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Here's a lesson we all learned in history class, just because you make something illegal, it doesn't mean people will stop doing it. It means you're going to have a whole new class of criminals. Case in point, prohibition. Thanks to bootlegging, the 1920s were the heyday of organized crime. Chicago had Al Capone, New York had the Mafia, and then there was the Ohio gang for two and a half years. This was the most powerful crime ring in America.
We're talking bootlegging, bribery, fraud, jury tampering, you name it. They did it. And if you're picturing some small time crooks shaking down the mayor of Cincinnati, guess again, despite the name, they weren't based in Ohio. They operated out of the White House. Welcome to very presidential, a podcast original, I'm your host, Ashleigh Flowers. You can find all episodes of very presidential and all other Sparkasse originals for free on Spotify. And if you like what you're hearing, reach out on Facebook and Instagram at podcast and Twitter at podcast network.
Today, we're going to learn about Warren G. Harding. His campaign theme in 1920 was a return to normalcy. If you've been paying attention, you'll know that normal for presidents is corruption, graft and secret love children and Harding delivered the notorious Warren G's cabinet was pretty much a massive criminal operation. The press literally dubbed them the Ohio gang.
And the worst part is that the president himself wasn't even the leader of the gang. He was a patsy.
All of that is coming up. Stay with us. You know, the expression smoke filled room, that phrase was coined by Warren G. Harding's campaign manager before the Republican National Convention in 1920, he told reporters that he didn't think Harding would win the nomination on the first ballot or the second or not even the third. But late into the night, when everyone was tired and ready to go home, a few power players would gather around a table smoking cigars and ask, OK, who are we going to nominate?
And that's when they would decide on Warren G. Harding. It makes you wonder why Harding. He clearly wasn't popular. He wasn't exactly a deep thinker either, and even he knew it. Harding himself once said, quote, I am not fit for the office and should never have been there, end quote. So who stood to gain anything from a Harding presidency? The answer is the oil industry.
Here's the situation.
There was this oil baron named Jake Hammond, known as the oil king of Oklahoma, and there was a huge oil reserve that he wanted to acquire called Teapot Dome. The only problem, Teapot Dome belonged to the Navy. So before they could touch that oil, he'd have to buy himself a president. Enter Harding's campaign manager, Harry. Dirty Harry is 60 years old and a lifelong political fixer. He sees himself as kind of a kingmaker. And Warren G.
Harding is his prize creation. So Harry finds out from a mutual friend that Jake is looking for a candidate. Harry sets up a breakfast meeting and he has his pitch ready to go. Why should you support Warren G. Harding? Well, the man just looks like a president, and that's the big selling point.
He's fifty five years old, six feet tall and looks like a cross between George Washington and maybe like an ancient Roman emperor. Very strong profile. Harding had spent six years in the Senate, and during that time he did absolutely nothing remarkable. He passed no important bills, took no controversial stances, and he played a lot of poker, which is to say that everyone in DC loved him. And best of all, he was dumb as a box of rocks.
If you want to pull one over on a president, he was your guy. So Jake Haymon is on board. He donates a million dollars to Hardings campaign, which would have been worth almost thirteen million dollars today. And in exchange, Hillary promises that Jake will be nominated as secretary of the Interior, meaning he'll be directly responsible for the Teapot Dome oil reserve.
Usually a million dollar campaign donation would go to ads or staff salaries or travel expenses, but Jake had a much more efficient idea. He brought that cash down to Chicago during the Republican convention and spread it around to all the delegates. Yeah, I'm talking bribes. And for a little extra umph, one of Jake's oil buddies, Harry Ford Sinclair, known as Sinco, donated another three million dollars to the Republican National Committee. Suffice it to say, the oil mafia was running the show.
Now, it all went down almost exactly as Harry had predicted on the first, second, third and fourth ballots. Harding was nowhere near the top of the pack. But after a long day of nonstop voting, the delegates still couldn't reach a consensus. It was looking impossible for any one candidate to gain the majority. And then late that night, the party leaders meet in a smoke filled hotel suite. At about two o'clock in the morning, they summoned Harry Daugherty and they say, we've made a decision.
Senator Warren G. Harding is going to be the Republican nominee here.
He is told to go find Harding and bring him up to the suite for some last minute questioning. He finds Harding wandering around the hotel hallway, hung over and tired. And that should have been red flag. No one but Harry slaps him away, brings him up to the suite, and the party leaders tell him you're going to be nominated tomorrow. But before we do that, we need to know, is there anything embarrassing that might come out during the campaign, anything that might disqualify you as a candidate?
Harding says, you know what? I'm going to need a minute to think this over. And that should have been red. Flag number two. Harding steps out into a separate room alone and we can only imagine what's going through his head. But he was probably trying to figure out how to explain that his former mistress was blackmailing him. Now, to be clear, Harding didn't just have random casual affairs. He was a hopeless romantic. His wife, Florence, was great, strong, ambitious, smart, everything.
Harding was not. The marriage made sense, but it was kind of passionless. He didn't feel the same way about Florence as he did about, say, his best friend's wife. In 1905, when Harding was 39, his friend Jim Phillips was hospitalized, most likely for depression. He and his wife Carrie, had just lost their toddler son, which must have been heartbreaking. So while Jim is in a sanitarium, Harding heads over to the Phillips house to console Carrie, and he consoled her in every way.
Known to man in Carrie and Jim's bed, on the front porch, on the kitchen table, you name it. And like I said, Harding was a hopeless romantic. He wrote these long, passionate letters to Carrie, sometimes up to 40 pages long. Here are some excerpts and a word of warning. They get pretty steamy for the 1920s.
Honestly, I hurt with the insatiable longing until I feel that there will never be any relief, until I take a long, deep, wild draught onto your lips and then bury my face on your pillow knowing breasts, oh, carry mine. You can see I have yielded and written myself into wild desire. I could beg and Jerry came and will not go. Says he loves you and a score or more of other fun things he suggests. But I swear you fly.
Jerry is what he calls his penis. So fast forward to 1920, and after 15 years the affair had cooled down. But Kerry still has all these steamy letters. In fact, she's a little strapped for cash at the moment. So she tells Harding, fork over some money or you're going to be seeing these love letters on the front page of the paper. Harding coughed up the money, but he still didn't really trust her to stay quiet. As long as she had those letters.
She was a threat. And there was the other problem, the one that was right there at the Chicago convention, and her name was Nan Britton. Nan grew up in Harding's hometown in Ohio. And as a teenager, she kind of had this, like, bizarre celebrity crush on the senator. Like she hung up pictures of him all over her room. And he wasn't bad looking for a senator, but he's not like JFK, not exactly a heartthrob.
But Nan knew what she wanted. And when she's twenty, this is 1917. She writes to the 51 year old senator essentially saying, hello, sir. I've recently moved from Maryland to New York City and finding a job as a typist. It's just so difficult if you're ever in town. I'd love to meet with you, love to get some advice. But the subtext was clear. Like no one's really writing to Warren Harding asking for advice. So a couple of weeks later, when Harding is in New York for some kind of political convention, he calls up Nan and invites her to his hotel.
At that first meeting, nothing improper happened, just kissing a lot of kissing, but over the next couple of months they see each other again and again, but they never, like, really go all the way until July 30th. That afternoon, they go to a hotel and Harding books a room under a fake name, of course, because you see, adultery was and actually surprise to me actually still is a crime in New York. So Harding had to convince the clerk that this 20 year old woman is his wife and the clerk seems to believe it.
So Nan and Warren go up to their room and finally make it happen. But the minute they're done, there's this knock on the door before either of them can react to police officers barge in, there's no fooling them. They start questioning, man, what's your name? Where do you live? How old are you? And Harding keeps begging them, let her go, saying that, you know, we haven't disturbed anyone, but the officers just say you'll have to tell that to the judge.
But then one of the officers picks up Harding's hat and inside he sees the gold lettering, W.G. Harding, Senator W.G. Harding. All of a sudden, they drop everything, leave the room and tell Harding they're free to go.
Now, that was a close call, but it didn't scare either of them away over the next two years. They keep seeing each other every chance they get. And in February of 1919, Nan realizes she's pregnant. This is not good news for a man who's about to run for president. But Harding doesn't jump ship. He keeps seeing her throughout the pregnancy. And after the baby is born, he sends Nan money, he buys her a ring even though they can't actually get married.
But a year later, amidst all his presidential campaigning, Harding still hasn't even met his baby daughter. Bear in mind, Nan had moved to Chicago. At this point, Harding is currently in Chicago for the convention. So this seems like the place and the time. Right.
But could he really sneak out to meet baby Elizabeth with his wife and the entire political establishment in town?
Absolutely not. If you wanted to be president, he had to deny his only daughter ever existed.
So after ten minutes of soul searching on the last night of the convention, Harding walked back into the hotel room where the Republican leadership was waiting.
They asked him again, Is there anything we need to know before we give you the nomination? Harding looked them right in the eye and said, nope. Coming up, the Republicans get what they paid for, an empty suit and a field full of oil.
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And now back to the story on the 10th and final ballot at the Republican National Convention, the nomination went to Warren G. Harding. Almost immediately, the party leadership began to regret it. Harding's former mistress, Keri Phillips, had already been extorting him for money, but now saying he might become president. She apparently wanted to renegotiate their deal more than once. She showed up unannounced at Harding's campaign event. Harding's wife, Florence, got so mad that on one of these visits, she actually threw a piano stool at Kerry.
Obviously, the Republicans find out what's going on and they need to get Kerry out of the picture ASAP. So one of Harding's campaign staffers offers her twenty thousand dollars up front, plus another two thousand dollars a month and an all expense paid trip around the world. The hope is like they want to get her out of Dodge and keep her there until the election is over. But there's also Nan Britton, Harding's current mistress. She wasn't a blackmail threat, but she and Harding refused to stop seeing each other.
So the campaign's job was to make sure their visits were as rare and as discreet as possible. As for the campaign itself. One slogan just about summed it up. Less government in business and more business in government. Pretty on the nose for a guy whose candidacy was one big scam. There would be so much business going on in Hardings White House that they barely got any governing done. Once Harding won the election in the fall of 1920, he told the Oil King Jr.
came and that, of course, he'd be the secretary of the interior. Just as promised. There was just one small problem they had to take care of. First, it turns out Jake's wife was actually Florence's cousin. And a few years ago, Jake had actually left his wife and two kids for his much younger mistress, Clara. When Florence finds out about all of this, she says, no way. If Jake Haymon wants a job at our White House, he's going to have to ditch Clara and get back together with my cousin.
So Harding breaks the news and Jake says, OK, fair deal. So Jake goes home and tells Clara, listen, sorry, I'm choosing my wife and my oil over you, you got three weeks to clear out and then my family's arriving. It's nothing personal, just business. The next day, Clara goes out and buys a gun. And then a couple of weeks later, when Jake comes home, she shoots him in the chest. Just like that, Jake is dead.
When Harding hears the news, he's heartbroken, reportedly with tears streaming down his face. He sobs. What a wonderful fellow he was. Too bad he had to be taken out. Too bad for everyone.
Jake was supposed to be the centerpiece of the oil scheme, and there were already so many other players involved, they couldn't just put the brakes on it. Now, someone had to step in and take Jake's spot as interior secretary. And that person was Albert Bacon. Fall Ball was a senator from New Mexico and the human embodiment of the Wild West. He usually wore a black Stetson hat and carried a six shooter.
He was once suspected of conspiring to kill a rival land owner and his eight year old son, but their bodies were never found, so the case died out. So this is the guy who's about to take over all the oil in the land.
He's longtime poker buddies with Harding. He's trusted and most of all, he's ruthless.
As soon as Hardings in the White House, Albert Fall gets to work, the oil everyone is after is in a field called Teapot Dome, which is controlled by the Navy.
That means four. Step one, the ownership has to be transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior. So he meets with the Navy secretary to discuss this. The Navy secretary can immediately tell that something's up, but whatever's going on here, he doesn't want anything to do with it. Better to just get out of the way and wash his hands of it. The Navy signs off on the paperwork without a fight. Harding signs off on it, too, probably without even reading it.
You know, he isn't a big reader. But before it can be finalized, though, it has to be approved by the attorney general. Luckily, the attorney general is Harding's campaign manager. Isn't that convenient? Harry Doherty?
Of course, Harry is the Teapot Dome deal, but that's as far as he wants to be involved. He's got bigger plans, like setting up his own little criminal empire in the Department of Justice. Harry's right hand man is a guy named Jess Smith who keeps an office at the DOJ despite not actually having any official job there. The two of them also live together at a house on H Street just down the block from the Capitol, which becomes the headquarters for their little like operation and all their crimes, their big scheme is this prohibition is going on.
So selling alcohol is illegal unless you have a permit saying it's being used for medicinal purposes. And who's in charge of issuing those permits? The Justice Department. So naturally, they start selling those permits under the table to bootleggers.
Jess is the bad man. He's in charge of taking the cash to the home of their third accomplice. Gaston Means Gaston is an agent for the Bureau of Investigation, which is now called the FBI. But his job basically consists of two things shaking down bootleggers and burying cash in the backyard of his D.C. townhouse. At one point, he estimated there was at least five hundred thousand dollars buried down there in today's money that would be worth six and a half million dollars buried in his backyard.
Now, how much did the president know about all these crimes? It's not really clear. Sure.
Harding was on the phone with Harry at least twice a day. He was signing off on all the paperwork for the Teapot Dome transfer, but his head wasn't really in it. In June 1920, one man comes to visit the White House for the first time, a Secret Service agent led her into the cabinet room. And then a few minutes later, Mr. Harding opened the door to the president's office. He showed Nan the fireplace where he burned all her letters after reading them the big windows, looking out onto the White House lawn.
And then he told her, don't stand too close. Everyone can see us from down there. Instead, he ushered her into the coat closet, which was apparently the safest place for a romantic rendezvous right away on that first visit, and noticed that just six months as the commander in chief had changed Harding and not in the way that you'd expect. Harding hated being president. He told her, I'm in jail now and I can't get out. You see, he hadn't really thought through how much work running the country would take.
And Harding was under no illusions. He knew he wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed. He once said, I don't know what to do or where to turn in this taxation matter. Somewhere there must be a book that tells all about it. But I don't know where that book is and maybe I couldn't read it if I found it. So instead of trying to figure it out, Harding leaves all the heavy lifting to his cabinet and he occupies himself the same way he did in the Senate gambling, golfing and drinking whiskey twice a week.
Poker games were actually held in the White House library, and they were exactly the stereotype that you're imagining smoke in the air or beat up on the table all the good ol boys laughing and drinking into the early morning hours. Harding was not the best gambler either. On one occasion, he gambled away an entire set of White House China. Florence tried and failed to keep up some standard of dignity, like she wouldn't let anyone chew tobacco at the poker table.
And she refused to serve her husband's meal of choice hot dogs, which in her opinion was not classy enough for the White House.
One afternoon, Harding was playing bridge with his secretary of war and a couple of female guests, one of which he was openly flirting with. Florence tried to remind her husband, like, hey, don't you guys have a country to be running? You really should get back to work. And Warren just slapped down an ace so hard that it shook the table and said, I'm going to play all afternoon when he really wanted to get his wife off his back.
Warren just left the White House to play poker somewhere else, usually at Harry and Jess's house on H Street. Foreigns was not a fan of this either, though the H Street parties tended to get a little out of hand.
One night, a group of chorus girls from New York were invited up to the house. After their show, Harding was there, along with Jess, Harry and a bunch of other Washington bigwigs. By about three a.m., everyone was super drunk and someone suggested that they clear off the table so the girls could dance on them. The guests started throwing dishes around the room with abandon, and one of the chorus girls was hit in the head with a bottle and knocked unconscious right away.
Jess called their guy at the FBI. Gaston means he rushed over to find a house full of terrified women and President Harding leaning against the mantel, drunk and dazed. This was a very bad look for the president. So naturally he was smuggled out quickly to the White House. Then Gaston took the chorus girl to the hospital, but she ended up dying. A few days later, that scandal was hushed up by the attorney general. No one ever found out that the president was at that party, but that was just a mini scandal, like a Category one hurricane.
The real storm was still coming. In early 1922, Nan made one of her regular visits to the White House, as usual, a Secret Service agent who she called Tim in her memoir, met her in the waiting room. And while they're walking, Tim vented vaguely about how they were putting it over on the president. He didn't get more specific than that. He just said that it was a pity Harding didn't know about all the crooked stuff that was going on behind his back.
So as soon as Nan and Harding are alone in his office, she tells him like, hey, this Tim guy says people are doing things behind your back. You might want to check on that. But Harding just smiles and says, say, darling, don't you worry about me. I'm all right. So the first warning clearly didn't get through to him. A couple of months later, someone else stops by the White House with the same advice the chairman of the U.S. Shipping bought.
All the oil execs are telling him there's something fishy going on with the Teapot Dome contract. You need to tell the president not to go through with it. But Harding isn't worried. The whole deal was put together by his trusted old friend, Albert Fall. He reassures the chairman, if Albert Fall isn't an honest man, I'm not fit to be president of the United States.
Coming up, Harding proves himself right. Let's get back to the story. So here's the tea on the Teapot Dome, as soon as the field was transferred to the Interior Department, all 64 of its oil wells belonged to Secretary Albert Fall. He agreed to lease the fields to Harry Sinclair. Sinco, remember him? The one who paid three million dollars to get Harding elected single handed over a down payment and a little sweetener for Albert Fall. And the deal was done.
The government oil was now his fault. Also leased another oil field called Elk Hills to a different oil baron in return for a no interest loan of 100000 dollars.
So in total, he earned about four hundred four thousand dollars in bribes from these two deals. That's worth about six point two million dollars today. Of course, all that money doesn't change hands without anyone noticing. In April 1922, The Wall Street Journal runs a front page story on the Teapot Dome lease. Immediately, every oil man in the country is shocked. Why wasn't anyone told that the field was up for lease? Why did it go directly to Harry Sinclair without any bidding or anything?
Something is clearly off here. So the Senate asked the Interior Department to give them a full report on what the heck is going on. This is bad news for Albert Fall. But instead of refusing to give them anything which would draw a ton of suspicion, he decides to bury the Senate in so much information they'll never be able to get through it. He puts together a 75 page report chock full of half truths and misleading data. And before he sends it off to Congress, he gives it to the president for a once over.
Now, you know, Harding didn't read that report. He probably couldn't have read it if he tried. He just gave it his stamp of approval and passed it on. He was now officially implicated. While the Senate is poring through all those documents, the press is following up on their own leads. The Denver Post keeps running story after story on the Teapot Dome lease. And eventually even Warren G. Harding realizes something is up. He calls fall into his office and asks him what all the controversy is about.
And Fall says, don't worry about it. Sinclair paid the Denver Post owners a million dollars to shut up about it, and they did. As soon as the pay off went through, the articles suddenly stopped. By that point, though, they're basically putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, not to mention the other bullet wound by the start of 1923, rumors are spreading about all the corruption going on at the Justice Department. It's not super clear who found out what or when.
But Jess Smith, the guy who doesn't actually have a job at the DOJ, is getting paranoid. He knows the cards are about to fall and just cannot keep a secret to save his life, which means chances are he's going to be silenced before he can be arrested. Every time he goes out in public, he's convinced that he's being followed. He points to random people and he's like, do you see that over there? Like, is he looking at me?
I don't like how he looks. He's so scared that he even buys a gun and he's right to be worried. By the end of May. Harry Doretti comes to jazz with some bad news.
In light of all of the rumors, the president thinks it's best that just leave Washington permanently. A few nights later, Jess is packing up his things in D.C. Harry is spending the night at the White House, but he asked his secretary to stay with Jess because, you know, he's just worried about him.
Apparently, he's been acting strangely all day. Then in the middle of the night, the secretary hears a crash. He goes into the bedroom and sees Jess slumped on the floor with a revolver in his hand and a bullet through his temple. The death was officially recorded as a suicide. Needless to say, not everyone was buying it. Alice Roosevelt Longworth joked that he died of hardening of the arteries. So with scandal after scandal consuming the White House, Harding decided to get out of Washington.
On June 20th, he and Florence left on a speaking tour across the country, which he called a voyage of understanding. For the first time in his entire life, Harding deals with his stress by burying himself in work, he writes and rewrites his speeches.
Even during his downtime, he's playing bridge compulsively from breakfast to well after midnight. The rest of the party gets so tired of playing bridge, they set up shifts so everyone had some time off.
At some point in the journey, a message comes in for the president after he reads it, he physically collapses. He goes into a private room with his secretary of commerce, future President Herbert Hoover. And the first thing Harding says is, quote, If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you, for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it, unquote? Hoover asks what's going on? And Harding says it has something to do with Jeff Smith and some Justice Department cases.
But that's all he says. And the message itself was destroyed. So to this day, we have no idea what it was about. But whatever it was, it weighed on the president the rest of the journey. He seemed burdened. While they're sailing along the West Coast into Seattle, the ship has a minor collision. Hardings valet goes looking for him and he finds the president laying on his bunk with his hands covering his face. The valet tells him what happened and without moving at all, Harding says quietly, I hope the boat sinks.
The next day, July 27, Harding is giving a speech in Seattle in the blazing summer sun, and he's in bad shape. He looks confused. He's slurring his speech and multiple times he accidentally refers to Alaska as Nebraska. After that speech, the rest of the tour is canceled. They tell the press Harding is suffering from indigestion. But the truth is he's having heart problems. Over the next few days, his condition seems to be getting a little better.
By August 2nd, his doctors let him actually sit up in bed. That night, Ford sits with him and reads him an article from the Saturday Evening Post titled A Calm Review of a Calm Man. It starts off by talking about how presidents are held to an impossible standard. No matter what they do, their own party will complain that they haven't done enough and their critics will complain that they've done it all wrong. They're expected to be everything to everyone all at once.
And two years into Harding's term, all the criticism had swallowed up any praise of what he's accomplished, Harding tells Florence. That's good. Go on, read some more. She finishes out the article. Then she says good night and heads out into the hall. Barely a moment later, the nurse comes in with Hardings medicine just in time to see him slumped over dead. Two years and five months, that's how long Warren G. Harding was in office in that time, his administration dealt with so many scandals, it would take another seven years for all the legal dust to settle.
Eventually, Albert Fall became the first ever cabinet member to go to prison. He was found guilty of accepting bribes. As for Harry Daugherty, he was investigated by the Senate, but he refused to hand over any of the documents they subpoenaed. He was forced to resign, but he never actually saw a day in court. Sad as it is, Harding's untimely death may have saved some little part of his reputation. If he lived even a month longer, he would have been absolutely demolished by all the scandals that were about to burst.
That's not to say he escaped the blame entirely. He's still often ranked as one of the worst presidents ever. He definitely deserves that legacy. But to his credit, the American people got exactly what they voted for, a guy who looked like a president. A return to normalcy in all its corruption and greed. And more business in government than ever before. Thanks for listening, if you want to hear more episodes of very presidential, you can find them all for free on Spotify.
Very presidential was created by Max Cutler and Ashley Flowers in his Sparkasse Studios Original, starring Ashley Flowers, it's executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Carrie Murphy with production assistance by Ron Shapiro and Carly Madden. This episode of Very Presidential was written by Kate Gallagher with writing assistants by Drew Cole. To hear more stories hosted by me, check out Crime Junkie and all audio Chuck Originals.
Killer nurses, deranged doctors, mad scientists, don't forget to check out the new car cast original series, Medical Murders every Wednesday night, the worst to the medical community has to offer men and women who took an oath to save lives, but instead use their expertise to develop more sinister specialties, follow medical murders free on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.