One hundred years ago today, a U.S. president had major surgery on his jaw for cancer. He successfully hid that fact for 24 years.
In 1893, the U.S. economy was sliding into a depression. Panicked, the country looked to its new president, Grover Cleveland, to see what he’d do. His Democratic supporters believed he could minimize losses by ending the Treasury’s policy of purchasing silver, which was fueling a run on gold.
“Mr. Cleveland is about all that stands between this country and absolute disaster,” wrote one financial editor, “and his death would be a great calamity.”
What that editor didn’t know was how close President Cleveland had been to death. When a Philadelphia paper reported that doctors had had secretly performed surgery on the president for a cancer of the jaw on July 1, 1893, the story was met with widespread doubt. The story was dismissed as another false alarm about cancer. It was also interpreted as a fake news story planted by supporters of the silver-purchasing program.
Two months after the surgery, the president seemed in excellent health. He was travelling, giving speeches, and showing no signs of weakness.
President Cleveland went on to halt the Treasury purchasing of silver, finish his term, lose re-election, run again four years later, and win back the presidency.
He lived another 15 years beyond the reported surgery—a surprisingly long time for a cancer survivor in those days.
Questions about the surgery remained unanswered for 24 years, until the Post ran a confirming story by one of the attending physicians. “The Surgical Operations on President Cleveland in 1893” from our September 22, 1917, issue, gave details of the procedure, which was performed on a yacht off the shore of Long Island. The operation described by the author, Dr. Keen, involved the removal of large section of the jaw and even parts of the skull.
But by 1917, the politics of silver and the depression of 1893 were far in the past. Americans were now focused on the world war they’d just entered.
Shorn of its political implication, and supported by the Post’s credibility, the story was generally accepted as true at last.
Featured image: Illustration of Grover Cleveland from The Saturday Evening Post