Grover Cleveland, a Rapist President

The anti-corruption Democrat was only president for eight years, but he was a rapist who denied he had fathered a child for much longer.

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Aug 26 2015, 5:00pm

Image by Kat Aileen

The election of 1884 was a shit-flinging trial of personal ethics. Though the national issue was purportedly corruption, the race itself ran like a contest over who could dig the most dirt. Soon, anti-corruption Democrats revealed that Republican candidate James G. Blaine had reaped massive profits by way of a backdoor deal with the Union Pacific Railroad. In response, Republicans defamed Democrat Grover Cleveland, claiming he had fathered a secret child with a New York woman to whom he regularly paid child support. Over a taunting Republican chant of Ma, ma, where's my pa? Cleveland explained the situation away. Yes, he had dated and slept with the woman, and yes, he paid her child support. But he was not the only man with whom she had slept. In fact, he claimed, the woman was sleeping with several of his married friends at the time, men of regional prominence. Cleveland, the only bachelor among them, agreed to assume financial responsibility for the child, despite doubts about paternity—a decision he characterized as "the courageous way." The public agreed with this appraisal, and the scandal was soon reduced to trivia as Cleveland assumed a position in history as the bland and forgettable 22nd president of the United States.

This is the story you'll find on Wikipedia and in textbooks today, but there are, as we now well know, two sides to every story. In December of 1873, Maria Halpin was a 38-year-old sales clerk working in a department store in Buffalo, New York, when she caught the eye of Erie County sheriff Grover Cleveland. After several months of persistent pursuit, Maria finally agreed to a dinner date, after which Cleveland escorted her back to her room and violently raped her. Vowing never to speak to her assailant again, Halpin moved forward with her life—until six weeks later, when she realized she was pregnant and as an unmarried woman had few options but to reach out for help. Upon the birth of a son, Cleveland sent a judge and two of his most imposing detectives to "work some scheme by which she and her child could be separated and removed." After a good deal of coercion and negotiation, Maria signed her son over to the Buffalo Orphan Asylum and disappeared to Niagara Falls with a sum of money from Cleveland.

Soon after arriving upstate, Maria felt regret and returned to Buffalo to retrieve her son. When Cleveland learned that Maria had kidnapped the baby from the orphanage and fled, he dispatched a covert search party to locate the pair. The baby was "forcibly seized" and returned to the orphanage to be put up for adoption; Maria was "violently dragged" to the Providence Lunatic Asylum under the pretense of "onomania"—a now-debunked mental condition that counted excessive drinking, uncontrolled impulses, and "strangeness" as symptoms. After three days she was deemed sane and released. Doctors regarded her incarceration as "without warrant" and marked it as an abuse of power by the political elite—the same political elite who ten years later would run for president on an anti-corruption platform.

In recent history, the rape plot has become predictable, boring even. Man rapes woman, woman presses charges, the muscle memory of backlash is set into motion. Him: an upstanding fellow, rescues cats from trees and helps old ladies to cross the street with all the civic gusto of rapists who came before. Her: confused, a liar, attention-seeking, and known to give it up easy to other men. The familiar vocabulary of regret and consent is trotted around in circles until eventually the matter is settled. He did it! Or maybe he didn't! At this point, it matters little, for the crowd is leaving the theater and the ushers are sweeping popcorn to prepare for an inevitable repeat screening. Our collective cultural reaction to these situations feels so intuitive, so much like an innate biological response, that it's hard to imagine such narratives as having arisen from anywhere or any point in time at all.

But there was a time in history when this discourse was only just beginning to develop, as Maria Halpin's quest to rehab her reputation shows. The social climate of the 1880s was hardly equipped for a two-sided discussion of sexual assault. Maria's rapist was her local sheriff, but even if legal recourse were an option, unmarried women were regarded suspiciously. The fledgling first-wave feminist movement largely staked itself on issues surrounding wives, like the right to divorce and the important political role married homemakers played as voters.

Newspapers, while widely circulated, generally served to enshrine the political privilege of their supporters. Democratic newspapers, hoping to maintain the good graces of future president Cleveland, scarcely covered Halpin's side of the story, deeming her accusations too salacious for a God-fearing public. Republican newspapers offered coverage, but only to distract from the railroad allegations lobbied against their candidate, Blaine. This Republican coverage reflected the consent ideal of the day, which held that "a woman truly wishing to preserve her honor could repel any rape, unless it was a gang rape." Something as utilitarian as dismounting a horse the wrong way might be seen in the eyes of the courts as an act of seduction. Defenders of Maria almost always highlighted her chaste Christian lifestyle over her general right to not be raped. Maria herself, however, spoke of the attack in surprisingly contemporary language, claiming in a sworn affidavit that Cleveland penetrated her "by use of force and violence and without my consent." In actuality, Maria Halpin was the ideal of a chaste 19th century woman—a widow and respected church fixture who worked to support her two young children. Nonetheless, she died in infamy. On her deathbed, she gave the funeral instructions, "I do not want strangers to come and gaze upon my face. Let everything be very quiet. Let me rest."

Upon inauguration, President Cleveland laid the controversy to rest by marrying Frances Folsom, the daughter of his deceased best friend. Cleveland met Folsom shortly after her birth, when he gifted her parents a baby carriage. Twenty-one years later, they were married. Infatuated with her beauty, the public said little of the pair's 27-year age gap. More than a century later, we say nothing of Cleveland himself. What degree of abject violence does it take to overwrite the legacy of the blandest president ever? Apparently, a violent rape is not enough. Perhaps, instead of asking, "Who the hell is Grover Cleveland?" we should instead demand, "Who the hell does Grover Cleveland think he is?"

This summary of the fucked-up life of Grover Cleveland is heavily indebted to the exhaustive research published in A Secret Life: The Lies and Scandals of President Grover Cleveland by Charles Lachman.