Grover Cleveland Was Twice Elected President – But He Hid A Dangerous Secret While In Office

Forty-five Presidents have led America, but Grover Cleveland stands as the only one who has served two non-consecutive terms. That tends to be the headlining detail about the former leader, his time serving as first the 22nd and then the 24th President. And perhaps that’s because he kept a huge, deadly secret all to himself.

Of course, a few other details about Cleveland make him noteworthy to historians and history buffs alike. For one thing, he zoomed into the White House after a mere three years in state and local politics. His 1881 mayorship in Buffalo, New York, opened the door to the state’s governorship in 1883 and then the presidency in 1885.

When Cleveland became president, he didn’t have a wife to move with him to Washington as his First Lady. So, he enlisted the help of his sister, Rose, who held the position until he married Frances Folsom in 1886. To this day, the Clevelands remain the only presidential couple to get married in the White House.

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Of course, Cleveland wouldn’t have wed in the White House without a strong bid to lead the nation. He ran on a full slate of reformer policies, promising to fix widespread corruption and, in his second term, a deep economic depression. All the while, no one knew that the president’s personal life mimicked that of his political career. He, too, needed to reveal a secret, or else it could have him killed.

Grover Cleveland’s actual first name was Stephen. His parents gave to him as a tribute to the first pastor at the Caldwell, New Jersey, church where his father served in the same role. With the family patriarch – and father of nine – in such a selfless career, he often struggled to provide for his brood.

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So, when Cleveland reached his teens, his father pulled the future president from school and enrolled him in an apprenticeship. It helped the family financially and armed him with valuable skills, but it meant that the young man missed out on some of the final years of his dad’s life. The teen moved home just before a stomach ulcer caused the patriarch’s death.

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With Cleveland’s father gone, he once again had to provide for his family. So, in 1853, the young man headed off, this time to serve as a teaching assistant at New York’s Institute for the Blind, where his brother worked. But the future president’s time in the classroom would last just a year – he wanted to move west.

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After a year at home in Holland Patent, New York, Cleveland began his trek west. His journey began with a stop in Buffalo, New York. It proved to be a pivotal leg of the voyage. Indeed, so much opportunity awaited him in the city that the future president never made it any further.

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To be fair, Cleveland actually had an in as far as Buffalo society went. Lewis F. Allen, his uncle, mingled with the city’s most influential men, and was instrumental in his nephew gaining a clerkship with the law firm Rogers, Bowen and Rogers. Coincidentally, the 13th U.S. President, Millard Fillmore, had also worked for the firm in the past.

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A clerkship with the firm gave Cleveland the chance to read the law and pass the New York State bar, which he did in 1859. Within four years, he’d left the firm to start his own practice, and became Erie County’s assistant district attorney. The future president’s career take-off, though, couldn’t have come at a worse time.

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Cleveland practiced law in the heat of the Civil War and, in January 1863, Congress made it mandatory for able-bodied men to join the military. Those who fit that bill, though, did have one way to avoid conscription. They could, in fact, hire someone to fight in their stead, and the future president chose this option. In the end, he paid the equivalent of more than $3,000 today for George Benninsky to take his place.

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Perhaps Cleveland’s decision to stay home had to do with his aversion to the Republican party and its leader at the time, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, the lawyer had long identified with the opposition, the Democrats. So, when it came time to stand for election, he knew precisely on which side of the aisle he stood.

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First, Cleveland campaigned to become Buffalo’s District Attorney in 1865, but lost that race to his roommate and Republican nominee, Lyman K. Bass. The defeat clearly didn’t deter the lawyer from politics. Instead, the lawyer made a bid to become Erie County sheriff in 1870. And it’s a race he won – by a mere 303 votes.

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Nevertheless, becoming the county’s sheriff paid dividends for Cleveland – quite literally. In just a two-year term, he raked in as much as $40,000, which would be worth more than $800,000 today. Politically, though, his law-enforcement career didn’t do much for the future president. He did, however, perform at least two prisoners’ executions himself.

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After Cleveland’s two years as sheriff were up, he gave up law enforcement to return to his legal practice. He, Bass and Wilson S. Bissell founded a practice of their own, which skyrocketed them to the top of the Buffalo’s community of lawyers. It wouldn’t be the first fast-track to the top the future president would take, either.

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But the timing proved perfect for someone with the lawyer’s political leanings to rise to the top in Buffalo. The city had serious problems with corruption on both sides of the aisle – the parties actually cooperated to take advantage of the system. Democrats, though, knew they could rake in votes from disenfranchised Republicans. And they did so with an honest candidate – Cleveland.

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Cleveland won the election by about 4,000 votes, and began his tenure in January 1882. He quickly began to right the wrongs of his predecessors – in one example, the city had accepted a street-cleaning tender $100,000 higher than the lowest-cost operator because the former bidder had political connections. Soon enough, people outside of Buffalo began to hear about the mayor who was battling entrenched government corruption.

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By the time that the state’s Democratic party needed to select their next nominee for governor, word of Cleveland’s success had reached them, too. Not only did Cleveland win the chance to represent his party, but he also won the election. And his first day as the Governor of New York was January 1, 1883.

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True to form, Cleveland hit the ground running to deliver his promise to cut pointless government spending. He made headlines by vetoing eight state legislative motions within two months of becoming governor. And, although out of the ordinary, his challenges earned praise from the media, as well as the public.

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Cleveland’s time as governor made so much of an impression that the relative political newcomer became a potential presidential nominee in the 1884 election. And things aligned perfectly so that he could nab the top spot among Republicans. The initial top contender, James G. Blaine, seemingly appeared too immoral to voters.

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Cleveland’s fight against corruption helped him to earn the nod over other nominees. Indeed, they seemingly all had skeletons in their closets. One had voted for the south to secede, for instance, so he couldn’t earn support from Northern voters. Eventually, Republicans threw their weight behind the former Buffalo mayor, and he won the nomination.

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The president’s first term had him slashing all economic support from the government to any group – no exceptions. So, he vetoed a bill meant to support Texas farmers struggling through a drought. Cleveland also fought back against fraudulent Civil War pensions claims, as well as benefits for those disabled by events outside of combat.

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The public seemed to appreciate Cleveland’s vetoes. As proof, he once again won the popular vote in his 1888 re-election campaign. However, Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison managed to earn more votes from the electoral college, thus earning him the presidency over the sitting commander-in-chief. But the former president’s departure from the White House wouldn’t be a permanent one.

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Cleveland then became the only president to win non-consecutive terms by winning the 1892 election. Back in his post, the Democrat tackled an economic depression by ceasing the government’s Wall Street aid program. In doing so, he saved the country’s gold reserves, but his policies during this time didn’t sit well with the public or with his party.

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As a result, in 1896, the Democrats chose a different candidate to nominate for president – William Jennings Bryan. With his political career at its end, Cleveland retired to the New Jersey town of Princeton. A quiet life may have met him there, but the former leader had plenty of interesting – and secretive – facets of his personal life.

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For one thing, Cleveland had married his former law partner’s daughter, Frances Folsom, whom he had known since she was born – and he was already a grown man. At the time of their nuptials, the leader was 49 while Folsom was just 21. The pair wed in the White House, making him the only Commander-in-Chief to get married at the official address.

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Cleveland’s wedding may have raised eyebrows, but he and Folsom said “I do” well within the public eye. Sometimes, however, the president handled his personal affairs far from the spotlight. And one such issue had to be dealt with privately because it had deadly consequences, should it have gone wrong.

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In June 1893 – just at the start of Cleveland’s second presidency – he noticed something odd in his mouth. The former New York Governor discovered a cancerous tumor growing on his upper jaw, and doctors found that it was expanding rapidly. They also knew that surgery to remove the lump should be done as soon as possible.

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But doctors couldn’t just slice the tumor away without a few potential complications. For one thing, the required surgery could cause Cleveland to suffer from a stroke. Worse yet, there was a 15 percent chance he’d die while on the operating table. But the president knew that he had to have the procedure.

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But Cleveland made an interesting decision before the operation. The leader didn’t tell anyone he about the procedure and it’s dangers, not even Adlai Stevenson, his vice president. At the time, the country had fallen into an economic depression, so the Commander-in-Chief worried that news about his poor health could incite panic on Wall Street.

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Despite the fact Cleveland needed surgery, he had to avoid a hospital-bound operation. Instead, he gathered with six of the country’s top physicians in an unlikely meeting place – a yacht harbored in New York. The president initially seemed to be enjoying himself on board, smoking cigars on the deck and chatting with the doctors.

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But the ship wasn’t departing on a joy ride. Instead, Cleveland and the six doctors traveled to Long Island Sound. Below deck, the physicians prepared a space to perform surgery. Without an operating table, they had to get creative. In the end they secured a chair to the yacht’s mast for the president to in sit during the surgery.

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For light, a single battery-operated bulb illuminated the below-deck operating room. Finally, the doctors boiled all of their surgical tools and slipped into clean aprons. With that, they were ready to helm the risky surgery around noon on June 30, 1893. President Cleveland was seated and the procedure began.

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Fortunately for Cleveland, the doctors had brought along anesthetics, including nitrous oxide, to numb the president’s pain while they removed the tumor. In total, it took 90 minutes for them to get rid of the cancerous growth. In addition, they also took a quintet of teeth and part of his jawbone and palate.

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But the doctors didn’t just have to perform the surgery perfectly. They also had to do it in a way that wouldn’t produce any visible facial scars. Otherwise, the public might realize that Cleveland had an operation. And that could cause the stir the president was trying to avoid with the secret surgery.

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On that note, Cleveland couldn’t heal from his cancer-removal surgery in the public eye, either. So, after his yacht-based surgery went off without a hitch, the vessel dropped him off at his summer abode, which sat on Cape Cod. There, the president healed – and he did so extremely quickly.

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A couple of weeks after arriving in Cape Cod, Cleveland received a prosthesis to cover the hole the surgery had left behind in his palate. This allowed the president to resume speaking in his normal voice. All the while, the public were led to believe that their Commander-in-Chief had a toothache.

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One journalist, though, did pick up on the fact that all wasn’t what it seemed with Cleveland. Elisha Jay Edwards of The Philadelphia Press had heard a rumor that the president had a secret surgery. Chasing the lead, Edwards connected with dentist Ferdinand Hasbrouck, who had been on board the yacht and gave the leader his anesthesia.

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Edwards’s story about the surgery was, indeed, very accurate. But the White House denied the claims made in the article, and the public believed them over the press. It would take a quarter-century for Cleveland’s surgeon, W.W. Keen, to speak out in defense of the journalist and confirm that the president had, indeed, undergone a secret operation.

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In the years after Cleveland’s successful surgery, though, his health fell into a decline. By 1907, his illness became serious and, the next year, he died of a heart attack. Before he passed away, though, the former president muttered these last words, representative of his legacy in the White House and in secret operating rooms alike. He said, “I have tried so hard to do right.”

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