Why had the President Disappeared?

BUSINESS IN THE WHITE HOUSE was starting to get brisk that warm June morning of 1893. President Grover Cleveland had succeeded Benjamin Harrison in March. The headlines of the year had been fairly tame thus far. The worst event for President Cleveland to deal with was the Panic of 1893 on May 5. An economic depression began.

On this morning, a young secretary walked into an office in the White House. Cub reporters sitting a nearby hall pricked up their ears. As the secretary left the office of the Vice President she had a noticeable scowl on her face. The nearby reporters were sure they were onto a juicy story. Where is the President? No one had seen him for quite a while and they could not get an intelligent answer.

The mystery continued.   In early June of that year, the President had, in fact, discovered a tumor in the roof of his mouth. It was cancerous. He would have to have it surgically removed if he intended to live. He agreed, but he demanded total secrecy, by all concerned. There was that awful depression caused by the panic on Wall Street and the news of a sick President could further injure the morale of the country.

Six of the nation’s most gifted physicians were assembled and Grover Cleveland made his clandestine way to The Oneida, a yacht moored out in Long Island Sound. A chair was tied to an interior portion of the mast and it would serve as the operating table. Surgical instruments had to be boiled and a single light bulb provided illumination. The bulb was electrified with a battery.

On June 30, President Cleveland found himself in the operating chair surrounded by doctors in business suits that had been draped by white gowns. The President had a fifteen percent chance of dying from the surgery alone.

A worse fear was that the procedure could cause an incapacitating stroke.

The surgeons removed the tumor, several teeth and part of the jaw, using ether and nitrous oxide as anesthetics. They left no external wounds during the ninety-minute procedure. After his surgery, the yacht dropped Cleveland off at his summer home on Cape Cod and his mouth healed quickly.

Later questions about the absence of the President were answered, “He is recovering from a bad toothache.” This was an excuse to explain the difference in his speech caused by the prosthesis he wore inside his mouth.

A young reporter spilled the beans in an August 29 article in The Philadelphia Press. The Cleveland camp denied it. They claimed he had fabricated the tumor story to sell papers. Poor Elisha Edwards was finished in the journalism business and had to eke out a living. Cleveland had run for office using his virtue as a selling point—The Honest President—and that could not be interfered with.

The President did get several more years of good life from the operation. After Cleveland died, and later on, some twenty-five years after the surgery, one of the attending doctors saw to it that Edwards was exonerated through an article of his own in The Saturday Evening Post. Cards and letters of praise poured in to Edwards after all that time.

One of the best books on this strange incident in American history is, The President is a Sick Man by Matthew Algeo, 2011.   By the way, the title of this book is, aptly, the same title Elisha Jay Edwards used for his article in The Philadelphia Press, so long, long ago.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious Indeed, a collection of stories about the unknown and unexplained.

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  • Joyce Gorum McGee

    Such an interesting write-up, Sara!

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