Was Warren Harding's Death "Written in the Stars?" 100 Years Later, a Look at the Prediction That Haunted a First Lady and Her Legacy
First Lady Florence Harding’s fascination with astrology reveals her struggle with the tension between fate and free will.
In 1920, a Washington, D.C. astrologer and clairvoyant named Madame Marcia Champney predicted that then-Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding would win the presidency, but die a “sudden, violent or peculiar death” before the end of his term. Champney spoke as she examined Harding’s astrological birth chart during a session with Harding’s wife Florence, who would become the first lady of the United States the next year after Champney’s prediction about Harding’s win came true. Unfortunately, so too would Champney’s prediction about Harding’s demise. Around 7 p.m. on Thursday Aug. 2, 1923, after a short illness during a tour of the western United States, the 57-year-old Harding died of a heart attack at a San Francisco hotel. Less than a half hour later and 3,000 miles away, Champney glanced at Warren Harding’s birth chart and the clock, and told a journalist, “The president is dead.”
Watch President Warren G. Harding and First Lady Florence Harding on a 1923 tour of Alaska to commemorate the opening of the Alaska Railroad in this colorized video via Smithsonian.
The chilling prediction of Harding’s death, an event that shocked the nation 100 years ago Wednesday, should be taken with more than just a few grains of salt. Much of what’s known about Champney’s relationship with Florence Harding, wife of the 29th president, comes from Champney’s own telling of the events in news articles and magazines published after both Hardings were dead. Other press accounts, letters from Harding to Champney and staff recollections offer some corroboration, wrote Florence Harding biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony in his book, “Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and The Death of America’s Most Scandalous President.”
Champney’s own writings cited by Anthony reveal her predictive ability came from examining her clients’ astrological birth charts — a map of the position of the planets at the moment they were born, thought to give insights into someone’s personality — and clairvoyant visions. But Champney was a businesswoman who charged $5 for each session, so she had a financial interest in depicting herself as someone who could accurately predict the future — especially later during the Coolidge administration, when public skepticism of fortune telling for profit was so high that proposed legislation would have criminalized it. During the Harding and Wilson administrations, however, sessions at her Dupont Circle parlor were popular among many Washington political insiders, offering her a front-row seat to all manner of Washington information that might have proved useful in her predictions.
“One of the things you have to look at … are the sources and what their agendas were,” said Sherry Hall, manager of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites in Marion, Ohio. “Many of the stories about Florence’s seeming reliance on astrology were published after Warren’s death, and in many cases, after her death. To put that in context, what we find a lot with the Hardings is that people wanted to be part of the story.”
Despite the murkiness that surrounds it, Champney’s prediction of Harding’s death came true. And she made the claim not just to Florence Harding, but to journalist Harry B. Hunt in 1920, according to the book “Toil and Trouble: A Women’s History of the Occult.” Three years later, when news spread that Warren Harding was suffering from suspected food poisoning on his Western U.S. tour, Champney doubled down on her foresight to Hunt.
“It is the end. He will never recover,” Champney said days before his death, according to Florence Harding biographer Katherine A.S. Sibley, citing an article by Hunt in her book “First Lady Florence Harding: Behind the Tragedy and Controversy.” “The crisis will come Thursday night. He will be dead by Friday.”
This prediction was even more specific, and accurate to the day.
The extent to which Florence Harding believed Champney’s predictions is unclear. She expressed her belief in astrology openly, saying, according to Sibley’s book: “I believe in astrology and the indication of the planets as to a man or woman’s fate.” But she actively campaigned for her husband in spite of the prediction, appearing to grapple with the tension between belief in a predetermined destiny and the role of her own free will in shaping the future.
Whatever stock she placed in it, the prediction appeared to haunt her. On June 10, 1920, two days before her husband won the Republican nomination for president, she told the press: “I can see but one word written over the head of my husband if he is elected, and that word is ‘Tragedy.’”
For activist first lady, astrology was linked to both personal empowerment and public scorn
Florence Harding had been fascinated by the supernatural ever since her girlhood in Ohio, according to Anthony. She studied star formations and once attended a spiritualist camp in Indiana, Anthony wrote in his work, “Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President.”
“To take control of her and Warren’s lives, Florence relied on clairvoyance, the tarot cards, a crystal ball, and especially the Zodiac,” Anthony wrote.
During her time in Washington, D.C. — first as a Senate wife, and later as first lady — Florence sought out readings from Champney, who had gotten her start reading tarot cards to support her impoverished family in Brooklyn before relocating to Washington in 1909. Champney nicknamed Harding “Jupiter” and was impressed by her knowledge of astrology, according to Anthony.
“This is the map of a strong person,” Champney said of Florence Harding’s astrological birth chart during a session before Harding’s election, according to Anthony. “A dominant, willful, tenacious person of tremendous powers of concentration. A great desire to rule is indicated.”
Champney called Florence Harding a “child of Destiny,” and would later conduct sessions with her in the White House, Anthony wrote. Harding regularly relied on Champney’s astrological readings and clairvoyant visions to help schedule her husband’s events and investigate suspicions of betrayal by his political allies, according to Champney’s accounts cited by Anthony.
But like other women in history who have openly explored astrology and other metaphysical practices, its influence on Harding’s life amounted to a double-edged sword, linked to both personal empowerment and public scorn.
Harding, known as a savvy businesswoman and a champion of the rights of women, veterans, animals and prisoners, broke new ground for her successors as an activist first lady, wrote Sibley in her biography. The first American woman to vote for her husband in a presidential election and the first, first lady to have been previously divorced, Harding was “the vital engine” during her husband’s campaign at a time when women’s rights were leading the national conversation. She was politically active and popular during her husband’s short term in office, known for her compassion for the marginalized, her efforts to connect with the American public and her influence on her husband’s political agenda. It was her example, according to Sibley, that set the stage for future first ladies to campaign with their husbands and to be accessible to the public and the press.
Warren Harding considered her a vital advisor, Anthony wrote in the Social Science Journal, noting a newspaper editorial that remarked the first lady "has shown equal ability and achievement in the world of affairs next to the President ... the White House will not be run by man power alone."
“If Eleanor Roosevelt is credited with shattering the first lady's ceremonial mold, it was Florence Harding who made the first cracks,” Sibley wrote.
But Harding’s belief in metaphysics and astrology was also one among many often sexist criticisms used to deride her. Harding’s legacy has been damaged primarily because of political scandals like Teapot Dome during her husband’s administration that emerged after his death — controversies she herself had nothing to do with, Sibley wrote in her book. And public criticism related to her appearance, strength and personality — the type of sexist judgments that continue to hound women in power today — unfairly caused her to be remembered as a “prudish shrew whose ambitions drove her husband to the presidency or into the arms of other women,” wrote Sibley, referring to Warren Harding’s extramarital affairs.
Years after the Hardings’ deaths, according to Anthony, some used her astrology practice to characterize Florence Harding as “an emotionally unstable burden” on her husband in an attempt to justify his shortcomings as a president. Florence Harding’s relationship with Champney would also contribute to unfounded public rumors that Harding had poisoned her husband. Initial confusion over Warren Harding’s cause of death, questions over his medical treatment and Florence Harding’s refusal to allow an autopsy caused some of the suspicion targeted at her and others in the Harding entourage. But Champney’s accurate prediction, which was covered in newspapers days after Harding’s death, also fueled the conjecture, according to Anderson.
“Just the fact that Madame Marcia had predicted it in the way she did, that I think caused some suspicion to be placed on her, and people knew her connection to Florence Harding,” Anderson said.
Years later, in 1930, a discredited former federal investigator named Gaston Means made unsubstantiated claims that Florence Harding admitted poisoning her husband so he would die in “honor” before his political scandals emerged. In his book, “The Strange Death of President Harding,” Means also made baseless claims that Harding hired him to investigate her husband’s affairs. The book portrays Florence Harding as an unhinged and power-hungry disciple of a fortune teller named “Madame X,” intent on fulfilling her “destiny.” Though Means’ collaborator later disavowed the book and it was widely discredited, it would cause lasting damage to Harding’s reputation. The poisoning rumors, along with disparaging remarks that cast blame on Harding for Warren Harding’s affairs, continue to this day, according to Hall.
The portrayal is a far cry from how journalists of Harding’s day expected her legacy would be remembered. Philadelphia Ledger journalist Robert Barry, according to Anthony’s journal article, believed history would one day describe Harding as “the connecting link between the voteless women of the Victorian period and the new American womanhood whose indomitable spirit symbolized the new woman.”
To some, Harding’s belief in astrology and metaphysics can be hard to reconcile with the picture of the first lady who set a tone of autonomy for women from the highest office in the country. But as author Melanie Anderson explains, women have long used the occult as a means of gaining personal and political power outside of the traditional structures of male patriarchy. Anderson, who co-wrote “Toil and Trouble: A Women’s History of the Occult” with Lisa Kroger, cites research that links the Spiritualist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the women’s rights movement. Some women, like Champney, were able to use the occult to run businesses out of their homes and weigh in on political issues of the day at a time when society discouraged both. But for women, Anderson said, that power usually came with a cost.
“Throughout history, women have kind of walked this line between — yes, the supernatural does open doors for them and does give them ways to function in society other than what they’ve been told, but at the same time it can be used as another way to punish them,” said Anderson.
Astrological predictions sought by Washington’s 1920s elite
In February of 1920, with Woodrow Wilson at the country’s helm and Washington gearing up for the November presidential election that would mark the first since World War I, Florence Harding reportedly visited Champney at her R street parlor with three other Senate wives. According to Anthony’s biography, the group also included Elizabeth Gale Poindexter, the wife of Washington Sen. Miles Poindexter; Sallie “Effie” Harris Sutherland, the wife of West Virginia Sen. Howard Sutherland; and Emma Douglas Woodyard, the wife of West Virginia Sen. Harry Woodyard. They wanted to know which would be the next first lady.
Champney had already made an accurate prediction along the same lines when, sometime during the Taft administration of 1909-1913, she said that her widowed client Edith Galt would live in the White House. Edith Galt would in fact become First Lady Edith Wilson in 1915, when she married President Woodrow Wilson after the death of his first wife, Ellen. Edith Wilson, who by early 1920 was functionally running the executive branch of the government in secret after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke, was a proponent of Champney’s work. The astrologer even visited Edith Wilson for sessions in the White House, according to Anthony — using the service entrance.
Though Champney came well-recommended, Harding provided her own birth information to Champney without revealing her identity, in order to better suss out her abilities, according to Anthony. As Champney examined the astrological birth charts of all four women, she singled out Harding.
“Within a year you will make a great change. Your whole life will be altered,” Champney said, according to her own published recounting of the events, cited by Anthony. “A vista of power opens before you. If any of you ladies are to be first lady, this is the one.”
Harding would later return for more sessions with Champney, encouraged by her friend Evalyn Walsh McLean, a socialite and heiress who was known for owning the Hope Diamond. McLean, who was married to Washington Post publisher Edward “Ned” McLean, was also a regular client of Champney, and Anthony wrote that her recollections supported Harding’s belief in astrology.
It was at a subsequent session in 1920, shortly before Harding announced his presidential candidacy, that Champney made the prediction about Harding’s win – and death. Again, according to Anthony, Florence Harding provided her husband’s birth information so Champney could cast his chart, but revealed his identity only as a public figure.
“He will die in a sudden if not violent death. The end, when it comes, will be sudden, after an illness of short duration … poison or its effects is indicated … it is written in the stars.” — Madame Marcia Champney
“This person will be the next president of the United States, but will not live out his term,” Champney said. “He will die in a sudden if not violent death. The end, when it comes, will be sudden, after an illness of short duration … poison or its effects is indicated … it is written in the stars.”
When Champney asked Harding if the subject of her reading believed in astrology, Harding replied, “I believe, Marcia, and I must guide him.”
Anthony hedges the quotations by noting Champney was likely being paid for her account – and possibly adding dramatic flair because of it — and it’s difficult to know what was actually said. Hall, too, cautions that these types of stories can be difficult to corroborate, adding that Elizabeth Gale Poindexter later denied she attended the session.
“I think that Mrs. Harding, probably, she wanted anything that would give her a leg up,” Hall said. “But whether she believed in [astrology] intensely or not, we truly don’t know.”
The authenticity of Champney’s predictive abilities is another matter of interpretation.
“I don’t want to say, ‘She’s not the real deal, this is not correct,’ but I find myself wondering as a skeptic if it was more just being open to the information that’s around her and talking to people and being intuitive,” Anderson said. “But … there is a question there. It’s kind of impressive if she’s actually predicting these things.”
Fate, free will, and loss: Harding’s search for answers in the stars showed her “human-ness"
For scholars who study Harding, it makes sense that she would be intrigued by a practice that could afford her a sense of control over her personal and public lives — she was a woman who valued control, and in both arenas, it was hard to come by. All the better if it was a method that would allow her to work behind the scenes, and from within the public confines of the position of first lady — a role that Sibley wrote requires toeing a fine line between active leadership and satisfying “the country’s sentimental expectation that they remain demurely in the background and on a pedestal.”
Champney’s practice of astrology, with its down-to-the-minute predictive style, is a far cry from the practice of most modern astrologers who preach a healthy dose of free will in the context of a broader celestial “weather report.” Given Harding’s personality, it tracks that Harding would have viewed astrology in the context of her own agency, Sibley agreed, despite Champney’s chilling specificity. And astrology was one of many fields Harding actively studied, wrote Sibley, citing the writings of Harding aide Kathleen Lawler. Lawler, an astrology skeptic, wrote that Harding studied astrology in an almost scientific way, as she did “the science of political economy, and of government.” It makes sense that Harding would have gathered as much information as she could — from whatever sources she deemed credible — in order to better guide her decision-making.
But what’s harder to reconcile is that Harding, the outspoken advocate who practiced the “mind over matter” teachings of French hypnotist Emile Coue to treat her long-standing kidney ailment, would believe that the “fate” she said the planets outlined would trump her own free will. It’s worth noting that it’s unclear if she actually did. Though Harding was apprehensive about Champney’s prediction, she never accepted it, according to Sibley — opting to put it out of her mind and forge ahead. And, according to Sibley, Harding was “floored” when her husband died, believing his health to be improving.
“Despite the fact that she has this horrible prediction, it’s not going to stop her from encouraging him to run for president and believing he’s going to live when he’s at death’s door,” — Katherine A.S. Sibley, Florence Harding biographer
“Despite the fact that she has this horrible prediction, it’s not going to stop her from encouraging him to run for president and believing he’s going to live when he’s at death’s door,” Sibley said.
Sibley wrote that Harding even once railed against the prediction, telling Champney, “Power — glory — they make us all slaves, Marcia, slaves! They are killing my husband — they are killing me! The price is too great, Marcia, too cruel for us to have to pay!”
Florence Harding was devastated when her husband died, Sibley said. Like many might do after the loss of a loved one, Hall believes Harding was “searching for an explanation” about the death.
“Maybe she’s thinking, were the stars misaligned for him? Was this going to happen anyway, or could something have intervened and prevented it?”
Harding herself died without an answer. She outlived her husband for less than a year and a half, dying of renal failure on Nov. 21, 1924 at the age of 64. The circumstances of Harding’s own death were also predicted by Champney, who said Florence Harding would die a widow, “a result of an ailment of long standing.”
Hall sees similarities between Harding and her successor Nancy Reagan, who consulted with astrologer Joan Quigley to schedule Ronald Reagan’s calendar. Both first ladies suffered damage to their reputation, not only because of astrology, but because they were strong women who had influence in the White House, Hall said.
“Nancy Reagan was one of the strongest first ladies you could ever meet,” Hall said. “She would fight feverishly for her husband, and Florence is the same way. And for both of these women, that was seen in some quarters as a fault. But should it have been?”
Nancy Reagan sought Quigley’s astrological readings in the wake of the 1981 assassination attempt, terrified of another attack that could potentially prove fatal. When Reagan learned that Quigley had predicted March 30, 1981 would be a “dangerous day” for the president, according to her memoir “My Turn,” Nancy Reagan said: “Oh, my God. I could have stopped it!”
“They’re looking for what they could control, what they could have done differently — I think that’s very much a part of it,” Hall said. “It’s very hard especially for these public women to let go.”
When visitors tour the Harding Home historic site in Marion, Ohio, Hall explains the Hardings were “just people” — albeit people in the public eye. Florence Harding’s search for answers in the stars shows her “human-ness” because it was a way she grappled with the loss of someone she loved, Hall said — a universal human experience.
“Don’t forget that they’re human, and human beings don’t often make sense with everything they do,” Hall said. “You cannot explain every single thing a person does.”