A President, A Yacht, And A Secret Operation

By Matthew Algeo

This is the story of one of the most brazen and bizarre cover-ups in the annals of the American presidency. In his new, critically acclaimed book, The President Is a Sick Man, and here in an exclusive for BoatUS Magazine, national-award-winning political historian Matthew Algeo tells the full story of this extraordinary conspiracy.

Photo of the Oneida, a luxury yacht

On July 1, 1893, Grover Cleveland, the president of the United States, disappeared. He sailed into Long Island Sound on a friend's yacht and was not heard from again for four days. What happened on that yacht was so incredible that, when the truth was finally revealed, most Americans simply would not believe it — and an innocent man's reputation would be ruined.

The story begins about two months earlier, in early May. The nation was in the midst of a crippling recession that would come to be known as the Panic of 1893. A speculative bubble had burst: railroads. The railroads were hopelessly overbuilt, and by the end of the year some 119 of them would go bankrupt, bringing countless other businesses down with them. Unemployment skyrocketed. Stocks crashed. And all the while the nation was mired in a bitterly divisive debate over currency, namely whether the dollar should be backed by gold or silver.

On May 5, in the midst of this economic and political turmoil, Grover Cleveland noticed for the first time an unusual bump on the roof of his mouth. Given all he had on his plate at the time, it wasn't until the middle of the following month that he finally had the bump checked out. His personal physician, Joseph Bryant, diagnosed the growth as a cancerous tumor. "It is a bad looking tenant," Bryant told Cleveland. "Were it in my mouth I would have it removed at once."

Cleveland decided that the best place for the secret operation would be the Oneida, a luxury yacht owned by his close friend, a banker named Elias Benedict. Cleveland had logged more than 50,000 miles on the Oneida, mostly fishing in Long Island Sound and off Cape Cod. His presence on the boat would arouse no suspicions. The surgical team and equipment would be boarded surreptitiously before the president. The operation would take place while the boat sailed from New York to Gray Gables, Cleveland's summer home on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, where his wife Frances would be waiting for him. For all the world it would look like the president was simply on a pleasure cruise.

Photo of on the deck of the OneidaOn the deck of the Oneida.

Quietly, of course, Bryant began assembling a dream team of surgeons to assist him with the operation. His first recruit was William Williams Keen, then the most celebrated surgeon in the country. Just six years earlier, Keen had performed the first successful removal of a brain tumor in the United States. Bryant also oversaw preparations on the Oneida, anchored in the East River. The yacht's small, dark saloon was transformed into a makeshift operating room. It was cleared of all furniture except the organ, which was bolted to the floor. Then it was cleaned and disinfected. A large chair was lashed to the mast in the center of the room. Here the president would sit for the operation. There would be no operating table. The only artificial light would come from a single electric bulb connected to a portable battery. The larger pieces of equipment, including tanks of oxygen and nitrous oxide, were quietly delivered to the yacht. Operating in a small, dimly lit, and poorly ventilated space on a boat posed incalculable risks. In the vernacular of the times, if anything went wrong, Cleveland's doctors would be up to the hub in mud.

Regarding the unusual accumulation of medical paraphernalia, the crew of the Oneida was told that the president had to have two teeth removed. It would later be reported that the white yacht was repainted green in order to better conceal it, but that was not true. As Benedict himself later noted, "Such an act would have created a suspicion which we all wished to avoid." The intent was to make it look like a perfectly ordinary summer outing for the president and his friends.

Even by the Gilded Age's gaudy standards, the Oneida was a fabulous boat. Built in 1883 and originally christened the Utowana, the yacht won the Lunberg Cup, an international race, in 1885. So impressed was Benedict, a fanatical yachtsman, that he bought the boat, refitted it for comfort as well as speed, and renamed it the Oneida, perhaps to honor the first tribe to side with the Americans in the Revolutionary War. At 138 feet the Oneida wasn't exceptionally large (J. P. Morgan's yacht was more than twice as long), but it was fast and luxurious, capable of running 13 knots and comfortably accommodating a dozen passengers. It had an iron hull, two masts, and a steam engine. The quarters below deck were plush. The Oneida combined the elegance of a schooner, the speed of a steamer, and the comfort of a luxury liner. It had been built in Chester, Pennsylvania, by John Roach, a brilliant, self-educated Irish immigrant who pioneered iron shipbuilding in the United States. Besides building yachts for the rich and famous, he also built the U.S. Navy's first fleet of modern warships. Roach died in 1887 — of cancer of the mouth.

On the afternoon of June 30, W. W. Keen and four other doctors recruited by Bryant secretly assembled on the Oneida. Each was ferried to the yacht from a different pier to avoid detection. That night, Cleveland and Bryant boarded the Oneida. The president sat in a deck chair, lit a cigar, and chatted amiably with his surgical team. The warm night air was filled with pleasant conversation and the sweet smell of fine cigars. After about 30 minutes, everyone retired for the night.

The Oneida weighed anchor the next morning. The weather was perfect and, much to everyone's relief, the water was calm. "If you hit a rock," Dr. Bryant called out to the captain as the yacht set sail, "hit it good and hard, so that we'll all go to the bottom!" Below deck, in the saloon, the doctors prepared for the operation. They boiled their instruments and pulled crisp white aprons over their dark suits. Shortly after noon, the president entered the room and took his seat. As the Oneida glided across Long Island Sound, Cleveland was anesthetized with nitrous oxide and ether. Then the doctors removed the tumor, along with five teeth and much of the upper left palate and jawbone. "Never did I feel such a deep, almost overwhelming, sense of responsibility as during that operation," Dr. Keen later wrote. The procedure lasted 90 minutes. To assure there would be no external scars, the surgery had been performed entirely within the patient's mouth. Even Cleveland's trademark bushy mustache was left untouched, the better to conceal the operation.

Four days later, on July 5, Cleveland was dropped of at Gray Gables, his summer home on Buzzards Bay. By the middle of July, while still at Gray Gables, he was fitted with a vulcanized-rubber prosthesis that plugged the hole in his mouth and restored his normal speaking voice. All the while, the public was told that the president had suffered nothing more serious than a toothache. By the end of that month he was fishing on Buzzards Bay as if nothing had happened.

On August 29, however, the Philadelphia Press published an account of the operation. The author was Elisha Jay Edwards, the paper's 46-year-old New York correspondent, who had been tipped off to the operation by a doctor friend who'd heard about it through the grapevine. Edwards then confirmed the story with Ferdinand Hasbrouck, a dentist who'd administered the president's anesthesia on the Oneida. Edwards's report was remarkably accurate, and it still stands as one of the great scoops in the annals of American journalism. But nobody believed it. Cleveland, who'd carefully cultivated a reputation for honesty, flatly denied the report — and the public believed the president. E. J. Edwards was utterly discredited. Rival papers labeled him a "disgrace to journalism" and a "calamity liar." Though Edwards would continue working well into the twentieth century — in 1909 he became a columnist for the fledgling Wall Street Journal — his career was tainted, seemingly forever, by allegations that he'd faked the story about the secret operation on Grover Cleveland.

Cleveland would serve out the rest of his second term. He lived the rest of his life with no known recurrence of cancer. His successful treatment was an extraordinary achievement in American medicine, though only a handful of people knew about it. Even after Cleveland died in 1908, the secret held. In 1917, W. W. Keen finally broke the embargo by publishing a full account of the operation in the Saturday Evening Post. Keen had always regretted how E. J. Edwards had been so unjustly maligned. By publishing his account, Keen said he hoped to "vindicate Mr. Edwards' character as a truthful correspondent." By then, 24 years had passed since the operation, and only three witnesses to the events on the Oneida were still alive: Keen, Elias Benedict, and John Erdmann, who'd been Joseph Bryant's young assistant and was now himself an acclaimed surgeon. Also still among the living was E. J. Edwards, and after Keen's account was published, the old newspaperman was inundated with congratulatory letters and telegrams.

The ultimate fate of the Oneida is unknown. Around 1914, Elias Benedict sold the yacht, which was rechristened the Adelante and converted into a towboat. During World War I the Adelante was commandeered by the U.S. Navy and put into service setting up a network of maritime radio stations along the Maine coast. After the war, it went back into service as a towboat, operating out of New York under the names John Gulley and Salvager. By 1941, the boat, once one of the grandest yachts in the world and the site of a unique episode in American history, had been abandoned. Presumably it was sold for scrap. 

Photo of Matthew Algeo Matthew Algeo first became interested in the secret operation on Grover Cleveland about 10 years ago, when he saw the president's still-preserved tumor on display at a museum in Philadelphia. His new book about the operation is called The President is a Sick Man. His previous book, Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, was named one of the best books of 2009 by The Washington Post. In addition to writing, Algeo has worked as a journalist, a Halloween costume salesman, a gas-station attendant, a convenience-store clerk, and as a hot-dog vendor in a traveling circus. His wife is an American diplomat, and the couple currently lives in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

— Published: October/November 2011

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