It was 100 years ago today – August 2, 1923 – when President Warren G. Harding suddenly died. He was in San Francisco, on the tail end of a cross-country promotional tour that had taken him as far as Alaska. It would have been an exhausting trip even for a younger man without a bum ticker. Then Harding contracted pneumonia along the way and, if that wasn’t enough, was laid low by some tainted seafood.
Any or all of these may have contributed to Harding’s demise. But no one knows exactly why or how Harding died when he did. The New York Times attributed the president’s sudden expiration to a “stroke of apoplexy.” Some have suggested heart failure. Others have joked that – battered by a landslide of scandal and humiliated by the corrupt schemes launched by the old friends he had raised to positions of power – Harding simply died of shame.
An autopsy might have helped quell rumors of foul play, but first lady Florence Harding refused to allow one.
There was one character in the mix who claimed he knew how Harding died. His name was Gaston B. Means and he claimed not only to know that the president was murdered, but also who did it. His assertions, to put it mildly, were suspect. But Means could spin a compelling yarn. And he was at one time credentialed. He not only had the badge of a special agent of the Justice Department, he had an office in the department.
Means persuaded no small number of Americans that Florence Harding was the killer. He claimed that she confided in him, confessing that she had poisoned her husband.
According to Means’ account (and it should be noted he was an inveterate liar), while he was a special agent for the federal government, Florence Harding tasked him with investigating her husband’s dalliances. Means claimed to have compiled a dossier detailing Warren’s affair with Nan Britton, a young Ohio woman. The Hardings had a knock-down, drag-out row over the child the president had fathered with Britton, Means claimed, adding that not long after that, the first lady took charge of giving her husband his meds.
Means would peddle the story for years, claiming the first lady was enraged that Harding fathered a child by a young woman, Nan Britton, smitten with the president. A notorious con-man, hustler and trickster, Means was also a special agent in the investigative agency that would morph into the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For those shocked that today’s FBI plays politics and seems to struggle to shoot straight, it’s worth remembering that the agency is in some part a legacy of Gaston B. Means. Which is to say, misinformation and disinformation are nothing new. A fabulist of the first order, Means’ fabrications were interlaced with enough detail drawn from actual events that he managed to convince many that his tales were true. Books such as Will Durant’s “The Story of Philosophy” and H.G. Wells’ “The Outline of History” were among the best-selling nonfiction books of 1930, but they didn’t come close to selling as many copies as Means’ memoir, “The Strange Death of President Harding.”
While Harding was still alive, Means became his own one-man crime wave. With the help of his badge, Means managed to have a hand in just about every crime common in the era: fraud, theft, blackmail, espionage, bootlegging, bribery, grift, graft, even murder. Gaston indulged in all these moral hazards and others, too. And he did so brazenly, with an indelible smirk on his pudgy face. Late in his epic career of flim-flammery, he even made a cameo in the Crime of the Century, the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Means absconded with $100,000 he promised to use in ransoming the doomed child.
As one writer put it, Gaston B. Means was “the symbol of American criminality and corruption in the gaudiest and most lawless era in the nation’s history.”
According to Means, Mrs. Harding was alone with the president for about ten minutes, at which point “It was time for his medicine.” Gaston claimed the widow confided in him: “I gave it to him … he drank it. He lay back on the pillows a moment,” closed his eyes and rested. But then the president bolted awake and looked straight into his wife’s face. He sighed and was dead.
Gaston asked her if she thought her husband knew in his last fleeting moments that she had poisoned him. “Yes,” Mrs. Harding replied, “I think he knew.” Means said he was the one who advised her to refuse permission for an autopsy on the president’s corpse.
This febrile tale of mariticide was quaint compared to the killing Gaston proved willing to commit himself. One of Gaston’s early scams: He fashioned himself a money manager and got his hands on the fortune of a widow foolish enough to entrust him with investing her fortune. When her money had all been siphoned away and spent, she was nearing the moment when her checks would bounce and Means’ theft would be exposed. He convinced her that some dangerous characters were out to steal her money and would kill her to get it. He had her hide in his hometown in North Carolina. He took her into the woods at twilight one evening, ostensibly to teach her to defend herself with a pistol. Alas, there was an accident. She was shot in the back of the head.
In 1917 Means was tried for the killing. He maintained the wealthy widow had stumbled and shot herself as he was kneeling to get a sip of cool water from a spring. Despite the preposterous story of what happened in the woods, Gaston was acquitted. He went to work for a private detective agency run by William J. Burns, for whom he had done some work before the U.S. finally entered the Great War. Well, the work wasn’t so much for Burns as it was for a German spy ring operating in New York. When Harding won the 1920 presidential election, he made Burns head of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, and Burns brought Gaston along with him. Which is how Means became a special agent.
1921 was a good time to be a grifter. Prohibition was the law of the land, and Means quickly put his position to profitable use, taking payoffs from bootleggers in an elaborate protection racket. He would later say that he kept two adjacent rooms at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York. In one room was a large goldfish bowl. Gaston would sit in the other; he would watch through a peephole as bootleggers delivered their graft, dropping $500 bills in the goldfish bowl, each at an appointed time.
In a scheme worthy of Watergate, Gaston arranged for henchmen to “go through” the office of Wisconsin Sen. Robert La Follette in search of something that could be used to blackmail him. Asked by a congressional committee what it meant to “go through” an office, Means said they would “find all the mail that comes in, all the papers, anything that he has got lying around.”
Harding’s old cronies had been known as the “Ohio Gang.” In the years after Harding died, their elaborate self-dealing was exposed. Most famous was the “Teapot Dome” scandal in which Harding’s secretary of the interior sold federal oil reserves to petroleum companies at a discount in exchange for kickbacks.
As Means’ schemes were exposed, he tried to protect himself by giving frequent testimony to congressional investigators probing the Ohio Gang. He would then recant his testimony and denounce the hearings as shams. Although these shenanigans didn’t keep him out of jail, they did set dubious precedents.
For example, current FBI director Christopher Wray is hardly the first to stonewall Congress. Mally Daugherty – brother of Harry Daugherty, Harding’s attorney general and a leader of the Ohio Gang – refused to appear before Congress on Capitol Hill even though he had been served with a subpoena. The Supreme Court waded into the controversy and affirmed Congress’ power to command testimony.
As ugly as our politics may be, we do not live in a uniquely deranged age. Political prosecutions and contrived investigations have been all too common in our country’s history.
“The Strange Death of President Harding” was a notorious hoax. Yet it paid handsomely to the hoax artist. That’s what misinformation looks like.
With his death, 100 years ago today, Harding didn’t hide the misdeeds of his administration nor that of his friends. Many of the “Ohio Gang” ended up dead, some perhaps by suicide, some perhaps not.
As for Gaston B. Means, he spent his last years in the federal prison at Fort Leavenworth in western Kansas. The crime that finally caught up with him was particularly callous. When the Lindberghs’ infant was kidnapped, Means went to one of Mrs. Lindbergh’s rich friends and told her that he could rescue the baby if only he had $100,000 with which to pay off the kidnappers. She gave him the money and then some. He pocketed it. Convicted of embezzlement and grand larceny, he was sentenced to 15 years in Leavenworth Penitentiary. He served only five years of that time, dying behind bars in 1938, eventually to be forgotten by a nation that fears the depravity of its generation is unique.
Eric Felten is an investigative correspondent for RealClearInvestigations, reporting on government corruption. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and previously a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard University. Felten has been published in Washingtonian, People, National Geographic Traveler, The Weekly Standard, Daily Beast, National Review, Spectator USA, and Reader’s Digest.