Grover Cleveland: Mrs. Halpin and the Child

During the 1884 presidential campaign, a disreputable newspaper in Buffalo, NY published allegations that Cleveland fathered an illegitimate son with a 36 year old widow, Maria Halpin, in 1874. Cleveland was never sure the child was his. But because he could not be sure the child was not his, he did the honorable thing and "consented to make provision for the child" SEE BELOW 1a.
Here is the story, as related by 1a:
As early as July 21 [1884] the great bombshell of the campaign was exploded. A despised Buffalo rag, the Evening Telegraph, spread broad upon its pages what it called "A Terrible Tale," showing that Cleveland had once maintained a connection with a Buffalo woman named Halpin whose illegitimate son was later placed in an orphan asylum.

The story was garnished with unctuous detail, and concluded with a quotation of the history of Mordred and Margaret from Lowell's Legend of Brittany. Instantly it was telegraphed all over the United States. The Republican press took it up with cackling glee, while the most powerful of church organs, the Independent, encouraged the pulpit to interpret it as requiring Cleveland's defeat.

After reciting the initial charges, the Telegraph gradually added a series of allegations venomous in their falsity. As mayor, Cleveland had offended the worst elements of the Buffalo population, and from saloons and dives there poured forth a flood of scandalous inventions. Two Buffalo ministers, feeling the moment auspicious to strike a blow for morals and notoriety, thrust themselves into the limelight. One, the Rev. C. W. Winchester of the Plymouth Methodist Episcopal Church, drew a crowd to a salacious sermon on "Absalom the Fast Young Man." His Absalom was crudely identifiable as Cleveland. The other, the Rev. George H. Ball, D.D., of the Hudson Street Baptist Church, a former editor of the Baptist Union, made himself a national nuisance by Chadband letters to the Boston Journal and other papers. Posing as Buffalo's exponent of decency, he actually gave currency to indecent falsehoods.

To his friend Goodyear, who wrote asking what the party should do, Cleveland replied with the historic phrase: "Tell the truth." It was a common-sense decision which penetrated the heart of the situation. From the truth he had little to fear. Part of the original story was true; admit the facts, and the falsehoods would disappear like noxious fumes before a fresh gale.

Within a few days, indeed, the hounds of truth were on the heels of the worst fabrications. Not only were investigations made in Buffalo by agents of the New York Mugwumps, but a thorough inquiry was conducted for the Independent by the Rev. Dr. Kinsley Twining, whose vindication of Cleveland's general character was emphatic. The Boston Committee of One Hundred sent to Buffalo an efficient lawyer named Hodges, who on invitation from Dr. Ball investigated his "proofs" of general dissipation and found them worthless. The Buffalo Courier forced Ball to write a letter in which he lamely admitted the falsity of certain of his statements.

Meanwhile, an interesting event had occurred in Albany. Dr. James Freeman Clarke suddenly appeared there -- the great Unitarian minister of Boston, the friend of Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Sumner, the champion of liberty in every form. Half the people of America were familiar with portraits of his fine old face framed in silvery hair and beard, his shrewd, kindly eyes peering through spectacles. He had an hour's conversation with Cleveland. The governor told him everything, and Clarke emerged his firm champion.

Henry Ward Beecher took the same course. On October 22 he appeared before a great Brooklyn meeting, read a manly letter which Cleveland had written to Mrs. Beecher repudiating all the principal charges, and declared that he would fight harder for the Democratic candidate than ever. In all the history of politics, he said, he did not believe that "lies so cruel, so base, so atrocious as those concerning Mr. Cleveland" had ever been set in motion. Several of the best Buffalo clergymen defended Cleveland. The conclusion of fair-minded investigators was summed up by the report of sixteen well-known Republicans of Buffalo, including Ansley Willcox, Henry W. Sprague, and the historian J. N. Larned, who declared:

Our examination of the general charges which have been made against Governor Cleveland's private character shows that they are wholly untrue. In every instance in which the reports and insinuations have been tangible enough to furnish us a clue to guide us in our investigations they have been positively proved to be false. The attack upon Governor Cleveland's character is thoroughly discredited when we consider the sources from which it comes.
The simple truth, which reveals a transient weakness on Cleveland's part but also throws light upon his latent strength, requires a brief statement. [footnote 164-1]

Maria Halpin was a young widow of Pennsylvania family who, leaving two children behind her, came to Buffalo from Jersey City about 1871, and found employment first as a collar-maker and then in the drygoods store of Flint & Kent, where she was soon placed at the head of the cloak department. She was tall, pretty, pleasing in manner, and spoke French. She attended the fashionable St. John's Episcopal Church and made numerous friends.

For a time she accepted the attentions of several men, including Cleveland, who was a year her elder -- she was thirty-six in 1874. When a son was born to her on September 14 of that year, whom she named Oscar Folsom Cleveland, she charged Cleveland with its paternity. Although, as he wrote a Boston friend when President, he did not know whether he was really responsible [footnote 165-1], he consented to make provision for the child.

Those closest to him believed that Mrs. Halpin was uncertain who was the father; that she fixed upon him because she hoped to make him marry her; and that he did not question her charge because the other men in the scrape were married" [footnote 165-2].

As the Rev. Kinsley Twining declared, "After the preliminary offence . . . his conduct was singularly honorable, showing no attempt to evade responsibility, and doing all that he could to meet the duties involved, of which marriage was certainly not one." His subsequent indifference to the child was due to his doubts about his fatherhood.

Through a series of trying events his course continued to be straightforward. While nursing the child, the mother, then living at 11 East Genesee Street, began drinking heavily and neglecting it. In these circumstances Cleveland turned to a much older friend who had been county judge while he was sheriff, Roswell L. Burrows, and placed the entire matter in his hands. Burrows, after investigation, and without Cleveland's immediate knowledge, had the woman taken to the Providence Asylum, an institution for mentally deranged persons managed by the Sisters of Charity. Mrs. Halpin was persuaded to remain here for a short time, while legal steps were taken through the Overseer of the Poor to commit the boy to the Protestant Orphan Asylum on Main Street (March 9, 1876), at the usual board rate of $5 a week, which Cleveland was to pay through Judge Burrows. At the same time, Cleveland gave Mrs. Halpin the means of establishing a business of her own in Niagara Falls. But growing lonely for the child and finding that by surrendering him she had lost her claim on the supposed father, she immediately returned to Buffalo and employed Milo A. Whitney as her attorney in efforts to recover her son. When these failed she took the desperate step, on April 28, 1876, of kidnapping him. Judge Burrows intervened again, and in July there was a final commitment of the boy to the orphanage, from which later he was adopted by one of the best families in western New York, in time becoming a distinguished professional man. He thus disappeared from Cleveland's life.

Mrs. Halpin, who had admitted to her lawyer that Cleveland had never made any promise of marriage, also disappeared. We hear of her only once more. Twenty years later, in 1895, when she had remarried and was living in New Rochelle, N. Y., she sent President Cleveland two letters, one of which is still preserved, asking for money [footnote 166-1], and threatening to publish facts in her possession.

All these events of 1874-76 were kept out of the press, and but for partisan malice need never have been lifted from the sphere of Cleveland's private concerns, where they belonged. Those who knew all the facts were never inclined to judge him harshly. A weaker or more callous man in his place would have tried, with some prospect of success, to deny responsibility for the child; but Cleveland saw the matter through in the most courageous way. He might have said, in the words that Alexander Hamilton used after the Mrs. Reynolds affair, that "I have paid pretty dearly for the folly;" but at any rate, like Hamilton, he had acted a man's part.

Had this scandal been brought out during the Chicago convention, it would doubtless have prevented Cleveland's nomination; had it been brought out in the last fortnight of the campaign, it would doubtless have defeated his election. But appearing when it did, it soon fell into its proper proportions.

It was evident that the real issue was the public integrity and capacity of the two candidates, and that old questions of private conduct were essentially irrelevant. This view was neatly expressed by one of the Mugwumps. A great national meeting of some eight hundred Independents was held in the University Club Theatre in New York on July 22 to endorse Cleveland. Much enthusiasm appeared [footnote 166-2]. As the members trooped forth they were handed copies of the lurid attack by the Buffalo Telegraph, and were thrown into consternation. That evening a select few of the Mugwumps met at the University Club for dinner. Carl Schurz, who sat at the head of the table, was depressed, and when later George W. Curtis and others came in, Curtis also was laboring under a profound shock. As he expressed his discouragement a Chicago gentleman broke in to ask if they would like his opinion. "We are told," he said [footnote 166-3], "that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity, but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill, and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn."

Godkin phrased the issue with equal pith. Which was better for the Presidency, he asked, a man who, like Cromwell, Franklin, Hamilton, and Webster, had been unchaste, or a man who had sold his official influence for money, and had broken his word in order to destroy documentary evidence of his corruption?

The precise origin of this scandalous attack remains unknown. Before the convention Cleveland had spoken frankly of his "woman scrape" to ex-Speaker Chapin and others [footnote 167-1], and Tammany had spread hints of it in Chicago. At a later date one of the principal Democratic newspapers of the country formally charged that the national Republican leaders were responsible [footnote 167-2]:

Mr. Cleveland was nominated for the presidency on July 11. Some intimations of this scandal had attended the discussions at Chicago. On July 12 there arrived at Augusta by the first train Col. Zimro A. Smith, editor of the Boston Journal, about the only prominent newspaper in New England which was supporting Mr. Blaine's candidacy. He had been secretary of the Maine Republican State Committee, was one of Mr. Blaine's most confidential workers, and owed his position in Boston largely to Mr. Blaine's money and influence. He was in secret consultation with Mr. Blaine for several hours during the morning of July 12. He took the afternoon train for Boston, arriving there late that night. On the following morning a reporter of the Boston Journal was sent to Buffalo with the sole object, as was afterwards explicitly stated in the Journal, of inquiring into the circumstances of the scandal concerning Mr. Cleveland.

The reporter was in Buffalo until the morning of July 21. On the afternoon of July 21 the publication was made in the poverty-stricken Buffalo newspaper of ill repute before referred to. The scandal fell flat. Not one respectable newspaper in the East referred to it, and only one newspaper of extended circulation in the West. If it was the purpose of the Republican managers to make use of it as a campaign force they must give it a more influential parentage. On July 22 the Boston Journal printed all its scandalous story on its first page, with glaring headlines, editorial reference, and all the devices which a newspaper may employ to secure attention to one of its articles.

It would be painful to believe that Blaine had any connection with the matter, and there is no evidence for doing so. But the Republican leaders never rebuked the attacks, and as the Nation pointed out in the last week of the campaign, a systematic organization somewhere kept the scandal alive to the very end.

And what of Cleveland? His letters show that, while outwardly little perturbed by the attacks, at heart he was filled with anguish. That his old friends in Buffalo, who had celebrated his nomination with a hundred guns, with fireworks and parading bands, should listen to these slanders; that a venerable minister like Dr. Ball should stab at him with such malice! Never again was he able to feel at home in Buffalo. Manning, Whitney, and Gorman paid no attention to the scandal, which was dealt with by his Buffalo friends, Bissell, Goodyear, and John G. Milburn. He never flinched, and there is a revelation of character in the angry letter to Lockwood at the end of July [footnote 168-1]:

I don't know but I am all "out," but I am going to be frank enough to say to you that it does not seem to me that things are getting into just the right shape in Buffalo. What is the matter with Rohr?

I learned last night that McCune had started the story and told it to newspaper men (one at least) that I had nothing to do really with the subject of the Telegraph story -- that is, that I am innocent -- and that my silence was to shield my friend Oscar Folsom. Now is this man crazy or does he wish to ruin somebody? Is he fool enough to suppose for a moment that if such was the truth (which it is not, so far as the motive for silence is concerned) that I would permit my dead friend's memory to suffer for my sake? And Mrs. Folsom and her daughter at my house at this very time!! I am afraid that I shall have occasion to pray to be delivered from my friends.

How often I wish that I was free and that some good friend of mine was running instead of myself. I wish I knew what, if anything, is the matter. Can't you tell me frankly some things I want to hear? This story of McCune's of course must be stopped. I have prevented its publication in one paper at least.

McCune's story was eight years later popularized by Paul Leicester Ford in his sentimental novel The Honorable Peter Stirling. Cleveland was enormously relieved when the whole subject gradually died away. He wrote Bissell on September 11 that "I hope now that the scandal business is about wound up that you have a little freedom from the annoyance and trouble which it necessarily brought in its train. I think the matter was arranged in the best possible way, and that the policy of not cringing was not only necessary but the only possible way. King's intrusion made me trouble. And now Cochrane has published something just as bad in a Chicago paper. I don't see what possessed him to do it."

It is amusing to mention, in conclusion, that one of his allies got into trouble. Godkin, with his Irish love of battle, published in the Evening Post an editorial on Dr. Ball in which he asserted that he had had a disreputable early career in Indiana, and had left a city there in haste for insulting a lady. Unfortunately for Godkin, there were two Rev. Dr. Balls. The unprincipled minister who was run out of Owensville, Ind., was another -- and a libel suit resulted [footnote 169-1].

Godkin had to fight it out in the courts with the angry Buffalo cleric, but thanks to a skilful [sic] defense by John G. Milburn, who undertook the case, finally escaped without paying damages. Cleveland, with his usual sense of duty, paid most of Milburn's bill.

It should also be mentioned that Cleveland forbade any use of his opponents' tactics. A nasty and mendacious story sprang up regarding Blaine's marriage. Once a packet of alleged "evidence" upon Blaine's private life was brought to Cleveland. It was for sale, and he paid for it. "Are all the papers here?" he demanded. Then, without looking at the packet, and adding to it some similar documents which had reached him, he drew up a waste-basket, slowly tore the sheets to bits, called a porter, and stood over him as he burned the material in the open fireplace. "'The other side," he remarked, "can have a monopoly of all the dirt in this campaign" [footnote 169-2].


[164-1] These pages are based on a careful study of the Buffalo press for 1876 and 1884; on Cleveland's letters, including many yet unpublished, on the Democratic campaign pamphlet which contains the record of the investigation by a committee of Buffalo citizens; and on the files of the hostile N. Y. Tribune and Sun.

[165-1] Cleveland Papers.

[165-2] Cleveland Bacon to author, Dec. 15, 1931.

[166-1] Sept, 9, 1895. Cleveland Papers.

[166-2] Solornon B. Griffin, People and Politics, 92 ff.

[166-3] Cf. M. A. De Wolfe Howe, Moorfield Storey: The Portrait of an Independent.

[167-1] A. C. Chapin to author, July 20, 1931.

[167-2] N. Y. World, May 19, 1885.

[168-1] July 31, 1884. Cleveland Papers.

[169-l] Denis T. Lynch, Grover Cleveland, p. 231, makes the curious error of accepting Godkin's libelous editorial as true.

[169-2] Bishop, Presidential Nominations and Elections, 66-68, quoting Lamont.
Cited Sources
  1. Nevins, Allan. Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1933.
    a  pp.162-169

    Comment: Won the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

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