Edwin Denby, U.S. Sec'y of the Navy

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Edwin Denby

Also Known As: ""Ned""
Birthplace: Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana, United States
Death: February 08, 1929 (58)
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, United States
Place of Burial: Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Colonel Charles Denby (USA) and Martha Denby
Husband of Marion Bartlett Thurber and Marion Bartlett Denby
Father of Lt. Edwin Denby, Jr and Marian Wetmore
Brother of Graham Fitch Denby; Charles Harvey Denby, Jr.; Harriet Ethel Wilkes; Wythe Denby and Thomas Garvin Denby

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About Edwin Denby, U.S. Sec'y of the Navy


Edwin Denby (February 18, 1870 – February 8, 1929) was an American lawyer and politician who served as Secretary of the Navy in the administrations of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge from 1921 to 1924. He also played a notable role in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal which took place during the Harding presidency. He was the son of Charles Harvey Denby, grandson of Graham N. Fitch and brother of Charles Denby, Jr..

Early life

Denby was born in Evansville, Indiana, where he attended the public schools. In 1885, his father, Charles Harvey Denby, was appointed United States minister at Peking, China, by President Grover Cleveland, and Edwin accompanied him. He worked in the maritime customs service from 1887 to 1894. He then returned to the United States and graduated from law school at the University of Michigan in 1896. While attending the University of Michigan, Denby played on the 1895 Michigan Wolverines football team. He was subsequently admitted to the bar and began practicing as a lawyer in Detroit.

Political and military career

He was a member of the Michigan House of Representatives in 1903. In 1904, Denby was elected as a Republican from Michigan's 1st congressional district to the 59th, 60th and 61st Congresses, serving from March 4, 1905, to March 3, 1911. Denby served as chairman of the United States House Committee on Naval Affairs.

He was defeated in 1910 general election by Democrat Frank E. Doremus and resumed his law practice in Detroit. He served as president of the Detroit Board of Commerce in 1916, and in 1917 enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps when the U.S. entered World War I. He was discharged in 1919 with the rank of major.

When Warren G. Harding became President in March 1921, he appointed Denby Secretary of the Navy. During the crisis of mail robberies in 1921, Denby issued orders that Marines should be put in mail trucks and rail cars as protectors of the U.S. Mails. In his stirring order "To the Men of the Mail Guard", Denby impressed upon his former service the importance of the high duty entrusted to them: "If two Marines are covered by a robber, neither must put up his hands, but both must immediately go for their guns. One may die, but the other will get the robber, and the mail will get through. When our Corps goes in as guards over the mail, that mail must be delivered, or there must be a Marine dead at the post of duty. There can be no compromise..." Within days, the robberies stopped, and there was not a single delivery of the mails disrupted while Marines stood the watch.

Teapot Dome scandal

Shortly afterwards, Denby got Harding's approval to transfer control of the naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, from the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Interior, headed by Albert B. Fall. Fall proceeded to lease these oil fields to friends who were heads of oil companies in exchange for over $400,000 in loans. Despite attempts to keep the deal secret, the Wall Street Journal leaked news of the leasing, and the Senate decided to launch an inquiry into the matter.

The investigation began in October 1923 after Harding's death, and the Senate Committee on Lands and Public Surveys, which carried out the inquiry, concluded in 1924 that the Teapot Dome and Elk Hills leases to the oil companies had been fraudulent and corrupt. Both Denby and Fall were forced to resign from office as a result; however, it is apparent that President Harding did not have a role in the wrongdoing.


Following his resignation, Denby went back to practicing law in Detroit, where he died several weeks before his 59th birthday. Detroit's Edwin C. Denby High School is named in his honor, as is the Denby Center for Children and Family Services, which the Salvation Army opened in Detroit in 1930 to provide housing and treatment for abused and neglected children.

DENBY, Edwin, (grandson of Graham Newell Fitch), a Representative from Michigan; born in Evansville, Vanderburg County, Ind., February 18, 1870; attended the public schools; went to China in 1885 with his father, who was United States Minister; employed in the Chinese imperial maritime customs service 1887-1894; returned to the United States in 1894; was graduated from the law department of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1896; was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Detroit in 1896; during the war with Spain served as a gunner’s mate, third class, United States Navy, on the Yosemite; member of the State house of representatives in 1903; elected as a Republican to the Fifty-ninth, Sixtieth, and Sixty-first Congresses (March 4, 1905-March 3, 1911); unsuccessful candidate for reelection in 1910 to the Sixty-second Congress; resumed the practice of law in Detroit; also engaged in banking and various other business enterprises; president of the Detroit Charter Commission in 1913 and 1914; president of the Detroit Board of Commerce in 1916 and 1917; enlisted as a private in the United States Marine Corps in 1917; retired as major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve in 1919; appointed chief probation officer in the recorder’s court of the city of Detroit and in the circuit court of Wayne County in 1920; appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Harding and served from March 4, 1921, until March 10, 1924, when he resigned in the aftermath of the Teapot Dome scandal; again resumed the practice of law and various business enterprises; died in Detroit, Mich., February 8, 1929; interment in Elmwood Cemetery.

From Time Magazine, February 18, 1929:

Died. Edwin Denby, 58, of Detroit, Mich., onetime Secretary of the Navy (1921-24); of heart disease; in Detroit. Mr. Denby was born in Evansville, Ind. As a boy he went to the Orient with his father, Charles Denby, onetime U. S. Minister to China. There he worked with the Chinese Customs Service. Returning to the U. S., he became a famed University of Michigan footballer, practiced law in Detroit, served in the Navy during the Spanish-American War, became U. S. Representative from Michigan, entered the automobile business (Denby trucks). He enlisted as a Marine private in the World War, saying: "Someone must enlist in the ranks. We can't all be officers." He became, however, a Major. As Secretary of the Navy he was implicated by rumor in the Fall-Doheny oil scandal. In 1924 the Senate passed a resolution that the President "immediately request the resignation" of Mr. Denby. This President Coolidge refused to do, but Mr. Denby resigned a week later. No evidence was ever found against him. The Supreme Court held that "he took no active part in the negotiations and that Fall, acting collusively with Doheny, dominated the making of the contracts and leases."

Picture No. 2, of a house, has the following caption: "This Arts and Crafts home has more than a bit of history attached to it. One former resident, Edwin Denby, was a politician and an auto industry executive. Denby served as a congressman and Secretary of the Navy. He was also the treasurer of the Hupp Motor Car Company. In addition, he has a Detroit high school named after him."

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Edwin Denby, U.S. Sec'y of the Navy's Timeline

February 18, 1870
Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana, United States
May 31, 1912
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, United States
February 8, 1929
Age 58
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, United States
Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan, United States