Henry Ward Beecher
In 1884, Grover Cleveland was Accused of Rape. Two Days Later He Was Elected President of the United States
By Ken Zurski
In July 1884, only two years after being elected the governor of New York, a little known lawyer and relatively new politician named Stephen Grover Cleveland became the Democratic nominee for president of the United States.
Cleveland’s quick rise in party ranks was no fluke. The Republicans were in disarray. Due to failing health, Chester Arthur the incumbent and former vice president who inherited the White House after James Garfield’s assassination, made only a meager effort to win his parties affections for a full term. Instead Republicans chose James Blaine, a longtime congressman from Maine. The Democrats seized on the opportunity to elect someone who was considered an outsider.
Cleveland fit the bill.
Conservative, religious, and “remarkable unperceptive to new ideas,” Cleveland easily won election to New York state governorship in 1882 and even though he would vote against the public’s favor on issues ranging from reducing fares on New York City’s elevated trains to limiting carriage driver’s work day hours, the public generally liked his “refreshing moral correctness,” so much so he earned the nickname “Grover the good.”
All that would change, however, shortly after Cleveland became the nominee for president.
A Buffalo, New York newspaper, the Evening Telegraph, published a story that put the rotund candidate at the head of a scandal, claiming he had ruined a “respectable” woman’s reputation, seduced her with the promise of marriage, taken away a son that she claimed was Cleveland’s, and dumped her in an insane asylum. Cleveland was a bachelor so there was nothing particularly scurrilous about the relationship with a young woman, especially a widow. But the rest of the accusations, if true, clashed with proper conduct and conventions of a man of Cleveland’s stature. Partisan newspapers throughout the country waved their biased banners; either championing the cause or ignoring and downplaying the reports.
Cleveland’s associates gave an explanation. Without denying the rumors, they claimed a man’s private actions should not be a qualification for political office. A Democratic newspaper, the New York World, run by Joseph Pulitzer, reinforced the claims: “The issue of the campaign is not one of personal character,” the paper reported.
But it got worse. More unsubstantiated reports of women scorned by Cleveland surfaced. It seemed only a matter of time before the Democratic party dropped Cleveland and picked another nominee, a move that would almost certainly tip the general election in the Republicans favor. Cleveland offered another choice. “Tell them the truth” he demanded.
Cleveland never denied knowing the woman named Maria Halpin, but according to him, she was the instigator and ultimately the problem. He was only trying to help a disillusioned woman get her life back together, especially after the birth of an illegitimate child.
Others jumped to Cleveland’s defense. The child in question was not Cleveland’s but Halpin’s other suitor, a businessman named Oscar Folsom. Folsom was also an acquaintance of Cleveland’s. He was also dead. In July of 1875, Folsom was killed in a buggy accident. When the baby was born that September, Cleveland reportedly named the boy Oscar Folsom after his friend.
Halpin wanted more than just help. She wanted a husband and father for a child she was now forced to care for on her own. She claims Cleveland promised to marry her, but didn’t. She also felt betrayed by a man she says took advantage of her. What she wanted now was respect from a man she once trusted. What she got was indifference.
So she cried “rape.”
The rape claim was nothing new to Halpin’s family and close friends, but she kept quiet hoping Cleveland would change his mind. Now, facing misleading reports about her own character, she went public.
Halpin was a 38 -year-old sales clerk at the time working for one of Folsum’s businesses. In her account, Cleveland approached her on the street (actually he had been courting her for some time) and they wined and dined together. Upon returning to her boardinghouse one night, Halpin recalled, Cleveland forced himself upon her. “Violently and without my consent,” she insisted. She remembers Cleveland saying he would ruin her if she ever spoke out. So she asked him to leave and never come back. Six months later, Halpin discovered she was pregnant.
The press mostly ignored her, choosing instead to listen to men like the outspoken preacher Henry Ward Beecher, who defended Cleveland’s honor. Beecher had some womanizing issues of his own to answer to, but Cleveland needed more friends than enemies. He hired an investigator to do some digging and came back with sympathetic results. “He [Cleveland] accepted responsibilities that one man in a thousand has shouldered and acted honorably in the matter,” the report read. Beecher who was still an influential voice, especially among his throng of loyal parishioners, reinstated his support of Cleveland.
Pulitzer’s World went even further by publishing an article which claimed Halpin called Cleveland “a good, plain, honest man,” in an interview. Halpin, the paper reported, disavowed any previous statements against his character. The statement seemed to echo an affidavit drawn up by Cleveland’s lawyers that they wanted Halpin to sign. It read in part: “Shortly after the death of my husband twelve years ago, I removed to Buffalo with my children. Some time after that I met Mr. Cleveland and made his acquaintance which his acquaintance extended over a period of several months. During that time I received from Mr. Cleveland uniform kindness and courtesy. I now have and have always had a high esteem for Mr. Cleveland.”
Halpin under oath said the affidavit’s “statements contained therein are untrue” and refused to sign it. The affidavit also contradicted Halpin’s earlier claims that she would rather “put a bullet trough my heart,” than exonerate Cleveland.
Halpin filed two affidavits of her own, each within days of each other. The first one claimed the circumstances under which her “ruin” was attained, was too “revolting to revel.” The second one, was more forthright. Cleveland, she attested, “accomplished her ruin by the use of force and violence and without my consent.” None of it mattered. Two days after her second affidavit was filed, Grover Cleveland was elected the 22nd President of the United States. “In Gov. Cleveland, in my judgement, we have a leader who is peculiarly fitted to discharge the great trust of his high office and to redeem these pledges to the satisfaction of the American people,” a Cleveland supporter crowed shortly after the results were in.
After Cleveland’s victory, according to author Patrica Miller, “Maria Halpin went down in the history books as a whore.”
The scandal behind her, Halpin went on to marry a tin store owner named Wallace Hunt and died of a prolonged illness at the age of 55. Her only request was that her funeral not be “too public” for fear of “strangers studying her dead face.”
Meanwhile, while in office, Cleveland took a wife. Francis Folsum was a young lady Cleveland had been courting since she was a teenager. Folsum was also the daughter of the late Oscar Folsum, the man Cleveland suspected of fathering Maria Halpin’s son and ultimately the person who posthumously exonerated the president in the public’s eye. Cleveland had guardianship of Francis, Oscar’s daughter from a previous marriage. She called him “Uncle Cleve.”
They were married in the Blue Room of the White House and Francis became the youngest First Lady in history at the age of 21.
(Sources: “Bringing Down the Colonel” by Patricia Miller; Newspaper.com; various interest sites)