An extraordinary yet almost unknown chapter in American history is revealed in this extensively researched exposé. On July 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland boarded a friend’s yacht and was not heard from for five days. During that time, a team of doctors removed a cancerous tumor from the president’s palate along with much of his upper jaw. When an enterprising reporter named E. J. Edwards exposed the secret operation, Cleveland denied it and Edwards was consequently dismissed as a disgrace to journalism. Twenty-four years later, one of the president’s doctors finally revealed the incredible truth, but many Americans simply would not believe it. After all, Grover Cleveland’s political career was built upon honestyhis most memorable quote was Tell the truth”so it was nearly impossible to believe he was involved in such a brazen cover-up. This is the first full account of the disappearance of Grover Cleveland during that summer more than a century ago.
Topics: Presidents, American History, Cancer, Cover-Ups, Dramatic, and Gilded Age
Published: Chicago Review Press an imprint of Independent Publishers Group on Jan 1, 2011
Be the first to review this title!
The health of the president is generally a closely-guarded secret, especially when there is a medical problem. In the Cold War era, national security experts worried that an ailing or debilitated president might encourage Soviet aggression. At other times, it has been feared that a presidential illness would lower public confidence, with negative economic and political consequences.As such, there is a history of keeping harsh details of a president's health out of view, only to be uncovered years later. When possible, medical procedures are not discussed or are downplayed, and serious illnesses are portrayed as something fairly innocuous, like the common cold. In recent years, historians have detailed Franklin Roosevelt's extreme limitations caused by his polio and others have documented how John Kennedy dealt with excruciating back pain using heavy medication.If the most egregious example of undisclosed poor presidential health was the almost complete incapacitation of Woodrow Wilson after his 1918 stroke -- leaving most decisions to his wife and one advisor -- the next worse is likely the secret surgery to remove a tumor from Grover Cleveland's mouth. Matthew Algeo tells this improbable tale with great style in "The President is a Sick Man: Wherein the Supposedly Virtuous Grover Cleveland Survives a Secret Surgery at Sea and Vilifies the Courageous Newspaperman who Dared Expose the Truth."As the subtitle explains in the style of a late 19th century headline, a key part of the odd tale is the weird aftermath where the President and his allies used the power of the presidency to squash the reporting of a well-sourced reporter who found out about the surgery in the following weeks. Trading on Cleveland's long-standing reputation for integrity -- proven during his campaign by his admission to fathering a child out of wedlock and providing for that child -- those close to the president were able to cover up the truth by offering consistent denials and by challenging the credibility of E. J. Edwards, the reporter who penned the explosive story, "The President a Very Sick Man," in the Philadelphia Press.Edwards provided the first glimpse of the secret surgery, which took place on a yacht during the week of the July 4th holiday in 1893. A team of doctors was secretly assembled to remove a likely cancerous tumor from Cleveland's upper jaw. The procedure would have been delicate in any setting, as the medical profession was in the midst of its transformation toward 20th Century practices, such as improved sanitary precautions and rigorous doctor education and training. It was even more precarious, though, when carried out by a team of doctors working together for the first time onboard a pleasure boat subject to wind and waves.Although the surgery was successful, the president needed time to recuperate. (Eventually, he would also need a prosthetic to fill in the space where part of his upper jaw was removed.) A planned fishing trip, coupled with the report of a small cold, explained the president's absence and his refusal to speak to any reporters during his convalescence. Only after Cleveland's death would the reporter Edwards enjoy the restoration of his reputation when one of the doctors involved decided to tell the incredible story in the Saturday Evening Post, in order to prevent the crowning case of his career from remaining unknown. Using Edwards' and the doctor's accounts as a foundation, Algeo performed excellent research to flesh out his full account of this incredible incident and its aftermath. He carefully places the surgery, the political cover-up, and the subsequent reporting in revealing context, often humorously, as when he describes the ego-centered competition in Philadelphia journalism at the time. From these pieces, Algeo tells the remarkable story vividly and well, capturing the key personalities and offering the dramatic intrigue of a thrilling mystery.more
It would seem to me that Algeo is on a crusade; that he has an agenda. You don't even have to read between the lines to realize that as far as he is concerned the press has the right and obligation to tell everything because "the people have the right to know". Even the title of his book is full of emotion triggering words. Cleveland is "supposedly virtuous" and he "vilifies" the "courageous" newspaperman who "dared" expose the truth.If you can sweep away Algeo's method of coloring his words to make the impression he wants, the book gives a fairly good account of the drastic days beginning US President Grover Cleveland's second term in office. The financial crisis the nation was facing was in many ways worse than the one we are now in and the background Algeo gives puts the whole time in perspective.Algeo's research indicates that Cleveland's decision to keep secret the fact that he was having a tumor removed from his mouth was probably the only decision possible that would not very likely destroy the nation. Algeo tells us that "it was widely believed that his [Cleveland's] health and the nation's health were inextricably linked.....the Commercial and Financial Chronicle wrote, 'Mr. Cleveland is about all that stands between this country and absolute disaster, and his death would be a great calamity.' " Algeo's book tells us that businesses and people were already in a state of near panic and the newspaper article that reporter E. J. Edwards wrote made it sound as if he were on death's doorstep. Edwards never actually mentioned the word "cancer", but said "... Mr. Cleveland is a sick man, perhaps a very sick man, and that the physicians have fear that mortal disease is lurking in his system..."Presidents both before and since Cleveland have concealed illness from the public. History tells us that Presidents Washington , Lincoln, Arthur, and Wilson all have life threatening health issues. This may have been done for any number of reasons such a need to appear to be a strong leader, a man in control of events or out of a wish for privacy. The media circus that attended the illness and death of General Grant was in all ways equal to the media circus that now surrounds actions of celebrities. It was Cleveland's decision not to make public the operation, but that does not alter the fact that he was considered a "virtuous" man. Only his bitterest rivals argued that point. There was no evidence in Algeo's book of any instance where Cleveland was asked directly by the press about the operation and that he lied about it. Arguably there is a difference between not telling something and outright lying. In fact, Algeo doesn't even give an example of Cleveland, himself, being asked about the operation.The book also does not give any examples of Cleveland "vilifying" the newspaper man. At first other newspapers jumped on the story Edwards had written with all the hysteria possible, but after repeated denials from personal friends of Cleveland and administration personnel the press then heaped their anger at what they felt was a false story onto Edwards. It was the members of the press that did the vilifying. Paper after paper and reporter after reporter denounced him for writing the article. Edwards was an accomplished and recognized reporter. Algeo tries to make the case that Edwards was being courageous, but Edwards didn't "dare" to expose the truth. He heard the story, checked it out with two sources that he considered reliable (one of which was one of the doctors present at the operation) and wrote the story. No one told him not to, no one threatened him. In this story, there was no bribery, no misuse of public funds or crime that needed to be exposed. It was simply a chance to score what we know as a "scoop". Algeo states in this book that Edwards "understood the repercussions" for reporting the story. He knew that his story could start a whirlwind that might "plunge the administration, and perhaps the country, into turmoil" and that figuratively speaking the administration would probably try to "kill the messenger", as Algeo puts it. One could say, however, that he wasn't being "courageous"; he was merely reporting what he thought was probably the biggest story he would ever cover and, in spite of knowing the possible results, to the country, of making the story known at that time, he chose to do it anyway which opens up the entire question of: how much do the people 'need to know'? When does "telling all" become irresponsible? The book gives an excellent account of the state of the country during this time and the background of the financial difficulties it faced. However, I feel that when Algeo discusses Cleveland and Edwards he loses his objectivity. There is a difference between reporting facts in a neutral way and telling the same facts with words which give slant and bias in such a way as to make the reader adopt the view you wish them to. This kind of writing is not reporting; it is editorializing (to be polite). Algeo may have a cause to champion, but I am not sure why he chooses to try to make Cleveland, and his decision, appear to be so in need of censure. One of the doctor's involved wrote a detailed account which was published in the Saturday Evening Post after all the principals involved had died. So I don't accept the reason that Algeo needed to 'bring this event to light'. It seemed, to me, to be to be one more case of a reporter trying to bring down someone's reputation simply because they can. Personally, I understood why Cleveland made the decision to keep the operation concealed and it moved him up in my estimation.more
Matthew Algeo does a masterful job, once again, of taking an obscure event in presidential history and, using a light, breezy style, bringing it to life for the modern reader. As he did earlier with Harry Truman's post-presidential road trip (in [Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure]), Algeo has done it again, this time, with President Grover Cleveland's secret surgery to remove a cancerous tumor while on board his friend's boat in July of 1893.It's an absolutely fascinating book, putting the event into the context of the times and drawing parallels to President Grant's cancer a bit earlier. Also of particular interest: how the surgery's secrecy was maintained despite the involvement of six doctors/dentists and several friends onboard. When a reporter exposed the secret surgery, he was vilified, but later exonerated by the truth.Algeo really makes the 1890s come alive in a book that I'd strongly recommend to any fan of American history books.more
Read all 6 reviews