Health, Secrets & The Presidency

In the world of instant gratification, social media and know-all press, it is fascinating to look back at times that were so different. Today, a President would have a very difficult time keeping anything from the press and the public. But this was not the case with President Glover Cleveland in 1893.

President Cleveland, discovering that he had oral cancer, managed to keep this from the public. In June of 1893, Cleveland was told that his malignancy would require the removal of his left upper jawbone immediately. Understandably, he did not want to scare the public that had just lived through Grant’s death from the same cancer, and so he kept it from the public.

On July 1, 1893, he had the surgery and then stayed in his summer home for five weeks to heal. He had an artificial jaw prosthesis and returned to the yacht for a second round of surgery. He eventually returned to Washington and continued with his Presidency.

On the one year anniversary of his surgery, he sent a secret letter to his surgeon, Dr. Joseph D. Bryant. Housed at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, the letter reads:

Perhaps it has not occurred to you that this is rather an interesting anniversary. I don’t know that it ought to occur to you with the same depth of feeling that it does to me. At any rate I want to remind you that you and I were on the Oneida one year ago today – both feeling very different from what we do today and I guess you the most anxious of the two… I must tell you another coincidence. Dr. Keen called on me and examined me with the greatest satisfaction… He never tires of speaking of the splendor and success of your job. He has really made me think that my very dear medical friend is a good deal of a chap. But I only want to remind you of the anniversary…

President Cleveland’s cancer never returned and he died 14 years later of heart failure. No one ever spoke of the situation until 1917.

Cleveland died fourteen years later of heart failure. His cancer never returned, and no one involved in its removal, spoke a word of it until 1917.