When the President Disappeared for 6 Days

Why Did Grover Cleveland Drop Out of Sight?

June 19, 2019
Grover Cleveland
U.S. National Archives

In 1893, during his second term as president, Grover Cleveland mysteriously disappeared from the public’s eye for nearly a week. What happened? Here’s the story…

Portly, cigar-chewing Grover Cleveland had been re-elected in 1892, the only president to leave the White House and return for a second term 4 years later. Immediately after taking office, he had to cope with a grave, national financial crisis. The troubles stemmed from a fight between those who believed, like Cleveland, in staying on the gold standard, and people like Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, who were in favor of permitting an unlimited amount of silver to be coined. 

In the midst of this, on June 18, 1893, Cleveland asked Dr. Robert M. O’Reilly, the White House physician, to have a look at a “rough place” in the roof of his mouth on his cigar-chewing side. O’Reilly saw an angrily inflamed area about the size of a quarter, with granulation similar to that of a cauliflower. A tissue sample was immediately sent to the country’s top pathologist, Dr. William H. Welch, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The word that came back from Dr. Welch, not surprisingly, was “malignant.”

Cleveland’s instant reaction was to maintain complete secrecy. The already shaken nation must not know. On June 30, as Congress recessed, the president, hoping to save the nation from complete collapse yet needing to buy time, called for a special session of Congress on August 7 to continue discussion about the financial crisis.

Arrangements were made for the president to undergo surgery to remove the malignancy under conditions as cleverly contrived as they were critical.

A Secret Surgery…

In late June, with close friend Dr. Joseph D. Bryant, the president took a train to New York. Unnoticed in the dusk, the pair took a common carriage from the train station to Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. Lying offshore was Commodore Elias G. Benedict’s yacht Oneida, which the president boarded unseen and unsuspected.

Dr. Joseph D. Bryant. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Dr. Joseph D. Bryant

Shortly before noon on July 1, Cleveland was prepped for surgery. One account claims that after he was strapped into a straight-back chair that was lashed to the mast, a tense Dr. Bryant told the skipper of the yacht, “If you hit a rock, hit hard, and go straight to the bottom.” Other accounts reveal that the surgery took place in the yacht’s saloon, with six doctors in attendance.

One physician, Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouck, a young dentist with knowledge of the new anesthetic “laughing gas,” had to extract two bicuspids to make room for the surgeon’s work. Some resources say that five teeth were removed in total—the more likely outcome, as a large part of Cleveland’s upper jawbone was also removed.

Dr. Bryant used a white-hot electric knife (cocaine reportedly was used as a topical anesthetic) and worked with desperate speed, for fear that the president might die under anesthetic. He completed the surgery in 31 minutes, then packed the wound and had the patient settled in bed. The entire procedure lasted 90 minutes.

The president improved rapidly. On July 5, the Oneida tied up at the wharf of Cleveland’s summer home, Gray Gables, on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts. Shaky but unaided, the president made a cautious descent down the gangplank and into the arms of his anxiously waiting wife, Mrs. Frances Folsom Cleveland.

The press, who had been waiting for 6 days with no word about the president’s strange disappearance, received a simple explanation: The president had merely been away for a few days receiving treatment for two ulcerated teeth. However, a second operation was performed on July 17, also aboard the Oneida, to remove any remaining diseased tissue.

Later, Cleveland was fitted with a partial denture that filled out his facial contours and provided no evidence of the disturbance. The large cavity in the roof of his mouth was closed with a rubber plug. Miraculously, his speech was not impaired.

Finishing the Fight

On August 7, as planned, the president met with Congress for a showdown fight. His message could be summed up in these words: “The government had no right to injure the people by financial experiments opposed to the policy and practice of other civilized states.” The battle was finally won. On August 28, the house voted 239 to 108 in Cleveland’s favor.

Cleveland lived another 15 years after his ordeal, dying in 1908 not of cancer but of a gastrointestinal ailment complicated by heart and kidney disease. He never revealed the real reason for his 6-day disappearance.

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