A grandson of Warren G. Harding is seeking to exhume the 29th president's body — an attempt, he says, to prove his relation.
The only issue, say critics, is that no one is disputing the man's relation to Mr. Harding, a Republican who died in 1923. Even more concerning, suggests another Mr. Harding relative, is that the disinterment attempt might be related to a conspiracy theory regarding the president's death.
An application to disinter Mr. Harding's remains was filed in May by James Blaesing who, a supporting memorandum notes, seeks to "establish with scientific certainty that he is President Warren G. Harding's grandson."
"Throughout their lives, Mr. Blaesing, and his late mother, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, have been denied the fundamental human right to confirm their membership in a historic American family," the document continues. "Mr. Blaesing is entitled to have his story, his mother's story, and his grandmother's story included within the hallowed halls of the monuments and museums in this town that honor our 29th President Warren G. Harding. Mr. Blaesing deserves to emerge from the shadows of decades of shame, silence, secrecy, and rejection."
In 2015, genealogy website Ancestry.com announced that a DNA test had proven Blaesing was Mr. Harding's grandson, as he had been found to be a second cousin to both Peter and Abigail Harding (known first cousins of the president). The test came as the result of a collaborative effort between Peter, Abigail, and Blaesing.
According to documents filed in court by Blaesing, however, " … nearly five years after revelation of the Ancestry.com results, James and his family have not been acknowledged by all of the Hardings — particularly the brand of the family that has taken responsibility for preserving President Harding's legacy in his hometown of Marion, Ohio."
Blaine Brockman, an attorney for Blaesing who is based in Ohio, told PEOPLE that the Ancestry.com results don't offer "a scientific analysis of the president’s DNA," which a disinterment could provide.
Marion's Ohio History Connection serves as the steward of the Harding Memorial, where the former president has been buried since 1927. The Ohio History Connection hasn't taken a stance on the disinterment but, in a statement provided to PEOPLE noted that the DNA test results shared in 2015 "definitively demonstrated that Mr. Blaesing is a descendant of Warren G. Harding."
"We accept those results as fact," continued the Ohio History Connection's statement. "We recognize that Mr. Blaesing’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, is the biological daughter of President Harding and Nan Britton. Preservation is always our preference. However, if the court determines it necessary to disinter the President and Mrs. Harding, our goal is to achieve the highest level of assurance for care of President and Mrs. Harding, the tomb, memorial and surrounding area."
The Ohio History Connection is in the process of completing a new Harding presidential museum and library and says it has plans to include an exhibit featuring Elizabeth Ann Blaesing.
While the question of Blaesing's relation to former President Harding doesn't appear to be disputed by most of the Harding family members, nor the Ohio museum, some worry that Blaesing wants his grandfather's remains disinterred for another purpose.
In a letter sent to an Ohio judge and entered into the court record in September 2020, Peter — Warren G. Harding's grand-nephew — writes that, while he initially encouraged Blaesing to "cement his newly found status as next of kin in a legal proceeding," he does not support the disinterment efforts.
"I do not support the disinterment efforts based on establishing scientific certainty since this has already been achieved," writes Peter, who goes on to note that the situation parallels the disinterment of Zachary Taylor, the 12th U.S. President.
In the 1990s, some 140 years after his death, Taylor's body was exhumed following rampant speculation that the president had been poisoned due to his abolitionist beliefs.
"I am suspicious … that Jim's lawsuit is on a parallel path regarding the conspiracy theory that president Warren G. Harding was poisoned, perhaps by his wife or someone else," writes Peter in his September letter filed in an Ohio court. "I met with Jim's backers once. They were very interested in this particular conspiracy theory. Perhaps the request for 'conducting biological testing' is an attempt to prove or disapprove [sic] the presence of arsenic or any substance that could constitute a fatal poison."
Those "backers" Peter references include a production company that aims to document the exhumation.
While Blaesing's attorney confirms that an entertainment company is involved — if only tangentially — in the dispute over the remains, he says the attempt to prove or disprove the presence of poison is "certainly not the primary objective" of the disinterment.
According to the Ohio History Connection, former President Harding died in August 1923 due to a heart attack. "Medical records going back 20 years before Harding's death showed that Harding wasn’t in great physical shape and high blood pressure was noted beginning in his 20s," says the organization in a statement. "Today most historians accept the evidence that Harding died from a heart attack."
The theory that Mr. Harding died from poisoning is due to a few factors, adds the Ohio History Connection. "When Harding died, Mrs. Harding did not want her husband’s body to endure the trauma of an autopsy," the statement continues.
"The combination of his sudden death and Mrs. Harding’s decision not to have an autopsy invoked accusations of malpractice and led to two books published in 1926 and 1930. However, Harding’s medical records from July and August 1923, and further back, have been analyzed by present-day cardiac physicians. The consensus amongst these physicians is that serious cardiac issues caused his death."
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