For a number of years, the Hardings had been looking forward to a trip to the Far West, particularly Alaska. Finally, after Florences serious illness in the late fall and winter of 1922, and the Presidents debilitating case of influenza in the winter and spring of 1923, they departed with an entourage in June 1923.
Accompanying them were the two White House physicians, Dr. Charles Sawyer, a homeopathic quack; and Dr. Joel Boone, a Navy physician assigned to the White House, but under the thumb of the quirky Dr. Sawyer. The Duchess swore by the skills of Sawyer, who, she claimed, had saved her life the previous winter. Also in the party were George Christian, Hardings secretary; and three cabinet secretaries: Work (who had replaced Fall), Wallace, and Hoover
(who would meet them on the West Coast). The trip was called a Voyage of Understanding.
The train transporting the presidential party reached Tacoma, Wash.
, on July 4, after numerous stops and speeches along the way. Harding was clearly weak and tired, and, on some occasions, the Duchess gave impromptu speeches in his stead from the rear platform of the train. The President was brooding over the betrayals of his friends.
After four days of sailing, with Harding playing bridge most of the way, the ship carrying the group reached Alaska
. They made brief stops along the Alaskan coast, and, on the return trip, Harding indulged in a feast of crabs and butter. When they reached Seattle
, Harding faltered while delivering a speech and was rescued by Hoover
as he dropped pages of his manuscript. He complained of violent cramps and indigestion and was put to bed. Sawyer diagnosed Hardings complaints as a slight attack of ptomaine from the crabs he had eaten. Dr. Boone, however, was alarmed, and told Secretary Hoover that there was more to it than indigestion. Hardings heart was enlarged. Hoover
telegraphed ahead to San Francisco
requesting that the president of Stanford University
, Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, who was also president of the American Medical Association, meet the train. They proceeded directly to San Francisco
, canceling a scheduled speech in Portland, Oregon
. Dr. Charles Minor Cooper, a noted heart specialist, who had been enlisted by Wilbur, joined the group. Harding refused a wheel chair and walked off the train into a waiting limousine. He was whisked to the Palace Hotel, and put to bed at once.
Harding was scheduled to deliver a speech on the World Court
in San Francisco
. Remaining ill, he canceled the speech, but had Hoover
release it to the press. All of his scheduled activities for California
were cancelled. Harding rallied, sitting up in bed and eating solid food, reading the newspapers, and talking with the Duchess, Christian, Boone, Sawyer, and Hoover
. Sawyer announced that the crisis had passed, while Boone, Wilbur, and Cooper were convinced that Harding had suffered a heart attack.
On the evening of August 2, Florence was reading an admiring article about him that he clearly enjoyed. According to one account, she left the room to go to her suite across the corridor. One of the nurses came into the room with a glass of water so that Harding could take his evening medication. She saw Hardings face twitch and his mouth drop open. The nurse ran for Florence, who entered the room, saw her husband dead, and then called for Dr. Boone. By the time Boone arrived (in only a few minutes) Harding had been laid out in a white robe, eyes closed, flat on the bed. This, according to Francis Russell, is the official version.
Dr. Boones recollections of the death were quite different. Dr. Sawyer was not in the room. Hoovers memoirs state that Dr. Sawyer was in the room, lying across the foot of the bed, taking Hardings pulse, or simply holding his hand. The two nurses, the consulting physicians, and reporters immediately outside told different stories. All that is clear is that Harding died some time between 7 p.m. and 7:35 p.m., but who was actually with him remains unknown.
The slow train ride from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., gave countless citizens an opportunity to show their affection for the good-natured, likeable president. It was the greatest outpouring of grief since the death of Abraham Lincoln. The oil lease scandals and the veterans affairs corruption were not yet public, so the collective memory of the citizenry at the time of his death was of their handsome, friendly leader.
Mrs. Harding had Hardings casket elevated, so that as the train passed, the thousands along the route could glimpse their beloved president.