Money, Politics, Scandal and Murder: Oklahoma Oilman Jake Hamon’s Sordid Scheme for a White House Cabinet Post
By Larry C. Floyd
New concerns grow over the unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in the 2012 general election, but the public may take comfort in the country’s survival after even more egregious influence by moneyed interests in the 1920 U.S. presidential campaign. At the center of the money storm that year during scandal-plagued Warren G. Harding’s election stood Oklahoma oilman Jake L. Hamon. This corrupt and ambitious millionaire could well have served as a role model for the later fictitious scoundrel J.R. Ewing of “Dallas” television series fame.
A prominent Republican in early state politics, the shady Hamon ventured east in the spring of 1920 with $1 million in cash to purchase favor for the oil industry from a future president. The scheming Oklahoman succeeded resoundingly by procuring the nomination and election of former Ohio governor Harding. For his contributions to the Harding campaign, Hamon was poised to join the new president’s White House cabinet and almost certainly would have been at the center of the infamous Teapot Dome oil scandal – if not for his untimely murder in an Ardmore hotel at the hands of his jilted mistress.
Hamon began a shaky rise to political prominence as the first city attorney for Lawton, the southwest Oklahoma town founded in 1901. Presaging future corruption, he was accused of extorting money from local gamblers and was ousted by voters in 1903. In 1910, Hamon became embroiled in a national controversy when accused of attempting to bribe U.S. Sen. Thomas P. Gore, an Oklahoma Democrat. Despite his controversies, heavy drinking and womanizing, Hamon struck it rich in 1914 with his oil leases in the Healdton Field near Ardmore.
Along the way to his oil fortune, the dissolute Hamon had abandoned his wife, Georgia, for an attractive, dark-complexioned Lawton store clerk nearly 20 years his junior. The former Clara Belle Smith became Mrs. Hamon after Jake paid his nephew Frank Hamon $10,000 to marry and then desert Clara, who had become the oilman’s private secretary and mistress. This sham marriage and same last name was contrived to make travel and lodging together easier for middle-aged Jake and his young female companion.
With the business-savvy Clara looking out for his oil holdings in Oklahoma, Jake took his hefty sum of cash to Washington, D.C. in April 1920 to meet with presidential contender Harding’s campaign manager, the bare-knuckled Ohio politician and future U.S. attorney general Harry M. Daugherty. As Oklahoma’s Republican national committeeman, Hamon impressed Daugherty with his bankroll and his pledge to switch the Oklahoma delegation’s votes to the Harding camp for the right offer at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Chicago. Just a few months earlier, the Oklahoma oilman had been introduced to Harding in New York City, and there had learned that the future president’s wife, Florence, was a second cousin to Hamon’s estranged wife. The scheming Oklahoman may have eyed this connection as an opportunity, but it ultimately proved his undoing.
The 1920 Republican National Convention opened June 8 at the Chicago Coliseum with Harding as a dark horse and well behind favorites Gen. Leonard Wood and Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden. Renowned journalist William Allen White later recounted in his autobiography how he had never seen a presidential convention “so dominated by sinister economic forces as was this.”
Hamon and oil moguls Harry F. Sinclair and Edwin L. Doheny stood out at the convention as opportunity-seeking representatives of the petroleum industry. “Hamon was in Chicago to buy himself a cabinet position,” White later wrote, and the outlook appeared promising for the Oklahoman with his 50 state delegates and bundles of cash to buy other states’ delegates.
After the fourth nominating ballot on Friday, June 11, while no clear winner had emerged, Harding had moved into fourth place with 62 delegates. Convention chair Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts gaveled the proceedings to a halt in late afternoon, and party insiders congregated that evening in the infamous “smoke-filled room” at the nearby Blackstone Hotel. Later reports credited this gathering at the hotel with Harding’s nomination the next day as a compromise candidate. Some historians, however, have disputed this legendary conspiracy of politicians as an oversimplification and a distortion of these clandestine maneuverings.
Indeed, much of the key political maneuvering that evening was performed by Jake Hamon away from the room full of Republican Party Brahmans at the Blackstone Hotel. After being thrown out of nominee front-runner Gen. Leonard Wood’s hotel room following a bribery attempt, Hamon partnered with the Harding campaign. The oilman paid $250,000 in cash to titular Republican Party boss Sen. Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania to release his state delegates to Harding.
In a later account of the evening’s convention proceedings, noted Oklahoma newspaperman E.J. Costello wrote of meeting a disheveled Hamon in the early morning hours at the Blackstone Hotel. Well acquainted from Oklahoma politics, the two chatted, and the journalist pressed the oilman for a scoop. Initially reluctant to respond, Hamon eventually relented. “Well, Ed,” he replied furtively, “Warren Harding will be the nominee. I’ll be in the cabinet.”
Fulfilling Hamon’s prediction, the second day’s balloting slowly turned toward Harding. In the sixth round of voting late in the afternoon, Pennsylvania’s 76 votes threw in with Hamon’s delegates to carry the unheralded senator from Ohio to the party’s nomination. The Oklahoma oilman rushed to the new nominee to be the first to extend congratulations. Harding’s campaign manager later gave credit to Hamon for his integral role in the nominating process, stating that the oilman “had more influence among the delegates than any other man at the convention.” Exactly right – at least $1 million worth.
Before the fall election, Hamon met at an Ohio retreat with key members of Harding’s “Ohio Gang,” comprising “one of the most astonishing collections of crooks, grafters and blackmailers ever assembled.” The Oklahoma oilman fit right in with Harding’s entourage, and was soon named to the campaign’s executive committee. Taking his role on the committee seriously – and protecting his future interests – Hamon strongly advised against Harding’s homebound “front-porch strategy” and urged the senator to make a national speaking tour. In an Aug. 16, 1920 letter from Ardmore, the Oklahoman bluntly told the candidate: “Frankly, Senator, I am of the opinion that if the plan of campaign that is now being pursued is continued up to the election, you will be defeated.”
Harding relented and took to the campaign trail in September with a round of speeches in Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky. At Hamon’s urging, Harding continued his speaking tour with a trip to Oklahoma City on Oct. 9. Arriving by trail, the campaign party was received by a “tumultuous demonstration” arranged and funded by the oilman, a campaign stop that the Daily Oklahoman called “the nosiest, gladdest, maddest day” the Republicans had seen in many years in the Democrat-controlled state.
On November 2, Harding and his vice-presidential running mate, Calvin Coolidge, carried 37 states to defeat Democratic presidential nominee James M. Cox and his running mate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oklahoma Republican candidates were swept along in the vote for Harding, with John W. Harreld winning a U.S. Senate contest and five of the state’s eight U.S. House seats taken by the Grand Old Party.
Eminent Oklahoma historian Angie Debo credited the Hamon-Daugherty partnership for the Republican triumph: “Hamon and Daugherty had worked before the national convention for Harding’s nomination, and it was partly due to this effective combination of politics and oil that Oklahoma joined the Republican column.”
Hamon’s machinations to exploit Harding’s election neared fruition, but squarely in the way of his acceptance into the administration loomed the inconvenient presence of his mistress, Clara. Some of the pressure for Hamon to abandon young Clara probably came from Harding’s wife, who took umbrage at her cousin’s mistreatment at the hands of her estranged husband. Planning to reunite with his wife, the scheming oilman reached a cash settlement with his secretary and paramour, who agreed to depart for California. But Clara, by then nearing 30 years of age, must have had second thoughts about her quiescent parting from a millionaire to whom she believed she had contributed so much. Before her final leave of Ardmore’s Randol Hotel, where she lived with Hamon, she made a trip to Oklahoma City to purchase a 25-caliber Colt automatic pistol.
The evening of Nov. 21, a seriously wounded Hamon walked two blocks from the Randol Hotel to the Hardy Sanitarium in downtown Ardmore. The oilman initially claimed that he had accidentally shot himself, and surgery to remove the bullet from his abdomen was believed to have saved his life. Several days later, a telegram from Colon, Panama, where Harding and his entourage were vacationing, came through to Ardmore: “Don’t worry. You will get well and will be Secretary of the Interior if you want it.”
On Nov. 26, however, Hamon suddenly deteriorated and his heart gave out, but not before his deathbed revelation that, in fact, Clara had shot him while they lay in bed at the Randol Hotel. Early on Nov. 29, a telegram from Harding reached Hamon’s wife, Georgia, who had recently returned to Oklahoma to reunite with her estranged husband. The message read: “Greatly grieved over Mr. Hamon’s death. He was a great citizen and a good friend….”
So ended the best-laid schemes of Jake Hamon to join the Harding administration, probably as Secretary of the Interior. Still, even without the conniving Oklahoma oilman, the corrupt Harding administration soon succumbed to oil-industry pressure and bribery to open up federal lands for exploitation, including the now infamous Teapot Dome fields in Wyoming. Congressional inquiries related to the Teapot Dome scandal further revealed Jake Hamon’s corrupt dealings with Harding’s “Ohio Gang” and confirmed his statements to close friends that he was likely to have been appointed Secretary of the Interior. In the midst of the distressing scandal, President Harding suffered a fatal heart attack and U.S. Attorney General Ed Daugherty – who, as Harding’s campaign manager, had schemed so successfully with Hamon – was forced to resign, along with Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall.
As an embarrassment to his home state, Jake Hamon was quickly relegated to Oklahoma’s historical dustheap, where his notoriety soon faded from public light. If not for a .25-caliber bullet fired by his jilted mistress, Hamon’s name might well have gone down in history books instead of that of Albert Fall as the crooked politician behind the disgraceful Teapot Dome scandal.
As in the past, money still plays a large role in our nation’s political elections. But the republic has survived these monetary onslaughts thus far – and probably will after the 2012 presidential campaign.
Author of “Oklahoma Hiking Trails” (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010), Larry C. Floyd teaches U.S. history at Seminole State College and writes frequently for The Chronicles of Oklahoma historical journal.