Warren Harding's Obituary

[From page 1 of The New York Times, August 3, 1923]

[With grateful thanks to Michael Elsner for transcription!]


Mrs. Harding Was Reading to Her Husband When First Sign Appeared -- She Ran for Doctor
News of Tragic End Shocks Everybody, Coming After Day Said to Have Been the Best Since His Illness Began a Week Ago

Special to The New York Times

     San Francisco, Aug. 2 -- President Harding died at 7:30 o'clock tonight [11:30 o'clock New York time] of a stroke of apoplexy.
     The end came suddenly while Mrs. Harding was reading to him from the evening newspaper, and after what had been called the best day he had had since the beginning of his illness exactly one week ago.
     A shudder ran through the President's frame and he collapsed.
     Mrs. Harding and the two nurses in the sick room knew the end had come, and Mrs. Harding rushed out of the room and asked for Dr. Boone and the others to "come quick."
     Dr. Boone and Brig. Gen. Sawyer reached the President before he passed away, but were not able to avert the inevitable.
     This formal announcement following soon after! told the story of the tragic end:
     "The President died at 7:30 P.M. Mrs. Harding and the two nurses, Miss Ruth Powderly and Miss Sue Drusser, were in the room at the time. Mrs. Harding was reading to the President, when, utterly without warning, a slight shudder passed through his frame; he collapsed, and all recognized that the end had come. A stroke of apoplexy was the cause of his death."
     "Within a few moments all of the President's official party had been summoned."

Shocking in its Suddeness

     Nothing could have been a more shocking surprise. Shortly before the President's sudden collapse General Sawyer had been telling newspaper men that Mr. Harding had had the best day since he became seriously ill. He said that the President had definitely entered upon the stage of convalescence and that everything went to show that Mr. Harding was on the road to ultimate recovery.
     The members of the official party had no warning that the President was in danger. They, like the newspaper men, had been assured that a fatal termination of the President's illness was a thing not likely and with good care he would be able to recover health and strength. Most of the members of the official party were at dinner when the news came. George B. Christian Jr., secretary to the President and his devoted friend, was in Los Angeles with Mrs. Christian. He had gone there at the President's solicitation to read at a gathering of the Knight's Temple tonight an address which the President had prepared in the expectation that he would deliver it in person. Mr. Christian had declined to leave San Francisco until he was positively assured by the President's physicians that there was no likelihood of any set-back in the President's condition.
     The newspaper men had an engagement with General Sawyer for 3 o'clock. He was to tell them of how the President was progressing toward recovery. In view of what he had said on prior occasion during the day and statements in two official bulletins, the newspaper men had every expectation that they would be able to record that Mr. Harding was one step nearer the goal of recovery.
     "There will be a bulletin," said one of the White House messengers gathered in the corridor of the Presidential suite. In a few minutes copies of the bulletin on thin white paper were handed to the waiting reporters. Instead of informing them that the President's condition continued to improve, it gave them the astounding information that he was dead.

Mrs. Harding Is Brave for the End

     First reports that Mrs. Harding had collapsed were denied. The official version indicates that she was calm throughout her husband's last illness. She has been extremely courageous and be her manner and words helped him when he was suffering intensely and was apprehensive of a fatal termination. The official account says:
     "Mrs. Harding, who from the beginning of the President's illness had expressed confidence in his recovery, did not break down. On the other hand, she continued, as from the beginning, the bravest member of the group."
     "When it was realized that the President had actually passed away, she turned to those in the room, whose concern had turned to her, and said, 'I am not going to break down.'" Mrs. Harding was seated by the bedside when at 7:10 o'clock the President suddenly collapsed. His breathing, which had been quick ever since the illness overtook him, suddenly became spasmodic. Mrs. Harding, leaving the two nurses to take whatever steps they could in the emergency, ran to the door of the Presidential suite.
     "Dr. Boone!" she called, as she ran part way into the almost deserted corridor. A Secret Service operative was seated about twenty feet down the hall. She hurriedly told the Secret Service man that the President had had a sudden and severe relapse and begged the detective to try to locate Dr. Boone or any of the physicians.
     The Secret Service man took up the search for the physicians, while Mrs. Harding returned to the bedside. It was found that Dr. Boone had left the hotel to have dinner with General Pershing.
     Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, and one of the closest Cabinet members to the President, was the first member of the Cabinet to reach the bedside of the dead President. He hurried through the corridor, aware that the President's life was ebbing fast, and the door of the suite closed behind him.
     A short time after, he came out. He was completely broken up and could not speak to the newspaper men as they gathered around him on his way down to his own quarters. Tears were running down his cheeks and he seemed to be stunned by grief as he made his way to the elevator.
     Mayor James Rolph of San Francisco was the next to arrive and he, too, after a visit to the death room was inarticulate.
     All the members of the President's party were summoned. When they reached the door of his bedroom they learned that he had passed away. Their consternation and bewilderment was extreme. The whole affair could not have been more shocking.
     The following telegram announcing the President's death was immediately sent to Vice President Coolidge, Chief Justice Taft and those members of the Cabinet who were not in San Francisco:
     "The President died at 7:30 P.M. from a stroke of cerebral apoplexy. The end came peaceably and without warning.
     (Signed) "Daugherty, "Work, "Wallace, "Hoover."

Scenes in the Death Room

     Reports of what happened in the sick room when the President's sudden stroke came are still somewhat confused. According to Dr. Boone, Miss Ruth Powderly, Mrs. Harding's nurse, who had made the Presidential tour for the purpose of being with her patient, was struck by a great improvement in the President's appearance.
     "Doesn't he look fine?" she said, turning to Mrs. Harding.
     Then the nurse turned back to look at the President to verify her comment. Mrs. Harding looked, too. They saw a shudder pass over the President's frame. That marked the stroke that produced death.
     Rumors began to fly about, each wilder than its predecessor, and all denied soon by official bulletins, which were issued as a dozen words, telling the news, or which had been rushed from the press too fast for more than a picture and the phrase "Harding dead" and circulated like wildfire through the downtown districts and even far out on the residential streets within a few minutes after the official bulletin announcing the death had been issued.
     They brought a shock to crowds, which a few minutes before were sure that the city's distinguished guest was well on the way to recovery and had started out to spend the evening at theaters, dances, or other amusements.

Another Version of Last Scene

     From a friend who talked with Mrs. Harding and other members of the Presidential party the following version of the president's death was obtained:
     Mrs. Harding had been reading a newspaper article to her husband. She paused at the end of a paragraph. Miss Powderly, the nurse, remarked that the President was looking fine. The President liked the newspaper article.
     "That's good, go on," the President said to Mrs. Harding. These were his last words. Before she could resume reading Mrs. Harding saw the shudder pass through his frame and saw her husband collapse.
     General Sawyer was either in the room or just outside. He was at the President's side at the first cry of alarm. The President according to this account died almost immediately after.
     Mrs. Harding is calm. She said to friends of her party and relatives of the late President who gathered around her late this evening that she did not fully realize the blow that had come to her. We had a duty to perform, she said, and must bear up.
     Mrs. Harding decided this evening that subject to changes that may be necessary by unforeseen circumstances that the body of the President should leave San Francisco at 7 o'clock tomorrow evening on the special train which carried the late President and his party from Washington to Tacoma and from Seattle to San Francisco in the return of the party from its cruise in Alaskan waters on the transport Henderson.
     The body will be taken direct to Washington for a formal funeral and thence to Marion, Ohio, for final services.
     The Rev. James S. West of the First Baptist Church of San Francisco hurried to the Palace Hotel when he heard of the President's death. Knowing that both Mr. and Mrs. Harding were members of his faith, he went to the Presidential suite to offer religious consolation to Mrs. Harding if she desired. He was admitted to the Presidential suite when he gave his name and stated his errand.