The untimely death of the 57-year-old president sparked much speculation. It was reported that "within an hour of his death, he was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed, and in his casket. By morning, he was on a train, headed back to Washington, D.C." Florence Harding refused to allow an autopsy. Was Doc Sawyer covering up?
Though Harding now is often most remembered for the scandals of his administration, at the time of his death he was popular with the public, which clamored for answers.
The rumor mill ran into overdrive. Five times between 1889 and 1901, Harding had been sent to the Battle Creek Sanitarium for "fatigue, overstrain, nervous illnesses," sparking speculation that political scandals during his term, including the Tea Pot Dome oil fiasco, might have caused him to take his own life.
Others pointed to his reputation for womanizing, including fathering a child outside of marriage. Should jealousy and murder by poisoning be added to the list of possibilities? A former Justice Department employee, Gaston Means, fanned these flames in a book he wrote, but it was quickly discredited.
Naval physician Joel Boone, a graduate of Hahnemann Medical College and a Medal of Honor recipient, was assistant White House physician under Sawyer, and was along for the cross-country trip. Alarmed by the president's enlarged heart, especially given the rigors of the Alaska trip, Boone recognized symptoms of congestive heart failure and started digitalis for cardiac therapy as the presidential party rushed to San Francisco.
But why the president went to a hotel, rather than San Francisco General Hospital, was never explained.
Wilbur, the AMA president, interviewed all the presidential party and doctors. He later wrote in his diary that President Harding died of heart disease. Others have indicated a heart attack.
Another potential culprit: Doc Sawyer's ministrations. For centuries, doctors who didn't know what else to do used purgatives, or laxatives, for all kinds of ailments on the theory that "cleaning out" the patient might help. But with Harding's weakened heart, a laxative may have hastened his death.
- Allan Schwartz