The Birth of a Precedent: Cleveland’s Great Deception, His Secret Cancer Surgery

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 1, 2014

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Every day, in every way, for years now, Presidents have been lying. These lies, some claim, defend us; or defend, others charge, only himself. But what with Edward Snowden, the self-proclaimed whistle-blower and accused spy on the lam, having last year blown open the business of secret governmental intelligence gathering, people are arguing more about executive deceit than usual. In the uproar over privacy, a core contention is emerging – the public’s right to know versus a President’s responsibility to protect. Just when, exactly, is secrecy warranted? Grover Cleveland, faced with divulging that he had cancer during a serious economic depression, choose to undergo two life-threatening surgeries, a lengthy recovery, and his use of a prosthesis, in secret, lest the news would cause the Panic of 1893 to become a total rout. In so deceiving the public in order to serve it, he set a momentous precedent…

Grover Cleveland avoided the draft, hung two men as sheriff, fathered a child out-of-wedlock, admitted all, and was elected, twice, to the presidency of the United States. Yet this most honest of presidents perpetrated one of the greatest deceptions in presidential history – and his secret, incredibly, held for a quarter of a century. What Cleveland hid, successfully, from the American people, was cancer, and the two operations he underwent to remove it.

Poster for the "War of Wealth" by Charles Turner Dazey, a play that opened February 10, 1895. Library of Congress.

With his huge bulk, pasty complexion, and gouty foot, Cleveland was never the picture of health. Everyone knew he ate too much, drank too much, smoked too much – had a pretty wife, too, more than half his age – and only moved to sit somewhere else. What no one could even guess, though, was that in June 1893, Cleveland discovered he had oral cancer. The malignancy, he was told, necessitated the removal of the greater part of his left upper jawbone – immediately. And, had the country not been plunged in the first violent throes of the great financial Panic of 1893, Cleveland could have announced his condition, and openly, undergone its cure. But, mindful of the morbid public hysteria that surrounded Grant’s agonizing death from the same cancer just a few years before, he quite reasonably feared news of a life-threatening operation would only exacerbate the crisis, and so decided to keep his cancer absolutely secret…

Waiting, then, until Congress recessed for the summer, Cleveland slipped out of the White House, boarded a private railway car, and removed himself to a friend’s yacht anchored in Long Island Sound. There, on July 1st, 1893, he was strapped upright in a chair lashed to the mast, given anesthesia – a considerable risk, considering his obesity – and operated upon for forty-one minutes. After staying aboard the Oneida for five days – in, mostly, an opiate haze – he then repaired to his summer home, there to stay for five weeks, healing, while being fit with an artificial jaw prosthesis. During this time he had to return to the yacht for yet a second round of surgery, to remove more cancer. Finally, when he could speak well enough and looked normal, he went back to Washington, and work – no one the wiser. This letter, written to his surgeon, commemorates his momentous, and secret, surgery, on its one year anniversary:

Grover Cleveland on board the private yacht Oneida, site of his secret cancer operation during his term as president. New Jersey State Park Service, Grover Cleveland Birthplace.

Perhaps it has not occurred to you that this is rather an interesting anniversary. I don’t know that it ought to occur to you with the same depth of feeling that it does to me. At any rate I want to remind you that you and I were on the Oneida one year ago today – both feeling very different from what we do today and I guess you the most anxious of the two… I must tell you another coincidence. Dr. Keen called on me and examined me with the greatest satisfaction… He never tires of speaking of the splendor and success of your job. He has really made me think that my very dear medical friend is a good deal of a chap. But I only want to remind you of the anniversary…

Cleveland died fourteen years later, of heart failure. His cancer never returned, and no one involved in its removal, spoke a word of it until 1917.

Dr. Keen, incidentally, kept his hand in – and his mouth, shut – when, in August 1921 and vacationing in Maine, he was called to attend a patient suddenly struck with a partial paralysis – a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and vice presidential candidate named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. At young FDR’s Campobello summer home, Keen misdiagnosed the polio that would cripple him – and about which Roosevelt would lie for the rest of his life, pretending to be able-bodied, if limping, when in reality he was paralyzed from the waist down. This fact, remarkably, was also kept secret, with the connivance of his doctors and the cooperation of the press; the American public believed he walked with a cane.

GROVER CLEVELAND. 1837 – 1908. The 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 4 pages, recto and verso, octavo, Executive Mansion, Washington, July 1, 1894. To Dr. Joseph D. Bryant.

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