COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The grandson of U.S. President Warren G. Harding and his lover, Nan Britton, went to court in an effort to get the Republican’s remains exhumed from the presidential memorial where they have lain since 1927.
James Blaesing told an Ohio court that he is seeking Harding’s disinterment as a way “to establish with scientific certainty” that he is the 29th president’s blood relation.
The dispute looms as benefactors prepare to mark the centennial of Harding's 1920 election with site upgrades and a new presidential center in Marion, the Ohio city near which he was born in 1865. Blaesing says he deserves to “have his story, his mother’s story and his grandmother’s story included within the hallowed halls and museums in this town.”
A branch of the Harding family has pushed back against the suit filed in May — not because they dispute Blaesing's ancestry, but because they don’t.
They argue they already have accepted as fact DNA evidence that Blaesing’s mother, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was the daughter of Harding and Britton and that she is set to be acknowledged in the museum. Harding had no other children.
“Sadly, widespread, public recognition and acceptance by the descendants, historians, and biographers (and Mr. Blaesing himself) that Mr. Blaesing is President Harding’s grandson is not enough for him,” relatives said in a court filing. They called the lawsuit a ploy for attention.
In 2015, a match between James Blaesing’s DNA and that of two Harding descendants prompted AncestryDNA, a DNA-testing division of Ancestry.com, to declare his link to the president official.
At the time, Blaesing told The Associated Press he was delighted. Five years later, he tells the AP his mother’s legacy as the daughter of a U.S. president is shaping up to be little more than a footnote in the new museum. He has not been approached to provide details of her life or even a photograph for the coming display, he said.
“I did the test and we brought it to the public in 2015. It’s now 2020 and no one has asked me one thing,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m not a part of anything. Nothing. My brothers, myself, no one. We’re invisible. They’re treating us just like they treated my grandmother.”
Blaesing said he is hopeful that a match directly to the president’s own DNA would change that.
Ironically, it was a pair of Harding’s known relatives — grandnephew Peter Harding and grandniece Abigail Harding — who first reached out to the Blaesing family in 2011 to end speculation about Harding having a child out of wedlock.
Before that, "doubt and mystery shrouded the paternal lineage of Elizabeth Blaesing for almost 100 years,” family members, not including Peter and Abigail Harding, explained to the court.
According to court filings, Peter Harding’s interest was sparked by reading “The President’s Daughter,” Britton’s 1927 book, “and concluding that the man described in its pages resembled the author of love letters written to Ms. Carrie Phillips.” The Library of Congress opened those letters between Harding and Phillips, another lover, to the public in 2014.
Ohio History Connection, which manages the Harding home and memorial, takes no position on the family dispute. Spokesperson Emmy Beach said the nonprofit accepts the 2015 DNA results “as fact” and plans a section of the new museum “on Harding’s relationship with Nan Britton and their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing.”
However, Ohio History Connection has told the court it must consider a host of issues before disrupting the Harding Memorial’s sealed sarcophagus.
The crypt also holds the remains of first lady Florence Kling Harding in another sarcophagus, and the nonprofit argues her relatives deserve a say. Further, to protect the site, the nonprofit said it will have to employ experts to assure the president's body could be disinterred and reinterred without damaging the tomb, a striking white marble temple encircled with Doric columns.
The openings of the renovated historic sites in Marion and of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Center have been indefinitely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Beach said. She said the disinterment request has not affected the timetable.