Weird White House Days with Florence Harding
Stories of ghosts, hauntings, and séances have long swirled about the White House. The spirits of several former presidents are rumored to walk the halls of this stately building. Many of those presidents expressed an interest in Spiritualism and the occult, including Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln, during their lifetimes, and others claimed to witness the spirits of their predecessors while in office. A few of the First Ladies who accompanied their husbands into office also had connections to the supernatural. Mary Lincoln was famous for the séances that she attended after the death of her son, Willie, and her devout in Spiritualism after the death of her husband.
But there is no First lady who was more expert on the occult, or believed more thoroughly in the supernatural, than Florence Harding, wife of scandal-battered President Warren G. Harding.
|First Lady Florence Harding|
During his time in office, Harding was a popular president, but his reputation was tarnished after his death when Americans learned of the corruption that occurred during his administration. Even though Harding himself was never accused of criminal wrongdoing, it was during this time that the Teapot Dome Scandal came to light. The incident involved Secretary of State Albert Fall, who rented public lands to oil companies in exchange for bribes and gifts. He was later convicted and served less than a year in prison. Other government officials took payoffs and embezzled funds. Harding himself allegedly had extramarital affairs and drank alcohol in the White House in violation of the Prohibition laws. Harding died in a San Francisco hotel in 1923 under strange circumstances. The White House initially said he died from food poisoning, another physician stated that it was due to a cerebral hemorrhage, and still another claimed that it was a heart attack.
Still others claimed that Mrs. Harding herself may have had a hand in her husband’s death. She refused to allow an autopsy on her husband. Since Harding died in California, a state without a mandatory autopsy law, even the president could not be examined without his wife’s consent. Several conspiracy theorists began to wonder what she was hiding. One rumor stated that the president, depressed and fearing impeachment once the scandals in his administration came to light, committed suicide. Another claimed that Mrs. Harding had poisoned him, either to prevent the humiliation of scandal from the wrong-doers who worked for him, or out of revenge for his many marital indiscretions, including a long-time affair with a woman named Nan Britton, who bore a child with Harding out of wedlock. Still others dismissed such stories and said that Harding merely died from a stroke.
The true cause of Harding’s death remains a mystery, but at least one person tried to discover what happened to him in the days that followed his demise. That person was his wife, Florence Harding, who tried very hard to hold a conversation with his spirit while his body was still lying in state in the White House.
|President Warren G. Harding|
Warren Harding had been born in Ohio on November 2, 1865. After college, he got into the newspaper business in Marion, Ohio, and quickly converted the editorial platform to support the Republican party. He enjoyed some success until he began to clash with local political leaders, especially real estate magnate Amos Hall Kling. He attracted a lot of unwanted attention, but refused to give up the fight, eventually making his paper the largest in the region. On July 8, 1891, Harding married Florence Mable Kling DeWolfe, a tall, mannish-looking divorcee – and daughter of political enemy, Amos Hall Kling. When he heard the news, he disowned his daughter and even prevented his wife from attending their wedding. He spent the next eight years in opposition of the marriage, refusing to speak to his daughter or son-in-law.
Florence quickly took control of the Harding marriage. It became her business sense that made Harding a financial, and then political, success. She ran the newspaper with crisp efficiency and plotted Harding’s rather unlikely political ascent. She pushed him into state politics in the late 1890s, serving in the Ohio Senate for four years before winning election as the Lieutenant Governor. His time in office was undistinguished and he returned to private life in 1905. But Florence did not let him stay there for long. In 1912, she wrangled him the chance to give the nominating speech for incumbent President William Taft at the Republican convention. In 1914, with the help of political boss Harry Daughtery, Harding was elected to the U.S. Senate. During his time in the Senate, Harding missed over two-thirds of the roll calls and votes, compiling one of the worst records in history. He introduced only 134 bills, none of them significant. But Harding was an affable man and was always well-liked by his colleagues. He was a loyal party man and worked to keep harmony. This turned out to be a great help to him in 1920, when a dead-locked Republican convention turned to Harding as a compromise candidate for the presidency. After a particularly nasty campaign (the first to ever shine light on the candidate’s sex life), Harding won the election by a wide margin.
His administration soon became riddled by scandal and corruption. Florence may have pushed her husband into the White House, but she had no idea what awaited him there. In that way, at least, her belief in spirits and signs didn’t help her.
Florence had always believed in spirits, omens, and curses. Some believe that she came by those beliefs from the German immigrant families who rented farms owned by her father in Ohio, or perhaps it came from her visits to Spiritualist camps in Indiana in the late 1800s. She read tarot cards and believed in bad luck. In the White House, she became agitated if a maid placed a pair of shoes on a bed, believing that it brought bad luck. A niece later told a story of Florence gazing up into the night sky, identifying the constellations and explaining that the only aspect of life that could truly be relied upon was what messages were given to us by the formations of the stars.
It's no surprise that Florence turned to the supernatural for guidance. Her life was one of abuse – by her first husband, her father, and even by her husband, who carried on with other women right under her nose. She also suffered from a chronic kidney ailment that made her life painful and her lifespan unknown.
|Florence and Warren Harding at the White House|
When Florence arrived at the White House, she threw herself into the job of First Lady. She opened the mansion and the grounds to the public again – both had been closed during President Wilson’s illness – and began organizing social events for veterans, women’s groups, and various dignitaries. Among those with open invitations to the White House were Spiritualists, mediums, and psychics. Spiritualism had become a popular movement again after World War I, and séances were widely attended across the country. Critics of the Harding administration openly complained about the parade of psychics that were meeting with the First Lady. Harry Houdini, who appeared before a congressional committee to ask for laws against fortune-tellers and fraudulent mediums, even said that he’d heard “on rather good authority that they held séances in the White House.”
Ironically, though, neither Warren or Florence Harding were ashamed of the fact that Florence believed in spirits or astrology. For his part, Harding never criticized his wife’s beliefs nor attempted to prevent her seeking guidance from them, even when her beliefs were exposed during the 1920 presidential election.
Among the many mediums and astrologers that Florence consulted, the one who played the biggest role in her life was a woman named Marcia Chaumprey, who used the professional name of “Madame Marcia.” After Florence became First lady, Chaumprey would often go into clairvoyant trances so that she could warn about administration officials who she sensed were involved in malfeasance or plotted against the president. Her primary service to Florence, though, was to interpret the zodiac for her.
|A 1938 Liberty magazine illustration showing Madame Marcia working on the Harding zodiac chart.|
During the 1920 presidential primary, Florence was introduced to “Madame Marcia” by her closest friend, Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the infamous Hope Diamond. Chaumprey also met with the wives of three U.S. Senators, veiled for anonymity, and was presented with each of their husband’s birth place, time and dates, seeking to determine which of them would be most likely to win the election. Chaumprey determined that Harding would be nominated and win the general election, but at the cost of his life. This prediction – although not the sole reason – did influence Harding’s decision to run for president.
It was Florence who tipped off the press corps about having consulted an astrologer. She announced at the 1920 Republican National Convention that, “If my husband is elected, I can see but one word hanging over his head – Tragedy! Tragedy!”
Once Florence was in the White House, she would send her Secret Service agent, Harry Barker, to bring Madame Marcia from her home. Hoping to spare her husband any embarrassment, she always had her brought in by the West Wing entrance, where the visitor’s book was not always signed. This was, as it turned out, not Marcia’s first time in the White House. The previous First Lady had also consulted her. Edith Galt met Madame Marcia in 1914 and the medium told her that she would someday become a member of the presidential family and live in the White House. Mrs. Galt told her that if the prediction turned out to be true, Marcia would be invited to the White House for further consultations. After the widow met and married President Woodrow Wilson, she was true to her word.
As was allegedly predicted, President Harding did die during his presidency. Florence endured the long train ride from San Francisco to Washington with her husband’s body and on the first night that the flag-draped casket was resting in the East Room, Florence asked her friend, Evalyn McLean, to descend the grand staircase with her so that she could “speak” with her dead husband. The flag was removed by White House staff members and the casket was opened, so that husband and wife could converse face-to-face.
Whether Harding ever apologized to Florence for his many transgressions from beyond the grave is unknown.
After Harding’s funeral, his body was returned to Marion, Ohio, where he was laid to rest. Florence followed him to the grave, dying on November 21, 1924, surviving her husband by little more than a year of illness, sorrow, and pain.