Lauren A. Colby

A Review of "The Strange Death of President Harding"

By Gaston B. Means as told to May Dixon Thacker

Guild Publishing Corporation (1930)

Warren Harding was elected president in 1920, on the basis of a promise of strong support for Prohibition, but an equal promise not to enforce it, especially in the White House. He kept his promise, so far as it applied to the White House, but not otherwise, and an enforcement system went into effect, staffed by federal agents.

Gaston Means was an agent and investigator for the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI). Means made $83 a week at his government job, but he made far more as a member of a political gang (the members of which I will sometimes call the conspirators). The gang was led by Harry M. Daugherty, the Attorney General. The gang installed Means in a palatial house, situated at 903 16th Street, N.W., in Washington, D.C. There Means moved in, with his wife and children and there, he spent most of his time. He had at his constant disposal a $5,000 Cadillac and chauffeur. In the back yard, he constructed an underground safe for the keeping of monies, derived from a number of scams including (but not limited to) Prohibition graft, sales of Federal Judgeships, dismissal of civil and criminal actions against industrial plants, sales of pardons and paroles, sales of government lands, etc. Members of the gang included Secretary of the Interior Fall; Jess Smith, Harry Daugherty's Man Friday, who lived with Daugherty in Washington and spent much time at 903 16th Street; Gen. Sawyer, the President's physician; C.F. Cramer, the attorney for the Veteran's Bureau; John T. King, a lobbyist and politician; Col. T. B. Felder, an attorney who served as adviser to the clique; and many others.

Publicly, at least, Warren Harding was an amiable, kindly man. He was incredibly handsome and attractive to the opposite sex, and it was generally known that he had numerous affairs with a variety of different women. Florence Harding, Warren's wife, was older than Warren. Unlike Warren, who was not an ideologue, Florence was a fervent suffragette and crusader for women's rights. She was also a scold, and made her husband s life miserable with her constant nagging.

Early in the Harding Administration, Florence Harding summoned Gaston Means to meet with her. She had heard, she explained, that a vile rumor was circulating in Washington that her husband had sired an illegitimate son by a woman named Nan Britton, who lived in Chicago. She asked Means to investigate the rumor and prove that the story wasn't true. Means, who fancied himself a great investigator, accepted the assignment. She promised to pay him.

Alcohol Prohibition was a great source of profit to the conspirators who formed the gang. For a price, government officials could provide papers which allowed people to withdraw quantities of whiskey and gin from bonded warehouses. Also, for a price, bootleggers could purchase protection from federal agents who might otherwise interfere with their business affairs. Means, himself, frequently travelled to New York to handle these transactions. There, he would rent two adjoining rooms in a first class hotel, e.g., the Vanderbilt. Each bootlegger seeking protection for his business activities, whether they be in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, or wherever, would be instructed to come to one of the rooms at an odd time, e.g., 11:42 AM, 2:26 PM, etc., and to bring with him the required sum of money. In the room there would be a large glass jar, with a large sum of cash, e.g., $10,000 or $50,000 already deposited therein (so as to reassure the client that he was not alone; that others were also purchasing protective services). Each bootlegger would then deposit the required sum of money in bills, while Means watched through a peephole in the adjacent room to make sure that the money already in the bowl was not removed, and that the required payment was made. Not once was he short-changed, such was the honesty of his clients. In this manner and over time, Means brought in $7,000,000 from the New York operations, and similar large sums from Detroit, Chicago, etc.

While all this was going on, Means' investigation of Nan Britton proceeded. Through nefarious means, he managed to gain admittance to the apartment in Chicago where Britton was staying, and to actually steal letters which Harding had written to Britton, confirming his affair with her. Means also found numerous gifts which Harding had made to Britton s son, e.g., a ring, a baby carriage, etc. Thus, the investigation did not serve its intended purpose: it confirmed, rather than disproved the rumors. It also led to the suspicion, in Means' mind, that the conspirators were using the affair to blackmail the President into signing executive orders, transferring certain government oil leases from the Navy Department to the Secretary of Interior, who, as a part of the conspiracy, sold them to private interests (the Teapot Dome Scandal ).

Eventually, Means reported what he had found to Mrs. Harding. She demanded that he go back to Chicago and actually steal all of the gifts which had been given to the baby. Incredibly, he did exactly that, returning with all of them except the baby carriage.

Mention has been made of Jess Smith. He was a former haberdasher who had come to Washington with the Hardings and Daugherty, from Ohio. As time went on, rumors began to circulate of possible indictments. Jess Smith was a frequent visitor to the residence on 16th Street and, on the occasion of one of his visits, he revealed that he was fearful for his life; that he thought that he might be singled out by the conspirators for knowing too much. He had heard that there was a little white powder which was sometimes slipped into the food or drink of suspected traitors, to kill and silence them, and this worried him. He disclosed, however, that as a protection, he had kept detailed records of all of the relevant transactions carried out by the gang, including the Prohibition payments, etc. When word of this reached the conspirators, they were filled with fear; everybody had agreed not to talk, but nobody was sure that Smith wouldn't talk; he was considered a weak link.

On May 30, 1923, at 4:00 AM Means received a telephone call from one of his superiors, telling him to come to the Wardman Park Hotel. When he arrived at the Hotel, he was confronted by one of his superiors at the Bureau of Investigation who advised him that Jess Smith had shot himself. It was believed that Smith was carrying on his person the papers which were his insurance. Means was told to search the body and retrieve the papers.

Entering the apartment, Means saw Smith's body lying on the floor with arm extended, a revolver on the ground just three or four inches beyond the outstretched hand. This surprised Means very much, because he knew that Smith had an extreme aversion to guns and had never fired one in his life. Furthermore, nobody in the hotel had heard a gunshot. Means wondered whether Smith had been killed by a little white powder and then shot and moved to the hotel. Whatever the case, Means searched the body and found a shoulder harness, holding a large cache of papers. He removed them and gave them to his superiors. Thus, another crisis was averted.

There were, however, other crises. Florence and Warren Harding had been preoccupied with winning a second term. But Mrs. Harding began to become even more preoccupied with Nan Britton. Ms. Britton had come to Washington to be closer to the President, and she began seeing him in both the White House and friends' homes. Mrs. Harding became aware of these visits and became increasingly agitated. At a meeting at the White House Florence Harding confronted Means. She had heard that there was a little white powder which could be slipped into a person's food or drink and would induce death. She demanded of Means to know where she could get some of this white powder but, according to his account, he did not tell her.

In July, 1923, the Hardings departed on a vacation trip to Alaska. Coming back, in Vancouver, the President was taken ill with what appeared to be food poisoning, although no one else in the party became ill, despite having eaten the same food. The party continued from Vancouver to San Francisco by train. When they got to San Francisco, the President and the First Lady checked into a hotel, where the President was attended by his physician, General Sawyer, and by his wife. There, the President suddenly died.

Returning to Washington for the funeral, Florence Harding summoned Means to a meeting at the home of a friend. There, Means relates the following conversation:

"She continued: 'and one day, he [the President] was writing a letter. I casually asked him - to whom he was writing. He replied that he was writing to his old father - in Marion. He lied. That letter was to Nan Britton. I intercepted it...No - I have no regrets. ...............

I was alone with the President... and only for about ten minutes. It was time for his medicine...I gave it to him...he drank it. He lay back on the pillows for a moment. His eyes were closed...He was resting...Then - suddenly - he opened his eyes wide...and moved his head and looked straight into my face. I was standing by his bedside.'

As she paused, I could not refrain the question:

You think he knew?

'Yes, I think he knew. Then - he sighed and turned his head away - over - on the pillow...After a few minutes, I called for help. The papers told the rest.'"

After the funeral, Mrs. Harding went to live for a time with the family of General Sawyer in Ohio. While she was there, General Sawyer died, suddenly, in a manner very similar to President Harding. Some months later, Florence Harding also died.

The Harding administration and its aftermath were littered with the corpses of people who might have revealed many secrets but were silenced. G.F. Cramer, attorney for the Veteran's Bureau allegedly committed suicide. Lawyer Thurston, an independent Boston attorney who collected Alien Property graft, died suddenly in Boston. Col. T.B. Felder, who served as adviser to the Harding clique and as Means' personal attorney, died suddenly in Savannah, GA. John King, a politician and lobbyist indicted with Daugherty in the Alien Property scandal, died suddenly in New York. C.F. Hateley, an Agent of the Justice Department who was close to Daugherty, died suddenly at the Burlington Hotel in Washington.

In October, 1923, Means, himself, was indicted. The conspirators devised a scheme: Means was to plead guilty, saying he was solely responsible for the acts charged in the indictment. He would not talk to prosecutors or the press and, in return, it would be arranged that he receive a large monetary fine, but no jail time. At the last moment, for reasons which Means does not make entirely clear, he changed his mind, and testified against the gang in Senate hearings. At that point, the deal fell through and, when he entered his guilty plea, he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in Atlanta Penitentiary. He served all three years, and was released July 19, 1928. He did, however, live to tell his story.

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