The Day Harding Died
by Frank Greene
Frank Greene is a CCMF member. He is a graduate of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC. He is a historian with an interest in the Harding-Coolidge era and is currently writing a biography of Warren G. Harding.
Thursday morning newspapers reassured a hopeful nation of the improvement in President Warren G. Harding’s condition. The August 2, 1923 New York Times heading read, Harding Gains, Wants to Return Soon; He Rallies from a Slight Indigestion; Jests with Doctor, Reads Newspapers. Five physicians were treating the President in Suite 8064 of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, President of Stanford University and of the American Medical Association; Dr. Charles M. Cooper, a noted San Francisco cardiologist; Hubert Work, M.D.; the Secretary of Interior who was also a neurologist, psychiatrist, and Past President of the American Medical Association; Dr. Charles E. Sawyer, White House physician who came to Washington from Marion, Ohio with Harding; and Dr. Joel T. Boone, Assistant White House physician and U.S. Navy doctor. A 9:30 a.m. bulletin was issued by the physicians which stated that,
The President had several hours of restful sleep, his lung condition showed improvement, and while recovery will inevitably take some little time, we are more confident than heretofore as to the outcome of his illness.
Vice President Calvin Coolidge was spending what was supposed to be his last day vacationing at the family homestead in Plymouth Notch before leaving to visit Frank Stearns at Swampscott, Massachusetts. Reporters from The Associated Press, The United Press, The International News Service and others had been following the Vice President closely since the onset of Harding’s illness, staying in nearby Ludlow. They had dwindled in number because they believed Harding was on the road to recovery; but those remaining visited with the Vice President at noon on the veranda of the homestead. Coolidge told the reporters that President Harding was so nearly well that they all would be back to their offices by nightfall.
Thursday afternoon, Vice President and Mrs. Coolidge drove to the Woodstock Inn, thirty miles from Plymouth where they would have dinner. At 3:00 p.m., Dr. Sawyer met with newspaper men and told them that the President was progressing toward recovery. During the afternoon, President Harding visited with his sister, Charity Remsberg, in his hotel suite and told her, It isn’t anything I have eaten. I thought I could stand anything but find I can’t. I am worn out, can’t stand the heavy responsibilities and physical work too. Harding’s friend Malcolm Jennings telephoned him. Harding told Jennings that he felt like he was out of the woods, but was so tired. The 4:30 bulletin issued by the five physicians was positive. The President has had the most satisfactory day since his illness began. President Harding had been scheduled to give a speech, The Ideas of Christian Fraternity, to the Grand Commandry of Knights Templar at the Hollywood Bowl. Harding’s secretary, George B. Christian, Jr., read the speech to the Knights Templar instead. Col. Edmund Starling of the Secret Service entered the Presidential Suite and Harding thanked him for making arrangements for the trip to Alaska. He expressed dismay to Col. Starling for his bad luck at fishing and hoped to go deep sea fishing at the home of Bill Wrigley. The President was propped by pillows, so he could sit up in bed. At 7:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. New York time), Mrs. Harding was reading to the President an article that Alfred Holman, San Francisco publisher, would tell reporters was, A Calm Review of a Calm Man by Samuel G. Blythe. Dr. Boone later would say he thought the article was about Henry Ford. President Harding shuddered and collapsed in his bed. Drs. Boone and Sawyer could not revive him. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover soon entered the suite and was seen overcome by emotion as he left. The New York Times posted a statement of Harding’s death on the north side of their building. After-theater crowds in Times Square were stunned. Cabarets and dining rooms were vacated.
The Coolidges had returned to the homestead after dinner and retired early, anticipating a busy traveling day in the morning. Mr. Christian sent a message to the Vice President. The President died instantly and without warning and while conversing with members of his family at 7:30 p.m. His physicians report that death was apparently due to some brain embolism, probably an apoplexy.
Coolidge later recalled, I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs calling my name. I noticed his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred. John Coolidge gave his son the message sent by Christian. Early Friday morning Calvin Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a notary public, as the 30th President. He would return to Washington to lead the grief-stricken nation in a time of mourning.
Calvin Coolidge, The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, Rutland, VT: Academy Books, 1929.
Robert H. Ferrell, The Strange Death of President Harding, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
Milton F. Heller, Jr., The President’s Doctor, New York: Vantage Press, 2000.
New York Times, August 2-3, 1923.
Colonel Edmund W. Starling, Starling of the White House, ed. by Thomas Sugrue, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946.
William Allen White, A Puritan in Babylon, New York: The MacMillan Co., 1939.