Grover Cleveland has all sorts of unusual distinctions among the Presidents. (No, he wasn’t “normal,” either.) He was one of several Presidents to drop a more prosaic first name for his less common middle one (like Grant, Wilson, and Eisenhower). He was the second biggest President at over 250 pounds, and had the largest collar size. Despite his reputation for being a tough guy, Grover ended a string of Civil War heroes elected President by being the only POTUS who had paid a poor man to take his place in the Union army. That was legal, but it was not especially admirable.
Cleveland was one of only two bachelors elected President, and was the only one married in the White House (to a 21-year old beauty, the Melania of her day, who was less than half his age). Grover also lost the Presidency when he ran for re-election despite winning the popular vote, in the most similar election (1888) to our last one. This set up his most famous distinction, serving split terms, as he came back to beat President Harrison in 1892.
My favorite Cleveland tale is how the President pulled off the amazing feat of having part of his jaw removed and replaced with a rubber prosthetic without the public learning about it, by secretly having the operation performed on a yacht.
Ah, but all of these pale compared to his central role in the worst scandal ever to strike in a Presidential campaign, which he survived, incredibly, by telling the truth.
Or so we have been told.
On July 21, 1884, a bit more than three months from the Presidential election, , the Republican Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke a story that seemed like it would determine who was to be President. Ten years earlier, a Buffalo woman named Maria Halpin had given birth to a son with the surname Cleveland, and then been taken to a mental asylum while the child was adopted by another family. The mother claimed that former Buffalo mayor and current New York Governor and Democratic Presidential nominee Grover Cleveland was the father.
In a remarkably quick display of candor, then or now, Cleveland admitted that indeed he and Halpin had been “illicitly acquainted,” and the son might indeed be his. As the only unmarried man among several Cleveland friends who, the campaign implied, may have “known” the woman, Cleveland had claimed paternity and helped Halpin place the boy with a caring family. Still, this was the Victorian era, and the clergy, in particular, was disgusted. “It seems to me that a leading question ought to be: do the American people want a common libertine for their president?” wrote a preacher from Buffalo to the editor of the Chicago Tribune.
While Cleveland, whose nickname was “Grover the Good,” had sex problems, Maine Senator James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate, had been caught taking bribes. Why he was nominated with such a record of dishonesty and influence peddling, I will never understand. (No modern political party would do something that stupid, fortunately.) being able to use the catchy mocking anti-Cleveland chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” was a godsend for the struggling Blaine campaign.
To make things worse for Grover, reporters tracked down Halpin, and her version of the relationship differed from the candidate’s in unpleasant ways. Days from the election, the Chicago Tribune quoted her as saying, darkly, “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public.”
Halpin then made them public. She alleged that when she was a young widow in 1874, Cleveland had pursued her relentlessly until she finally consented to have dinner with him. After dinner, Cleveland escorted her back to her boarding house, and according to Halpin’s 1874 affidavit, raped her. He was brutal and violent, she alleged, and threatened to destroy her if she went to the authorities. Halpin said she told Cleveland she never wanted to see him again, but when she became pregnant, had to seek his help.
Nine months later, Halpin’s son was born and taken from her custody, while she was forcibly committed to a local insane asylum. Nobody is sure why or how. Doctors from the institution, interviewed by the press during the 1884 campaign, corroborated Halpin’s claim that she was, essentially, kidnapped and imprisoned there against her will.
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported:
Dr. William G. King, an honored citizen of Buffalo, was then attending physician at the Providence Asylum. When visited by a Telegraph reporter last week he said that he remembered Maria Halpin well. He says she was brought to the asylum without warrant or form of law. When he examined her he found that she was not insane, though she had been drinking. The managers of the asylum had no right to detain her, and she left in a few days—that is, as soon as she chose to after her terrible experience.
Some historians believe that Cleveland engineered her commitment.
Upon her release, Halpin located her son and hired Milo A. Whitney, a Buffalo attorney. From the Tribune:
Whitney says Maria Halpin came to consult him about instituting proceedings against all concerned in the assault and abduction. She said she knew that Grover Cleveland had plotted the abduction and hired the men to carry it out, as he had previously tried less violent means to deprive her of the child and get her out of the way.
Shortly thereafter, under the oversight of her attorney, Maria signed an agreement which stipulated that upon the payment of the sum of $500, she was to surrender her son, Oscar Folsom Cleveland, and make no further demands of any nature upon his father. To anyone who would listen, Maria Halpin insisted that the document was in Grover Cleveland’s handwriting.
Oscar Folsom Cleveland (given the middle name Folsom after Oscar Folsom, Cleveland’s closest friend and the father of his eventual First Lady, creepily enough) was adopted by a doctor at the asylum and raised in Buffalo, having no contact with his mother, nor with Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland, as history records, went on to defeat Blaine, allowing gloating Democrats to complete the earlier GOP taunt, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” with “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
The episode is no laughing matter, though. History books adopted the Grover the Good spin: he was accused, he admitted paternity, and provided for his son. He did not lie. That was how I heard the story. Cleveland went on to be highly-ranked President, in two scandal-free administrations, setting a record that still stands for Presidential vetoes. His is the face on the thousand dollar bill…
Looking back on the times and the culture, Maria Halpin’s account seems increasingly persuasive. Naturally a woman would be overmatched by a powerful politician with connections all over the city, and the double standard–unmarried sex made her a harlot, unmarried sex made Cleveland just a normal man—worked in Cleveland’s favor. Was our 22nd and 24th President a kidnapper, a liar and a rapist? Even in 1884, some who knew him thought so. Writing shortly before the election to the Buffalo Evening Telegraph, Pastor Henry W. Crabbe stated,
I am very sorry to say that he is a corrupt, licentious man. He has never been married, and is notoriously bad with women. Cleveland is well known here, and it is a reproach to the city that he ever got into the Gubernatorial chair. I most sincerely and earnestly pray that he will not be our next President. His public life is revealing his true character. It may be said these stories are put in circulation for political effect, but the trouble is they cannot be refuted.
Was Cleveland vs Blaine an early version of Trump vs Clinton? Did Grover get away with doing what Donald boasted about? Was Maria Halpin a 19th century Juanita Broaddrick?
As Clarence Darrow said, “History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.”