Prelude to a Cover Up
Triumphantly becoming the first former President of the United States to be elected to a second, non-consecutive term of office in 1892, by the time (Stephen) Grover Cleveland was sworn in as the 24th President of the United States, he probably regretted his decision to return to the White House. Between the November election and his inauguration on March 4, 1893, the national economy had began to falter - the start of a four year depression (the Panic of 1893) which would be surpassed only by the Great Depression.
Within three months of resuming office, President Cleveland was feeling a rough spot on the roof of his mouth. Following a few weeks of casually complaining about it to his wife, first lady Frances Cleveland persuaded the President to get it examined by a doctor. Moments into the exam, a diagnosis was made: the President of the United States had oral cancer, the product of being a diligent cigar smoker. The particulars seemed even more dire. The President had squamous cell carcinoma, the precise type of cancer which just a decade earlier had befell former President Ulysses Grant. So Cleveland saw his outlook - and given the economic climate that of the nation - as grim. Figuring he'd need some time to get both personal and government affairs in order, he scheduled the operation for July 1, 1893, a few weeks down the road.
Wishing to avoid public reaction that would further accelerate the economic downturn, Grover Cleveland then decided to do something that was completely contrary to his own past practice and sensibilities: he began orchestrating a conspiracy to keep his cancer, along with the operation and his recovery (presuming he survived it, that is; at the time, the likelihood of surviving any surgery was probably about 5 in 7).
Surgery and Presidential Disability
During the pre-dawn hours of July 1, Dr. Joseph Bryant and a hand-picked team of colleagues boarded the Oneida, a yacht owned by friend Elias Benedict and moored in Long Island, New York. Later in the day, President Cleveland would board the boat, the press being advised that the President - an avid fisherman - would quite literally be "gone fishing" for the next several days, sailing on the Oneida from New York to Cape Cod. Upon setting sail, the medical team went to work, sedating Cleveland with ether and nitrous oxide. Operating through the President's mouth so as to avoid scarring and preserve his trademark mustache, the surgeons removed the tumor together with roughly a third of Cleveland's upper jaw and hard palate, as well as five teeth.
The operation itself took approximately 90 minutes, and over the next five days the Oneida sailed on to Cape Cod, allowing the President to recover and his doctors to monitor his progress and plot the next course of his treatment. There is no question that in modern times, the situation would have constituted a temporary presidential disability that mandated a transfer of executive authority under the 25th Amendment. In this situation however, not only was executive authority not temporarily transferred to Vice President Adlai Stevenson, for reasons unclear Cleveland quite deliberately kept the Vice President in the dark to the same degree as the public. Stevenson, incidentally, was the grandfather of 1952 and 1956 Democratic Party presidential nominee Adlai Ewing Stevenson. But I digress...
The extent of the surgery performed on President Cleveland would leave his mouth somewhat disfigured and facial features swollen, rendering him incapable of clear speech and resulting in an extension of the cover-up through the bulk of the ensuing two months. To placate the press and throw them off the proverbial scent, a report was circulated that the President had had two bad teeth pulled. Meanwhile, a second operation would be performed a few weeks later, during which Cleveland was fitted with a hard rubber dental appliance which restored his appearance and corrected much of his speech impediment. Cleveland would proceed to finish out his second stint as President and live another 11 years beyond that, dying in June 1908 with his cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery never being widely known. Finally, in 1917 Dr. William Keen, one of the surgeons on board the Oneida, revealed the full story in an article for the Saturday Evening Post.
One enterprising reporter, however, got the story early. Elisha J. Edwards of the Philadelphia Press learned of the situation shortly after everything had transpired, and on August 29, 1893 - just as the President's recovery was concluding - the Press published his findings, having confirmed them with one of Cleveland's attending physicians. And having gone so far as to orchestrate the conspiracy in the first place, President Cleveland proceeded to flatly deny the story; friends of the President even went so far as to launch a smear campaign against Edwards. And unlike what would likely happen today? The public believed the President, Edwards was discredited to a point where it hurt him professionally; it had all worked.
Why Did Cleveland's Cover Up Work?
In the present day it's virtually unfathomable to perceive the President of the United States as having a reputation for honesty and unquestioned integrity. But in Grover Cleveland's case, prior to the events of the summer of 1893 he had amassed enormous personal esteem and political capital by conducting himself completely above board at all times, and in all environments.
An example of this occurred during his first presidential campaign, when on July 21, 1884 the Buffalo Evening Telegraph revealed that a lady named Maria Halpin claimed Cleveland to be the father of her illegitimate ten year old son. With nothing less than the White House on the line Cleveland, to that time a bachelor, told campaign subordinates to "above all, tell the truth." The presidential candidate then admitted not paternity, but that he and Halpin had a relationship, and that he had paid Halpin child support over a two year period from 1874 to 1876.
The story, initially leaked to the Evening Telegraph by Republican operatives in the Democratic candidate's home town, would ripple over the nation like a shockwave. But oddly, the move backfired in a way no one had forseen. Rather than see the Democratic Party's nominee for President as a womanizing
Further investigation by the Evening Telegraph of Ms. Halpin's story likely would have revealed that in addition to Cleveland she had been something of a slut by 1870's standards, was definitely an alcoholic, that she claimed paternity at least in part in an effort to persuade Cleveland to marry her; and that she had targeted Cleveland primarily because all the other men she had been having sex with were married, and she didn't wish to be a homewrecker. She sounded like a real peach, didn't she?