Texas History Matters: The secret surgery of President Grover Cleveland

By Ken Bridges
Special to the Herald Democrat
Grover Cleveland

The health of the president always becomes world news.  Under the watchful eye of the media and the public, the smallest detail is immediately noticed.  Modern presidents routinely discuss their health problems in the smallest and most personal details today to reassure the public.  However, this was not always the case.  In 1893, one president underwent cancer surgery, and the world never knew for 24 years. 

            Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey in 1837.  He was the son of a Presbyterian minister and moved to Buffalo, New York, as a young man, where he became an attorney at age 22.  He served as a deputy prosecutor in Erie County during the Civil War and served as Erie County Sheriff from 1871 to 1874.  As sheriff, he presided over two executions, in accordance with New York law at that time.  He served one year as mayor of Buffalo, 1882, before being elected governor. During his one term as governor, he was elected president in 1884.

            Cleveland is also known for being the only president to serve non-consecutive terms.  He lost re-election in 1888.  Though he won the popular vote by 95,000 votes, he narrowly lost two states he had won in 1884, Indiana and New York. However, he was able to recapture the White House by a decisive margin in a rematch in 1892 and returned to the White House.

            One summer morning in 1893 and a few months into his second term, Cleveland, now 56, was shaving and noticed a strange growth on the roof of his mouth. Over the next couple of weeks, it grew. Cleveland, alarmed at the development, contacted his doctor for an examination.  His doctor, believing it was cancer, recommended immediate surgery for its removal. 

Before his second term started, the nation was in the midst of a financial panic, which was part of a larger downturn called the Long Depression.  Very little could be done about cancer in the 1890s, and hospitals were notorious for spreading post-operative infections. Cleveland feared that his health could destabilize an already nervous country.  He and his doctors decided not to tell anyone, not even Vice-President Adlai Stevenson.

In the 1890s, a president’s movements were not monitored 24 hours a day. A modern president cannot hide health problems.  President Bill Clinton once likened the presidency to living in a fishbowl.  The United States was not yet a superpower and presidents neither commanded a nuclear arsenal nor had the power over the economy seen today. However, a president’s health remained a matter of great concern.

            After ruling out a procedure at either a hospital or the White House, where either would arouse attention, they decided on the most unusual location – a friend’s yacht.  Cleveland, a small number of close friends, and his team of six surgeons devised a plan to bring Cleveland to New York City to a friend’s waiting yacht.  As New York City is on a series of islands, any kind of boating activity was never seen as anything out of the ordinary.

While the ship sailed along, Cleveland would be brought below deck where the procedure would be performed.  He was given ether as an anesthetic, some bone from his mouth and five teeth were removed.  A small piece of rubber was fitted to take the place of the bone and teeth.  No scars were left, and the procedure went without complication.

            The operation took 90 minutes.  The recovery went fairly well until more growth was seen. It had to be performed again under the same circumstances.  No one ever found out what happened.

How serious the cancer was remains a subject of debate.  Cleveland took the best medical advice available at the time and underwent the procedure.  However, a number of modern scientists and physicians studying his case believe that the growth on his mouth may not have been malignant.  Much more is known about cancer in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth, but cancer is tricky and many questions remain unanswered about it. 

After his recovery, he resumed office quietly.  He did not run for re-election in 1896. 

Cleveland’s cancer never returned.  His health declined from unrelated problems, and he died of a heart attack in 1908 at age 71. In 1917, years after Cleveland’s death, the story of his surgery finally became public.  Many Americans were astounded by the story and did not believe that a president could secretly undergo surgery.  Vice-President Stevenson never found out how close he came to the presidency, as he died in 1914.  In part because of this case and other presidential health scares, the Twenty-Fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967, putting plans in place in case a president were to be unconscious during surgery or debilitated by a serious illness.

Special Note: Happy Birthday, Kaleb.  Love, Dad.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.

Ken Bridges