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The Dirtiest Election
Grover Cleveland had seduced a widow; James G. Blaine had peddled influence lied about it. In 1884, voters had to choose between two tarnished champions
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
The Reverend Mr. Ball of Buffalo, who claimed to speak for a ministerial investigating committee, asserted that the New York governor had “accomplished the seduction” of Mrs. Halpin, the director of the cloak and lace department of a Buffalo store. The report went on to say, that the woman, so far as known, had borne an irreproachable character up to that time; that her employers, with whom she had been about four years, had a high regard for her and considered her a virtuous Christian woman; that Mr. Cleveland had taken her to the Lying-in Hospital during her confinement; that the woman became depressed and threatened his life; that he became apprehensive that she might attempt some injury to him or herself and appealed to the Chief of Police, Colonel John Byrne, to keep her under surveillance; that Mr. Cleveland had her taken by force from her room at Mrs. Baker’s to the Providence Lunatic Asylum … that she was seen there by Doctor Ring, who did not think her insane; that after several days she escaped and no efforts were made to retake her; that she put her case into the hands of Milo A. Whitney, Esq., an attorney, alleging kidnapping and false imprisonment; that she finally gave up the child and received $500 from Mr. Cleveland … that these are matters of common repute in Buffalo, to substantiate which numerous witnesses can be found …
Worse than the specific charges were the spreading innuendos that the Halpin affair was not a momentary aberration. The Reverend Mr. Ball contributed to them with lurid accusations:
Investigations disclose still more proof of debaucheries too horrible to relate and too vile to be readily believed. For many years days devoted to business have been followed by nights of sin. He has lived a bachelor; had no home, avoiding the restraints even of hotel or boarding house life, lodged in rooms on the third floor in a business block, and made those rooms a harem; foraged outside, also, in the city and surrounding villages; a champion libertine, an artful seducer, a foe to virtue, an enemy of the family, a snare to youth and hostile to true womanhood. The Halpin case was not solitary. Women now married and anxious to cover the sins of their youth have been his victims, and are now alarmed lest their relations with him shall be exposed. Some disgraced and broken-hearted victims of his lust now slumber in the grave. Since he has become governor of this great state he has not abated his lecheries. Abundant rumors implicate him at Albany, and well-authenticated facts convict him at Buffalo.
Ball’s attacks could be read in full in such proper newspapers as Lucy Stone’s suffragette Woman’s Journal , which viewed the nomination of Cleveland as a kind of personal affront to all decent women. In a remarkable piece of fairness, however, her Journal published the opposite view of a Mugwump correspondent, Colonel T. Wentworth Higginson, who, though firmly against sin, delicately proposed that unbroken integrity was more important than unbroken chastity. But the editors and their other correspondents insisted repeatedly that sexual sin was a sign of total moral decay.
In the letters and editorials there is often on one hand scorn for a male seducer, and on the other, feminist anger that he might be getting away with a sin prohibited to women. But the manifest argument was always for defense of family and home, women’s special care. Lucy spoke of a solemn Tear that was echoed throughout the nation—the lamentable effect of Cleveland’s example on America’s young men. His candidacy “fills half the newspapers in the United States with apologies for a degrading vice—apologies which every profligate man and fast youth will appropriate to his own justification.”
The worst rumors about Cleveland were unpublishable, even in the most sensational papers, but they spread by pamphlet and whisper: the “whores” in Albany, the “malignant” disease. Some, the Nation complained, were “so improbable and so filthy that they seem to have been hatched by street-walkers and sold to Dr. Ball for a dollar apiece.” Many ministers began to assure their congregations that Cleveland was excluded from all decent houses; even the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, to Cleveland’s dismay, was said to be on the verge of turning against him.
A Mugwump and potential friend, Beecher was uniquely desirable as a supporter, for this great spiritual leader had been through a sensational trial as an adulterer and had still kept the respect of a substantial part of the nation. Cleveland wrote in anguish to Mrs. Beecher that “the contemptible creatures who coin and pass these things appear to think that the affair which I have not denied makes me defenseless against any and all slanders.” There was more he could say, but he wanted to say it 10 Beecher himself. “Cannot I manage to see him anil tell him what f cannot write?” Whatever Cleveland’s unwritable excuses were, Beecher, who had been considering the matter for a long time, made his decision. He came out for the “immoral” Governor, and vigorously attackeil Blaine’s “a-whoring alter votes.”