President Harding and The Teapot Dome Scandal

“Keep Warren at home. Don’t let him make speeches. If he goes out on a tour somebody’s sure to ask him questions, and Warren’s just the sort of damned fool that will try to answer them.” — Senator Boies Penrose (R-PA,) 1920

Warren Gameliel Harding began as a newspaper publisher in Marion, Ohio in 1886. He was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899, and became a US senator in 1912.)

The 1919 Republican primary was hopelessly stalemated when Ohio politico Harry Daugherty made his famous prediction to the press: “The convention will be deadlocked, and after the other candidates have gone their limit, some 12 or 15 men, worn out and bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, will sit down about two o’clock in the morning around a table in a smoke-filled room in some hotel and decide the nomination. When that day comes, Harding will be selected.”

And so he was, but before the nomination became final, Harding was called to the smoke-filled room and told that before making it official, “… we think you should tell us, on your conscience and before God, whether there is anything that might be brought up against you that would embarrass the party, or any impediment that might disqualify you … either as a candidate or as president.”

Harding thought for a minute. He was devoted to all-night poker parties and illicit whiskey; Nan Britton, his young mistress, had just borne him a child, and for 15 years he’d been having an affair with Carrie Phillips, the wife of one of his closest friends. And to bear witness to their illicit assignations, both women had a passel of love letters from the amorous Ohioan. Nope, he couldn’t think of a thing.

Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding
Flossie Harding
Florence (Flossie) Harding
“The Dutchess”
Nan Britton
Nan Britton

Harding was an amiable good-humored man and the fact that he was somewhat lacking in the presidential virtues didn’t seem to bother anyone. The war was over, prosperity was just around the corner, and nobody really cared that they’d just elected a man who’d rather play poker than worry about affairs of state. This was to come back to haunt the Republicans after Harding’s death, when it was learned that a number of his trusted cronies had been systematically looting the till. (One member of this so-called “Ohio Gang” eventually committed suicide, several went to jail and all were removed from office by President Coolidge.)

Shortly after taking office, Harding, under urging from his friend, Secretary of the Interior Albert M. Fall, persuaded Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby to turn over custody of the vast oil fields at Buena Vista and Elk Grove, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming, both then under control of the Navy, to the Interior Department. In 1922, Fall leased the Teapot Dome oil deposits to the Mammoth Oil Company’s Harry Sinclair, and soon afterward allowed Edward Doheny of the Pan American Petroleum Company to lease the reserves at Elk Hills. For his efforts on behalf of the oil moguls, Fall received a “gift” of $100,000 from Doheny and a “loan” of $200,000 from Sinclair.

These transactions were carried out in the utmost secrecy. Congress had no idea that the Navy’s defense reserves had passed to private ownership until a Wyoming oilman wrote to his congressman to ask how Sinclair had managed to get hold of the oil lands without taking competitive bids.

The Senate began a full-scale investigation, chaired by Democratic Senator Tom Walsh of Montana. Fall was eventually tried and convicted of accepting a bribe (thereby earning himself a place in history as the first Cabinet officer to be convicted of a felony); Sinclair and Doheny were tried on charges of trying to bribe an official and acquitted.

While Fall spent a year in prison for his misdeeds, Sinclair and Doheny both suffered financially. The leases were eventually declared invalid since they were issued on the basis of fraud, and, in a day when oil was selling for $1.50 ($18.90 today) per barrel, Sinclair had to return to the government almost $12 million in illicit profits ($150,000,000 in 2013 dollars.)

Doheny’s fate was even worse. Provisions of the lease he signed required him to build, at his own expense, a pipeline and refinery in California, and oil storage tanks at Pearl Harbor. He not only had to pay back almost $35 million, but he wasn’t reimbursed for the $11 million he’d spent on storage tanks in Hawaii. This adds up to more than half a billion of today’s dollars.

Fall died at the age of 83 in 1944; Doheny at 67 in 1935; and Sinclair at 80 in 1956. None ever admitted that he was guilty of anything.

Albert Fall
Albert B. Fall
Edward Doheny
Edward L. Doheny
Harry Sinclair
Harry M. Sinclair

By August of 1923, President Harding was in poor health, caused partly from the marathon White House poker games and partly from the scandals which touched those closest to him. He decided to get away from the unpleasantness for a while, and undertook a tour of the West and Alaska. His last stop was San Francisco, where, to compound his miseries, he came down with a bout of ptomaine after an oyster dinner. He died suddenly on August 23rd, of an embolism, or so his attending physician attested.

Whether or not Harding was murdered has never been fully answered. It has been rumored for years that his wife, Florence (Flossie), poisoned him because of his womanizing¬†ways, but the¬†probable truth is that Harding’s personal physician, a homeopath named Charles Sawyer misdiagnosed his condition and prescribed the wrong medicine. Flossie forbade an autopsy, and later burned most of Harding’s personal papers before she died of kidney failure on November 21, 1924, still under the care of Dr. Sawyer.

Nan Britton went to her grave insisting her daughter’s father was Warren G. Harding. Her daughter, Elizabeth Ann (1919-2005,) never expressed an interest in verifying her paternity, and the Harding family always denied she was theirs.

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One Response to President Harding and The Teapot Dome Scandal

  1. Keith Charleston says:

    This story contained facts I was unaware of. Very interesting.

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