A President’s Secret Operation: How Grover Cleveland Hid His Cancer Surgery

Today, in the era of 24-hour news services and round the clock coverage, the US President lives constantly in the camera light. But in the 1890’s something happened that would be utterly impossible today: the President of the United States was diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition, he disappeared completely for several weeks while undergoing life-saving surgery–and it was all kept entirely secret for almost 25 years.

President Grover Cleveland                                             Photo from Wikicommons

On May 5, 1893, Grover Cleveland was sworn in as President of the United States. It was his second term of office, but Cleveland was unique in being the only US President to serve non-consecutive terms: he had been elected in 1884, but lost re-election in 1888 to now-President Benjamin Harrison (Cleveland had won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College), before once again winning election in 1892. During his first term, he had also become the only US President to be married in the White House, causing a bit of a scandal when he wedded the 21-year old Frances Folsom–less than half his age.

It was not a good time to be re-elected. The country was in the middle of a recession (known in those days as a “Financial Panic”). There was widespread unemployment. Hundreds of businesses had shuttered their doors: over a hundred railroads, the core of the American economy, had closed down, and even the Reading Railroad, one of the biggest corporations in the US at the time, had gone bankrupt.

That night, as he settled into the White House for the second time, Cleveland noticed something odd–a rough patch on the left side of the roof of his mouth. Over the next four weeks, whatever it was seemed to get bigger and bigger, and by the middle of June the President was worried about it.

He had reason to worry. At age 56, his health was not good; he had gout, and he weighed over 250 pounds, the product of too much beer, too much food, and too many cigars. In fact, the growth in the roof of his mouth was located right where he liked to chew his cigars.

The doctors examined him and came to the conclusion that none of them had wanted to reach: the President had a cancerous tumor, and it was growing rapidly. If he did not have surgery to remove it immediately, he would soon die. And, given the state of medical practice at the time, there was at least a 15% chance that the surgery itself would kill him. (Ether was the only anesthetic available at the time, and it was risky to use.)

Ever the politician, Cleveland weighed the circumstances. If it became known that the newly-elected President had cancer and might die, it could trigger a financial reaction in Wall Street that would deepen the economic crisis even further. It might produce a political crisis over his fitness to continue in office even if the surgery were successful.

So Cleveland informed his doctors that they could do the surgery only under condition that it be absolutely secret, not only from the public, but from all the other members of government. That included Congress, and the Vice President Adlai Stevenson.

It was an audacious demand. There were no TV news networks at the time, but it was still an enormous difficulty for the President of the United States to disappear for the several days it would require for the surgery and recovery. There would be lots of questions, from the press and from the rest of the government, that the President did not want to be answered.

So, with a small circle of trusted friends, Cleveland came up with what he hoped was a plausible cover story: he announced that he would be taking a fishing trip for a few days, from New York to Cape Cod, on a yacht, the Oneida, that belonged to one of his friends.

On July 1, six surgeons, headed by Dr Joseph Bryant, met him on board the yacht. As the boat pitched and tossed on the waves, and under the light from a single battery-powered electric bulb, they placed the President under ether and spent the next 90 minutes extracting a tumor about the size of a golf ball, removing in the process five teeth and the entire left side of the roof of his mouth. All of the work had to be done through the President’s mouth to avoid leaving any suspicious scars on his face (fortunately, Cleveland’s bushy mustache helped hide all the bruising from the operation).

Because the surgery was so extensive, it left a large gap in his upper jaw that prevented him from speaking. To hide that fact, Cleveland stayed at his house in Cape Cod and carefully avoided all public appearances for the next three weeks. When he had healed sufficiently, the doctors returned to see him again. It was explained to the press that the President had a toothache and was just having a tooth pulled. In reality, the doctors were removing the last bits of the tumor and making a rubber plug to fit into the gaping hole in the roof of his mouth, as well as a removable set of artificial teeth that fit into the gap of his jaw to give his face a natural appearance and allow him to once again speak normally. Finally, four weeks after the surgery, President Cleveland was able to return to Washington again. No one was the wiser.

Well, almost no one …. Somebody on the medical team had given at least part of the story to a newspaper reporter, Elijah Jay Edwards of the Philadelphia Press. He was able to piece together the rest, and Edwards’ story ran on the front page of the August 29 edition, describing the whole incident in almost compete detail.

But nobody believed it. The White House vigorously denied the story, and painted Edwards as a fear-monger who had made the whole thing up: Edwards was condemned publicly as a “liar” and “a disgrace to journalism”. In those days, the idea that the President would knowingly lie to the public was unthinkable, so everyone took Cleveland’s word for it over the newspaper’s. (And of course in those days “yellow journalism” was indeed rampant and it was not unusual for newspapers to make up sensational fabricated or slanted stories to boost circulation.) Edwards was fired.

President Cleveland lived for another 15 years after his cancer surgery, and the cancer never returned. He died of a heart attack at age 71. But in 1917, 10 years after the former President died, one of the doctors who had performed the surgery on him, Dr William W Keen, wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post at last revealing the whole story. He had, he said, always felt guilty about the way Edwards had been treated and wanted to “vindicate Mr Edwards’ character as an honest correspondent”.

Keen, it turned out, had kept the tumor all those years, and now donated it to the Philadelphia College of Physicians. Today, the jar containing President Cleveland’s secret tumor is on display at the Mutter Museum at the College.


One thought on “A President’s Secret Operation: How Grover Cleveland Hid His Cancer Surgery”

  1. “I did not have surgical relations with that doctor…” 🙂

    Remarkable what kind of things they had to cover up in those days, compared to the tuff they NOW keep under wraps. 🙂

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