A Yacht, A Mustache: How A President Hid His Tumor
In the summer of 1893, President Grover Cleveland disappeared for four days to have secret surgery on a yacht. It was the beginning of his second term as president and the country was entering a depression, a delicate time in which a president's health was inextricably linked to that of the nation. So Cleveland decided to keep the surgery a secret — and so it stayed for years.
Today, that secret is the subject of Matthew Algeo's new book, The President Is a Sick Man. Algeo tells NPR's Steve Inskeep about the presidential illness that launched a cover-up:
"Shortly after he took office for the second time in 1893, he noticed a little bump on the roof of his mouth," Algeo says. "Around June ... he had noticed it had grown quite large. And the doctor diagnosed it as cancer, [saying], 'It's a bad looking tenant, and I would have it evicted immediately.'"
Cleveland worried that news of his diagnosis would send Wall Street — and the country — into a panic. According to Algeo, that wasn't an unreasonable concern.
"It would be a big deal today," he says. "It was an even bigger deal then because at the time there was a stigma attached to cancer. Newspapers would call it 'the dread disease.'"
So Cleveland decided to have the tumor secretly removed. The plan was for the president to announce he was taking a friend's yacht, the Oneida, on a four-day fishing trip from New York to his summer home in Cape Cod.
"And it was on that yacht that this operation was performed," Algeo says. "They assembled a team of six surgeons. [It] took about 90 minutes. They used ether as the anesthesia and they removed the tumor along with about five teeth and a large part of the president's upper left jawbone."
The surgeons managed to extract the tumor through the president's mouth, which meant there was no noticeable scarring and the president's trademark mustache was left untouched — key conditions for keeping the public in the dark.
Algeo says the operation was an extraordinary achievement in American medicine.
"The doctors took incredible risks. I mean, it was really foolhardy," Algeo says. "I talked to a couple of oral surgeons [while] researching the book, and they still marvel at this operation: that they were able to do this on a moving boat; [that] they did it very quickly. A similar operation today would take several hours; they did it in 90 minutes."
The 'Press' Gets The Scoop
Even back in 1893, Algeo says, it was pretty unusual for the president to disappear for four days, so it wasn't long before people started talking.
Two months after the president's "fishing trip," Philadelphia Press reporter E.J. Edwards published a story about the surgery which he had confirmed with one of Cleveland's doctors. The president flatly denied Edwards' story and even went so far as to launch a smear campaign to discredit the reporter.
"So nobody believed E.J. Edwards," Algeo says. "He was dismissed as a disgrace to journalism."
Edwards' story may never have made its way into history books if one of Cleveland's doctors, William Williams Keen, hadn't eventually come forward.
"Twenty-four years after the operation — when all the other principals were dead — there were only three witnesses left to the operation," Algeo says. "And [Keen] decided it would be the right thing to do to publish an article to explain what really happened and to vindicate E.J. Edwards."
The closest Cleveland ever came to confessing to the surgery was in a letter he wrote to a friend after the first doctor talked to Edwards. It reads, "The report you saw regarding my health resulted from a most astounding breach of professional duty on the part of a medical man ... I tell you this in strict confidence for the policy here has been to deny and discredit this story."
Illness Policy At The White House
According to Algeo, the story of Grover Cleveland's secret tumor is part of a long history of cover-ups when it comes to presidential illness.
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke and was more or less incapacitated for the last 18 months of his second term; Warren Harding covered up his heart disease; John F. Kennedy hid his Addison's disease; and when Ronald Reagan underwent operations for cancer while in office, his wife, Nancy, insisted that the word "cancer" not be used in any official statement or release.
"Even as late as the 1980s this idea of the president having cancer carried some sort of stigma with it," Algeo says.
And while today it may seem even more impossible for a president to just disappear and have a major operation without anyone knowing about it, Algeo says it's actually much easier than you'd think.
"Apparently, there is a fully equipped operating room on Air Force One," he says. "So if a president did want to disappear for a little bit and have an operation, it actually might be easier to do today than it was in 1893."
Chances are, compared to that yacht, Air Force One would also offer a smoother ride — assuming, of course, that there's no turbulence.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.