10/7/13 - a presidential scandal

In today's selection -- from Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff. Democrat Grover Cleveland's 1884 presidential bid was almost derailed when, as a bachelor, he was accused of fathering an illegitimate child. Cleveland was the son of a church pastor, and though bland and unassuming, had ascended politically because of his reputation for honesty and fair dealing in the corrupt Tammany Hall era, first as mayor of Buffalo and then as governor of New York. He survived the scandal and won the presidency. In fact, he won the majority of the popular vote in three successive presidential elections -- 1884, 1888, and 1892 -- but lost the 1888 election based on electoral votes. During his first term in the White House, he married Frances Folsom, who was 27 years his junior. She became a beloved First Lady (or "President's Lady" as it was then called):

"Cleveland ... was the very symbol of rectitude and incorruptibility. But happily [for his Republican opponents, they] found a chink in his puritan armor.

"It was revealed to them on July 21, only two weeks after the Democratic [presidential] convention, when newsboys began hawking the Buffalo Evening Telegraph with its incredible front-page article headed:

A Dark Chapter in a Public Man's History
The Pitiful Story of Maria Halpin and Governor Cleveland's Son ...

"The details, on their face, were shocking. The article spoke of how Cleveland had seduced Halpin and, when she became pregnant, led her to believe he was going to marry her. Instead, he forced her to commit the baby to an orphan asylum, and the fallen woman was obliged to leave town. Her seducer, the paper went on, remained publicly a paragon of virtue and goodness. These 'facts' seemed to give the lie to Cleveland's pontifical assertion of long before: 'It is no credit to me to do right. I am under no temptation to do wrong.'

Maria Halpin
Grover Cleveland

"The facts are somewhat different. Maria Halpin was a comely young widow from Pennsylvania who, leaving two children behind, had come to Buffalo from Jersey City in 1871 at the age of thirty-three -- a year younger than Cleveland. Tall, attractive, and winsome, able to speak French, she had found employment in a dry-goods store and quickly attained a responsible position. A parishioner of the fashionable St. John's Episcopal Church, she almost immediately had prominent friends. Possibly Cleveland was seduced as well as the seducer. When the child was born, Halpin began to drink heavily and to neglect the infant. Alarmed, Cleveland had his friend, Roswell L. Burrows, a county judge, look into the matter. He arranged for Halpin to be committed to the Providence Asylum -- an institution for mentally deranged people run by the Sisters of Charity. The little boy was sent to the Protestant Orphan Asylum, where Cleveland promised to pay through Burrows the monthly cost of five dollars. Cleveland also persuaded Halpin to leave town, setting her up in business in Niagara Falls.

"Pining for her child and still disappointed that she had not been able to snare Cleveland in marriage, she returned to Buffalo in 1876 and, after failing to recover him legally, kidnapped the youngster from the orphanage. Burrows once again played the Good Samaritan: he returned the boy to the asylum from which he was later adopted by a respectable family in town. Halpin disappeared, although years later, during Cleveland's second term as president, she wrote to him for money.

"That Cleveland had been involved with Halpin was known in official circles in Buffalo, because he had had the help of detectives and others in arranging for Halpin to be committed, and for the boy to be adopted. Moreover, Cleveland had mentioned his 'woman scrape' to a New York Democratic leader at the time of the convention in Chicago, and even though Tammany people knew of it, they made nothing of the story. The name of Cleveland's friend [and father of his future wife] Oscar Folsom was central to the tale. Halpin had named her infant Oscar Folsom Cleveland.

"Although Cleveland never acknowledged the child to be his, as we see, he had contributed to the boy's support. Possibly Miss Halpin did not know who the father was and had selected Cleveland because he was the most likely or because he was the only bachelor among the possibilities. Folsom was a man about town who sought his pleasures of the night. In all likelihood, Cleveland accepted responsibility because of his affection for Folsom, who was killed in a traffic accident in 1875. The gesture honored the memory of his friend and spared his widow and daughter from shame.

"Because the Telegraph had a reputation as a scandal sheet, many people dismissed its lurid report. But the creditable Boston Journal was another matter. It sent to Buffalo a reporter who discovered confirmation of the damning account and published it. The principal source was the Reverend George H. Ball of the Hudson Street Free Baptist Church. Ball asserted that respectable people never allowed Cleveland into their homes, that he was a noted whoremonger, regularly frequenting Buffalo's fleshpots, and that his roistering and carousing were legendary. 'Women now married and anxious to cover the sins of their youth have been his victims, and are now alarmed lest their relations with him shall be exposed .... Abundant rumors implicate him at Albany, and well-authenticated facts convict him at Buffalo.' Ball insisted that the awful fate of Maria Halpin was not a solitary incident and that Cleveland even after becoming governor had not 'abated his lecheries.' Word spread that one night Cleveland was so drunk with his law partner Oscar Folsom that they lost control of the horses drawing their carriage and that that was how Folsom was thrown from it and killed.

"When Cleveland's longtime chum Charles Goodyear asked him what the Democrats' public response should be, Cleveland answered in a telegram that was simple and direct: 'Tell the truth,' three words that remain to this day the gold standard reply.' ...

"[During the campaign] the Republican crowds that often paraded behind baby carriages [to draw attention to the scandal] sometimes chanted:

" 'Ma! Ma! Where's my pa?
Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.' "

[Cleveland was deeply hurt by what he considered a betrayal by his enemies in Buffalo and returned to the city only three more times in his life.]



Henry F. Graff


Grover Cleveland


Times Books


Copyright 2002 by Henry F. Graff


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