Grover Cleveland’s Deadly Secret

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By Matthew Algeo

In early June of 1893, President Grover Cleveland—who was born on March 18, 1837—discovered a large tumor on the roof of his mouth. The cancer was progressing quickly. Doctors determined that if the president was to survive, the growth had to be removed. But the procedure was complicated, and Cleveland’s doctors feared that the surgery could trigger a stroke. There was also a 15 percent chance in those days that the president could die under the knife. After weighing his options, Cleveland chose to have the tumor removed, under one condition: The operation had to be conducted in total secrecy. The president feared that Wall Street—already reeling from falling stock prices in the midst of a depression—would panic if news of his illness leaked. Even his vice president, Adlai Stevenson, was to be kept in the dark.

On the morning of June 30, President Cleveland and six of the nation’s finest physicians assembled on board the Oneida, a yacht anchored in New York Harbor. Sitting in a deck chair, the president smoked cigars and chatted amiably with the men as the boat set sail for Long Island Sound. The following morning, the doctors scrambled below deck to prepare for the surgery. In lieu of an operating table, a large chair was bound to the mast in the yacht’s parlor. A single light bulb, connected to a portable battery, would provide all of the light. The doctors boiled their instruments and pulled crisp white aprons over their dark suits. Shortly after noon, the president entered the parlor and took his seat.

Using nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics, the doctors removed the tumor, along with five teeth and much of Cleveland’s upper left palate and jawbone. The procedure lasted 90 minutes. It also took place wholly within the patient’s mouth, so that no external scars would betray the clandestine operation.

On July 5, Cleveland was dropped off at his summer home on Cape Cod. He healed remarkably fast. By the middle of July, he was fitted with a vulcanized rubber prosthesis that plugged the hole in his mouth and restored his normal speaking voice. All the while, the public was told that the president had merely suffered a toothache.

On August 29, The Philadelphia Press published an exposé by Elisha Jay Edwards. The headline read, “The President A Very Sick Man.” Edwards, the paper’s Manhattan correspondent, had been tipped off by a New York doctor who’d heard rumors of the secret surgery. After some additional digging, Edwards located Ferdinand Hasbrouck, the dentist who had administered the anesthesia to Cleveland, and verified the details.

The Philadelphia Press story was remarkably accurate. In fact, it still stands as one of the great scoops in the history of American journalism. But it wasn’t perceived that way by the public. The Cleveland administration categorically denied the charges and launched a smear campaign to discredit and embarrass the reporter. Newspapers denounced Edwards as a “disgrace to journalism” and a “calamity liar.” The tactics were effective. The public sided with Cleveland, who’d built his reputation as the “Honest President.” Meanwhile, Edwards’ career was effectively ruined. For the next 15 years, the veteran reporter could barely find work. In 1909, he landed a job as a columnist for a struggling young newspaper called The Wall Street Journal. But Edwards’ career was still tainted by the allegations that he’d faked the story about Grover Cleveland.

One of the doctors who performed the surgery, W.W. Keen, always regretted how Edwards had been so unjustly maligned. In 1917, a quarter-century after the operation and a decade after Cleveland’s death, Keen finally decided to do something about it. He published a confessional in The Saturday Evening Post, hoping to “vindicate Mr. Edwards’ character as a truthful correspondent.” The admission was successful. The old newspaperman was inundated with congratulatory letters and telegrams, and the outpouring deeply moved him. Edwards even wrote to Keen to thank him for restoring his reputation. 

Executive Disorders

Grover Cleveland was hardly the only president to conceal a major medical crisis from the public. On October 2, 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body and incapacitated him so completely—physically and mentally—that, in the words of one historian, “The president should have resigned immediately.” Instead, the White House physician, Dr. Cary Grayson, announced that President Wilson was merely suffering from “nervous exhaustion.”

Wilson’s successor, Warren Harding, wasn’t exactly the picture of health, either. His heart was so weak that he had to sleep propped up with pillows. If he slept lying down, blood would pool in his lungs, making it difficult for him to breathe. On July 27, 1923, Harding suffered what was almost certainly a heart attack, but his doctor—a homeopath who liked to prescribe pills by color (pink was a favorite)—insisted it was simply food poisoning. Harding died in office six days later.

In the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy concealed the fact that he suffered from a debilitating condition called Addison’s disease during his presidency. And more recently, Ronald Reagan’s staff covered up the fact that the president showed signs of dementia in the White House. Of course, on the order of presidential secrets, it’s difficult to know what’s more disturbing: the cover-ups that go on inside the Oval Office, or the ones that originate in the doctor’s office.