The Teapot Dome scandal
In 1909 U.S. Navy ships were converting from coal burning to oil. To make sure they would have enough oil, President Taft set aside oil producing land in the U.S. for that purpose. Two locations in California, Elk Hills and Buena Vista and a tea pot shaped dome in Wyoming were leased to the Navy.
President Warren Gamaliel Harding (President for 1921-1923) campaigned on a platform of “balancing the interests of conservation and development.” He was a former newspaper man buying and successfully running The Morning Star newspaper in Marion, Ohio. He was a popular president with both the public and the media during the roaring twenties. The view of the President would change after his death, as scandals were uncovered, one of them being the Teapot Dome.
Harding had a reputation of doing dirty backroom deals. He was a gambler, a drinker (this during prohibition) and a womanizer. These facts also came out after his death. He fathered a child out of wedlock, with Nan Britton his mistress. The grandson of the Harding and his mistress is fighting to have Harding’s body exhumed. He is doing this “to establish with scientific certainty” that he is the 29th president’s blood relation.” (A.P., 2020) James Blaesing’s mother Elizabeth Ann Blaesing is acknowledged by the Harding family as a member, but James wants scientific proof. Even though there was a DNA test in 2015 with other members of Harding family that tested positive. Blaesing still feels left out of the celebrations and is not recognized publicly as Harding’s grandson.
As far as Harding’s stance on conservation balanced with development, once he appointed Albert Bacon Fall as Secretary of the Interior, it was clear that he was operating in the interests of development. Harding reassigned the lands from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior. Fall was a lawyer, a senator, a rancher and a miner, clearly on the side of development.
Fall leased the Teacup Dome lands to Harry F. Sinclair in 1922 of Mammoth Oil. He leased Elk Hills lands to Edward Doheny of Pan American Petroleum. The leases were made without competitive bidding, legal under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. The monetary reward for Albert Fall made him a rich man. Between loans and gifts Fall made over $7,000,000 (today’s dollars) out of the deal. The deal broke down to a $100k loan (worth $1.4 million today) and gifts of $404k ($5.7 million today). (FRB, 2020)
The money changing hands and gifts were illegal. Fall tried to keep it a secret but because he was living a much more lavish lifestyle, of course it got out. A reporter named Carl Magee wrote about it in the Magee Independent (later to become the Albuquerque Tribune), which created a senate investigation.
Republican Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin led the investigation but did not think Fall was guilty. He changed his mind upon experiencing a “Watergate like episode” in his office. His office was ransacked. Over the next two years, another senator Thomas Walsh of Montana pushed forward, but documentation of the leases was all they could find. The records were disappearing from the offices.
In 1924 they were able to trace the money to Falls through his ranch and his business. He had failed to hide the $100k loan and it was discovered. The results were that both civil and criminal cases against Albert Fall that went on for years. In 1927 the supreme court stated the leases had been obtained illegally. So, they were voided, both pieces of land went back to the Navy. It got worse for Fall. Albert Fall was found guilty of accepting bribes from Doheny in 1929, yet in 1930, Doheny was found not guilty for giving a bribe to an official. Not only that but Doheny foreclosed on a home owned by Fall because of unpaid loans. That is right, it was the same $100k he received from Doheny. Because W.G. Harding appointed Fall, his reputation suffered along with Fall’s.
The Teapot Dome oil field sat idle for 49 years. Until Watergate this was considered the worst scandal in U.S. history. Yet most people alive today do not even know about it. Found guilty of bribery and conspiracy, Fall was ordered to pay $385k and went to jail for one year. The first cabinet officer to go to jail for misconduct. President Harding died in 1923.
A.P., (2020), Grandson of Harding and lover wants president’s body exhumed, Boston Herald, https://www.bostonherald.com/2020/09/13/grandson-of-harding-and-lover-wants-presidents-body-exhumed/
Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 1, 2020.
Sandy Franks; Sara Nunnally (2011). Barbarians of Oil: How the worlds oil addiction threatens global prosperity and four investments to protect your wealth, Wiley and Sons Publishing
Staff, (2010), Cabinet member found guilty in Teapot Dome scandal, History.com, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/cabinet-member-guilty-in-teapot-dome-scandal
Staff, 2019, On this Day: Interior Secretary Fall found guilty in Teapot Dome Scandal, UPI, https://www.upi.com/Top_News/2019/10/25/On-This-Day-Interior-Secretary-Fall-found-guilty-in-Teapot-Dome-scandal/4141571969653/
N.A., 1922, Senate Investigations Teapot Dome Scandal, U.S. Senate historical minutes, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Senate_Investigates_the_Teapot_Dome_Scandal.htm
Image 1- Harding- photograph by Harris and Ewing, C. 1920
Image 2- Albert Fall-public domain