Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Grover Cleveland
I discuss one of the most famous (or infamous) presidential scandals in nineteenth century American history in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History. New York Governor Stephen Grover Cleveland had just accepted the Democratic nomination for president in July 1884 when the Buffalo Evening Telegraph, a well-known tabloid of the day, reported that the candidate had fathered a child out of wedlock with a young woman who was soon confined to an insane asylum while another family adopted the child. Upstate New Yorkers had heard the whispered rumors for years—Cleveland was a Buffalo native—but to many other citizens the scandalous tale was riveting. Cleveland had been nicknamed “Grover the Good” owing to his unblemished public record. Now, suddenly, he was cast as a salacious scoundrel with an undeniably checked past. Cleveland’s Republican rival, James G. “Slippery Jim” Blaine—derided as “Blaine, Blaine, Continental Liar from the State of Maine”—had been tied to a scheme to trade congressional favors for cash payments, so he was grateful to share the negative press. Following the Evening Telegraph bombshell, the election became a contest among two deeply flawed men, with voters forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
That Cleveland was the subject of a sex scandal appeared incongruous. He was a man of no small circumference, overly fond of food and drink—his various nicknames included “the Buxom Buffalonian” and “Uncle Jumbo”—and was known to be awkward around women. Unlike Blaine, who was a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, senator, and secretary of state, Cleveland’s political resume was short, but he had impressed voters with his strong work ethic and his rapid rise from obscurity. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who died when Grover was 16 years old. As a young man, he eked out a living working several jobs just to support his mother and eight siblings. He eventually became an attorney, a large step up in prestige and income for a self-made man.
In his years as an elected official—first as sheriff of Erie County, New York, then mayor of Buffalo, New York, and eventually as governor of the Empire State—Cleveland developed a reputation as scrupulously honest and fair-minded, a rare feat in an era rife with political corruption. With the 1884 revelation of a bastard child in his past, that reputation, so painstakingly developed over years of patient work, might disappear in an instant. He must respond, and quickly.
He chose a direct approach, dashing off a telegram to his good friend and campaign surrogate from Buffalo, Charles Goodyear. “Whatever you do,” he urged his friend, “tell the truth.” Yes, Cleveland confessed, he had been “illicitly acquainted” with a young woman, Maria Halpin, and she had become pregnant around that time. He was not sure that the child was his—Ms. Halpin was known to be promiscuous with several men, including married men in Mr. Cleveland’s circle of acquaintances—but he had decided to acknowledge paternity and assist her in finding a suitable home for her baby.
According to Cleveland’s campaign staffers, the tale was not evidence of their man’s depravity. On the contrary, the narrative demonstrated Grover Cleveland’s sterling character. He might have disavowed any knowledge of the woman and her bastard child, preferring to leave her in the lurch lest the sordid episode tarnish his otherwise spotless record. Instead of pursuing this easy course, however, Cleveland had manfully stepped up to care for the widow and her son when lesser men might have headed for the hills. Surely his effort to help the poor widow did not disqualify him from serving as president, especially considering Blaine’s far more recent transgressions involving misappropriation of funds, a matter pertinent to the gentleman’s fitness to safeguard the public trust.
Cleveland's narrative almost killed the story, but not quite. Ms. Halpin had a different tale to tell. She had been absent from the scene, but news reporters soon tracked her down to ask about her recollection of events. Not surprisingly, her version cast the presidential aspirant in a negative light.
In a Chicago Tribune interview four days before the general election, Halpin presented voters with her own interpretation of the facts. Governor Cleveland was not the chivalrous gentleman he professed to be. “The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public,” she told the reporter.
In her version of events, she was not the fallen woman that Cleveland and his associates described. She was a 38-year-old widow employed as a clerk in a Buffalo department store when she encountered the hefty young lawyer on December 15, 1873. According to Halpin, Cleveland had been an ardent suitor, pursuing her for months with an off-putting zeal.
She was on her way to a friend’s birthday party when Cleveland ran into her on the street. He insisted that she join him for dinner, and he would not take “no” for an answer. Initially reluctant, she relented, accompanying him to the Ocean Dining Hall & Oyster House.
By her own account, Halpin enjoyed the dinner despite her initial reluctance to be there. After the meal ended, Cleveland escorted her back to the boarding house where she resided. Events then took a turn for the worse. He all but forced himself into her room. Although she did not formally charge him with sexual assault or rape, she strongly intimated that the resultant encounter was not consensual.
Halpin did not report the incident to the police because Cleveland promised to destroy her career if she told anyone. It was not an idle threat. As the former sheriff of Erie County, Cleveland still had many friends in law enforcement. No doubt they would accept his word over hers if she filed charges. Fearful that she might be retaliated against, Halpin tried to put the episode behind her.
The episode could not be so easily dismissed or forgotten. Her unexpected pregnancy meant that she could not escape the repercussions of that terrible night. Halpin had never expected to see Grover Cleveland again after he had forced himself upon her, but the pregnancy changed everything. Five or six weeks later, she told him that she was pregnant. His reaction can be imagined.
The pregnancy advanced, as expected, and Maria Halpin bore a son in a hospital for unwed mothers on September 14, 1874. The boy was christened Oscar Folsom Cleveland, after Cleveland’s best friend. (Grover Cleveland would later marry his friend’s daughter.) Halpin was horrified when the child was “spirited away,” and she was forced into the Providence Lunatic Asylum, a hospital for persons thought to be insane. The description is not quite apt, though; the asylum also treated patients who in a later era would be characterized as clinically depressed. Halpin insisted that she was not unbalanced, and that her son had been snatched from her at Cleveland’s direction. It was an insidious plot to undermine her credibility and punish her as a warning that she should be discreet.
She resided in the asylum for only a few days before the hospital’s medical director recognized that she was not insane. Anxious to track down her boy after her release, she hired a well-known Buffalo attorney, Milo A. Whitney, to assist her in locating her son. Outraged at her treatment, Halpin said she would file charges for assault and abduction against Cleveland. Her brother-in-law arrived from New Jersey to join forces with Whitney.
Within days, according to Halpin, she received a proposed agreement that offered her $500 if she would relinquish custodial rights to the boy and drop the matter entirely. Without the means or wherewithal to battle Cleveland indefinitely, she abandoned her efforts to regain custody of the child. A doctor at the Providence Lunatic Asylum later adopted Oscar.
During the ensuing years, she watched as Cleveland’s political career progressed. When reporters came calling in the summer of 1884 to investigate “Grover the Good’s” unsavory past, Maria Halpin was upset by news reports portraying her as an irresponsible harlot prone to drinking, insanity, and neglecting her son. The campaign tale was more than the usual embroidery of the truth, she said.
The official tale had Cleveland refusing to marry the young widow but fulfilling his responsibilities by establishing her in a business in Niagara Falls. He also provided child support. The campaign tale noted that Halpin was despondent because Cleveland would not marry her. In due course, according to Cleveland’s staff, Maria Halpin returned to Buffalo and kidnapped the boy before he was adopted. Apprehended by the police, she lost custody permanently. Reviewing these supposed facts for reporters, she insisted that the campaign narrative was little more than fiction.
The newspaper reporters did not know what to make of the competing narratives, but no matter. They gleefully reported on Maria Halpin’s antics, delighting in vivid descriptions of her looks and demeanor. Her “wealth of dark hair and dark eyes of great depth and of strange, fascinating power” supposedly revealed something about her character, as did her “rotundity of figure.”
Not surprisingly, public opinion followed predictable patterns. Democratic partisans expressed their support for their nominee, praising his heroic efforts to care for this unstable harlot and her little bastard of unknown origin. Even those Democrats who were disinclined to accept this whitewashed view of events chalked up the incident to youthful hi-jinks. Boys, after all, will be boys. (Cleveland was 36 years old at the time of the alleged rape, which made the characterization of his behavior as a young man’s indiscretion highly unlikely, even if one were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Republicans hooted and hollered that the Democratic nominee, always presented in the press as an unfailingly honest antidote to the corrupt James G. Blaine, was a libertine who did not deserve to be president. He possessed neither the character nor the ability to govern. One widely reprinted drawing, the creation of cartoonist Frank Beard, lampooned Cleveland by depicting a crying child reaching out to “Grover the Good,” screaming, “I want my pa!” The cartoon famously appeared on the September 27, 1884, cover of The Judge, a satirical magazine modeled on Puck, a well-known American humor publication. A caption below the cartoon read, “another voice for Cleveland.” Snickering Republicans invented a little ditty to accompany the image: “ma, ma, where’s my pa?”
Despite Cleveland’s efforts to eschew dirty politics, the election became a race between two campaigns to see how low they could go. Blaine’s supporters could not and would not let go of the Halpin story. Cleveland’s men retaliated by bringing up rumors about Blaine. Aside from his well-established penchant for financial corruption, rumors circulated that Blaine had engaged in premarital sex, marrying his wife in a shotgun wedding because he could not figure out a way to escape his predicament. Their child was born a mere three months after the wedding.
Cleveland eked out a victory over Blaine on November 4, 1884, winning just over 23,000 more popular votes than his rival out of almost 10 million votes cast. In the Electoral College, Cleveland won 219 votes and 20 states to 182 votes and 18 states for Blaine. He was the first Democrat to capture the White House since before the Civil War. Joyful Democrats chanted the little ditty about the president-elect’s bastard son, but they added a twist: “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!” Another sarcastic refrain mentioned the illicit lover by name: “Hurrah for Maria! Hurrah for the kid! I voted for Cleveland and I’m damned glad I did!”
Grover Cleveland went on to serve four years before losing his reelection bid in 1888. In 1892, Cleveland tried again, once more winning the presidency, becoming the first man, and so far, the only man, to serve two non-consecutive terms as president. While in the White House, he became the first president ever to be married in office when he wed 21-year-old Frances Folsom, the daughter of his good friend, Oscar Folsom, who had died in a carriage accident in 1875. Frances Cleveland became the youngest First lady in American history.
In the “me, too” era of the twenty-first century, when sexual assault allegations against powerful men were taken more seriously than they were in the past, Cleveland no doubt would have been subjected to far more rigorous scrutiny. Blaming the victim for her promiscuity and characterizing the alleged assailant as a virtuous gentleman who sought only to aid a destitute, if deeply flawed, woman of low moral fiber would not be readily accepted.
At least one historian has attempted to hold Cleveland accountable for his misconduct. In his 2011 book A Secret Life: The Sex, Lies, and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland, Charles Lachman argued that Grover Cleveland raped Maria Halpin on that December evening in 1873. Cleveland’s portrayal as the decent man who wanted to do the right thing by this young harlot was public relations spin at its most egregious.
Cleveland survived a sex scandal that most likely would have wrecked his career because he seized upon a defense that served many a would-be scoundrel in years to come. He presented himself as an incredibly capable public figure who would carry out the people’s business aside from his private failings. This was precisely the defense that candidates such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump relied on to escape the consequences of their actions. In private life, they fell short of the moral standards we would prefer in our elected officials, but their public policies were the paramount consideration for voters. Everyone is a sinner and let he who is without sin cast the first stone. This defense depends on the willingness of voters to place their own self-interests above concerns about the private moral character of the men and women they send to high office.