Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Personal Aside: In Contrast to Edwards, One Presidential Candidate Didn’t Dodge or Lie but Owned Up to an Illegitimate Child.


Profile of Candor—and Guts. .

When in 1884 his campaign managers told Grover Cleveland in his Chicago hotel room that things looked bad for his nomination since his opponents had found almost irrefutable evidence that he had sired an illegitimate child and was getting the mother to so attest in the papers, the bachelor candidate, a massive, hulking figure at 250 pounds, standing 5 feet 11 with a huge bull neck, strong jaw, double chin, big fists into whose firm mouth was almost always clamped a cigar protruding under his bushy mustache, said calmly: “Well, gentlemen, you knew when you found me that I was no gelding even though the son of a minister and born in the Presbyterian manse..” A gelding (a word in common usage of the time) was a castrated horse or donkey.

This did not assuage them. What explanation did he have? God knows at age 47 he was a virile bachelor, popular with the ladies, lax in observing his Presbyterian prayers, rarely going to church, choosing to shoot pool on Sunday rather than meditate on the mercy of God…former sheriff of Erie county N. Y. who personally collared two men at different times…Patrick Morrissey, convicted of stabbing his mother to death and Jack Gaffney, guilty of shooting a man over a poker game…who as mayor of Buffalo declared he had inherited a filthy sewage system, raised taxes (an unpopular move), checking the rising number of typhoid deaths by building a new one…who as Democratic governor of New York spurned patronage, instituted great scrutiny into state banking practices, shocked his party by signing a bill for merit employment sponsored by brash young Republican Theodore Roosevelt…preserved more than 1.5 million acres surrounding Niagara Falls…who as result of all these things was the putative Democratic nominee, backed by both liberal northern reformers and conservative sound money men.

Well, said his senior strategist, David N. Lockwood, aren’t we at least entitled to know the story now that the Republicans and your enemies at Tammany Hall are spreading it and…worse…are demonstrating proof?

Yes, said Cleveland relighting his dead cigar. In 1871…thirteen years ago there was a young lady in Buffalo when I was Erie county sheriff. Her name was Maria Halpin and she was a comely 33, She had left her two children behind in Jersey City to seek a new life in Buffalo, beginning as a collar maker, then a department store clerk, rising to manager of the cloak department. She was a popular lady, damn popular with a number of married men who saw in her a chance to relive their youth while telling their wives they were working late. Eventually she conceived a child. She told us all somebody would have to own up for this and since we all had had a good deal to do with her, we gathered over cigars at late lunch.

I decided I would own up to it since everybody else was married and had wives and children who would be at risk. I was a bachelor. Not that I had sole responsibility, understand but no one knew exactly who the father was—so I said I was. I had the least to lose from such admission. I declined to marry her but told Maria I’d accept financial responsibility for the child, a little boy. This I did. Everybody knew it but I told them to go hang. She named the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland (the Folsom name coming from my best friend, Oscar Folsom who also had much to do with her). Unfortunately Maria was also an alcoholic and I was worried that as a nursing mother it would harm the child. By that time Oscar didn’t want anything to do with her, fearing his marriage was in jeopardy. So I handled it alone.

So I talked to my good friend Judge Roswell L. Burrows who placed her in a sanitarium where they could counsel her to get over her drinking and put the baby in a Catholic orphanage. I paid for the sanitarium and the orphanage and everybody in Erie county knew it—but I didn’t worry about it. Rather have them know I was owning up to what may well have been my responsibility than not. When she was released from the sanitarium, I set her up in a small business in Niagara Falls. But she kept on drinking and when she petitioned the court to regain custody of her little son, the court rebuffed her. She took matters into her own hands and kidnapped the boy in 1876. Authorities quickly recovered the boy. I met with her, convinced her to allow the child to be put up for adoption, paid her a goodly sum from my pocket and she left, remarried and settled in New Rochelle, N. Y. But she decided when I got the Democratic nomination for president that she needed more money—which I disdained. It was so well known in Buffalo it wasn’t big news at all. But now she has gone to the newspapers and here we are.

Here we are!” said Lockwood. Well, what do we do now?

Nothing, said Cleveland. I owned up to it then and do so now.

Can’t we say that this lady was so promiscuous that--.

You’ll say nothing of the sort, said Cleveland. You won’t hurt her or her son, Oscar Cleveland, who may be my son for all I know. If this thing loses for me, well so be it

Wait, said another. You say one of the guys fooling around with Maria Halpin was named Folsom. The young lady you’re going with now—her name is--.

Frances Folsom, said Cleveland. Oscar’s daughter. She’s 19 now. I met her right after she was born.

Nineteen! They chorused: You’re--.

I’m 47. What about it?

Nothing, it just looks like you’re an old--.

Lecher? I’ve known her since she was born as I said. Changed her diapers often. I bought her a baby carriage, was sort of like her avuncular uncle while she was growing up. When her father, Oscar, died in a carriage accident in 1875 without a will, I was appointed administrator of his estate. She was then 11 years old.

Lockwood clapped his hand to his forehead. Good God!

She attended Central high school in Buffalo and went on to graduate from Wells college, in Aurora, New York. As she grew up I grew very fond of her, romantic even. She and I have an understanding. That we will marry when the time is right. When this election thing is concluded.

Lockwood sat down and beckoned Cleveland to do the same.

You know, he said, this is going to be an insuperable handicap at the convention that opens tomorrow. All this time I thought the only thing we had to worry about was your lack of service in the Civil War—when you took the option of paying somebody $100 to serve in your stead.

A legal option, said Cleveland. And I paid him $150—fifty dollars more than mandated. He was a Polish immigrant, George Benninsky who agreed to go.

Thank God, said Lockwood, James G. Blaine didn’t serve either. So he can’t get us there. But this. I am told the “Buffalo Evening Telegraph” came out with a headline that says “A Terrible Tale—Dark Chapter in Public Man’s History!”

And Tammany is circulating a campaign song about you, said another. “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”

Gentlemen, said Cleveland arising, if that is all you have to say to me, I have work to do. I instruct you all to answer the charges as I will—by telling the truth.

After he left the room, Lockwood turned to his friends and said: We’re finished. This was the year when the Democrats were supposed to win. President Arthur so despised by his party that he lost control of his party. . The Republicans torn up in disarray, with their convention split between a discredited president, James G. Blaine a machine politician, Edmonds of Vermont, General Logan of Illinois. All engaged in riotous division and we have the pure candidate—pure, or so we thought. Fearless--.

He IS fearless, said one. He’s not going to lie about it. That’s something.

Yes, I suppose, Lockwood sighed.

Said Edward Bragg of Wisconsin: You know, people love him. They respect him. They knew all about this in Buffalo and reelected him sheriff, then mayor, then governor of New York. I tell you they love him for his character, what we have just seen, for his integrity, his iron will—and, by God, they love him best for the enemies he’s made! I think I’ll say that in my seconding speech at the convention tomorrow.

If there IS to be a seconding speech, said Lockwood dolefully.

There will be, said Bragg.


Edward Bragg was right. And he used that line “they love him for the enemies he made” at the convention in Chicago. Even with the scandal and the copies of the Buffalo papers distributed on the floor by Tammany Hall partisans, he started off on the first ballot with 392 votes—150 short of nomination, trailed by Bayard of Delaware 170, Thurman of Ohio, 88, Randall of Pennsylvania, 78, and McDonald of Indiana, 56, the rest scattered. Randall withdrew in Cleveland’s favor—which started the southern bloc moving to him, producing enough to put him over the top on the second ballot. 683 voters to 81 for Bayard and 45 for Hendricks.

The campaign, believe it or not turned on the personal morality of the candidates, Democrats hitting Blaine on profiting from railroad interests and the Republicans countering with the specter of poor little Oscar Folsom Cleveland. A pompous Protestant minister, a Catholic-baiter, slugged Catholicism just before election in a speech in New York city, alienating the Catholics and Cleveland won by a hair—49% to 48% but easily enough with the electoral votes, 219 to 182.

Once in the White House he formally proposed to beauteous 21-year-old Frances Folsom by formal letter. She accepted. They kept their engagement to themselves and married June 2, 1886 in the White House, the first president to be married there. Gossips were as malicious then as now and they insisted she was an abused wife, unhappy with the gruff old man she married. But she was not. In 1888 Cleveland lost reelection to Republican Benjamin Harrison and they had to move out. But Frances Folsom Cleveland gathered the White House staff together and told them this: “We’ll be back! We were the 22nd president. We’ll be the 24th !” They were. In 1892 Cleveland defeated the incumbent Harrison 46% to 43% with James Weaver of the Populist party taking 9% and an Electoral vote of 277 for Cleveland, 145 for Harrison and 22 for Weaver.

When I was a freshman at Saint John’s in Minnesota in 1947, a small item in the paper recorded that 82-year-old Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston (after Cleveland died she married a professor of archaeology at Princeton, the first presidential widow to remarry) died…who led the Needlework Guild of America in a clothing drive during the Great Depression…and saluted as a gallant lady who stood by her husband when he was assailed as a philanderer and believed in her husband, marrying him when he was the 22nd president and helping him on the campaign trail to return as the 24th president of the United States.

Oh yes. Oscar Folsom Cleveland was adopted by a wealthy family through the intercession of the man who may…or may not…have been his natural father. In any event, he became a prosperous physician. He visited the graves of Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston in Princeton regularly…to either visit the tomb of his natural father—or, who knows…his half-sister.

1 comment:

  1. In stark contrast to the 'spinners' in both parties.