1376Who killed Warren Harding?
- Jan 9, 2006http://www.fvza.org/harding.html
Famous Cases: Who Killed Warren Harding?
Report Number: 2381*
*As the actual file is missing, this case has been pieced together
from interviews, memoirs and assorted public records.
Date: August 2, 1923
Location: San Francisco, California
Of all the American presidents who died in office, none had more
questions surrounding his demise than the 29th President, Warren
Harding. After Harding expired in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, the
cause of death was ascribed to food poisoning, a determination later
changed to stroke. However, many people suspected murder, as Harding
had his share of enemies. But the true story behind Harding's death
may have gone to the grave with one dogged FVZA Agent.
Background: Warren Harding came out of nowhere to seize the 1920
Republican Presidential nomination and go on to win the election.
Almost from the outset, his administration was plagued with scandal.
Harding installed several of his old Ohio friends in important
positions within his Cabinet, and his White House was known more for
its poker games and evening burlesques than for any actual
legislation. The mid-term congressional elections of 1922, in which
Republican candidates got hammered, were a wake-up call for Harding,
who said of his friends, "they're the ones that keep me walking the
floors at night." In a June 1923 speech, Harding vowed to rid his
administration of corruption. But before doing so, the President had
to make a long-promised trip west with his wife Florence and his good
friend Jess Smith, assistant to the U.S. Attorney General.
Shortly before he left, the President received information that
someone in the Justice Department was receiving kickbacks from Chicago
gangster Al Capone's organization in order to protect Capone's
monopoly on bootlegging (the United States had been "dry" since
Prohibition began in 1919). Harding discussed the matter with Jess
Smith, and both men endeavored to launch a full investigation when
they returned to Washington.
Harding's historic trip west was beset with problems. A ship taking
the President up the Alaska coast ran aground, then the President
became sick with food poisoning after dining on some local crabs. On
July 30, 1923, as the ship set sail from Alaska to San Francisco for
the last leg of the trip, President Harding was eager to get back to
Washington and commence a new, corruption-free chapter in his presidency.
Incident: On the night of August 1, Franklin Prevost, Director of the
FVZA office in San Francisco, received an urgent call from Jess Smith
asking him to meet the Presidential boat as it steamed into the
harbor. Prevost, an ambitious, idealistic young man who had risen to
become the youngest regional director in the Agency's history, boarded
the boat on a typically foggy San Francisco evening and was informed
by Smith that President Harding had been bitten by a vampire some time
the previous evening. Smith told Prevost that one of the ship's hands,
a Norwegian named Olaf Johans, had done it, and that he had leaped
overboard after the attack. Prevost entered the Presidential Suite and
found Harding in a vampiric coma, the telltale puncture wounds on his
neck, his wife Florence at his bedside. A brief discussion arrived at
the only reasonable course of action, and the President was put out of
his misery with a dose of cyanide.
Both Smith and Florence Harding wanted to keep the true means of the
President's demise a secret. Prevost was hesitant, but eventually
agreed to keep quiet and so, on August 2, 1923, it was announced that
President Harding had died of food poisoning while on his way to San
Francisco. No further investigation was ever conducted, as Florence
Harding would not allow an autopsy on her husband. The body was
returned to Washington for burial, and for the first and only time in
American history, an FVZA report was suppressed.
The official version of death by poisoning did little to quell rumors
flying around Washington and the rest of the country. Why hadn't Mrs.
Harding permitted an autopsy, and why was there such a hasty burial?
If Warren Harding had been murdered, then there were no shortage of
suspects. Harding's promise to wipe out corruption would likely mean
jail time for some of his pals. Even Harding's wife, Florence, came
under suspicion, as the President's many affairs had caused her great
personal anguish and embarrassment.
Investigation: The rumors and suspicions eventually died down as
Vermonter Calvin Coolidge assumed the reins of government. But across
the country in San Francisco, several unanswered questions continued
to nag at FVZA Director Prevost. How had a man bitten by a vampire
been able to board a ship carrying the President? And how had that
vampire gotten to Harding, who was under full Secret Service protection?
Prevost quietly began his own investigation, interviewing everyone who
had been on or around the ship in the days leading up to Harding's
death. He learned that the Norwegian shiphand had disappeared two days
before the ship's departure from Alaska. A big break came when a
witness identified John Scalise and Albert Anselmi, two thugs from the
Al Capone crime organization, as leaving the ship the night before
Harding was bitten. Prevost began to consider the possibility that
Capone had put a hit on the President to preserve his bootlegging
operation. But the means of the hit-murder by vampire-didn't match
gangster modus operandi. And it still didn't explain how the vampire
had gotten to the President.
Then came a stunning announcement from Washington: former Assistant
Attorney General Jess Smith had been indicted for accepting bribes
from Al Capone. For Prevost, Smith's link to Capone seemed to solve
the puzzle of Harding's death. During the trip west, Smith had enjoyed
unfettered access to the President, and stood to lose much in
Harding's promised purge of corruption. In addition, as assistant head
of the Justice Department, Smith had access to the FVZA lab, from
which several vials of vampire blood had gone missing shortly before
President Harding's trip west. Prevost told FVZA Director Hilton
Dickerson of his findings; Dickerson summoned him to Washington, and
told to bring along his report.
Prevost left San Francisco for Washington on September 12, 1924, but
he never reached his destination. As he stepped off the train in St.
Louis, two men with tommy guns burst into the station and opened fire.
Prevost was shot 12 times, and died a short time later at a nearby
hospital. His report was never recovered.
Eyewitness accounts of Prevost's murderers matched descriptions of
Capone hit men Scalise and Anselmi. But before police could question
the two men, they turned up dead, riddled with shotgun blasts in a
Post-Mortems: Although Prevost's file was gone, he left behind enough
information in his San Francisco office to build a case against Jess
Smith in the death of Harding. FVZA Director Hilton Dickerson had
every intention of pursuing the case, until Smith himself wound up
dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound (the gun was
found in his right hand, but the bullet wound was in his left temple).
Smith's death meant that, only two years after Harding's death,
virtually everyone involved in the event was gone (Florence Harding
died November 21, 1924). Only Al Capone remained, and he wasn't
talking. The Harding assassination case was dropped, and Capone
continued to prosper until he was jailed for tax evasion in 1931.
Afflicted with syphilis, he died in Florida in 1947.
Comments from Dr. Pecos: Is it possible that Warren Harding's close
friend and Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith arranged and helped
carry out the murder of the President? The evidence is certainly
compelling. Unfortunately, we will never know the truth, and Harding's
cause of death is still officially listed as a stroke. For Franklin
Prevost, a man accustomed to battling the undead, the fight against
organized crime was played out under a different set of rules. Though
he paid for it with his life, Franklin Prevost's courage stands as a
proud chapter in FVZA history.
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