Part of the macabre collection of medical abnormalities at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum is a piece of President Grover Cleveland’s jaw floating in a brownish fluid.
It is the evidence of one of the great political cover-ups in American history: the president covertly had a cancerous tumor cut out of his mouth.
During the Great Panic of 1893, America was in an economic free-fall, and President Cleveland had a growth in his mouth. Not wanting to add to the instability of his country—or his Democratic Party—he kept it hush-hush.
The president rounded up the best doctors in the land and, swearing them all to secrecy, proposed they perform surgery aboard a yacht as it sailed across the Long Island Sound.
“It was a crazy idea,” said Matthew Algeo, author of the new book “The President is a Sick Man.”
“This is an example of how, if the patient is the president, the patient dictates the terms of treatment. All six doctors agreed to perform it on a boat—and these are the cream of the crop of American surgery,” Algeo said. “The fact they agreed to do this is mind-boggling. Not only is it putting the president’s health in danger, all their reputations could be ruined.”
The doctors successfully removed a tumor about the size of a ping-pong ball, fitted the president with a rubber prosthetic to plug the hole in his jaw, and kept it all on the down-low. The official story was the president had a tooth extracted.
A reporter tracks down the story
But rumors simmered, and a reporter for the now-defunct Philadelphia Press named Elijah Edwards was determined to get to the bottom of the story.
“It was one of the great scoops in American journalism. But nobody believed it,” said Algeo during an interview at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, down the hall from the tumor. “Cleveland denied it, insisted it was a bad case of dentistry. To discredit the story, they discredited Edwards—they killed the messenger. Edwards was called a panic-mongerer, a cancer-faker, a disgrace to journalism. There were editorial cartoons about him.”
Cleveland’s bald-faced lie came at a time when the public gave their president the benefit of the doubt.
Ultimately the reporter was vindicated by one of the doctors who, 24 years later, wrote a story about the operation in the Saturday Evening Post.
That doctor, William Keene, was a past president of the College of Physicians and secured the tumor for its ghoulish collection of oddities. It’s on display at the Mutter Museum near a piece of President James Garfield. But that’s another story.