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Death of a President, San Francisco Style

| August 2, 2013
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Warren G. Harding

Warren G. Harding, pictured in 1920, several months before he was elected president. (Library of Congress)

What does San Francisco have in common with Washington, D.C.; Elberon, N.J.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Warm Springs, Ga.; and Dallas?

Like all of them, it’s a place where a sitting president of the United States died.*

Ninety years ago today—Aug. 2, 1923—Warren Gamaliel Harding expired in his suite at the Palace Hotel, at New Montgomery and Market streets.

Harding has been for decades a popular answer to the question, “Who was our worst president?” His administration is tied to one scandal of epic proportions—the Teapot Dome oil-lease bribery case—and many smaller ones. His personal behavior? He enjoys a posthumous reputation as a world-class womanizer and carouser who is said to have gambled away a set of White House china during a card game.

But not everyone believes Harding was a bum and a joke. For one thing, he’s our first audio president. He installed the first radio in the White House, in 1922. That same year, he became the first president to make a radio broadcast. Not only that, he was a compelling (or at least passable) public speaker, as a collection of speeches recorded between 1917 and 1921 attests.

One biographer, Robert T. Ferrell, argues that Harding was a “serious president” who could have ranked in the upper tier of chief executives had he survived to serve his full term and confront the scandals he apparently recognized were growing around him. Ferrell’s book, “The Strange Deaths of President Harding,” makes a case that historians should re-evaluate Harding’s half-term in office. Ferrell also tries to set the record straight about how the president died.

It’s clear from newspaper accounts that Harding was a sick man when he arrived in San Francisco from Seattle on July 29. The president’s doctor, Charles Sawyer, a homeopathic physician whom Harding had appointed to the rank of brigadier general, had diagnosed his patient as suffering from ptomaine poisoning suffered after eating tainted crab on a voyage from southeastern Alaska to Seattle. Harding was weak: a planned presidential stop at Yosemite was canceled, and to avoid the rigors of an early-morning ferry ride from Oakland into the city, the president’s train was routed to the city via San Jose. Still, The New York Times reported, Harding made a brief public appearance as he exited his car and was greeted by San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolphe.

Harding then repaired to the presidential suite at the Palace. The 57-year-old patient’s condition was national news, and Sawyer seems to have been determined to be reassuring. On one hand, he consistently reported Harding was improving. On the other, he told reporters the day of the president’s arrival that he was suffering from “prostration,” which, he explained to a Times correspondent, was “the third stage of exhaustion”:

“The first stage comes when one is tired out. The effects of this may pass quickly with simple rest. The second stage is extreme fatigue. In this the toxic effect of the exhaustion must be combated. In the third stage, which is prostration, we must await developments before we can know if the body is casting off the poison.”

Three days later, on the eve of Harding’s death, Sawyer gave a detailed account of the president’s temperature—it was normal—and respiration and heart rate. The latter had fallen to between 116 and 120, a sustained rate that sounds alarmingly high to a layman in 2013. Sawyer told reporters that he’d spoken to Harding:

“As I told the President this morning: ‘Mr. President, while this seems a great misfortune, it is not so great as it might have been. As far as I can see, no organ has been so impaired as to be unable to continue its natural function, and this I consider an important thing.’ ”

Just after 7 o’clock on the evening of Aug. 2, Sawyer had gone out to dinner while Harding rested in his suite with his wife, Florence, and two nurses in attendance. Here’s how the Times described the scene:

“Mrs. Harding was reading to the President, when, utterly without warning, a slight shudder passed through [the president's] frame; he collapsed, and all recognized that the end had come. A stroke of apoplexy was the cause of his death. …

“…Nothing could have been a more shocking surprise. Shortly before the President’s sudden collapse General Sawyer had been telling newspaper men that Mr. Harding had had the best day since he became seriously ill. He said that the President had definitely entered upon the stage of convalescence and that everything went to show that Mr. Harding was on the road to ultimate recovery.”

A commemorative stamp issued after President Warren G. Harding's death in San Francisco.

A commemorative stamp issued after President Warren G. Harding’s death in San Francisco.

As biographer Ferrell notes, Sawyer’s insistence that Harding was getting better and the diagnosis of “apoplexy” (a stroke) suggests he and perhaps other doctors in attendance had no inkling that Harding was apparently suffering from the advanced stages of heart disease. “Apparently” because Sawyer agreed to a request from Florence Harding to forego an autopsy on the president. The suddenness of Harding’s passing after repeated assurances he was recovering, along with and the lack of an autopsy raised suspicions about the circumstances of his death. So did Harding’s reported remark to journalist William Allen White, “My … friends … they’re the ones that keep me walking the floors nights!” That was taken as a sign that the president knew that scandal was brewing in the White House.

Ferrell says Harding’s physical death was quickly followed by the death of his reputation, a process that started with rumors that foul play might have been involved in the president’s passing and continued with revelations of the corruption in his administration.

*In order: Washington, D.C., was the death place of William Henry Harrison (1841), Zachary Taylor (1850), and Abraham Lincoln (1865). James A. Garfield died in Elberon, N.J., after he was shot at a Washington train station (1881). William McKinley died in Buffalo, N.Y., also shot by an assassin (1901). Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemmorhage at his retreat in Warm Springs, Ga. (1945). John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas (1963).

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Category: California History, San Francisco

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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