On August 3, 1923, Americans were waking to the news that Warren Harding had died suddenly, late in the evening on August 2, after he became ill in a San Francisco hotel. The Vice-President, Calvin Coolidge, and his wife Grace, were visiting the Coolidge homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where the Vice-President’s father, John, lived.
For about fours hours, the country was without a President, as it took that long for the news to travel from the west coast, where Harding died, to the hills of the small New England town where the Coolidges were staying.
Colonel John Coolidge’s home did not have a telephone. President Harding’s secretary telegraphed the initial message of Harding’s death to White River Junction, Vermont. The public telephone operator who received the message sought out Coolidge’s stenographer, W. A. Perkins, and Joseph N. McInerney, his chauffeur. They alerted a reporter. Much activity ensued in a short amount of time. They went to the Coolidge homestead at about 2:30 a.m. and knocked. Colonel Coolidge answered the door and received the news. He trudged up the stairs to wake his son. The President recounted the night in his autobiography:
I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred.
He placed in my hands an official report and told me that President Harding had just passed away. My wife and I at once dressed.
Before leaving the room I knelt down and, with the same prayer with which I have since approached the altar of the church, asked God to bless the American people and give me power to serve them.
Grace Coolidge went downstairs to join her husband in the parlor. A Bible belonging to Calvin Coolidge’s mother, who died when he was young, was on the table. As her father-in-law, a Windsor County notary, administered the oath of office to her husband by the light of a kerosene lamp in the small (14′ x 17′) parlor, she became the First Lady of the United States.
First-hand accounts vary as to the people in the room when the oath was administered. That is understandable given the haste of the activity, the darkness of the night, and the solemness of the occasion.
On that night, Grace Coolidge, a charter member of the Pi Beta Phi chapter at the University of Vermont, and Calvin Coolidge, a member of the Phi Gamma Delta Chapter at Amherst College, became the first President and First Lady to have been initiated into Greek-letter societies as college students.
If you’re ever near Plymouth Notch, Vermont, you can stop by and see the room where Grace Coolidge became First Lady by the light of a kerosene lamp. Or if you’re near Northampton, Massachusetts, you can stop at the Forbes Library where there is a display of Coolidge memorabilia.