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When The President Disappeared

June 2024
12min read

While panic gripped the nation in 1893, Grover Cleveland suffered his own secret ordeal on a yacht in Long Island Sound.

When Charles Francis Adams called what happened to the United States in 1893 its “most deep-seated financial storm,” his metaphor was weak. More than a storm, it was a major earthquake, a violent onset of national growing pains which upheaved the young country’s financial crust and shook the whole continental economy along major fault lines.

The Republicans’ high protective tariffs had put fat gold surpluses into the Treasury which not even Republican largess to Civil War pensioners depleted. But the tariffs and gold were no good for farmers, just then in a run of their leanest years. Despairing for cheaper money and more of it, the westerners turned to silver, of which some of the new states just admitted to the Union had mountains at bargain prices. In 1890 their senators very nearly obtained the free and unlimited coinage of silver. When the Republican-controlled House blocked that, the compromise Sherman Silver Purchase Act required the Treasury to buy 4,500,000 ounces of the white metal per month (the estimated total U.S. output), at market, and to issue notes against it redeemable either in silver or in gold. Most people, of course, took gold.

This was a particularly hazardous fiscal gesture at a time when European countries, and even Russia and India, had demonetized silver. The way foreigners queued up at his Treasury windows to get something for nothing gave Uncle Sam one of his early glimpses of himself as Uncle Sucker.

By putting on their ticket little Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, a former assistant postmaster general and a flirt with the Populist movement, the Democrats in 1892 were able to re-elect New York’s trusted Grover Cleveland as President. No friend of soft money or Treasury raids, Cleveland had stood against both in his 1884–88 term, and he still maintained his opposition. But even before he retook office, the earthquake was in motion and much of the havoc wrought.

More than $100 million in silver notes had been issued, redeemable in gold. The gold reserve was down from $185 million to $101 million and was soon to fall lower yet. That winter and spring of 1893, the Treasury was kept solvent only by omitting sinking fund payments and not spending appropriations voted by Congress.

The clang of closing bank doors reverberated through the land; 642 would shut this year. Savings banks required thirty days notice for withdrawals. Call money was 60 per cent in March and headed for 73 per cent. In February the solid old Reading Railroad went into receivership.

As unemployment spread, not only did panic grip industrialists and financiers, but stark desperation and actual starvation gripped the working masses. Not for another year would Coxey’s Army march on the White House, but Grover Cleveland could already hear it being recruited. His solid sense was sickened, and his honest heart.

The whole trouble, he saw, was the Silver Act, which only he might be able to get Congress to repeal. When it failed to do so before recessing in June, President Cleveland, on that month’s last day, issued a call for a special session to convene on August 7, to save the nation’s fiscal health and sanity.

Those two dates in black 1893—June go and August 7—are worth closer scrutiny. Between them lay an act of personal courage and determination unparalleled in the annals of our Presidents.

For on June 30, at as dark an hour as his country had ever known, the President of the United States disappeared entirely. He did so for a dire reason which was national as well as personal. As he saw it, both he and his country were in sight of the gates of death, and only by a lonely act of his could these be avoided.

On June 18, gruffly as was his wont, Grover Cleveland had asked Dr. Robert M. O’Reilly, the White House physician, to have a look at a “rough place” in the roof of his cigar-chewing mouth. It had, he said, been bothering him for a matter of weeks and felt worse all the time.

What O’Reilly saw was an angrily inflamed area about the size of a silver quarter, extending out to the median line from the left bicuspids and back to the soft palate. He took tissue samples and sent them anonymously to the Army Medical Museum and also to the country’s top pathologist, Dr. William H. Welch at Johns Hopkins.

Cigar-chewing, whisky-drinking Ulysses Grant had lately died, slowly and painfully, of a neglected mouth cancer. Thus O’Reilly and Cleveland were shocked but not exactly surprised when the pathologists’ reports concurred in one horrid word: “Malignant.”

Cleveland’s instant reply to this news was one other word: “Secrecy.” The already shaken country must not know.

A hurried visit to Washington by his great and good friend Dr. Joseph Bryant of New York aroused no suspicions. These two were hunting and fishing cronies as well as doctor and patient. But when Joe Bryant, after confirming the diagnosis, told him, “Were it in my mouth, I would have it removed at once!” Grover Cleveland had to cogitate, to plot and plan. He did so almost instantly and with forthright resolution. Calling in Dan Lamont, his former press secretary, now his secretary of war, he concerted with Bryant for an operation on July 1, under conditions as cleverly contrived as they were critical.

A few minutes alter issuing his call to Congress for a date only six weeks beyond his private ordeal, Grover Cleveland left the White House with Dan Lamont and Dr. Bryant in the afternoon of June 30. They boarded the 4:20 northbound train. (There were no detectives, for secret service men were not assigned as regular presidential guards until after McKinley’s assassination in 1901.) The press was not told that he was leaving. The story would be, if his move were discovered, that he was just slipping away to rest at Gray Gables, his summer home on Buzzard’s Bay, where his young and again pregnant wife had gone already.

Unnoticed in the dusk, the President left his train at New York and with Dr. Bryant went from the station to the Battery in a common carriage. Dim in the night offshore lay Commodore Elias C. Benedict’s graceful yacht Oneida. Her tender quietly ferried the President of the United States out to and aboard her, unseen, unsuspected.

The tender had already made a few other such unobtrusive trips that afternoon and evening. At casually spaced intervals it had fetched Dr. O’Reilly; Dr. Edward G. Janeway, the country’s foremost physiologist; Dr. William W. Keen of Philadelphia, an oral surgeon of highest repute; Dr. Bryant’s brilliant young assistant, Dr. John F. Erdmann (who was to succeed him as “top knife” of New York for a long span of years); and a Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouck of 147 West 126th Street, Manhattan. No surgical bigwig, the latter was a young dentist, but urgently required by the others for his knowledge of the new “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide, for anesthesia.

The dumpy but distinguished patient greeted all these gentlemen tersely and sat with them a while on deck, smoking one more cigar. He did not discuss his ugly ailment but did growl, “Oh, those office seekers! They haunt me even in my dreams!”

About midnight Dan Lamont and Joe Bryant went to their Manhattan homes to sleep, returning before the first sun of July had burned the mist off Manhattan’s rivers. The Oneida sailed betimes, moving up the East River and out through Hell Gate into a glassy Long Island Sound, with Commodore Benedict and Dan Lamont plainly in evidence on deck to make it look to any curious eyes on shore like an ordinary rich man’s pleasure cruise over the Fourth. Inside the yacht’s main saloon the scene was far less usual.

This space, with wide overhead transoms, had been fitted up as a floating surgery. A straight-back chair was lashed to the mast to receive the patient. Sheeted paraphernalia were ranged about, including besides Dr. Hasbrouck’s gas machine a standard ether-giving rig, a manually operated generator for magneto-cautery, tables of instruments for surgeons Bryant and Keen, and a chair beside the patient’s for Dr. Janeway, who would check pulse, blood pressure, and respiration throughout the hacking and scraping. The yacht’s steward was put into a surgical gown so that he could function as orderly. Boiling water and cracked ice were on hand in good supply.

Several times during the morning Cleveland’s month was washed out and disinfected. Shortly before noon he was led pajamaed from his stateroom to the chair and there strapped in, head tilted back as though for a shave.

Dr. Bryant, in charge of everything, nodded to Dr. Hasbrouck for the gassing to begin. The importance of this part was that, deep under heavy ether, oral patients might choke to death on their own blood. From the lighter gas they could more easily be aroused to cough it up. Moreover, Cleveland was precisely the overweight, hypertensive type to go into an apoplexy if he choked at all.

Cleveland went under the gas readily, and the skillful Hasbrouck, with heavy forceps, swiftly extracted two bicuspids to make room for the surgeons’ work. Now came the moment for Dr. Keen’s specialty. From Paris he had lately brought back an ingenious cheek retractor, which would give Joe Bryant’s strong big fingers free play without a hole being cut through the face.

Into the posterior dental ridge now bared by this instrument, Joe Bryant grimly carved with his white-hot electric knife, excising with it a section of the mouth’s roof out to the midline and back to an apparently affected portion of the palate. His great concern was not to invade the orbital palate, that is, eye socket.

When Bryant was about half through cutting. Dr. Hasbrouck warned that the gas would soon wear off and the patient awaken. So at 1:14 Dr. O’Reilly administered ether and presently Dr. Bryant resumed his work.

When Cleveland’s left antrum was fully exposed, it was seen to be filled with “a soft, gray, gelatinous mass”—the lethal sarcoma. Scooping and scraping this away, Dr. Bryant pared the excavation’s limits to remove as many wild fringe cells as possible.

Bleeding was kept to a fortunate minimum—only about six ounces (one tumblerful). What with hot water, ice packs, pressure, and the cauterizing effect of the heated blade, they had to tie off only one blood vessel. Before 2 P.M. all was finished, the cavity stuffed with gauze, the patient back in bed. When he started coming to, about three o’clock, they gave him one-sixth of a grain of morphine. Pulse, blood pressure, and temperature all behaved well, the latter at no time rising above 100.8 degrees.

While the President slept, all hands took a stiff drink and a late lunch. In their vigils that night they knew what no one else in America or the world knew: that the President of the United States had, with their aid, confronted a mortal enemy and, in all likelihood, defeated it for himself and his nation in silence.

Late the next afternoon, July 2, Cleveland felt well enough to leave his bed and walk around a bit. His spirit matched his iron constitution, and through the packings in his mouth he did not complain but thanked those who came in turn to read to him.

He was not told about a difficulty that had arisen with Dr. Hasbrouck. As soon as his job was done the first day, this gentleman asked to be set ashore. The others firmly declined. To go in now might jeopardize their tremendous secret, and besides there might be complications such as hemorrhaging, with more gas needed. But by the afternoon of July 2 Hasbrouck was frantic as well as disgruntled. He was, he said, 48 hours late for another critical operation. Now the rest relented, and the tender put Dr. Hasbrouck ashore at New London.

On July 3 Cleveland was up and around all day. He belatedly signed the ship’s register with a hand that was quick and firm.

On July 4 the Oneida ran in to Sag Harbor, where Dr. Keen was put ashore.

Late in the afternoon of the fifth, the Oneida moored in Buzzard’s Bay and a squat, limping figure wrapped in a cloak made his way up the private dock at Gray Gables. The world was told that he had been treated for two ulcerated teeth and a recurrence of his pedal rheumatism. While he went to bed, his friends mounted guard, Joe Bryant not far from bedside, Dan Lamont to cope with a hornets’ nest.

At nearby Buzzard’s Bay village, the gentlemen of the nation’s press had been kicking their heels for five full days and nights with no word of any kind as to their President’s whereabouts. When the Oneida was sighted offshore, fretfulness became fury which Lamont confronted in an old gray barn on the Cleveland estate. With a smoothness to match anything later displayed by a Steve Early or a Jim Hagerty, Dan Lamont gave them the rheumatism routine and expressed hurt dismay at all questions probing for a “malignancy,” a mortal illness. He sent the reporters away silenced if not mollified, but they were back again the next day with a fresh line of attack.

Vice President Stevenson, they said, had heard the President’s condition was so serious that he was entraining at once from New York to come up and investigate. Dan Lamont squelched this move by announcing that Mr. Stevenson was neither invited to nor expected at Gray Gables.

In view of Stevenson’s cahooting with the Silverites and his influence in the Senate, a hard-money New York columnist cracked: “The Buzzards will please keep aloof from Buzzard’s Bay!”

So no “buzzard” came, but on July 7 the President’s devoted friend and favorite actor, Joe Jefferson, came, cheering him vastly. And Dan Lamont and Joe Bryant stayed on, the latter taking Cleveland out, as was their custom, to fish for stripers and drumfish from a rowboat, where the salt air was as good therapy as any. An orthodontist, Dr. Kasson G. Gibson was brought up from New York to make impressions, and he quickly fashioned a hard-rubber plug for the gaping jaw hole.

Despite his continuing discomfort, by July 12 Cleveland was doggedly at work on his message to Congress for August 7. It went slowly. He had got little done by the seventeenth, when Joe Bryant ordained another trip to sea in the Oneida. This time their object was, again in utmost secrecy, to remove the rubber plug and see how the wound was healing. As they had feared, patches of evil tissue were regrowing; so they managed another gas job by themselves as Dr. Bryant scraped the hole with thorough diligence.


Back ashore, where the press had not missed him, Cleveland yielded to Dan Lamont’s insistence that the attorney general be allowed to come up and help with the message to Congress. When Richard Olney arrived he was shocked to see how haggard the round face had become, how gaunt the robust body. “My God, Olney, they nearly killed me!” grunted Cleveland, and went to work on the draft speech Olney had brought with him. He retained only about one-sixth of it, writing the rest of 2,800 words himself in his own laborious longhand.

With the advent of August, Cleveland was still feeling miserable, but he insisted on journeying back to Washington not later than the fifth. He wanted a couple of days to collar returning members of Congress and impress upon them their duty to pass the Sherman Act repealer with all speed. The Senate, Lord knew, would be trouble enough, but the House must not hesitate.

The Congress met on the seventh and duly received the President’s uncompromising message. "… The operation of the silver purchase law now in force,” he wrote, “leads in the direction of the entire substitution of silver for gold in the Government Treasury, and … this must be followed by the payment of all Government obligations in depreciated silver. …

“The people of the United States are entitled to a sound and stable currency, and to money recognized as such on every exchange and in every market of the world. Their government has no right to injure them by financial experiments opposed to the policy and practice of other civilized states.”

Cleveland stayed in hot Washington four more days. Then, with the repealer measure introduced, and all his personal pressures to bear, he crept back to Gray Gables to resume getting well.

Meantime, on the very day he went to Washington, something occurred in New York City which came very near to unmasking Cleveland’s entire high conspiracy.

When the disgruntled Dr. Hasbrouck left the Oneida at New London, it was to assist a very high-toned medico indeed named Leander P. Jones, vet to the blue bloods of Newport and Manhattan. To save skin off his own nose, Hasbrouck let Jones know just who and what had detained him.

Miffed at being treated so highhandedly, even by Dr. Joe Bryant and the President of the United States, Dr. Jones tipped off a newspaper friend of his, one E. J. Edwards, a reporter for the Philadelphia Press, who signed all his work rather grandly “Holland.”

Holland wasted no time getting up to 147 West 126th Street. There Dr. Hasbrouck, persuaded that the story was publicly known at least in outline, and far from ashamed of his own conspicuous part in it, confirmed it to Holland in full detail.

Thus, just four days before his fight in Congress began and in time for the grave question about his health to affect the fight perhaps fatally, Cleveland’s secret was out.

And yet it wasn’t out—not quite. As conscientious as he was alert, Holland sought to check his colossal scoop. Imperatively his sources must be Dr. Bryant, Dr. Keen, Dan Lamont, and the White House.

For his pains poor Holland was rebuffed by all these sources as a scandal-mongering scoundrel, and Dr. Hasbrouck branded a vicious prevaricator, an unknown dentist who had been called in on a routine extraction job and been fired for bungling.

The publishers of the Philadelphia Press withheld the story. Not for nearly four weeks did they get up enough confirmation and nerve to print it. By that time the huge white lie that it exposed had succeeded and changed places with the truth.

Congressman William Jennings Bryan orated for three hours on August 16 against the repealer (warming up for his “Cross of Gold” speech three years later) but on August 28 the House voted 239 to 108 in Cleveland’s favor. When the Holland story came out next day, it had been so bruited about and discredited in advance that, though it was widely quoted, the conspirators’ denials were quoted also and preponderantly believed.

Helpful also in supporting his great deception through its final stage was Cleveland’s health. With more rest, fishing, and sea air, he now rebounded. By September 5 he was in shape to address a Pan-American Medical Congress in Washington, at which the most jaundiced professional eye could but agree that he never looked livelier or more robust. Keen’s cheek retractor had obviated any outward scar. Gibson’s refitted jaw plug filled any telltale hollow and, if anything, improved his always heavy diction. And on September 9 his wife bore the President, who was only 52 and now looked it again, another girl child.

In the Senate the final victory of Gold over Silver, and the beginning of the end of the earthquake, came less through Cleveland’s efforts than through the Silverites’ own folly. With the little Vice President’s connivance, they filibustered so long—and so absurdly —that by October 30 enough in-betweeners were fed up to make the vote 48 to 37.

So ended an arch cabal in allegiance to the nation’s well-being. As to its violence to veracity, that was not mended until 1917. Then, with most of the other principals dead (Cleveland of heart trouble, and not one more trace of cancer, in 1908), aged Dr. Keen found it fit and profitable to publish a book telling the whole story.

E. J. (Holland) Edwards was long dead, too, and still dishonored. But the press which had reviled him now made such amends as it could. Failing a marble monument, it at least erected in his memory a paramount policy from which it is doubtful that any President will ever find it possible again to escape: the full and instant truth about the White House occupant’s whereabouts and his health.

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