As the closing week approached a boomerang was sprung destined to have a sensational ending.
With no announcement from Democratic Headquarters and no actual endorsement of the move by any man of standing in the opposition a vicious and outrageous personal attack was made on Harding.
The Nation was suddenly flooded with millions of scurilous circulars of anonymous authorship declaring that the Hardings had in their family a trace of Negro blood.
Two hundred and fifty thousand of these circulrs were discovered in the mails at San Francisco. The postage alone on this one shipment of letters amounted to five thousand dollars. The printing and mailing cost as much more.
President Wilson indignantly ordered the stuff destroyed, and the post offices refused to receive or handle the matter. Whereupon thousands of messengers were employed to distribute the circulars by hand, under cover of darkness.
The New York Herald carried a page story of denunciation of this canard. In an editorial, printed in display type at the head of the front page, Frank Munsey issued his proclamation:
"In the closing hours of the campaign a dastardly conspiracy is put on foot to steal the election through an insidious assertion that Warren G. Harding, Republican candidate for President of the United States, is of Negro ancestry.
"That this villainous undertaking has a thorough organization back of it with ample money to carry on the work is beyond question, though no Cox newspaper has dared to print the slander and no man of known standing has dared to utter it.
"William E. Chancellor, who has been expelled from a Professorship in Wooster College, Ohio (the same man who was expelled from the public schools of Washington for lying and incompetence) is quoted in this anonymous propaganda as authority for this defamation of the Harding family. His name alone comes to the surface in connection with this stealthy dagger-thrust in the back on the eve of the election.
"In all our political history there is nothing comparable to this foul, eleventh hour attack on a Presidential Candidate made without conscience or moral sense, solely for the purpose of defrauding the Republican Party of its impending victory. This is desperation carried to the verge of criminality."
An attempt to circulate these filthy circulars in the suburban trains running into Chicago resulted in fist fights that cleared each coach promptly of the intruders.
It was published that a Democratic official of Reading, Pennsylvania, Harvey L. Bausher, Clerk of the Court of Berks County, was arrested for criminal libel for circulating copies of this fictitious "family tree". He gave a thousand dollars bail and issued a statement on his release in which he is credited with saying:
"My arrest is an effort solely to stem the tide against Harding. I refuse to discuss the case futher."
The Republican executive committee was thoroughly familiar with this ancient lie that had its origin in a quarrel of children seventy-five years ago at the county schoolhouse which the Hardings attended. In a row behind the children of the Applemans and the blue-eyed Hardings, vicious epithets were hurled, along with protruding tongues and gestures of contempt, in vogue among the young from time immemorial. This quarrel reached the heights of brutal tongue-lashing.
At this climax of insult a blue-eyed Harding punched the nose of a dark-eyed Appleman. When the story of the fight reached the Appleman home, the elders at first laughed at it, but it started a feud between the families that lasted for years.
The children of the Applemans kept it up. They had found an epithet that rankled and they used it again and more fights followed.
The discussion of the feud spread in the neighborhood. Unthinking people became involved in a foolish controversy. the Hardings, as all persons of strong individuality, had enemies who took it up and spread a tale that they knew to be absolutely false.
At every election in which Harding was a candidate for office, from the beginning of his career in 1898 as a State Senator till his last campaign, this foolish lie was revived by the opposition in a whispering campaign. It cut no figure in the results in Ohio except possibly in his candidacy for Governor, because the people knew it was a silly falsehood.
No family in the State had a clearer or more honorable record than the Hardings, a blue-eyed stock from New England and Pennsylvania of the finest pioneer blood, Anglo-Saxon, German, Scotch-Irish and Dutch.
The Inside Story of the Harding Tragedy by Harry M. Daugherty
The Churchill Company, New York, 1932, pages 58-61.