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Grover’s Indiscretion

A familiar refrain of Republicans during the 1884 presidential campaign was:

“Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?
Gone to the White House,
Ha, Ha, Ha”

The Village of Clinton had a brief attachment with Grover Cleveland who was caught in a paternity situation that almost ruined his political career.

Cleveland spent about two years here in the 1851-3 period while his father, Rev. Richard Cleveland and his family lived at 24(26) Utica Street in a house marked by the Clinton Historical Society in 1968.

In 1850 Rev. Cleveland left a church in Fayetteville and moved here to take a position as Secretary of the American Home Missionary Society. The job required a lot of traveling which eventually took its toll on Rev. Cleveland’s health.

Grover’s brother William was a Hamilton College student during this time, and Grover attended the Clinton Grammar School at 86-88 College Street. He admitted to “reading a little Latin with two other boys in the class and floundering through four books of the Aeneid.”

Rev. Cleveland suffered from a gastric ulcer and gave up his job to take the pulpit of the Holland Patent Presbyterian Church in September 1853. Tragically he passed away from peritonitis October 1, 1853 after preaching one sermon.

Cleveland’s sister Rose Elizabeth attended Houghton Seminary at the west end of Chestnut Street and also taught there. She served as Grover’s White House hostess prior to his marriage. Rose became a writer and editor and continued to keep a home called “The Weeds” in Holland Patent where her parents are buried. She went to Italy in 1917 to care for orphans, contracted Spanish influenza, and died in 1918. She is buried in Lucca, Italy, an Appenine Mountain village.

The Buffalo Evening Telegraph broke the shocking story July 21, 1884 after Cleveland had been nominated by the Democrats for president. Under the headline “A Terrible Tale” the story explained that Grover, a bachelor, had had an affair with Maria Halpin resulting in the birth of an illegitimate son some 10 years earlier.

Cleveland admitted the affair despite uncertainty about his paternity. Maria claimed Cleveland was the father although there was no way to prove it back then. Maria named the child Oscar Folsom Cleveland. Oscar Folsom was Cleveland’s law partner.

Grover Cleveland acknowledged the boy and gave financial support to him. Maria turned to heavy drinking after giving birth, and Cleveland had a judge commit her to an insane asylum and the boy to an orphanage. Cleveland paid the orphanage $5.00 per week. Interestingly the boy grew up to become a medical doctor.

By 1884 Cleveland had developed a reputation of honesty and being a reformer and used the slogan “a public office is a public trust.” He took on corrupt Tammany Hall when governor. Some called the squeaky clean Cleveland, “Grover the Good.” This was prior to the Halpin story in the papers when Cleveland was New York Governor.

Cleveland’s opponent was James G. Blaine, the “Plumed Knight” from Maine. He had his own baggage of using political office for personal gain. Blaine was a flamboyant character and had received a loan from the Union Pacific RR which was supposedly in return for Blaine using his influence to provide a land grant to the UPRR.

Blaine was also called “the continental liar from the State of Maine” and suffered politically when a clergyman introduced him at a meeting as “not” the candidate of the “party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” This was an offensive reference to Democrats as drunkards, Catholics, and Confederates.

Mudslinging and scandal ensued during the 1884 campaign. Does history ever repeat itself?

When the Halpin paternity scandal broke, Cleveland told his staff to tell the truth. This simple principle quickly defused the question of his morality in this case.

Cleveland narrowly took New York and won the election by a slim margin, but lost in 1888 to Republican Benjamin Harrison. In 1892 Harrison lost to Cleveland who became the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. Cleveland was the first democrat president since 1860.

After the 1884 election gleeful Democrats came up with this refrain:

“Hurrah for Maria,
Hurrah for the kid,
We voted for Grover
And we’re damn glad we did!”
In July 1887 during Clinton’s centennial celebration President Cleveland visited here for a day making two speeches and greeting Clintonians with his new wife Frances Folsom. They came via the NYO&W railroad and then went to Holland Patent where Cleveland still had family.

Cleveland’s law partner Oscar Folsom met an accidental death in 1875 leaving an 11-year old daughter, Frances. Grover took Frances under his wing and married her at the White House in 1886. She was 21, and Grover was 49. This was the only wedding of a sitting president in the White House.

Despite the intense press interest and nasty gossip, the couple had two sons and three daughters and lived happily until Cleveland’s death in Princeton in 1908. The “Baby Ruth” candy bar was named after their daughter Ruth.

Frances remarried in 1913, the first presidential widow to do so. She lived until 1947 and is buried next to the president in Princeton.


Information in this article is as correct and factually accurate as possible. If you notice a fact that you believe is incorrect, please let us know. Comments are always welcome.

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