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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 has 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.

President Harding
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 by 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.

Franklin Prevost
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.

President Harding's Funeral
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 was 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?

Capone hit men
Scalise and Anselmi
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.

Jess Smith: Assassin?
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 Chicago barbershop.

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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