Erwin Geisser: Calvin Coolidge’s Indispensable Man

by Paul D. Houle

Erwin Geisser coordinated one of the most remarkable political events in American history: the August 3, 1923, inauguration of Calvin Coolidge as president of the United States. A stenographer, Geisser loyally served Coolidge for almost a decade. But less than twenty years after Coolidge’s homestead inauguration, Geisser’s life ended prematurely. His was a life shadowed by mental illness and tragedy.

Early Losses

Geisser grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts. His mother frequently mentioned the topic of suicide to his father during Geisser’s childhood, commenting, “Well, they did right,” when reading of suicides in the newspaper.1 Sometime around 1921, Geisser’s brother, Raymond, stabbed himself with a knife in a suicide attempt. Authorities committed Raymond to the State Hospital in Danvers, where he died eleven years later.2

Upon returning home after serving in the Quartermaster General’s office in Washington, D.C., during World War I, Geisser sunk back into an unremarkable life with his parents.3 His predisposition to the same mental health disorders as his mother and brother may have caused him to attempt suicide on May 7, 1921. On that day, family members found Erwin unconscious in the bathtub with the gas valve open. It is not known whether this incident was accidental or intentional. Fortunately, medical personnel revived Geisser, and he made a full recovery.4

Geisser eventually moved back to Washington and worked for Vice President Calvin Coolidge as a stenographer. He found himself attracted to Coolidge’s efficient, uncomplicated personality.

On December 1, 1922, Geisser received a frantic message from his father: Erwin’s mother had drowned his sister and taken her own life. The local papers splashed the lurid story on their pages, with most of them describing Erwin as “a government employee in Washington, D.C.”5 Coolidge, too, had lost his mother and sister as a young man, enabling him to empathize with the enormous loss that Geisser had just suffered.

The Homestead Inauguration

When the next summer recess emptied out Washington, D.C., in June 1923, President Warren G. Harding embarked by train on an Alaskan journey. Calvin Coolidge retreated with his family to Plymouth, Vermont, to visit his father, Colonel John Coolidge. Geisser and Coolidge’s chauffeur, Joseph McInerney, accompanied the vice president.

During the last week of July, President Harding fell ill on his tour. Geisser found himself acting as press secretary for the vice president, who became the focus of intense media attention. Harding had seemed on the verge of death, but after several days he began to recover. That apparent recovery took the pressure off Coolidge and his entourage in Plymouth.

On Thursday, August 2, Coolidge and Geisser enjoyed their first calm day since Harding’s illness had begun. Around 5 PM, Geisser and McInerney made their daily five-mile trip to the Furman House, a boardinghouse in Bridgewater, Vermont, to retire for the night.

At 11:30 PM, the Bridgewater telephone operator called the Furman House and relayed to McInerney the stunning news: President Harding had died.6 Geisser and McInerney dressed in seconds, and McInerney sped the vice-presidential limousine over the darkened roads to the Coolidge homestead.

When they arrived, McInerney helped prepare for the expected media invasion. Meanwhile, Geisser calmly walked into the parlor, placed his typewriter on the table, and prepared to transcribe the presidential transition.

When Coolidge entered the room, he ordered Geisser to transcribe and type up a statement of condolence to Mrs. Harding: “We offer you our deepest sympathy. May God bless you and keep you.”7

It quickly became clear to Coolidge that an official statement needed to be issued to the gathered reporters. “Reports have reached me, which I fear are correct, that President Harding is gone.”8 Coolidge further stated that he would continue Harding’s policies. Geisser transcribed the statement, typed it, and distributed it to the press. The newsmen rushed from the homestead to hijack any available telephone exchange in order to file the statement with their newspapers.

Days earlier, the press had speculated that Coolidge would take the oath of office in Plymouth.9 But the question remained: who would administer the oath? Coolidge and Geisser, along with several others who had arrived after the reporters left, walked to the telephone across the street at the Cilley store. Coolidge phoned Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to ask whether his father, John Coolidge, had the authority as a notary public to administer the presidential oath. Hughes said yes and urged Coolidge to take the oath immediately. Coolidge handed the phone to Geisser, who transcribed in shorthand the oath of office as Secretary Hughes dictated it to him.10 Returning to the Coolidge home, Geisser typed up the presidential oath.

He then witnessed an inauguration unique in American history—a father swearing in his son as president of the United States.

Coolidge’s Trusted Aide

Within several months, newspapers splashed Geisser’s photo across their pages as “The real guardian of the White House secrets . . . What would the stock market gamblers pay for his knowledge?”11 Stenography schools used his name to advertise their classes. 12 Erwin Geisser was now famous.

Geisser served Coolidge throughout the rest of his administration. In 1927, one day shy of the fourth anniversary of Coolidge’s homestead inauguration, Geisser typed up Coolidge’s statement on the next year’s election: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.”13 Four years earlier, Geisser had typed up the presidential oath of office, beginning Coolidge’s time as president. Now, in 1927, he typed up the statement that effectively ended it.

An Untimely Death

After serving the president of the United States, Geisser moved to an obscure government position, working as an executive assistant at the Bureau of Internal Revenue. But in 1941, the mental illness that haunted his family forced him to go on furlough from his job. He then suffered a nervous breakdown and collapsed at his home. He died on Friday, July 25, 1941, reportedly from an “accidental overdose of poison.”14 Geisser was only forty-three years old.

His untimely death apparently made him the last victim of a mental illness that claimed the lives of his brother, his sister, and his mother. But Geisser will always be remembered as Calvin Coolidge’s steadfast ally and indispensable man. His composure during the early morning hours of August 3, 1923, helped ensure the peaceful transition of presidential power during a time of national trauma.

Courtesy of Paul D. Houle Family, Taken August 19, 1924

1 “Mrs. Geisser Drowns Daughter, Kills Self,” Lawrence Telegram, December 2, 1922.

2 Ibid.

3 Erwin Geisser. U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1918,

4 “Man Is Overcome While Taking Bath,” Lawrence Eagle Tribune, May 7, 1921.

5 “Mrs. Geisser Drowns Daughter, Kills Self,” Lawrence Telegram, December 2, 1922.

6 Joseph M. McInerney, “As I Remember.” Vermont History, Undated.

7 “Coolidge’s Father Administers Oath That Puts His Son in the Office of President of U.S.” New Britain Herald, August 3, 1923, (Accessed August 4, 2022).

8 Calvin Coolidge, “Statement on the Death of President Harding.” August 3, 1923.

9 “Coolidge Rejoices at Harding News,” Burlington Daily News, August 1, 1923, (accessed July 31, 2022).

10 Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951), 563.

11 Buffalo Courier, September 14, 1924, (accessed March 30, 2022).

12 Sacramento Bee, February 20, 1924, (accessed April 15, 2022).

13 Amity Shlaes, Coolidge (New York: Harper, 2013), 381.

14 “Former Coolidge Aide’s Death Held Accidental,” Evening Star, July 26, 1941, (accessed April 17, 2022).

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