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A Secret Life also finally reveals what happened to Grover Cleveland’s son. Some historians have suggested that he became an alcoholic and died a young man—but Lachman definitively establishes his fate here for the first time. In this gripping historical narrative, Charles Lachman sets the scandal-plagued record straight with a tightly-coiled plot that provides for narrative history at its best.
WHEN GROVER CLEVELAND turned seventeen, the time had come for him to go forth into the world. The year was 1854, and he was living in the tiny hamlet of Holland Patent, New York, about nine miles north of Utica; but it was too inconsequential a place to offer much of a future, so he tried Utica and Syracuse, but nobody seemed to be hiring. It was an exasperating time. Grover passed the evening hours studying Latin to keep his mind alert, but he had to admit to his sister Mary, "I am kind of fooling away my time here."
Grover had a pet name for Mary—Molly; she was the big sister he could unburden his heart to. There were nine Cleveland children in all. Stephen Grover Cleveland (he dropped the "Stephen" early on) was born on March 18, 1837, the fifth child of Ann Neal Cleveland and the Reverend Richard Falley Cleveland. Grover was closest to Mary and his big brother William, a student at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but William had not written in a while, and what he did write said very little. Grover sometimes found dealing with William very frustrating. Mary, though, was giving and wise. Grover wrote her that he was "heartily sick of studying at home," that he wanted to attend Hamilton College in Upstate New York, but it was a dream he would have to defer. "How is a man going to spend four years in getting an education with nothing to start on and no prospect of anything to pay his way with?" College, he said, with some bitterness, was not going to happen. "That's gone up."
Grover set himself a deadline: Come next spring, at the latest, he was going to be out of Holland Patent.
From nowhere Grover received a message from Ingham Townsend, a wealthy local property owner with a reputation as a thoughtful benefactor who had offered financial assistance to several promising young men from Holland Patent. Townsend was also a deacon in the Presbyterian church where Grover's father had been minister. Richard Cleveland died in 1853, at age forty-nine, of acute peritonitis brought on by a gastric ulcer, and Townsend had a genuine interest in doing all he could for the Cleveland family. So it happened that Townsend met with Grover, was very impressed with him, and offered to pay the boy's way through college. There was one catch: Grover had to make a commitment to enter the ministry following his graduation. Right then, Grover had to say no. That was his father's and his brother William's calling, not his. There was further discussion, and an idea came to Grover "like an inspiration." He now presented it to Townsend. He wanted to go west, to the booming city of Cleveland, Ohio.
"It's just the place for a young man to establish himself in," he told Townsend.
Cleveland was the city founded by Grover's forebear, Moses Cleaveland, a Connecticut lawyer and Revolutionary War officer. In 1796, he led a surveying party across Lake Erie to explore the Western Reserve, territory claimed by the state of Connecticut in what is now northeastern Ohio. At the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, General Cleaveland beheld a magnificent plain and proclaimed it to be the site of a settlement. It was named in honor of the leader of the expedition.
In 1820, Cleaveland's population had reached just one hundred and fifty. By 1854, the city's name had been shortened to "Cleveland." This came about because the editor of the local newspaper thought "Cleveland" looked cleaner than "Cleaveland" on the masthead. Cleveland's population had reached thirty thousand, and the city was on its way to becoming a vital port that, via the Erie Canal, linked the West to the Atlantic Ocean.
Deciding on the city of Cleveland made sense, even if, as Grover gamely acknowledged, he knew not a single soul there. Settling in a boomtown named for a distinguished kinsman would set him apart from all the other determined young men who were flocking to Ohio.
"I was attracted by the name. It seemed that it was my town because it had my name," Grover later said.
As Townsend listened to Grover sketch out his shrewd plan, he must have admired the magnitude of the young man's ambition. Right then he offered Grover the sum of $25 to finance his way west. It was a loan, but one that Townsend assured Grover he need never pay back. There was, however, one condition; and as did anything associated with Ingham Townsend, it came positioned as an act of philanthropy.
"If you ever meet with a young man in a similar condition, give it to him if you have it to spare," Townsend said.
Townsend handed Grover the $25 and a promissory note. He would forever be grateful for the money. It was, Grover would say many years later, "my start in life." Townsend could never have imagined that the simple gesture he made that day would have such profound consequences in American history.
Grover said good-bye to his family. His mother, Ann, was a fine-boned, pretty Southern belle, the daughter of a wealthy book publisher from Baltimore, when she had married Richard Cleveland at age twenty-three. Coming north as the bride of a young Presbyterian minister had been a culture shock. Though she had been advised in no uncertain terms not to take a black servant from a slave state North, her black maid had begged to go with her, and Ann had brought her along. That, and Ann's attire, made the villagers suspicious. The maid was sent home, along with Ann's jewelry and all her dresses of colors other than black, brown, and gray.
It had been a disciplined household. Every evening the Cleveland children would gather for prayers and brace themselves to be drilled by Reverend Cleveland on the basic principles of the Christian faith. In this manner, Grover and his siblings committed to memory the entire handbook of the Presbyterian catechism. The Sabbath was strictly observed, work and any form of play were forbidden from sundown on Saturday until sundown on Sunday. On Saturday evening, the children lined up for their weekly baths; and on Sunday, all except the babies were required to attend Reverend Cleveland's two-hour sermons.
Grover boarded a barge on the Erie Canal for the voyage to Cleveland, Ohio. Accompanying him was another young man from Holland Patent who was also seeking his fortune out west. The Erie Canal was the engineering marvel of the age; some even called it the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was a long and tedious crossing—a winding, sluggish process through beautiful pasture and virgin forest as a team of horses, or sometimes mules or oxen, towed the barge 365 miles across New York State, from Albany to its terminus in Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie. When they reached Buffalo, Grover, exhausted and covered in dust, informed his traveling companion that he had to visit his aunt and uncle in the Buffalo suburb of Black Rock. He said he'd be back in plenty of time to make the connection to Ohio. That was fine with the other fellow, and Grover went ashore.
Lewis Allen's home was about two miles away. Grover walked straight down Niagara Street and stopped when he reached the Allen house at the corner of Ferry and Breckenridge. Four years had passed since Lewis had last seen his intense and eager nephew, and it was a jolt to see him again, for now Grover was mature and filled out.
Lewis was married to Grover's Aunt Margaret, his late father's sister. Lewis and Margaret and their two children lived on a fine estate on a bluff overlooking the Niagara River. Two great American statesmen, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, had stayed there as overnight guests when passing through Buffalo.
Lewis was aware that the Cleveland family had its struggles. Grover's sister Susan had been born with deformed feet and was being treated by a specialist in New York City. Reverend Cleveland, a graduate of Yale, never made more than $600 a year. His sermons had been earnest, but had never dazzled. He had not sought fame, aspiring to be nothing more than a simple country cleric, what he'd called the "proper location for me." He'd walked humbly with his God. To his prosperous brother-in-law, Richard's was a life frittered away. "His modesty killed him," Lewis once reflected. "I mean, he didn't have push enough."
Grover told his uncle that he was on his way to Ohio and thinking about becoming a lawyer. Lewis always had a high regard for Grover; here was a lad who was not afraid of hard work. When he was fourteen, Grover found a job at a general store for $50 a year, plus room and board. Grover woke at five each morning to open the store, build a fire, dust off the merchandise, sweep the floor, and get everything in shape before the boss arrived at seven. At night, he slept on a plain pine bed with a mattress filled with cornhusk. His room had no stove, and the only source of heat was a pipe from the store's stove below. The privy was out back. When he was sixteen, still a boy but also a man, Grover spent a miserable year in charge of the boys' dormitory at the New York Institution for the Blind in Manhattan, a job arranged by his brother William for a "pittance" of a salary.
As Lewis listened to Grover, something seemed off. What Grover was saying sounded so random. Law schools did not exist in those days. A young man became a lawyer by apprenticing for three or four years and then applying for admission to the local bar association. Connections definitely helped.
Lewis found himself obliged to point out that Grover did not know anyone in the city of Cleveland—not a "single friend or acquaintance." Just how did he expect to find a law firm ready to take him on? Grover could not say. Then it was folly to be going there, Lewis Allen told his nephew.
Lewis tried to persuade Grover to stay in Buffalo, where it just so happened that he was embarking on a challenging project and could use a young man like Grover to help out. He owned a six-hundred-acre farm on Grand Island where he raised Shorthorn cattle. For eight years, he had been obsessively documenting the bloodline of every Shorthorn he owned—a record of his livestock would be indispensable in establishing the herd as a great domestic breed of cattle. Now he was interested in publishing the results for the benefit of farming and stockman circles.
He proposed that his nephew stay with him for five months and organize everything. The pay would be $50, plus room and board. There was something else that sealed the deal for Grover—his uncle gave him his word that he would do what he could to introduce him to Buffalo's most "eminent" law firms. It took Grover about five seconds to say yes. He thanked Lewis then tramped two miles back to port, found his friend from Holland Patent, and informed him that he was staying put. He would be settling in Buffalo. Apparently, there were no hard feelings, and the young man carried on with his voyage westward. What became of him, no one can say. He and Grover never saw each other again.
Grover moved in with Uncle Lewis, Aunt Margaret, and their two children, Gertrude and Cleveland. Gertrude was enthusiastic and always seemed to be "full of fun." Cleveland Allen had had a sickly adolescence and suffered from periodic "spells of derangement," which may have meant epilepsy.
Grover and his cousin Cleveland, who were close in age, could often be found fishing in the Niagara River. One day, the duo was admiring a giant yellow pike that must have weighed at least fifteen pounds. Generally regarded as the tastiest of all freshwater fish, yellow pike are also aggressive and predatory, as Grover learned when he tried to pry open its razor-sharp teeth with a stick. The stick slipped, the pike's mouth snapped shut on Grover's hand, and his injury was so severe he came close to losing two fingers.
The two-story Allen house, constructed of stone and rough stucco, was square and solid, with a veranda out front where the Aliens gathered as a family on the warm summer evenings. Behind the house was an orchard with apple, peach, plum, and cherry trees. Beyond that flowed the Niagara River at a swift current, churning up pockets of snowy white foam. It was a splendid vista. The Breckinridge Street Church, just across the street, is where Grover sometimes joined the Aliens in Sunday worship. Also on Breckenridge lived a playful little boy, Timothy J. Mahoney, who was ten years old when Grover moved in with the Aliens. Timothy first saw the unfamiliar teenager picking cherries in the orchard.
"Who's the new fellow?" Tim asked the Allen family handyman.
"Name's Cleveland," the handyman answered. "Father's dead. Used to be a minister down east somewhere. Boy's come to live with his uncle and aunt."
Tim was the neighborhood mischief-maker-in-chief, always getting into some scrape. He often sneaked through a gap left by a missing plank in the Allen's picket fence and filled a basket with pears. His petty crime spree came to an end when he ensnared himself in the fence, looked up, and saw Cleveland Allen clutching a fistful of his pants. Grover enjoyed Tim's company, and he became a sidekick of sorts.
The Aliens treated Grover like a son. He accompanied his uncle to the state fair in Utica. Aunt Margaret purchased Grover a formal dress coat—it was the first one he ever owned—and got him to agree to pose wearing it. He looked stiff and uneasy in the photograph.
There were some anxious days at the Allen house when Grover developed a high fever and severe abdominal pain—classic symptoms of typhoid fever, caused by ingesting contaminated food or water and spread via substandard public sanitation. It was touch-and-go for the next four weeks. The Allen family physician prescribed the starvation diet, sometimes known as the absolute diet. It meant absolutely no food for up to three days and was meant to heal intestinal ruptures. Somehow, Grover survived.
When he recovered, Grover resumed work on the herd book. Grand Island, where Lewis Allen raised his cattle, is a thirty-three-square-mile land mass in the Niagara River that lies near the international border between Canada and the United States. In those days, Grand Island was reached by a ferry powered by horses on a treadmill. When Grover Cleveland stepped onshore, he found an island blessed with magnificent forests of white oak trees and swarming with geese, ducks, and other game birds. Hawks and eagles patrolled the sky. The water held an inexhaustible source of yellow pike, sturgeon, and bass. For someone with Grover's appreciation of nature, it was a wonderland.
Lewis Allen's farm produced more than three hundred tons of hay annually, and the island soil also proved ideal for fruit trees. Indeed, the first peaches to be grown in Western New York were picked on Grand Island. For the farmers who lived there, though, it was an isolating existence; and the wells produced bitter-tasting water high in sulfuric content, which made for "very poor tea." This was a real problem considering that the inhabitants of Grand Island were of English, Irish, and Scottish descent. Settlers had to resort to building cisterns on their rooftops to store decent drinking water from rainfall.
Grover tended to his uncle's cattle and kept the books. Eventually, more than 125,000 Shorthorns would be registered in the American Herd Book. But mostly, when he went to Grand Island to put in a full day's work in the summer and fall of 1855, he ended up fishing with his cousin Cleveland. Even so, Lewis Allen must have been pleased with his nephew's industry and work ethic because in November, when the first edition of the herd book was completed, he paid Grover $60—$ 10 more than the arrangement called for—for a job well done.
All this time, Grover kept pressing his uncle for those lawyer connections. Finally, Lewis delivered. Looking at the field of attorneys in the city of Black Rock, Lewis settled on Daniel Hibbard, a justice of the peace who lived on Breckenridge Street and had once served as postmaster. "Grover, you had better go up and see Hibbard," Lewis told his young charge.
Grover showed up at Hibbard's Black Rock office just down the street from the Allen house. The interview was a disaster. It seems that Hibbard treated Grover like a supplicant, or some hard-up urchin looking for a handout. Perhaps he questioned Grover's credentials; after all, the teenager had no college education. Quick to take offense, Grover found Hibbard's questions to be so "impertinent" he walked right out. When Lewis heard about what had happened, he generously let it go as one of those things. Grover, he was coming to understand, was a "high-spirited boy."
Excerpted from A Secret Life by CHARLES LACHMAN Copyright © 2011 by Charles Lachman. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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