What the Heck was Teapot Dome, Anyway?

Anne Louise Bannon author photoRelevant History welcomes back Anne Louise Bannon, a historical mystery author and journalist whose journalistic work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Wines and Vines, and in newspapers across the country. She created the Oddball Grape wine blog with her husband, Michael Holland. She also writes the romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody, book one of which is out now. Her novels include the Freddie and Kathy mystery series, set in the 1920s, the Operation Quickline series, and Tyger, Tyger. She and her husband live in Southern California with an assortment of critters. The Last Witnesses officially launches on 28 April, with pre-orders available now. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, subscribe to her newsletter, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.


One of the fun things about writing a mystery set in the 1920s is that there was so much going on, including a raft of scandalous behavior within the administration of President Warren G. Harding. But while we may have heard of Teapot Dome, how many of us actually remember what it was?

Yet, in my most recent novel, The Last Witnesses, which is set in October 1925, much of this was headline news. And since some of the action is tangentially connected to the scandal, my characters do spend some time talking about it. The story still makes sense even if you don’t know about Teapot Dome, but just to bring folks up to date, here it is.

Harding’s administration was possibly the most corrupt of any in American history. His pick to head the Veteran’s Bureau got caught selling medical supplies intended for the military to outside vendors. Harding’s attorney general spent most of the ‘20s under investigation. And that was far from all.

However, the big one, the one everyone associates the most with Harding and the 1920s was Teapot Dome, an oil field in eastern Wyoming, almost directly north of Casper. Back in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the U.S. Navy got the bright idea that it might be a good thing to not drill on certain oil fields on federal land and keep that oil in reserve in case of an emergency. The problem was a whole bunch of oil magnates at the time were salivating all over the place to go drill on the Naval Reserves.

Even then, you couldn’t just go drilling without paying the owners for the oil. So, the oil magnates would pay for leases that would allow them the mineral rights on a given land and then drill. In the case of Teapot Dome, the U.S. Government owned the land, with the Navy in control, and the Navy was not going to let it happen.

But in 1921, Warren Harding gets sworn in as president and appoints his poker buddy Albert Fall as Secretary of the Interior. Shortly after that, Fall talks the Navy into giving the Department of the Interior control over the Reserves at Teapot Dome and by spring of 1922, neighbors are noticing that drilling is going on where it’s not supposed to be. The local senator, John B. Kendrick, initiates an investigation, and over the course of several years, it comes out that oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny had bribed Fall with massive amounts of money, including a $100,000 “loan” from Doheny, well over $1 million in today’s dollars.

Fall might have gotten away with his little scheme—after all, he did have the legal right to lease the land to Doheny and Sinclair, even if he wasn’t supposed to. What did him in was that folks noticed he was living more than a little above his pay grade. He was eventually convicted of taking bribes, but Doheny got off pretty much scot-free and Sinclair served six months for jury tampering.

Harding had the good luck to die in August, 1923, just as this was all starting to go public, and may not have known what Fall was up to, or some of the other nefarious goings on in his administration. Some of those ended up in the book. Like I noted, it’s one of the reasons I find the 1920s such a fun one for murder mysteries.


The Last Witnesses book coverA big thanks to Anne Louise Bannon. She’ll give away a paperback or ebook copy (winner’s choice) of The Last Witnesses to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery for the paperback is available after 28 April and in the U.S. only.


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What the Heck was Teapot Dome, Anyway? — 20 Comments

  1. Those of us living in the present often don’t realize that the mess we seem to be in isn’t necessarily the worst it’s ever been. The current scandals and accusations are the worst we have experienced but bad behavior isn’t new. I love the 20s.

    • When I was writing this, I couldn’t help noticing the parallels between Harding’s cabinet and the current administration’s. It’s a little unnerving, to say the least. From my perspective. Others may disagree.

  2. Fascinating! I had not known exactly what the Teapot Dome scandal was. Or that Harding had such a corrupt administration! Now that I’m out of school (25 years plus), I am more interested in learning than ever before. Historically based books are one way for me to get my fix!

  3. I’ve seen that a lot of administrations have had their problems. It will be interesting to see in about 20 years (if I’m still alive), how history looks at our presidents and their cabinets of the last 20 years.

  4. It is interesting to look at all we have and know now about the scandals and reading about them from the perspective of Frederick Lewis Allen, whose history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, was written in the early 1930s. One of the parts of the contemporary story surrounding Harding’s death claimed that he got sick eating a tin of tainted crab meat. You don’t even hear about it nowadays because it’s since come out that Harding was already sick when he left on the big trip during which he died.

  5. Enjoyed reading the article. I guess I had heard of the Teapot Dome but didn’t understand what it was about.
    I agree, the “Roaring Twenties” was a fascinating era in America’s history.
    Looking forward to reading the book.

    • Don’t feel bad. Most folks didn’t get Teapot Dome. It was a mess and took over eight years to resolve. And, apparently, Fall wasn’t the only bad guy involved.

  6. I like to read about our history from time to time because it is one of the things that gets pushed back in my memory. Your book sounds like one I would enjoy reading.

  7. Thank you for this interesting information. It really got my attention. I know little about this time period in history but my interest is really piqued to order this book. So, I’m on my way to pre-order my copy of The Last Wittnesses and searching out Mrs Bannon’s other selection s. Yep! I’ve got a new author to read about. Thanks.

  8. Hi Anne ! I have just become interested in the 1920’s in the last year or so; previously, I didn’t read much fiction that took place after 1900. I can see now how interesting it is from the political, artistic, fashion, and social aspects. I have always wondered if President Harding was a poor judge of character or just a power seeker with no real world view about how the country should be run or what was in the best interests of the country. After watching the C-SPAN series about the First Ladies,in which Florence Harding was portrayed as the “brains” behind both his business and political career,I had to wonder how much if anything she knew about the scandals and the men that he chose for his Cabinet. She seems to have been the dominant one in the marriage and she spoke out on many national issues.She was described as always being the life of the White House parties. Does Florence play a large role in your book ? Thanks for your response and I look forward to reading the book. I’ll also check out your Freddie and Kathy series.

    After watching the C-SPAN series about America’s First Ladies,
    I began to wonder how Florence allowed Warren to make such poor choices.

    • I didn’t see the C-SPAN series, but I agree that Florence Harding is an interesting character, and definitely the brains behind Warren G. But when you consider she put up with Warren having an affair with her best friend before he ran for president, then put up with him messing around with Nan Britton while in the White House, you have to wonder about that poor judgment thing. She was divorced when she married Harding, which is also interesting.
      As for appearing in The Last Witnesses, well, the book takes place over two years after Harding died, and Florence was dead by then, as well, so she doesn’t play a large role. But you might say she’s there in spirit.

  9. Somehow, I’d always thought the Teapot Dome scandal had something to do with New York. Since I grew up on the West Coast, that may be my West Coast bias coming through.

    • And yet, Doheny was living in Los Angeles at the time, and there’s a street named after him. Another interesting bit of trivia, Doheny (with Sunset Blvd) are the two streets that make up Dead Man’s Curve, of Jan and Dean fame. And, yeah, there is a really nasty curve there.
      I’m sure there was a New Yorker or two involved in the mess, but most of the guilty parties came from Harding’s home state of Ohio, and were called the Ohio Gang.