Scandal and mystery at the White House: The strange death of a U.S. president

Jesús Del Toro
·5-min read
US President Warren G Harding (1865 - 1923) makes a speech at Martinsburg, West Virginia, during his 'Voyage of Understanding' trip to Alaska, July 1923. He is discussing the welfare of the nation from the presidential train. (Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
US President Warren G Harding (1865 - 1923) makes a speech at Martinsburg, West Virginia, during his 'Voyage of Understanding' trip to Alaska, July 1923. He is discussing the welfare of the nation from the presidential train. (Photo by Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Eight US presidents have died during their term of office. Some were assassinated – such as Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley and John F Kennedy – while others succumbed to illness, such as Franklin Roosevelt.

All of these deaths caused a stir when they happened, intensified by the specific context of each period and the circumstances.

However, in the case of Warren G Harding, the lack of autopsy and the lies published afterwards stirred gruesome suspicions about the circumstances of his death that persist even today.

The scandals that marred his legacy

Harding enjoyed significant popularity in his day, winning the 1920 election by the greatest margin recorded up to that point, and even though there were cases of mismanagement and, in some instances, abuse during his administration, the majority of the scandals that marred his legacy only came to light after his death.

These revelations include the idea that his sudden death due to heart problems and other complications on August 2, 1923, in the middle of a long tour through various states, was actually a murder.

US President Warren G Harding and First Lady, Florence Harding pictured.
US President Warren G Harding and First Lady, Florence Harding, watch on from the White House balcony, circa 1922. Source: Getty

Between June and July 1923, Harding took a trip on the presidential train – the ancestor of today's Air Force One plane – to tour the western US. He departed from Washington DC and visited cities including St Louis, Missouri; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Helena, Montana; and Spokane, Washington, before reaching Alaska, in the first visit by a US president to that state, and then returning to the Seattle area.

Harding was not in good health, and although his doctors gave him various treatments, including laxatives and heart stimulants, they had warned him for years that his heart problems were being aggravated by his frequent love affairs.

The illegitimate daughter

Between around 1917 to 1923, Harding had a romantic relationship with Nan Britton, a woman 31 years his junior, which resulted in the birth of a daughter. For years, it was debated whether Elizabeth Ann Blaesing was actually the president's daughter, until DNA testing in 2015 confirmed his paternity.

Five years after Harding's death, Britton published her book The President’s Daughter, which scandalised public opinion at the time thanks to revealing intimate details such as the sexual relations that allegedly took place in a coat closet in the executive office of the White House.

The shock was so great that it was even speculated that the president's death had to do with his infidelities, including the theory that he was poisoned by his wife, who was blinded by jealousy.

President Warren G. Harding shakes hands with New York Yankee player Babe Ruth.
President Warren G. Harding shakes hands with New York Yankee player Babe Ruth during an April 4, 1923 visit to Yankee Stadium. Source: Getty

Britton fought for years for her daughter to be acknowledged, first with the revelations in the book and then by legal means. But the court ruled against her and she died in 1991, at the age of 94, without her wish becoming a reality. Elizabeth Blaesing herself died in 2005 before it was confirmed that Harding was her father.

The mystery was solved in 2015, however. Descendants of Harding and Blaesing agreed to have DNA analyses performed, which revealed that Elizabeth, born in 1919, was in fact the president's daughter.

The news also resolved some of the most scandalous claims in Britton's book: Elizabeth was born in 1919, before Harding was elected president in 1920, and therefore she could not have been conceived in a closet in the White House or anywhere else in the presidential residence.

But the relationship had continued until the president's death, giving rise to the allegations that he could have been poisoned by his wife, Florence.

The mystery of the missing autopsy

Harding's death was fairly sudden: he suffered growing pain and discomfort and, while he was in San Francisco on one leg of his long tour in 1923, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Finally, after a few days during which he seemed to recover slightly, he died unexpectedly at the age of 58.

It was first said that he had died from apoplexy or another brain problem, although his death was later attributed to heart failure. It was also rumoured that the president's death had to do with medical incompetence or negligence.

What really happened partly remained a mystery, as the first lady refused to let them do an autopsy and ordered her husband's body to be embalmed quickly.

These events fed the speculations alleged in a book published in 1930 by Gaston Means, "an embittered, former Harding Administration official," who claimed that the president's wife Florence had poisoned him.

The book also compiled details on political scandals that had occurred during Harding's administration, which had begun to be revealed, and included the story about his illegitimate daughter, referencing material from The President's Daughter by Britton, which made the poisoning story plausible for many.

This story was not true, however. Means had legal problems and died in prison, and it was also revealed that he was not the book's author; instead, someone else, Mae Dixon Thacker, had written it for him.

Annoyed that Means had not shared the profits from the book with her, Thacker confessed that much of its content, including the poisoning story, was made up.

But the allegation that Elizabeth Blaesing was Harding's illegitimate daughter ended up being true and, many years later, genetic analysis vindicated her mother, Harding's lover, Nan Britton.

Even though it was not true, the legend that Harding was poisoned by a wife insulted by presidential infidelities has persisted and, to a certain extent, it is the story that many identify with the 29th president of the United States. In any case, besides what people thought of him during his lifetime, Harding is currently one of the worst-ranked and lesser-known chief magistrates in US history.