All About the Teapot Dome Scandal

Sensational Corruption Case of the 1920s Created Template for Later Scandals

Photo of newsreel cameraman covering Teapot Dome
Newsreel cameras swarmed to cover Teapot Dome witnesses. Getty Images

The Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s demonstrated to Americans that the oil industry could wield great power and influence government policy to the point of outright corruption. The scandal, which played out on newspaper front pages and in silent newsreel films, seemed to create a template for later scandals.

Blatant corruption was discovered, denials were made, hearings were held on Capitol Hill, and all the time reporters and photographers swarmed the scene. By the time it was over, some of the characters stood trial and were convicted. Yet the system changed very little.

The story of Teapot Dome was essentially the tale of an unqualified and inept president, surrounded by larcenous underlings. An unusual cast of characters took power in Washington following the turbulence of World War I, and Americans who thought they were returning to normal life instead found themselves following a saga of thievery and deception.

01
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Warren Harding's Surprise Nomination

Warren Harding posing with musicians in 1920
Warren Harding posing with fellow musicians during 1920 campaign. Getty Images

Warren Harding had prospered as a newspaper publisher in Marion, Ohio. He was known as an outgoing personality who enthusiastically joined clubs and loved to speak in public.

After entering politics in 1899, he held a variety of offices in Ohio. In 1914 he was elected to the U.S. Senate. On Capitol Hill he was well-liked by his colleagues but did little of any real importance.

In late 1919, Harding, encouraged by others, began to think of running for president. America was in a period of turmoil following the end of World War I., and many voters were tired of Woodrow Wilson's ideas of internationalism. Harding's political backers believed his small-town values, including quirks such as his founding of a local brass band, would restore America to a more placid time.

Harding's odds of winning the presidential nomination of his party were not great: His one advantage was that no one in the Republican Party disliked him. At the Republican National Convention in June 1920 he began to appear to be a viable compromise candidate.

It is strongly suspected that lobbyists of the oil industry, sensing that enormous profits could be made by controlling a weak and pliable president, influenced balloting at the convention. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Will Hays, was a prominent attorney who represented oil companies and also served on the board of directors of an oil company. A 2008 book, The Teapot Dome Scandal by veteran business journalist Laton McCartney, provided evidence that Harry Ford Sinclair, of the Sinclair Consolidated Oil Company, funneled $3 million to fund the convention, which was held in Chicago. 

In an incident that would later become famous, Harding was asked, late one night in a backroom political meeting at the convention, if there was anything in his personal life that would disqualify him from serving as president.

Harding did, in fact, have a number of scandals in his personal life, including mistresses and at least one illegitimate child. But after thinking for a few minutes, Harding claimed nothing in his past prevented him from being president.

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02
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Election of 1920

photograph of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge
Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Getty Images

Harding secured the 1920 Republican nomination. Later that summer the Democrats nominated another politician from Ohio, James Cox. In a peculiar coincidence, both party nominees had been newspaper publishers. Both also had undistinguished political careers.

The vice-presidential candidates that year were perhaps more interesting, not to mention more capable. Harding's running mate was Calvin Coolidge, the governor of Massachusetts, who had become nationally famous by putting down a strike by Boston police the previous year. The Democrat's vice-presidential candidate was Franklin D. Roosevelt, a rising star who had served in Wilson's administration.

Harding barely campaigned, preferring to remain at home in Ohio and deliver bland speeches from his own front porch. His call for "normalcy" struck a chord with a nation recovering from its involvement in World War I and Wilson's campaign to form a League of Nations.

Harding easily won the November election.

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03
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Harding's Problems With His Friends

Warren Harding came into White House generally popular with the American people and with a platform that was a departure from the Wilson years. He was photographed playing golf and attending sporting events. One popular news photo showed him shaking hands with another very popular American, Babe Ruth.

Some of the people Harding appointed to his cabinet were worthy. But some of the friends Harding brought into office became mired in scandal.

Harry Daugherty, a prominent Ohio lawyer and political fixer, had been instrumental in Harding's rise to power. Harding rewarded him by making him attorney general.

Albert Fall had been a senator from New Mexico before Harding appointed him as secretary of the interior. Fall was opposed to the conservation movement, and his actions concerning oil leases on government land would create a torrent of scandalous stories.

Harding reportedly said to a newspaper editor, "I have no trouble with my enemies. But my friends... they're the ones who keep me walking the floor nights."

04
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Rumors and Investigations

Teapot Rock in Wyoming, landmark of the Teapot Dome scandal
Teapot Rock in Wyoming. Getty Images

As the 1920s began, the U.S. Navy held two oil fields as a strategic reserve in the event of another war. With warships having converted from burning coal to oil, the Navy was the country's largest consumer of oil.

The extremely valuable oil reserves were located at Elk Hills in California and at a remote spot in Wyoming called Teapot Dome. Teapot Dome took its name from a natural rock formation which resembled the spout of a teapot.

Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall arranged for the Navy to transfer the oil reserves to the Department of the Interior. And he then arranged for friends of his, primarily Harry Sinclair (who controlled the Mammoth Oil Company) and Edward Doheny (of Pan-American Petroleum) to lease the sites for drilling.

It was a classic sweetheart deal in which Sinclair and Doheny would kick back what amounted to about a half-million dollars to Fall.

President Harding may have been oblivious to the scam, which first became known to the public through newspaper reports in the summer of 1922. In testimony before a Senate committee in October 1923, officials from the Department of the Interior claimed that Secretary Fall granted the oil leases without presidential authorization.

It was not hard to believe Harding had no idea what Fall was doing, especially as he often seemed overwhelmed. In a famous story told about him, Harding once turned to a White House aide and admitted, "I am not fit for this job and should never have been here."

By early 1923 rumors of a wide-ranging bribery scandal were circulating in Washington. Members of Congress were intent on beginning extensive investigations of the Harding administration.

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05
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Harding's Death Shocked America

President Harding's casket in the White House
President Harding's casket in the East Room of the White House. Library of Congress

In the summer of 1923 Harding seemed to be under tremendous stress. He and his wife embarked on a tour of the American West in order to get away from the various scandals festering in his administration.

After a tour of Alaska, Harding was returning to California by boat when he became ill. He took a hotel room in California, was tended by doctors, and the public was told he was recovering and would return to Washington soon.

On August 2, 1923, Harding died suddenly, most likely from a stroke. Later, when tales of his extra-marital affairs became public, there was speculation that his wife had poisoned him. (Of course, that was never proven.)

Harding was still very popular with the public at the time of his death, and he was mourned as a train carried his body back to Washington. After lying in state in the White House, his body was taken to Ohio, where he was buried.

06
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A New President

Photograph of Calvin Coolidge at White House desk.
President Coolidge at his White House desk. Getty Images

Harding's vice president, Calvin Coolidge, took the oath of office in the middle of the night in a small Vermont farmhouse where he was vacationing. What the public knew about Coolidge is that he was a man of few words, dubbed "Silent Cal."

Coolidge operated with an air of New England frugality, and he seemed nearly the opposite of the fun-loving and gregarious Harding. That stern reputation would be helpful to him as president, as the scandals which were about to become public did not attach to Coolidge, but to his dead predecessor.

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07
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Sensational Spectacle for the Newsreels

Photo of newsreel cameraman covering Teapot Dome
Newsreel cameras swarmed to cover Teapot Dome witnesses. Getty Images

Hearings on the Teapot Dome bribery scandal began on Capitol Hill in the fall of 1923. Senator Thomas Walsh of Montana led the investigations, which sought to find out just how and why the Navy had transferred its oil reserves to the control of Albert Fall at the Interior Department.

The hearings captivated the public as wealthy oilmen and prominent political figures were called to testify. News photographers captured images of men in suits entering and leaving the courthouse, and some figures stopped to address the press as silent newsreel cameras recorded the scene. The behavior of the press seemed to create standards for how other scandals, up to the modern era, would be covered by the media.

By early 1924 the general outlines of Fall's scheme was being exposed to the public, with much of the blame falling on the late President Harding, rather than his severe replacement, President Calvin Coolidge.

Also helpful to Coolidge and the Republican Party was that the financial schemes perpetrated by oilmen and Harding administration officials tended to be complicated. The public naturally had trouble following every twist and turn in the saga.

The political fixer from Ohio who masterminded the Harding presidency, Harry Daugherty, was tangentially implicated in several scandals. Coolidge accepted his resignation, and scored points with the public by replacing him with capable successor, Harlan Fiske Stone (who was later nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt).

08
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Legacy of the Scandal

1924 election ad referring to Teapot Dome scandal
Teapot Dome became an issue in the election of 1924. Getty Images

The Teapot Dome scandal might have been expected to create political opportunity for the Democrats in the election of 1924. But Coolidge had kept his distance from Harding, and the steady stream of revelations of corruption during Harding's tenure had little impact on his political fortunes. Coolidge ran for president in 1924 and was elected.

The schemes to defraud the public through the shady oil leases continued to be investigated. Eventually the former head of the Department of the Interior, Albert Fall, stood trial. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison.

Fall made history by becoming the first former cabinet secretary to serve prison time related to malfeasance in office. But others in the government who may have been part of the bribery scandal escaped prosecution.