“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything… Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
—Donald Trump, September 2005
“I don’t think you understood what was—this was locker room talk. I’m not proud of it. I apologize to my family. I apologize to the American people. Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk. You know, when we have a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads, where you have—and, frankly, drowning people in steel cages, where you have wars and horrible, horrible sights all over, where you have so many bad things happening, this is like medieval times. We haven’t seen anything like this, the carnage all over the world. And they look and they see. Can you imagine the people that are, frankly, doing so well against us with ISIS? And they look at our country and they see what’s going on. Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things. I will knock the hell out of ISIS.”
—Donald Trump, October 9, 2016
Grover Cleveland is lucky they hadn’t invented the hot mic in 1884, because if he’d been caught boasting about his sexual conquests (using one of several terrific Victorian slang terms for vagina, like “madge,” “tuzzy muzzy,” or “crinkum crankum”), he wouldn’t have been able to resort to the “locker room talk” defense. Locker room talk doesn’t produce bastard sons.
Historians like to praise President Cleveland for his integrity. Somebody once won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about him called A Study in Courage. The latest scholarship is more measured, but only slightly. His most recent biographer concluded that the United States of his era, when most politicians treated public office like an ATM, desperately needed his “cleansing honesty.” Cleveland didn’t steal. He didn’t let anyone else steal. In fact, he was obsessively tight-fisted with the public’s money. His first act as mayor of Buffalo was to cancel the expensive inauguration ceremony. His second act was to announce that city contracts would go to the lowest bidder. For his entire career, Cleveland would pair such performances of rectitude with self-righteous proclamations that are easy for historians to quote. His dying words were supposedly “I have tried to do right,” which makes good copy if you have no sense of humor.
The circumstances under which my ruin was accomplished are too revolting on the part of Grover Cleveland to be made public. Maria Halpin
But admirers of Cleveland’s public morals excuse a lifetime of private immorality. Most notably, between 1873 and 1876, he raped a Buffalo woman named Maria Halpin, got her pregnant, kidnapped their son (twice), and falsely imprisoned her. Historians who would rather wax on about his “principled fearlessness” have dealt with this inconvenience by kicking a heaping can of slut shaming down the road for 14 decades.
Until the night of December 15, 1873, Halpin said, her life had been “as pure and spotless as that of any lady in the city.” A widow raising a son and managing the cloak department at the fanciest store in town, she was on her way to a birthday party when she ran into Cleveland, the county sheriff, who had been paying her “marked attention” for months. He invited her to dinner at the Ocean Dining Hall & Oyster House. She ditched the party and went with Cleveland, who escorted her home and, as she described it later in an affidavit, “accomplished [her] ruin by use of force and violence and without [her] consent.” Six weeks later, she found out she was pregnant and insisted that he marry her. He promised, then jilted her.
Cleveland’s version of the story, offered by political operatives during his presidential campaign 11 years later, is cut to shreds by Occam’s razor: it makes very little sense. Cleveland admitted he had sex with Maria Halpin—as did, he said, several others in his circle of his friends. When she turned up pregnant, who could say for sure who the child belonged to? Since Cleveland was the only bachelor in the group that had shared Halpin, though, he manfully took responsibility to see that the boy was cared for and to spare his pals trouble on the home front. As one of his campaign managers said, “He accepted responsibilities that not one man in a thousand has shouldered.” Grover Cleveland: patron saint of sloppy seconds.
It’s difficult to understand either narrative without an appreciation of what you might call rape culture, circa 1873. A woman was supposed to resist, even if she wanted sex. A man was supposed to dominate, even if she didn’t. The prevailing belief was that any woman who really didn’t want to submit would be able to fight off her attacker. (Cue Congressman Todd Akin’s claim in 2012 that pregnancy rarely results from “legitimate rape” because “the body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”) Incidentally, Grover Cleveland weighed almost 300 pounds. With his stupid fin de siècle mustache, he resembled a Pacific walrus. Being underneath him would not have afforded Maria Halpin many opportunities for agile self-defense. In the 19th century, to sustain an accusation of rape in court, the victim needed to be bloody, broken, and barely alive at the end of her ordeal.
Since a rape charge was almost never an option, “seduction”—a civil violation, not a criminal one—became a popular cause of action. In the unfortunate instance of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, a father could sue for damages on the grounds that his daughter’s virtue had been coaxed from her with false promises of marriage. The fundamental offense was theft, not assault, and the victim was the father, not the girl herself. To prove seduction, the plaintiff had to establish that his daughter’s reputation had been unsullied and her virginity intact prior to the event. Otherwise, there was nothing for the seducer to steal.
In the case of Maria Halpin and Grover Cleveland, then, it was altogether rational for her to say that while she didn’t consent to the sex in the first place, the real problem was the broken promise of marriage later on. And Cleveland, the sheriff, was doing just what New York State law suggested when he responded to her claim by calling her a whore. Generations of casually sexist, lazy historians, have turned Cleveland’s wild defense into the official version of events.
These historians have also ignored the ridiculous lengths Cleveland went to in order to cover it up. It took until 2011 for somebody to do the actual research.
Cleveland persuaded an obstetrician friend to attend at the birth—and then to abduct the baby, named Oscar by his mother, and deposit him at his sister-in-law’s house; since the obstetrician’s sister happened to be eight months pregnant at the time, she was told to take the boy, call him Jack, raise him as her own, and say she’d had twins.
It took almost a year, but Maria Halpin got Oscar/Jack back. Then Cleveland sent another friend of his, a judge and trustee of the Buffalo Orphan Asylum, to persuade her to leave Oscar/Jack in the orphanage’s care. Maria did so, then changed her mind a few days later, and, in the words of the orphanage’s report, “stole” Oscar/Jack when the staff wasn’t looking.
Then came a third kidnapping—and a false imprisonment to boot. Cleveland tracked Halpin and Oscar/Jack down and sent two police officers to seize the boy and haul him back to the orphanage. At the same time, they dragged Halpin out of her apartment and installed her at the Provident Lunatic Asylum, claiming she suffered from onomania, one of several bogus 19th century diagnoses that translates roughly as “bitches be crazy.” The doctor on staff at Provident released her after three days, because whoever committed her had made up that she had a made-up disease.
By this time, Halpin was, understandably, freaking out. She went to see a lawyer and asked her brother-in-law for help. The lawyer agreed to sue for kidnapping and false arrest. But the brother-in-law, just one more in a long line of men who forced Maria to do something she detested, pressured her to accept the $500 Cleveland was offering, give up her rights to Oscar/Jack, and start her life over somewhere else. She surrendered her son and moved to New Rochelle, New York in 1877. The obstetrician who delivered and first kidnapped Oscar/Jack adopted him and re-renamed him James, and that was that.
Until seven years later, when Maria’s rapist became the Democratic candidate for president. The Republican papers caught wind of the scandal—the satirical magazine Judge ran a famous cartoon on its cover in which a babe in arms looks at “Grover the Good” and cries, “I want my pa!” The Democratic papers responded by libeling Halpin, now cast as “the village bell” with a “strange, fascinating power” over men who also happened to exhibit “every symptom of insanity.” Once again, the accusations against Cleveland didn’t stick; he was elected president twice, and when he died in 1908, the obituaries mentioned neither Maria Halpin nor the 34-year-old Oscar/Jack/James. The lies about Halpin colored the rest of her life, and before she died, she instructed her family to keep her funeral private because she did “not want strangers to come and gaze on [her] face.”
Grover Cleveland’s sex life didn’t get any less creepy after what he referred to as his “scrape” with Halpin. Once, when his sister was hassling him about his extended bachelorhood, he quipped, “I’m waiting for my wife to grow up.” He wasn’t joking. Cleveland first met his wife, also his best friend’s daughter, when she was a few days old and he was 28. His first gift to her was the baby carriage she cruised around in until she could walk. She was 11 years old when her father died and Cleveland took on the role of father figure. She was 21—he was 49—when he proposed. He should have been the one to give the bride away. As it happened, he was the one to take her.
It seems strange that Donald Trump, our president, who bragged about sexual assault and was accused of the same by 13 women, is not buffeted by outrage. After a few days, everyone seemed to forget the whole thing. Why? Part of it is that he produces outrage with such frequency that it’s hard to stay focused on any single provocation. But Cleveland’s story proves that Trump was right when he said, “They let you do it. You can do anything.” In Cleveland’s case, as in Trump’s, “they” does not refer to the victim; in fact, Maria Halpin struggled for years not to let him do it. “They” refers, rather, to the customs and laws of the day, the papers that published lies, the voters who believed them or didn’t care, and the historians who didn’t do their jobs.
Most of the information in this essay comes from Charles Lachman’s A Secret Life, published in 2011. According to the Internet, Lachman is a television producer, not a historian, though he has written three books. In any case, he did the legwork that no historian ever bothered to do, and it’s a fun read, too. A Secret Life, however, does not provide a full account of Cleveland’s presidency. For that, your best bet is Allan Nevins’ 1933 Pulitzer Prize winner A Study in Courage. Since that clocks in at 832 pages, though, you may want to take the short cut offered by the American Presidents series: Henry Graff’s summary is a convenient 176 pages. Other recent studies include An Honest President by H.P. Jeffers and A Study in Character by Alyn Brodsky, titles suggesting that they don’t depart from the received wisdom.