Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Grover Cleveland: How the President's cancer surgery was covered up

If U.S. President Barack Obama had cancer surgery, you can be sure that the press would be in hot pursuit of every detail.  Facebook and Twitter would be flooded with rumours and speculation.  It would be impossible to conceal such surgery from both the press and the social media.  In 1893, however, when Grover Cleveland was president, the situation was entirely different. 

At 56, years old, Grover Cleveland was not exactly a poster boy for healthy living.  He was quite overweight.  In fact, he was so rotund that some of his nieces and nephews took to calling him "Uncle Jumbo."  Cleveland often indulged in unhealthy habits.   The President frequently smoked cigars which he inhaled deeply.  He also had a fondness for beer.  He had what can only be described as a beer belly.  Where his health was concerned, something had to give - and it did!

On June 13, 1893, Cleveland noticed a "rough place" on the room of his mouth.  It was diagnosed as cancer.  On July 1, surgery was performed to remove the cancerous lesion from his left upper jaw.  The operation took place aboard a private yacht, the Oneida, as it sailed up Long Island Sound to the President's summer home in Massachusetts.  Dr. Joseph D. Byrant of New York performed the surgery.  He was assisted by Dr. W.W. Keen of Philadelphia, three other doctors and a dentist. 

On July 17, another less risky procedure was performed aboard the yacht.  Additional tissue was removed and a vulcanized rubber plate was put in place to restore the President's speaking voice and his appearance.  The size of the tumour and the extent of the initial surgery had disfigured Cleveland's mouth and impaired his speech.

At President Cleveland's insistence, the truth was hidden from his Cabinet, the press and the public.  Even the First Lady, Cleveland's popular wife, Frances, lied to the press about his whereabouts.  The White House press aide also took part in the deception.  Reporters accepted the falsehoods and were led to believe that the President had disappeared to have dental work.  In 2011, it seems difficult to believe that the media were ever so gullible.  We are definitely living in a more skeptical times.

The reason for Grover Cleveland's deceit was the financial state of the country.  The American economy was in recession and  Cleveland did not want to cause further panic in the markets.  The President, his doctors and his advisors feared that his illness would exacerbate the economic crisis.

In spite of the President's efforts to prevent publicity, the Philadelphia Press broke the story on August 29, 1893.  The White House and Cleveland's family and friends strongly denied the newspaper's report.  The official line was that the President had had a tooth extracted.

The Philadelphia Press reporter who wrote the story was E.J. Edwards.  Another newspaperman, Alexander McClure of the Philadelphia Times, reviled Edwards and vilified him as a liar.  McClure painted a picture of Edwards as a journalist who had treated the President unfairly and without respect.  Although the criticism hurt Edwards, he courageously stood by his story.

Grover Cleveland left the White House on March 4, 1897 and retired to Westland Mansion, his estate in Princeton, New Jersey.  He died of heart failure in Princeton on June 24, 1908.  He was 71 years at the time of his death.  The truth about his oral cancer was not disclosed to Americans for several more years.

In 1917, with the permission of the Cleveland family, an article detailing the operation appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.  Dr. W.W. Keen, who had assisted with the surgery 25 years beforehand, authored the article.  It was a clear account of what had occurred on that yacht back in 1893.  Journalist E.J. Edwards lived to see himself vindicated.  He died in 1924 with his reputation restored and his integrity intact.

A book has been written about Grover Cleveland's secret surgery and how he deceived the public. press.  It is titled The President is a Sick Man and was written by historian and radio journalist Matthew Algeo.


Grover Cleveland's full name was Stephen Grover Cleveland.  He decided to drop the "Stephen" and go by his second name.

Woodrow Wilson's birth name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson.  He was called "Tommy" until he graduated from Princeton University.

Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States, was born John Calvin Coolidge, Jr.

- Joanne