accounts of Prevost’s murderers matched descriptions of Al Capone hit men Scalise and Anselmi. Before police could question the two men, they were shot dead in a Chicago barbershop. Although Prevost’s file was gone, he left behind enough information in his San Francisco office to build a case against Jess Smith in the death of Harding. Smith killed himself (although the gun was found in his right hand, but the bullet wound was in his left temple). Dr Pecos speculates: “Is it possible that Warren Harding’s close friend and Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith arranged and helped carry out the murder of the President? The evidence is certainly compelling. Unfortunately, we will never know the truth”.

Jess Smith

Differing Doctors

The facts of Harding’s death are difficult to establish and it is no wonder that wild speculation began almost immediately after his demise. At 7:20 p.m. on the evening of August 2, 1923, in the presidential of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel Harding’s wife, Florence, was reading the Saturday Evening Post to him. An article about himself seemed to please him because he said, “That’s good, go on.” He shuddered and dropped dead onto his bed.

Rumours about the cause of death began to circulate almost immediately. Some speculated that Harding committed suicide because of emerging corruption scandals. Some believed that his cronies murdered him to stop him revealing their crimes. Some believed Florence, “The Duchess”, poisoned him because she was sick of his infidelities. “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no,” Harding told reporters when he was president.

Gaston Means

The story of Florence poisoning the president was started by a chancer called Gaston Means. In his book, The Strange Death of President Harding (1930), Means alleged that Harding had been consciously complicit in all of the major scandals of his administration. He insinuated that the President had been murdered by his wife with the help of their personal physician, Charles E Sawyer. Mae Dixon Thacker confessed that not only had she ghost-written the book for Means but also that Means had stolen her share of the profits. Means died in Leavenworth after being sentenced to 15 years for grand larceny after swindling Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean (owner of the Hope Diamond) in connection with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh. McLean was great friend of Florence Harding and her husband, Ned McLean, owner of the Washington Post, procured women for Warren Harding.

McLeans with Dog

Who was actually with Harding at the time of death remains unknown. The official cause of death was given as a stroke but that seems to have been Sawyer’s unqualified opinion. The other, better-trained, doctors thought it was a heart attack. Florence’s favourite astrologer Madame Marcia had predicted in 1920 that Harding would not survive his first term – he would die “by sudden, violent and peculiar death by poison.”

Madame Marcia


Cover Up?

Florence did behave suspiciously. She refused to allow an autopsy. Within an hour of his death, Harding was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed, and in his coffin. By morning, he was on a train to Washington. Florence had several dozen long wood boxes of presidential correspondence transported to the Friendship estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean where they were burnt.

Glen David Gold describes this well: “And so it went, all conspirators great and small realizing that the only man with a conscience was no longer about to spill the beans. The Duchess went back to her duties and when she was finished with her fires. She left the White House with blisters on her hands, never to return”. Gold seems to adhere to the view that Harding was basically decent if weak and was betrayed by his corrupt cronies: Jess Smith, Albert Fall, Harry Daugherty and Charles R Forbes. Forbes had been appointed head of the Veterans Bureau at Florence’s insistence and had milked it for his own financial profit. This was a blow to Florence because the care of World War I veterans was her signature policy issue. Warren had choked and shaken Forbes against the wall of the Red Room – but permitted him to flee to Europe. Forbes was prosecuted and convicted of conspiracy to defraud the US Government, fined $10,000, and sentenced to two years. He was put in prison on March 21, 1926 and  served one year, eight months and six days at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. He died at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington DC at the age of 74 on April 10, 1952.

Charles R Forbes

Early in Harding’s political career, a trust fund was set up to rent in perpetuity thirty thousand square feet at Paddock’s Storage House which abutted the waste disposal incinerator in Marion, Ohio. When federal investigators got a subpoena to enter the unit it was empty. There had been four thousand boxes ten feet long, each tightly packed with documents. When the National Archives called for documents relating to Warren G Harding, they received two boxes.


Charles Sawyer was clearly a charlatan but the Hardings trusted him. The president appointed him as a Brigadier General in the US Army and the chairman of the Federal Hospitalization Board. Dr Sawyer was dosing the president with purgatives, laxatives and injections of heart stimulants, including arsenic. I wonder if my Sri Lankan readers will note, as I do, a distinct resemblance to that illustrious writer, sage and scourge Emil van der Poorten?

Harding was only 57 but clearly was not in good shape. He took little exercise and engaged in twice-weekly marathon poker sessions fuelled by whiskey, cigars and roast beef sandwiches. He was often short of breath and complained of indigestion which was probably in truth angina. He had not fully recovered from a bout of influenza before going on a physically demanding tour. During his last trip to the west on the Voyage of Understanding his lips were often blue. These are all signs of heart disease. Sawyer maintained that Harding was suffering from ptomaine poisoning after eating crabs doused heavily in butter. He prescribed purgatives which provoked a cardiac arrest.

Harding probably was killed but by Sawyer’s negligence rather than because of any cunning plan of Florence’s. Sawyer died in Florence’s presence in September 1924. Florence herself died of renal failure in November of the same year.