In a mere four years Grover Cleveland skyrocketed from Buffalo lawyer with a penchant for hanging out in beer halls to president of the United States, renowned for his scrupulous honesty. Yet Cleveland’s fabulous rise also had a dark side. Everyone heard the rumors of how he grossly mistreated a local widow named Maria Halpin — but in those days, no one believed a woman when it was her word against a prominent man’s.
Grover Cleveland came to Buffalo almost by accident. As an 18-year-old in 1855 he left the family farm near Utica to seek a living in Cleveland, Ohio, a city founded by distant relatives. On the way up the Erie Canal he stopped at Buffalo to pay a quick visit to his uncle, Lewis Falley Allen, the wealthy businessman after whom the Allentown neighborhood is named. Allen persuaded his nephew to stay and take a job tallying his herd of cattle on Grand Island, and just like that Grover Cleveland became a Buffalonian. With his uncle’s help he later passed the bar and became a lawyer (defending, among others, some of those tried for the Fenian raid on Fort Erie and Ridgeway), and sent money home, as his family’s main breadwinner, to his younger sisters and widowed mother. In 1870 he won election as Erie County Sheriff and was praised for not delegating to a deputy the task of acting as hangman; instead he performed the ugly duty himself, on two occasions. But after four years Cleveland returned to private practice.
In 1881 the Democratic Party wanted someone with a reputation for honesty to run for mayor of Buffalo as an anti-corruption candidate. They recruited Cleveland, and he won easily. As mayor he insisted on awarding municipal contracts to the lowest bidder, not the Common Council’s political cronies, and immediately became famous across the state. In 1882 he was recruited to run for governor and won by a landslide; he battled Tammany Hall, further burnishing his reputation for honesty. Now a national figure, Grover the Good, as he was nicknamed, ran for the presidency in 1884.
That’s when the scandal broke. Under scrutiny was an incident in December 1873, when Cleveland ran into Halpin, a 38-year-old sales clerk and widow with two young children he knew, on Swan Street and invited her to dinner at a nearby oyster house — this according to Halpin’s sworn affidavit. After dinner he walked her home and, according to Halpin, assaulted her sexually “by use of force and violence and without my consent” and threatened to “ruin” her if she notified the authorities. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son in September 1874.
It got worse. Cleveland had the infant taken from Halpin and put in the Buffalo Orphan Asylum, and Halpin placed in the Providence Lunatic Asylum. Halpin was released after a few days, but, under murky circumstances, the boy was adopted by the same physician who released Halpin. He would grow up separated from his birth mother and eventually himself become a doctor.
As the scandal broke during the ’84 campaign, Cleveland acknowledged that the child — named Oscar Folsom Cleveland — was indeed his. But according to historian Charles Lachman, there was a catch:
What followed next was a malicious smear campaign: Cleveland's people got the word out that Halpin was a sexual plaything who drank to excess and was intimate with at least three (and possibly four) married men, all of them cronies of Cleveland. Cleveland, it was said, took responsibility for the child's conception because he was the only bachelor among Maria Halpin's gentlemen callers. Cleveland saw the matter through in the most "courageous way," the PR spin went, explaining that his indifference to the boy was due to "doubts about his fatherhood."
Utter nonsense. My research has established that this time-honored version of the Cleveland scandal is fundamentally dishonest—almost entirely a fairy tale. Maria Halpin was no harlot. … From everything I could discover about her life, she was what in the 19th century would be termed a chaste woman.
Cleveland — like so many men before and since — survived the scandal and won the 1884 election. The taunting cry heard during the campaign, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” was silenced by Cleveland’s supporters with the riposte, “Gone to the White House, ha! ha! ha!”
His tenure as chief executive was marked by scrupulous anti-corruption measures, as well as by his wedding, at 49, to a 21-year-old Buffalo woman named Frances Folsom, whose upbringing he had helped supervise since her infancy. Her late father, Oscar Folsom, had been a close friend of Cleveland’s — and one of the men who’d supposedly slept with Halpin.
Cleveland, who was popular enough to get elected to the White House again, in 1892, never publicly spoke about the scandal. But privately he told a wealthy friend during the ’84 campaign that it should be handled forthrightly. “Whatever you do,” Cleveland said, “tell the truth.” He also said something somewhat more ambiguous, in a letter written to a friend during the ’84 campaign.
“I hope,” he wrote, “that the scandal business is about wound up. … I think the matter was handled in the best possible way.”
Cast (in order of appearance):
Campaign adviser: Bert Gambini
Grover Cleveland: Charles Anzalone
Narrator: Eileen Buckley
Sound recording: Bert Gambini (University at Buffalo)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director
Brian Meyer, former WBFO news director
Dave Debo, WBFO news director
Dave Rosenthal, WBFO senior director, news and public affairs
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)