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Remembering Warren Harding

On August 2, 1923 (88 years ago today), Warren G. Harding, the 29th President of the United States, died in San Francisco, at the age of 57. Harding had been in the midst of a tour of western states including Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California.

Harding had traveled by train from Seattle to Portland, Oregon. He was supposed to speak in Portland, but the speech was cancelled due to Harding's illness. His train continued south to San Francisco. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover sent a telegram to a friend of his, Dr. Ray Wilbur, asking Dr. Wilbur to meet and to evaluate personally the President. Arriving at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Harding developed a respiratory illness believed to be pneumonia. Harding was looking severely exhausted and he ordered that his planned speech be issued through the national press in order to communicate with the public. The President was given digitalis and caffeine to help relieve his heart condition and sleeplessness. On Thursday, August 1st, the President's health appeared to be improving and his doctors went to dinner. Harding's pulse was normal and his lung infection had subsided. But unexpectedly during the evening, Harding shuddered and died suddenly in the middle of conversation with his wife in the hotel's presidential suite, at 7:35 pm on August 2, 1923. Dr. Sawyer, a friend of the Harding family, thought that Harding had succumbed to a stroke, but doctors there disagreed.

After some discussion, the doctors issued a release indicating the cause of death to be "some brain evolvement, probably an apoplexy." Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy. Navy physicians who examined Harding in San Francisco concluded that he had suffered a heart attack. Harding was succeeded as President by Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was sworn in while vacationing at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, by his father, a Vermont Notary Public.

Harding's body was taken by train from San Francisco to Washington. The funeral train had a four day journey eastward across the country – the first such procession since Lincoln's funeral train. Millions lined the tracks in cities and towns across the country to pay their final respects. Harding's casket was held in the East Room of the White House pending a state funeral which was held on August 8, 1923, at the United States Capitol. White House employees claimed that the night before the funeral they heard Mrs. Harding talking to her dead husband. Mrs. Harding died on November 21, 1924 from kidney failure.

Harding's sudden death created unfounded rumors and conspiracy theories that he had been poisoned or committed suicide. A con man named Gaston Means, wrote a book called The Strange Death of President Harding that insinuated Mrs. Harding poisoned her husband. A lack of an autopsy on President Harding only added to the speculation. The probability that Mrs. Harding could have poisoned her husband with so many physicians and staff attending President Harding was highly unlikely. Harding's attending medical doctors were highly respected and extremely unlikely for any to have conspired to poison the President. Harding's symptoms prior to his death all pointed to heart failure, according to his notable physicians in charge of his health. Suicide was unlikely since Harding was planning for a second term election.

Immediately after President Harding's death, Mrs. Harding returned to Washington D.C. and lived in the White House briefly with President and First Lady Coolidge. Mrs. Harding gathered and burnt President Harding's personal correspondance and documents.


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