Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Death of Warren Harding

The Crime Library debates the death of Warren Harding. Beginning with background on Harding, the report goes on to discuss four possible causes of death. There was never an autopsy done on Harding so there has always been some speculation surrounding his death. And Americans love a good mystery!

Natural Causes
The article begins with the fact that Harding did not take care of his health. He was a prime candidate for a stroke. It goes on to say that “there were clear indications that Harding had coronary artery disease.” The article also notes that nothing was done to deal with this fact – it went untreated.

Negligent Homicide
Harding has two main doctors at this time. Sawyer, who was his main doctor, was into homeopathic medicine and folk remedies more than any scientific medicine. Boone, the other doctor, was progressive and scientific, but seldom given any credence. Sawyer’s treatment of Harding was “at best, contrary to the best medical practice, and, at worst, bizarre.” The official cause of death was a stroke, but it was only Sawyer who really seemed to believe that. The article states that:
A reasonable conclusion is that Harding was a victim of negligent homicide. The case for this is strengthened by Sawyer's strange behavior at the time of Harding's death. One might reconstruct those last moments in the hotel room in San Francisco as follows: Sawyer, having given Harding another powerful dose of purgative, propelled the president into cardiac arrest. Alarmed at the result, he rushed from the sickroom to get a counteracting stimulant, but returned from his own room too late to save Harding.

Even if this scenario cannot be proved, it is clear that Sawyer was guilty of horrendous malpractice, both in diagnosis and treatment. It is reasonable to conclude that Harding, who might have died sooner or later from a heart attack, was a victim of negligent homicide.

There were many rumors about suicide. Harding was certainly worried about impending problems and challenges to his administration. The article notes that “there were times during the Western trip when Harding was visibly depressed.” But the author notes that:
While one of the rumors floating around after Harding's death was that he committed suicide to avoid impeachment and disgrace, there is little likelihood that he was driven to such an act by ingesting poison. It seems an unlikely method to choose to take one's life, even if he had been clever enough to select a means that would mimic "natural causes." Harding might have been corruptible, but he was not so clever and devious.

There were also many rumors about the possibility of murder floating around. While at first unformed in 1930 a book was published to formalized some of the rumors:
In 1930, the amazing Gaston B. Means published a book entitled The Strange Death of President Harding. It is difficult to determine whether this book contains accurate information or whether it is pulp fiction at its worst. Means cast himself as the hero, a private investigator who can accomplish anything a client requested. The fact that he was working for the F.B.I. under the disreputable William Burns contributes to the unsavory nature of the Department of Justice under Daugherty's leadership…. Means, recently released from a federal prison in Atlanta after serving a sentence of two years for graft, was not a very credible witness.

Means gives two motives for Florence Harding to murder her husband. The first was to keep him from the scandal that was coming and the second was revenge for his latest affair. The second is not hard to toss out because Florence Harding had weathered many worse affairs than this one. But her husband’s reputation was very important to her and could give her a credible motive. But the article goes on:
Nonetheless, for all of the storm clouds hovering around Warren Harding in August 1923, he was still popular and beloved. One gets the impression that rather than hurrying Warren into the Great Beyond in order to protect his good name, the Duchess would have found a way to weather the storm.

So what does the Crime Library conclude about Warren Harding’s death?
The most likely hypothesis about Warren Harding's death is that put forth by Carl Anthony. Warren Harding was a victim of medical neglect, or, to be precise, of negligent homicide. Considering the strange mix of folk medicine and evolving science at the time, that is not a very remarkable fact. Whatever one's view --- critic or apologist --- a significant mystery remains. How did Warren Harding die? Any conclusion must be murky because evidence is either lacking, or, when available, contradictory. Is this simply a case of a genial mediocrity who didn't know how to take case of himself, and paid the price with a stroke? Or is it something more sinister --- a gullible politician who became aware of what was going on around him, and had to be silenced?

1 comment:

Dana Ullman, MPH said...

The below comments are from a forthcoming book entitled The Homeopathic Revolution: Famous People and Cultural Heroes Who Chose Homeopathy to be published in September 2007 by North Atlantic Books and Random House). For more information about this book, go to: The Homeopathic Revolution. The specific references cited below will be provided in the book. There are discussion of 11 U.S. Presidents and numerous other world leaders, as well as hundreds of cultural heroes of various notoriety whose stories are told in this book.

Warren Harding (1865-1923)

The parents of Warren Harding (1865-1923), Tyron and Phoebe Harding, studied and practiced homeopathic medicine (Dean, 2004). But because they lived and practiced in a small rural town of Caledonia, Ohio, where homeopathy was less popular, their practices were not very successful (homeopathy was much more popular in urban areas because more educated people tended to use it). Phoebe practiced as a homeopath and as a midwife. Tyron treated his son with homeopathic medicines throughout much of Warren’s childhood.

Dr. Charles Sawyer (1860-1924), a respected Ohio homeopath, entered the Harding's lives in 1897 when Phoebe Harding was accused of malpractice as a result of the death of a child. She prescribed a drug to this child that, unknown to her, contained an opiate that was not listed on the bottle’s contents. Sawyer’s help absolved her of all responsibility in the affair.

Dr. Sawyer was also a surgeon for the Erie & Hocking Valley railroad companies, the chairman of the American Surgical and Gynecological Association, and the President of the American Institute of Homeopathy.

The Sawyers and the younger Hardings became friends, and starting in 1904, they even traveled together. In 1905, his wife, Florence Harding had a kidney removed, and later in 1913 she finally sought homeopathic care from Dr. Sawyer. Ultimately, her medical experiences with Dr. Sawyer and homeopathy became so positive that she became dependent upon him and was convinced that only he could keep her alive which later proved to be true (Deppisch, 1997).

Just a few months before Harding was elected President, he gave the commencement address at the Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia (Roger, 1998, p. 97).
The Hardings insisted that Sawyer become the White House physician, and he even became a member of the twice-weekly White House poker group. In 1922, Florence developed a critical urinary tract illness in her remaining kidney. Two famous conventional physicians, Charles Mayo and John Finney, were called to the White House and wanted to operate immediately. Sawyer disagreed, and when President Harding asked Boone for his thoughts, he sided with Sawyer. Mrs. Harding ultimately recovered without surgery, and yet, the conventional physicians asserted that homeopathic medicines did not have any effect and that Mrs. Harding’s condition simply healed “spontaneously” (Heller, 2000, p. 42).

President Harding also received medical care from another distinguished homeopathic physician, Joel T. Boone (1889-1974). He received an M.D. degree at Hahnemann Medical College, Philadelphia, 1913, and completed graduate study at the U.S. Navy Medical School, Washington, D.C., 1915. He earned the Medal of Honor in World War I, and according to some historians, he won more decorations while serving with the Marines than any other medical officer (Rogers, 1998, p. 294, ref. 60). During the Harding administration, Boone was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, the medical officer on the Presidential yacht the USS Mayflower, and assistant to Dr. Sawyer in the care of President Harding. Ultimately, Boone provided care for Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (Heller, 2000). The wives of Harding and Coolidge were particularly partial to the homeopathic care provided by Boone, who was known to have literarily saved Mrs. Harding’s life several times (Anthony, 1998; Heller, 2000).

President Harding wrote the Foreword to the book, American Homeopathy in the World War (Dearborn, 1923). This book chronicles the details of the 1,900 homeopathic physicians who were commissioned in the U.S. army and navy to provide homeopathic treatment to troops. New York’s homeopathic Flower Hospital was commissioned to create a special hospital unit in association with the American Red Cross.

Harding was an overweight man who was known to exercise rarely (except an occasional round of golf), and who used many forms of tobacco (he smoked two cigars a day, regularly smoked a pipe and an occasional cigarette, and even chewed tobacco). It was his tobacco chewing that endeared him to inventor Thomas Edison who once told him, “Any man who chews tobacco is all right” (Deppisch, 1997).

Harding's final illness occurred during an extended trip to the West in the summer of 1923. After playing six holes of golf in Vancouver, Canada, he became so tired that he proceeded to the 17th hole, then finished the 18th, in order to reduce suspicions of any possible problems. He later called for Dr. Sawyer, the White House homeopath, complaining of nausea and pain in the upper abdomen. Sawyer found the President had an abnormally high pulse of 120 beats per minute and was breathing 40 times per minute. Intensive conventional cardiac therapy including digitalis was started, but it was too late and Harding died.

Some historians refer to Dr. Sawyer as an “incompetent” physician, but these attacks were simply as a part of their lack of knowledge and their attack on homeopathic medicine. While it is true that Sawyer did not diagnose Harding’s congestive heart failure, physicians of that time typically misdiagnosed this condition (Deppisch, 1997; Heller, 2000). It was not until the 1940s that physicians learned the characteristic symptoms of coronary thrombosis that lead to a heart attack.

--Dana Ullman, MPH