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Grover Cleveland and the Abscessed Tooth Decision

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Grover Cleveland always resented media intrusion.

The Return of Cleveland

Just about all historians rate Cleveland’s second go-round (1893-7) as far less successful than his first. Mr. and Mrs. C. returned to the White House with a baby and another on the way. Frances Cleveland was still their media darling, but now as a matron with children, not pestered as much.

The big problem was the economy. The country was in the throes of one of its worst recessions, panics, downturns, or whatever phrases were used in the early ‘90s. The stock market had tumbled. Huge companies were folding. Small businesses were gobbled up by bigger companies, forcing thousands of workers out of jobs and homes. Hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants jammed our cities. Strikes were rampant. Crime was rampant. Farmers, along with the poor, had gravitated to “populism,” demanding free coinage of silver (bi-metalism), certain to lead to huge inflation, anathema to the conservative Cleveland. Times were tough, and hard sacrifices were demanded.

Not long after his second inauguration, in the middle of all the crises-de-jour, Grover Cleveland was bothered by a rough spot on his upper jaw, interfering with his ability to eat. (And for a man whose great joy was gustatory, this was a serious problem.) He put it off as long as possible, but by summer the area had grown and medical attention was essential. The doctor was summoned. Alarmed by his findings, several medical specialists were consulted. A biopsy concluded that the “rough spot” was indeed cancerous – a word fraught with anxiety even today. And all insisted immediate surgery was needed. If it spread (as it was sure to do) it would be fatal.

President Cleveland was only 56. He had come late to marriage and fatherhood, and in 1893 had a young wife, a toddler, and another baby on the way. Most people put GC’s paternal instincts into the grandfatherly category, nevertheless it is a fair assumption that he would enjoy seeing his children grow up.

The story of where and how the surgery plus the custom made prosthetic jaw was done is a terrific story in itself. The creative technology of that time is fascinating, and generally applauded by modern medical people. But the decision for the secrecy is just as interesting, and perhaps apropos today as well.

Grover the Grouchy

Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) was an unlikely candidate for President in 1884. Barely known outside New York, he had risen to the top of the Democratic ticket in only three years.

Unfortunately, a few weeks before election day, a story appeared in an obscure Buffalo newspaper that the perceived “Grover The Good” had fathered a child out-of-wedlock years earlier. It was true. He confessed. He weathered the storm.

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But he bitterly resented the intrusion into his private life and that resentment would grow.

A year into his Presidency, his secret engagement was out of the bag! The 49-year old bachelor, gruff, overweight and somewhat coarse in his manners was about to marry his pretty 21-year-old ward, Frances Folsom.

If journalists had been intrusive about his early liaison, they now surrounded the White House like a swarm of bees.

Cleveland fumed. And he fumed even more when the press made Frances their darling, and regularly intruded into the privacy of “Mr. and Mrs.” Cleveland.

Ergo, Grover Cleveland neither liked nor trusted reporters.

The Decision

One’s health is about as personal as it gets. And there was no way President Cleveland, who remembered the media circus death-watch for General Grant, was going to permit those “liberties”.

But how to do it without alarming the country? “Cancer” is a word that generates fear even today. If the “ghouls of the press” (his words) made it public, the flailing economy was certain to collapse without his strong and determined leadership.

VP Adlai Stevenson (right) was neither a strong nor experienced leader. He was also a firm bi-metalist, and Cleveland feared the economy would go into free-fall.

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Absolute secrecy was vital. A medical-dental team was organized, each with specific assignments, and each vowing never to divulge the event.

Cleveland contacted E.C. Benedict (left), his long time close friend, whose yacht (right) was sufficient for the task at hand. He asked to “borrow” it for a few days, no questions asked. Permission was given, and no questions asked.

Unfortunately, one of the medical-dental team spilled the beans a few days later, and newspaper reporters converged on the Cleveland summer house in Buzzards Bay, MA. By then, the surgery had been successfully completed, including a few “staged” appearances of Cleveland looking none the worse for wear. Since the oral surgery was performed inside his mouth, there were no facial scars. His closest advisors, including one of his doctors, insisted that the President merely had some “dental work” done to treat a couple of abscessed teeth.

And the President’s “friends” made sure the intrepid reporter-with-the-scoop was quickly and soundly discredited before innuendo, half-truths, gossip and outrageous lies wreaked havoc on the economy.

A Quarter Century Later

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Grover Cleveland lived to be seventy one, and the father of five. It was not until several years after his death that the “secret” cancerous jaw surgery was made public. The honor of sworn oaths mattered.

There are always differences of opinion about what “the public has a right to know” and what may well be “in the public’s best interest”. A couple of generations later, it would resurface as “loose lips sink ships.”

Cleveland believed there was far more to lose than gain if unfounded opinions of some 2 million people with little education or training in governance or economies were bandied around.

His dying words were, “I have tried so hard to do good.”


Algeo, Matthew – The President Is A Sick Man – The Chicago Free Press – 2011

Brodsky, Alyn – Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character – St. Martin’s Press, 2000

Jeffers, H. Paul – An Honest President: The Life and Presidencies of Grover Cleveland – William Morrow – 2000

This post first appeared on A Potus-FLotus, please read the originial post: here

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Grover Cleveland and the Abscessed Tooth Decision


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