Grover Cleveland: Secret Jaw Operations - Hiding It


In addition to this controversy in August and September, 1893, there had been an earlier and equally animated newspaper controversy immediately after the first operation on July 1st. The facts as to this controversy are fully stated by Mr. Robert L. O'Brien, now the Editor of the Boston Herald, in its issue for September 30, 1917. In 1893 he was the confidential secretary to President Cleveland. I quote certain parts of his statement as it so graphically describes the (happily successful) efforts to conceal the real facts.

"It would be a mistake to suppose that it was an easy matter to keep this affair from the newspapers of the country, with all the light that beats on the presidential throne. Here is a dispatch which appeared in the columns of the Boston Herald on the morning of July 8,1893, just one week after the president had suddenly left Washington:

"Buzzards Bay, July 7, 1893. -- A strong effort is making to establish the fact that President Cleveland is a sick man. Those who are about the President and who are authorized to speak for him, deny that he is afflicted with anything more serious than an, attack of rheumatism.

"But, notwithstanding these denials, emphatically made and oft repeated, there is a disposition manifest to treat them with incredulity, and to assume with absolutely no warrant in information or authority, that he must be suffering from some disease more serious in character than the one which was mentioned in the official statement given out by Colonel Lamont yesterday.

"The publication of an alleged United Press dispatch in the New York papers this morning to the effect that Dr. Bryant, in an interview, had failed to give complete denial to a rumor that the President was suffering from a cancerous growth in the mouth, has given birth to an endless amount of gossip concerning the physical condition of Mr. Cleveland.

"Dr. Bryant said this evening that the story was absolutely false. The President, he said, is suffering from no cancerous or malignant growth. The only trouble he has had with his mouth was caused by an aching tooth which was extracted some time since. The doctor was asked a question as to the time of the extraction of the tooth and the name of the dentist employed, but he declined to dignify the subject by talking more about it. He said it was too trivial to be noticed.

"Col. Lamont sent the following dispatch to Washington tonight:

"Buzzard's Bay, July 7, 1893.

"To Walter Q. Gresham, Secretary of State:
  "The President is laid up with rheumatism in his knee and foot, but will be out in a day or two. No occasion for any uneasiness.


"The only caller he has seen was Mr. Joseph Jefferson. The veteran actor was with him a half hour this morning, and when he came away he said he found Mr. Cleveland in first rate condition, except for the rheumatic trouble in his legs. There is no doubt that the President, as well as Secretary Lamont and Dr. Bryant, underestimate the importance which is attached by the country to his illness. The telegrams of inquiry which poured in here this afternoon from the newspapers indicate that the public apprehension has not been allayed by the assurances that have emanated from Col. Lamont.


"The publication in New York of the terrifying dispatch resulted in a flocking of correspondents to Buzzard's Bay. There had been perhaps six or eight there, two representatives of the leading press associations, and others connected with the more important of the Boston and New York dailies. But the 'malignant growth' report sounded an alarm, and editors all along the line dispatched representatives to Buzzard's Bay. Men from the Providence Journal, the Fall River Herald and the smaller dailies of New York and Philadelphia descended on Cape Cod that afternoon.

"Attempts to get in touch with Gray Gables brought out the information that Col. Lamont would see all the newspapermen at 7 o'clock that evening, with a full explanation of everything. He asked that nothing should be said until that time. It was in the latter part of the day, too late for the afternoon papers, that the journalists began to arrive, and so they waited with measurable patience. They found headquarters at a hotel near the railroad station at Buzzard's Bay. At the appointed hour they walked in a body across the old railroad bridge, over where the canal now lies, down to Gray Gables, a distance of a mile and a half. Col. Lamont, the soul of shrewdness, diplomacy and tactfulness, was out in the old barn, perhaps 200 yards nearer the village than the dwelling house itself. I have always supposed that he did this to take no chances of a prying newspaperman's seeing about the Gray Gables mansion anything that might militate against Lamont's explanation of affairs.

"He greeted the men cordially and with apparent frankness. He told them that it was really very foolish to make such a stir over a matter essentially trivial; that while the President had suffered from an attack of rheumatism, to which he was occasionally subjected, the thing that had occasioned his prolonged journey on Mr. Benedict's yacht was only a bad case of dentistry. The President, besides being very busy, never enjoyed having a dentist work over him. In consequence he had allowed his dental work to fall so badly into arrears that he had finally felt compelled to go on the yacht; here he could be cool and comfortable and let the dentist make a thorough job of it. This had been done.

"The newspapermen, with the avidity characteristic of their craft, inquired the name of the dentist, the exact nature of the dentistry and other minor details which the reading public is ever eager to know concerning a distinguished patient. These questions did not stump the resourceful Lamont, who dismissed them with the remark that they were too trivial to talk about.

"The newspapermen walked back to the hotel in pretty heated argument. Half of them did not believe what Col. Lamont had told them; the other half did. They early reached an agreement that they should stand together on whatever story they sent out, an arrangement which newspapermen often make. And then they went into conference at the hotel to decide which should be their story. The next day without a dissenting voice the newspapers, including the press associations, gave to the country a reassuring version of the case.

"It seems wonderful how so many people were thrown off the scent, when so many incidents connected with the affair were calculated to arouse suspicion. I have just been through the files of a newspaper of that day, supplied with the dispatches of press associations and special correspondents, and I marvel at the skill with which the secret was kept. Every form of camouflage was employed, even to the painting of Commodore Benedict's yacht, the Oneida, a different color so it would be less readily recognized in its journey through the sound.(1)

"At 6 o'clock on Friday evening, June 30, the executive mansion issued a call for an extra session of Congress to meet on the 7th of August. The press associations were induced to say that the President had issued it at that hour, and immediately thereafter left for New York. But he had been gone two hours. One Washington correspondent, perhaps as close to the President as any one there, thus wrote of the affair:

"It was not exactly the unexpected which happened this afternoon, but it was certainly with unexpected abruptness that the announcement fell upon the city that the President had called an extra session of Congress for August. Simultaneously with this announcement came the almost equally startling news that the President had started for Buzzard's Bay, slipping out of town on the 4.20 P. M. train on the Pennsylvania railroad. Secretary Lamont accompanied him as far as New York.

"Probably not a dozen persons in the city knew of Mr. Cleveland's departure until long after it was an accomplished fact. ...

"The President's determination to leave the city was only reached this morning, and his departure so suddenly leaves a number of important appointments agreed upon unsigned, and many senators and congressmen who had recently arrived, in the lurch.

"Many of the conservative newspapers that morning expressed surprise that the President delayed the assembling of Congress so late as August 7th, when the lawmakers could have reached the city much more promptly. But they did not know what he knew.

"What took place on the Oneida from its start up the East River Saturday night, until her arrival at Gray Gables on Wednesday night, has never been told in print until Dr. Keen's recent article appeared.

"But the President of the United States cannot drop out of the public eye without some speculation as to his whereabouts. On the morning of July 4th the newspapers of the country contained dispatches from Buzzard's Bay telling the country that the President had not yet arrived at his summer home. More sensational journals capitalized the mystery of his whereabouts by making it appear that his family was worried at his non-appearance. Mrs. Cleveland, to correct this impression, on the afternoon of the holiday, called some of the correspondents to ask them not to print disquieting stories, since there was no mystery as to the President's whereabouts.

"The President arrived at Gray Gables on the night of July 5th, but so late that none of the correspondents knew of his arrival in time to notify their morning editions. The afternoon papers carried the first suggestion that the President was indisposed, but the official statements made mention only of the rheumatism which he had had before. Here is the story which went out to the newspapers, which is a masterpiece in concealment:

"Buzzard's Bay, July 6, 1893. -- President Cleveland arrived here last night after a five days' trip, from New York.

"He is suffering from a severe attack of rheumatism. Concerning his condition, Col. D. S. Lamont, Secretary of War, who accompanied Mr. Cleveland on his trip, said this morning:

" 'The President is confined to his room at Gray Gables with an attack of rheumatism in his foot and knee, a complaint from which he has suffered for many years, and which is, no doubt, exaggerated at this time by the hard work and continuous strain on his strength which he has undergone since March 4.

"All the newspapers of the country on the same morning carried this significant paragraph:

"New York, July 6,1893. -- A special to the Times from Chicago says that Vice-President Stevenson, who has been there for several days, will leave for Buzzard's Bay tonight to consult with the President over questions which may come up during the special session of Congress.

"It was natural that the alarming stories printed in New York, with the simultaneous announcement that the Vice-President was hurrying to Buzzard's Bay, should startle the country. But the success of Col. Lamont's conference in the old barn with the correspondents finds reflection in the reassuring stories which went over the wires from Buzzard's Bay that night.

"And George Babbitt, the famous paragrapher, wrote for the Herald of Saturday, July 18th: 'The Buzzards will please keep aloof from Buzzard's Bay.'

"Mr. Stevenson did not get east of New York. It is doubtful if he had ever intended to do so, and, of course, he knew nothing of the nature of the malady.

"Thus the 'cancer fake,' as it came to be known, died away.

"Dr. Keen's narrative supplies all the missing incidents.

"One can but marvel, as I said before, at the completeness with which an event of such magnitude -- aside from sporadic leaks which were soon arrested escaped the scrutiny of the press, and has remained a secret until this late date. And yet no one can hereafter tell the story of the Cleveland administration, one of the most important in our recent history, and omit the triumph of surgery which saved the life of a great President."

(1) Mr. O'Brien's statement that the yacht was painted green to escape observation is, I think, his only error. Any change In the color of the yacht, of course, would have excited suspicion rather than allayed it. -- W. W. K.

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