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‘The President Is a Sick Man’ Details Secret Surgery of President Cleveland

July 29, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
When President Grover Cleveland underwent secret cancer surgery in 1893 the public was kept in the dark for weeks while he recuperated and for decades to follow. Ray Suarez discusses the history with author, Matthew Algeo, who details the happenings in his new book, "The President is a Sick Man."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a true story that reads like a detective tale.

With modern presidents appearing in public every day — and sometimes more than once — it’s hard to imagine an American president dropping out of sight for nearly a week. But that’s exactly what happened in 1893, when Grover Cleveland underwent secret cancer surgery. The public was kept in the dark for weeks while he recuperated and for decades to follow.

It’s all the subject of a new book titled “The President Is a Sick Man.”

Ray Suarez talked to its author.

I caught up with journalist and historian Matthew Algeo in President Cleveland’s favorite refuge from the White House, the Washington, D.C., neighborhood that now bears his name, Cleveland Park.

We sat down at the historic Rosedale Conservancy farmhouse just across the street from where the president’s cottage once stood.

Matthew, whenever the president has a health problem, I guess it’s a big deal. But I guess context is important in this case, right? Why was a cancerous growth in the mouth at this point in American history such a big deal that they were willing to go to these lengths?

MATTHEW ALGEO, “The President Is a Sick Man”: The summer of 1893 was a terrible period in America’s economic history.

There was a speculative bubble in 1893. And the bubble was railroads. The Reading Railroad went bankrupt shortly before Grover Cleveland took office. And by the end of the year, 119 railroads had gone bankrupt. So, the markets were crashing. Wall Street was in a panic.

And Cleveland was afraid that, if it came to be known he had cancer, which at that time was considered a death sentence, that the bottom would fall out of the markets and there would be utter financial chaos in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: And cancer was still a pretty frightening word in America.


RAY SUAREZ: There was basically no treatment, right?

MATTHEW ALGEO: Well, there was a stigma attached to cancer.

The word itself was avoided. Newspapers called it the dread disease or the disease that no doctor dare name. In fact, when Cleveland’s doctor diagnosed him with this tumor in this mouth, the doctor just said: It’s a bad-looking tenant and I would have it would removed immediately.

And this was another reason that Cleveland wanted to keep it secret, because there was this stigma attached to cancer in the 1890s. I mean, I talk a little bit, it’s almost like AIDS in the 1980s. People didn’t like to talk about it.

RAY SUAREZ: And a president, an ex-president had not too long before died of it. There was some palpable memory in the country, wasn’t there?

MATTHEW ALGEO: Right. Right. About 10 years before, Ulysses Grant had died of an oral cancer. And it was a real spectacle, the death of Grant.

It had become sort of a morbid death watch among newspapers in New York. Cleveland was really kind of a private guy.

RAY SUAREZ: So they came up with a plan so that Americans wouldn’t know the president had cancer surgery?

MATTHEW ALGEO: Well, the tumor had to be removed. The — the location of the operation was the big question. It was Cleveland himself who came up with the idea of going on a boat.

He had a friend who owned a yacht, and they often went on fishing trip. So the cover story would be, oh, I’m going to a fishing trip. And so they sailed from New York to the president’s home. He had a home on Cape Cod. And while they were on that boat, the operation took place. Six doctors were recruited. They were all sworn to secrecy. And in about 90 minutes, they removed most of his upper left palette, five teeth, and a good part of his upper left jaw as well. It was pretty radical surgery for the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, this was a pre-24-hour news cycle kind of a time, 1893, but, still, the president was expected to speak to the public, speak to legislators from time to time.

MATTHEW ALGEO: Even then — even then, it was a little unusual for the president to disappear for four or five days, which is what happened.

What they did is they managed to keep the press at bay. They kept them at a distance from his home on Cape Cod until the wound was healed well enough. It took about three weeks. And then he was fitted with a prosthetic device that he could pop up into his upper left jaw. And when that was in place, it restored the shape of his face, but, more importantly, it restored his normal speaking voice.

So, it was really only about three or four weeks after the operation that he was able to appear in public and speak again.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, in the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine the president being officially silent for weeks at a time.

MATTHEW ALGEO: But you also have to remember, in 1893, in the summer, especially, it was very hot in Washington, as it is still, and back then, it wasn’t unusual for the president and Congress to just leave the city for a month at a time.

So it really wasn’t unusual for him to go on this long fishing trip and spend some time in his summer home. The circumstances of covering up the surgery, though, made things a little different, and reporters were suspicious.

RAY SUAREZ: The cover-up was fascinating. Almost everybody kept their mouth shut for the duration, right?

MATTHEW ALGEO: It’s really amazing. It’s probably one of the most successful cover-ups in American political history.

All the doctors were sworn to secrecy. There was one doctor who had missed an appointment because he was on the boat for the surgery. And he told the doctor who he had the appointment with what he was doing. And that was the first little leak. That was the first time that word started to circulate, especially among doctors in New York, that something was seriously wrong with the president.

But, by and large, the secret held for 24 years.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there’s secrecy, and there’s secrecy. Beyond the doctors, almost nobody knew about the president’s surgery.

MATTHEW ALGEO: Not even the vice president.

And Cleveland and his vice president had a very contentious relationship. Adlai Stevenson, by the way, was the grandfather of the future presidential candidate. So Cleveland was adamant that Stevenson not know he had cancer.

And, in fact, when Stevenson started hearing rumors about Cleveland’s health, Cleveland sent him on a political trip to the Pacific Northwest. He sent him to Seattle in 1893, which was a rather arduous trip. It took Stevenson out of the picture for several weeks.

RAY SUAREZ: One reporter got the story…


RAY SUAREZ: … but really paid a price, right?

MATTHEW ALGEO: E.J. Edwards was a reporter for the Philadelphia press. And he had a friend who was a doctor in New York who had heard these rumors. And Edwards went and tracked the story down and confirmed it with the doctor.

And Aug. 29, about two months after the operation, Edwards published this report in the Philadelphia Press under the headline “Was the President a Very Sick Man?” And it was really an amazingly detailed account of operation that had been performed on the yacht. It’s probably the most explicit account of a presidential operation, presidential medical procedure published without the president’s permission ever.

It was an amazing scoop, really one of the great scoops of the 19th century. The problem was, Cleveland had a reputation for honesty. And this went back to his first campaign in 1884. Actually, it came out that he had allegedly fathered an illegitimate child, and he telegrammed his friends in Buffalo, said, tell the truth.

And this really gave him a reputation for honesty that he cultivated. And so, when this report came out, Cleveland simply dismissed it. His aides said he had suffered nothing worse than a toothache. And not only that. They not only denied the story, but the policy was to discredit the reporter.

And so Cleveland’s allies in the Democratic press really vilified this reporter. They called him a cancer faker, a disgrace to journalism, a panic-monger, these sorts of things. And, so, in the end, the public believed the president.

Cleveland’s nickname was “The Honest President.” And it’s almost as if he had all this political capital built up over the years, and he decided to spend it on this one big lie.

RAY SUAREZ: Did the reporter’s career suffer as a result?

MATTHEW ALGEO: It always hung over his career. E.J. Edwards bounced from paper to paper. And I can’t say his career was ruined, but it suffered.

RAY SUAREZ: Was he eventually vindicated?

MATTHEW ALGEO: He was vindicated.

Now, Cleveland lived 15 years after the surgery, which is an amazing achievement in American medicine, with no recurrence of the cancer. Finally, in 1917, one of the doctors who had taken part in the operation, and had always felt badly about the way Edwards had been treated — mistreated, to be more precise — this doctor — his name was Keane — he was from Philadelphia — decided to finally publish an account of the operation.

He published it in The Saturday Evening Post, of all places, not a medical journal. And I think maybe the doctor wanted to brag a little bit, because it had been such a successful operation. But he also did it to vindicate Edwards. And Edwards was still alive at that time, a man in his 70s. But he was very much gratified by this.

And it was 24 long years that he — it took him to finally be vindicated, as Keane, the doctor, described it, as a truthful correspondent.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have got politics, medicine, a little 19th century media coverage. It’s a great story. How did you first get into it?

MATTHEW ALGEO: Actually, the tumor itself was saved, and it’s in a museum in Philadelphia. It’s called the Mutter Museum. It’s a great museum of all kinds of medical oddities. If you ever want to see Chief Justice John Marshall’s bladder stones, that’s the place to go.

And they have this tumor from Grover Cleveland. And about 10 years ago, I was just visiting the museum. And I’m interested in presidential — arcane presidential trivia. And so I saw tumor there. And that’s what really got me interested in the story.

And it turns out one of the doctors, Keane, who wrote the later account, deposited all his papers at the museum. So, they actually had a lot of papers talking about the surgery. So, that was kind of where I began looking into the story.

RAY SUAREZ: You have talked about parallels. Have there been other times in American history where presidents have tried to hide how sick they are?

MATTHEW ALGEO: Lots, surprisingly.

Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke with about 18 months left in his term and basically was incapacitated for the last year-and-a-half. And this was a very important time in American history, with the League of Nations vote.

Harding had terrible heart failure. The interesting thing, too, is that presidents don’t always get the best health care. You would expect they would. But when the president is the patient, the patient often dictates the terms of treatments, as was the case with Cleveland. To have this operation on a boat, I mean, it was just an insane idea, but nobody would say no to the president.

Harding had such terrible heart failure, but his White House doctor was an old family friend from Ohio. He was a homeopath. He liked to prescribe pills by color. And, so, if Harding was having some kind of problem, he might say, take two pink pills.

And so you all see all these examples of presidents who had poor health and also received poor health care. Poor James Garfield, he got shot in Washington shortly after he took office in 1881. And so many doctors put their fingers in the wound to try to find out where the bullet went, that an infection developed, and that was what actually killed him.

It’s thought, if they’d just taken Garfield back to the White House, put him in bed, gave him some water, he probably would have recovered, because the bullet was lodged harmlessly.

RAY SUAREZ: Could anything like this happen today?

MATTHEW ALGEO: All I will say is, there is a fully equipped medical operating theater on Air Force One. So, if you took a long trip and didn’t have a lot of turbulence, maybe.

RAY SUAREZ: “The President Is a Sick Man.”

Matthew Algeo, thank you.

MATTHEW ALGEO: Thank you, Ray.