William Howard Taft: Studying Another Man's Urine

Odds & Ends
There were two instances in which, as President, Taft was called upon to make a medical judgment. Had he disagreed with his medical advisors in both cases, he would have been right 100% of the time. As it was, his average was only 50%.

  • Taft at Ellis Island, October 1910 MORE

  • Taft and the 1912 pardon of Charles W. Morse, who "deserves a prominent place in the crowded gallery of American rogues." SEE BELOW
The story of Charles W. Morse's pardon is not simple and short. But it is highly entertaining and very interesting.

The following account is from Henry Pringle's definitive biography of Taft 1a:


On the other hand, there was Charles W. Morse. On the other hand, too, President Taft surrendered to the rapacity of the Grand Army veterans and permitted the payment of higher pensions. A third count on the debit side was his decision to scrap the Hay-Pauncefote treaty and exempt American coastwise vessels from Panama Canal tolls.

"There is no subject upon which I am more obdurate," the President wrote sternly in January, 1910, "than upon the necessity for wealthy criminals serving their sentence, and it must be a case of rare exception in which the executive clemency will be exercised under such conditions."

Taft held forth on this theme quite frequently. When he had been in the White House for eighteen months he observed that he had "sought in every way to avoid interfering with the administration of justice by yielding to maudlin sentimentality." It was "discouraging" to learn that prominent people were all too willing to sign petitions for clemency.

"You needn't be afraid," he promised Brother Horace, "that pardons will be granted too readily in this administration."

The President reckoned, however, without knowing that a convict named Morse was, apparently, a consummate actor. He did not take into consideration the cunning of Harry M. Daugherty. He did not fully realize how easily misled the medical profession could be. In a lecture at Yale in 1914 the President looked back ruefully on this incident of the presidential years; he was describing the various powers of the President:

Another ... is the power of pardons and reprieves. This is not to be determined by rules of law or, indeed, by absolute rules of [start page 627] any kind and must, therefore, be wielded skillfully lest it destroy the supremacy of law. Sometimes one is deceived. I was. Two men were brought before me, both of whom were represented as dying. When a convict is near his end, it has been the custom to send him home to die. So, after having all the surgeons in the War Department examine them to see that the statements made to me about them were correct, I exercised the pardoning power in their favor. Well, one of them kept his contract and died, but the other seems to be one of the healthiest men in the community today.'
The other was destined, indeed, to remain so healthy that he would survive Taft, himself, by almost three years. Charles W. Morse deserves a prominent place in the crowded gallery of American rogues. He was an unattractive individual, chunky in build and distinguished in appearance only because of his eyes, which were shrewd and masterful. He was in his early fifties when, at last, the law which he had long taken lightly dispatched him to the penitentiary. But he came of sound enough stock. He was born at Bath, Maine, and his father was prosperous. After the son was graduated from Bowdoin College in 1877 he organized a shipping company with his father.

Morse had talent in business. The opportunities in New England did not satisfy him and he went to New York in 1897. Tammany had just returned to power. Morse was quick to appreciate the profits which lay in the alliance between corrupt politics and corrupt business. He formed the Consolidated Ice Company and merged it, before long, with the American Ice Company at a generously watered capitalization of $60,000,000. On May 1, 1900, his company sharply increased the price of ice. This was a mistake; the resulting public outcry brought about an investigation which disclosed that Morse had obtained important docking privileges from Tammany Hall. It also revealed that Mayor Robert Van Wyck and Richard Croker, the boss of Tammany Hall, held American Ice Company stock. So Morse retired from the ice business, with estimated profits of $12,000,000.

He changed his title of "Ice King" for that of "Admiral of the Atlantic Coast"; that is, he went into shipping. Within six years he [start page 628] had a virtual monopoly of coastwise shipping from Bangor to Galveston. This was high finance. Morse also entered the banking field, in collaboration with F. Augustus Heinze who became president of the Mercantile National Bank. The two birds of prey got their talons on almost a dozen other New York banks. Their next step was to organize a copper pool which, like all such pools, was amazingly profitable until it broke and constituted a leading cause of the 1907 panic which so greatly alarmed President Roosevelt. J. P. Morgan & Company, with the consent of the President and Secretary of the Treasury George B. Cortelyou, took charge of the financial crisis. It was arranged that $25,000,000 in government funds would be deposited in the distressed banks. These were used, Mr. Cortelyou later testified, for the "relief of the community generally." He admitted he did not know how much had gone to equally distressed stock exchange houses.

At the request of more conservative financiers, Morse and Heinze retired from banking during the panic. When it was over, Morse was to an extent, the scapegoat. United States Attorney Stimson presented evidence against him to the Grand Jury. He was indicted for misappropriating funds of the Bank of North America, a Heinze-Morse institution. He was convicted and sentenced, on November 15, 1908, to fifteen years in federal prison. On January 2, 1910, he was taken to Atlanta.

Morse considered himself grievously wronged. The sentence was the "most brutal ... ever pronounced against a citizen in a civilized country," he said. "There is no one in Wall Street," he added with possible truth, "who is not doing daily as I have done." The others, he neglected to mention, had thus far evaded detection. But it is doubtful that had they, too, gone to jail, they would have been remotely as successful as Morse in cutting short the brutal sentence of the court.


Morse had been languishing in the federal penitentiary for a scant twelve months when the drive for his freedom began. Senator [start page 629] Hale of Maine called at the White House to present an appeal from Mrs. Morse. Taft directed Attorney General Wickersham to see Hale and to learn the facts. No action was taken by the President, however. He was to make it quite clear that he regarded the fifteen-year sentence fair.

The President knew Morse, if at all, very slightly. As secretary of war, in January, 1907, he had given him a letter of introduction to Chief Engineer Stevens of the Isthmian Canal Commission. Morse was planning to visit Panama in connection with an extension of his steamship lines and the secretary of war merely commended "Mr. Morse and his associates to your courteous attention." By 1911, though, Morse's name was to be all too familiar. James M. Beck, the noted authority on conservative constitutional law, was among the many who recommended a pardon. Augustin Van Wyck, a brother of the Tammany Hall mayor who had profited from Morse ice stock, was another. But the President was deaf to their pleas. In May, 1911, he denied a pardon, but said that the application could be renewed after January 1, 1913.

Meanwhile forces of which Taft was innocently unaware were at work. Their manipulator was Daugherty of Ohio. He told Secretary Hilles on July 28, 1911 -- the date is important -- that he wished to interview Morse regarding certain litigation he had undertaken on behalf of the prisoner. Wickersham appeared unwilling to allow this. Could the President's secretary, Daugherty asked, use his influence? The telegram said nothing at all about releasing Morse. It later appeared that Daugherty, who was associated with T. B. Felder of Atlanta in the supposed litigation, desired to interview the convict without a guard being present. But Wickersham was adamant. This was against the rules. He saw no reason why permission should be granted.

In effect, if not actually, Daugherty and Felder ignored the Department of Justice ruling. The first hint that the Ohio politician had any interest in Morse's release reached Washington at the end of August, 1911. He painted a harrowing picture of the prisoner's condition in a letter to Hilles. Morse, he said, would not live [start page 630] eighteen months in prison. His life was wasting away with increasing rapidity, day by day. Specifically, he suffered from Bright's disease. His right side was paralyzed and was "shriveling" at a fast rate. Daugherty repeated that it had not been his original intention to take up the "criminal side of Morse's case." His interest had been merely the settlement of important civil matters in which "highclass people" were involved and would lose fortunes unless action was prompt. But now, having been informed of Morse's illness, he wished to present the facts to the President.

"Please congratulate the President upon his speech and position and upon the general approval of the public," was an oily postscript to the letter.

Daugherty continued to be very active on the criminal side of the situation. He saw Mr. Stimson, now secretary of war, and the other attorneys who had prosecuted Morse. He presented a report by Dr. A. L. Fowler of Atlanta, "one of the most eminent physicians in this part of the country," testifying to Morse's acute illness.

A crisis was approaching by the close of 1911. Among all the absurdities of the American system there have been few more profound than this case in which a president was forced to pass on the probable life span of a convicted felon. By now, Wickersham had fallen a victim to the plot. On November 22 he sent to Taft a report from the penitentiary physician who found, after consultation with Dr. Fowler, that Morse's pulse was abnormally high, that

his lower eyelids are chronically swollen his urine is markedly hematuric bloody, and the quantity for the last twenty-four hours amounts to only twelve ounces and which normally should be fifty ounces; microscopic examination of his urine discloses red blood cells, granular casts and blood casts; diagnosis that of Bright's disease; patient is surely and rapidly losing ground and there can be no doubt but that his time is now drawing to a close and that liberation only will prolong his life and even that not for a long period.
"I think what these gentlemen say can be accepted as reliable," the attorney general pointed out.

[start page 631] On the same day, Daugherty telegraphed Hilles that Morse might not live an additional twenty-four hours." A president of the United States, it might be assumed, is too busy or too important an official to deal with the kidney excretions of even the most influential convict. But Taft had to take them under advisement. He ordered Morse removed to the post hospital at Fort McPherson, Georgia, for observation. A White House memorandum pointed out that he could be cared for as well there as anywhere. He could even engage private physicians, but he would, technically, remain in custody. This, however, was by no means enough for Daugherty and his associate, Felder. This was not what they had contracted with Morse to accomplish. The details were not made public until a decade had passed.

Appeals to the White House continued during November and December, 1911. C. W. Barron of the Wall Street Journal told Taft he had talked with Stimson on the case, that Stimson agreed that the sentence had been too severe. Barron was confident that Morse had never been touched by moral turpitude. He hoped that the President would grant an interview at which further facts on behalf of leniency could be laid before him. Daugherty kept appealing to Secretary Hilles. He hoped, he said, that the President did not suppose he had been employed on Morse's behalf because of their friendship. It had come through Felder.

"I do not now want to influence the President in the least," he insisted. "I want him to know that I am not in the case because I am known to be an acquaintance and friend of his. ... I am satisfied that the President's purpose in the Morse matter is to do the humane thing. ... He will never be well; he is liable to die any day, and yet he may live a short time if he were released. ... I hope the President will pardon him soon in order that he may have a little while before he dies to work for others as well as himself."

Such a letter could hardly fail to move a warmhearted and truly humane president. Taft instructed examination of Morse by army surgeons. "Let me know as soon as it comes," he scrawled on the message which told him that their report would soon be [start page 632] made. This was a first examination. It resulted in a prediction that further imprisonment would probably shorten Morse's life and on this, alone, the President was not willing to act. He told the attorney general:

I do not find his condition such as to require the exercise of executive clemency. ... The considerations that ought to govern the Executive in ordering the release of a prisoner ... who is suffering from illness likely to result in death are difficult to state. Generally, the Executive is moved to avoid for any prisoner a death in custody in order that the last hours of his life may ... have some pleasure in them. But there is no rule that requires the Executive to release one because he has an incurable disease, which, at some indefinite time, is likely to result in death, or which may be affected prejudicially by continued imprisonment ... If it were to be certified to me that the prisoner here would certainly die in two weeks, I would release him.
So Morse, the President instructed, was to be detained at the army hospital and his condition reported to the White House from month to month. Taft's position would have been stronger, in the end, had he held to this demand for certification that Morse could not live more than two weeks. The evidence is not clear -- no mention of it is in his letters -- but there are indications that he did not depend entirely on the opinion of the army medical men in his final decision to set Morse free. It is established, for instance, that John McLean, owner of the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Washington Post, used his friendship as the basis of an appeal to the President. But there is, of course, no hint whatever of corruption on Taft's part.

The army reports were alarming enough. A special board examined the prisoner at Fort McPherson late in December and stated that his death could be expected unless he was pardoned; it mentioned no time limit, however, and denied any "Immediate danger." The most lurid predictions came from Major David Baker the post surgeon at the fort. On January 2, 1912 he said that "further imprisonment will be injurious if not speedily fatal." Four [start page 633] days later, Dr. Baker said that Morse's condition was "very grave." On January 11, he reported no improvement.

Maudlin public sentiment was beginning to swing toward Morse. From the president of the Board of Trade at Bath, Maine, came an impertinent appeal for the home-town boy who had made good in New York:

The time seems to be rapidly approaching when death will end the confinement of Charles W. Morse, no other means appearing to be effective. Will you assure his relatives and townsmen that his remains will be delivered to them and not retained by the government upon the happening of that event? We respectfully request a reply . . . in order that the press may have it for publication with this message."
The President did not reply, of course. He hesitated a week after even Wickersham had expressed concern that Morse would die. The pardon was granted on January 18, with a public explanation that Morse's illness was "incurable and progressive." Taft said that Morse had suffered a heart attack three days earlier and that this was an "ominous occurrence."

"In my opinion," he concluded, "the prisoner's duration of life will in all probability be less than one month if kept in confinement, and in the event of his release . . . it is not probable that he will live as long as six months."

That same day came a message of appreciation from the Bath Merchants Association which assured the President that his action had been enthusiastically received in "Morse's home town." The New York Commercial also praised the pardon. Before long, however, a disquieting flood of protests began to reach Washington. A typical one was from August Ganzenmuller of Sea Cliff, Long Island, who must otherwise remain unidentified. Mr. Ganzenmuller told Taft he had encouraged the "growth of . . . contempt of the law by your act." He demanded to know whether Morse, if "plain John Smith, unknown, of modest means, without power and influence" [start page 634] would not "have died, as he should have died, in prison, and as a convict."

If Morse had not employed Harry Daugherty he would probably have remained in Atlanta, although it is doubtful that he would have died there. He went abroad immediately after his release. He returned in the early summer and by fall newspaper headlines told of a new $1,000,000 steamship company which he had formed and of the rugged health he appeared to be enjoying. A year later, having retired from the White House, Taft remarked in a lecture that Morse was apparently "in excellent health and seeking to reestablish himself in the world in which he committed a penitentiary offense."

"This shakes one's faith in expert examinations," said the former President sadly."


Taft did not yet know all the facts behind Morse's release. Some of them will never be known and the accuracy of others may be questioned. Few of them would have become public at all had it not been that Morse, very foolishly, refused to meet his obligations to Daugherty and Felder. Morse prospered, in his fashion, in the decade after his release. By 1915 he controlled a Hudson River steamship line and was sued for unfair competition. As American entry into the war drew near he entered the ship-construction field and obtained contracts for thirty-six vessels from the United States Shipping Company. In 1922 he was indicted for fraud and acquitted. In l922, by one of those strange turns of fate, Harry Daugherty was attorney general of the United States and in charge of the prosecution of war frauds.

Daugherty had his enemies and an effective one was Senator T. H. Caraway, a Democrat of Arkansas. Mr. Caraway thought that Daugherty was not a fit person to bring war profiteers to justice. On May 2, 1922, he declared in the Senate that his activities as an attorney had consisted of getting criminals out of jail. In obtaining [start page 635] a release for Morse, for instance, he was paid $30,000. Senator James Watson of Indiana interrupted Caraway to deny that this was true. How did he know it? Why, it was a slanderous falsehood -- from statements made to him by Attorney General Daugherty himself.

Not quite three weeks later, Senator Caraway spoke again. This time he read into the record a contract between Morse and Felder, the Atlanta attorney. This engaged the services of Felder and Daugherty for "civil and criminal matters"; it was dated August 4, 1911, a few days after the time when Daugherty was asking for permission to see Morse without the embarrassing presence of a prison guard. A retainer of $5,000 was paid on execution of the document.

"We are to receive in the event that we secure an unconditional pardon or commutation for you," it continued, "the sum Of $25,000."

The attorney general, seen by the correspondents that night, had nothing to say. T. B. Felder, interviewed in New York, could see nothing improper in the agreement. Two days later, Caraway offered additional fascinating details. He read into the record a letter from Felder to Leon 0. Bailey, a New York attorney. This was dated August 12, 1917, and it was a request that Bailey attempt to collect the $25,000 which Morse had promised but had not paid. Felder described at length the clever work done by Daugherty and himself. He told Bailey that Daugherty had been brought into the case because he "stood as close to the President as any other lawyer." The supposed intimacy had proved disappointing, however. The President would not release Morse, even for Daugherty, and the pair had carried their bad news to the ex-financier's cell. He then promised $100,000 for a pardon.

"Gentlemen," Morse promised, "I will make you both rich if you get me out of here."

Felder, in his letter to Bailey, then recalled noticing that Morse seemed in bad health. He consulted Dr. Fowler, who had been prison physician when Morse was admitted, and was gratified to learn that his charts disclosed "incipient Bright's disease." Felder said that "with this cue" he redoubled his activities with Daugherty [start page 636] and the final result was the pardon on January 18, 1912. When they attempted to collect their fee, however, Morse told them he was penniless. He sailed for Europe.

Daugherty, said Felder in his account to Bailey, was greatly annoyed. He was annoyed, himself. But they had hesitated to bring suit against Morse because of the danger that the attorney general's office, now ruled by the Democratic party, might revoke the pardon.

"We were informed," he told Bailey, "that the department [Department of Justice] was in the possession of evidence going to show that after physicians were appointed to examine Morse and before they appeared on the scene, that soapsuds or chemicals or something would be taken by him to produce a hemorrhage of the kidneys, and as soon as the examination was over, the patient would recuperate rapidly."

Felder hastened to assure Bailey that neither he nor Daugherty had any knowledge of such deceit upon the medical men. But Senator Caraway, after reading it to his senatorial colleagues, pointed to a clause in the contract with Morse whereby the prisoner agreed to give "full control" of his case to the two lawyers and "accept implicitly" their "counsel and advice." Would such sweeping obedience have been promised, the senator asked, unless evil practices were being planned? He demanded the resignation of Daugherty as attorney general.

Daugherty did not resign. Next day he issued a statement which said nothing about the soapsuds plot, nor did it deny the main counts in Caraway's indictment. He did, however, exhibit letters from Wickersham and Taft dated November 17, 1915. They constitute, perhaps, the most serious reflection on those two gentlemen. But politics was involved. In 1915 Daugherty was a candidate for senator from Ohio. Wickersham said that his conduct in the Morse case had been "perfectly straightforward. ... I do not recall any special insistence on your part in the matter." Taft said that "in no way did you influence me in respect to the pardon. ... My recollection is that you told me you were counsel for Morse, but that you had declined to present the matter to me." The endorsements by Taft and Wickersham had been written in response to [start page 637] appeals from Daugherty. "General Wickersham," he told Taft, "knows that I never deceived him about anything."

All in all, it is a shabby story which reflects credit on no one. The weight of evidence indicates that the medical men were stupid rather than misled by a chemical diet on Morse's part. There is this, at least, to be said for the issue of the pardon. The Circuit Court of Appeals had reversed Morse's conviction on all but three of the fifteen counts and this, in pure justice, would have brought a sentence of only five years. No parole system then existed. Taft had no authority to reduce the sentence; Morse could receive freedom or nothing. Mr. Wickersham, looking back on the case in later years, said it was clear that they had trusted the army surgeons too completely.

[Postscript: Now, some 90 years later, "Bright's disease" is no longer recognized as a true medical entity.]
Cited Sources
  1. Pringle, Henry F. The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1939.
    a  pp.626-637

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