When The President Disappeared

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A hurried visit to Washington by his great and good friend Dr. Joseph Bryant of New York aroused no suspicions. These two were hunting and fishing cronies as well as doctor and patient. But when Joe Bryant, after confirming the diagnosis, told him, “Were it in my mouth, I would have it removed at once!” Grover Cleveland had to cogitate, to plot and plan. He did so almost instantly and with forthright resolution. Calling in Dan Lamont, his former press secretary, now his secretary of war, he concerted with Bryant for an operation on July 1, under conditions as cleverly contrived as they were critical.

A few minutes alter issuing his call to Congress for a date only six weeks beyond his private ordeal, Grover Cleveland left the White House with Dan Lamont and Dr. Bryant in the afternoon of June 30. They boarded the 4:20 northbound train. (There were no detectives, for secret service men were not assigned as regular presidential guards until after McKinley’s assassination in 1901.) The press was not told that he was leaving. The story would be, if his move were discovered, that he was just slipping away to rest at Gray Gables, his summer home on Buzzard’s Bay, where his young and again pregnant wife had gone already.

Unnoticed in the dusk, the President left his train at New York and with Dr. Bryant went from the station to the Battery in a common carriage. Dim in the night offshore lay Commodore Elias C. Benedict’s graceful yacht Oneida. Her tender quietly ferried the President of the United States out to and aboard her, unseen, unsuspected.

The tender had already made a few other such unobtrusive trips that afternoon and evening. At casually spaced intervals it had fetched Dr. O’Reilly; Dr. Edward G. Janeway, the country’s foremost physiologist; Dr. William W. Keen of Philadelphia, an oral surgeon of highest repute; Dr. Bryant’s brilliant young assistant, Dr. John F. Erdmann (who was to succeed him as “top knife” of New York for a long span of years); and a Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouck of 147 West 126th Street, Manhattan. No surgical bigwig, the latter was a young dentist, but urgently required by the others for his knowledge of the new “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide, for anesthesia.

The dumpy but distinguished patient greeted all these gentlemen tersely and sat with them a while on deck, smoking one more cigar. He did not discuss his ugly ailment but did growl, “Oh, those office seekers! They haunt me even in my dreams!”

About midnight Dan Lamont and Joe Bryant went to their Manhattan homes to sleep, returning before the first sun of July had burned the mist off Manhattan’s rivers. The Oneida sailed betimes, moving up the East River and out through Hell Gate into a glassy Long Island Sound, with Commodore Benedict and Dan Lamont plainly in evidence on deck to make it look to any curious eyes on shore like an ordinary rich man’s pleasure cruise over the Fourth. Inside the yacht’s main saloon the scene was far less usual.

This space, with wide overhead transoms, had been fitted up as a floating surgery. A straight-back chair was lashed to the mast to receive the patient. Sheeted paraphernalia were ranged about, including besides Dr. Hasbrouck’s gas machine a standard ether-giving rig, a manually operated generator for magneto-cautery, tables of instruments for surgeons Bryant and Keen, and a chair beside the patient’s for Dr. Janeway, who would check pulse, blood pressure, and respiration throughout the hacking and scraping. The yacht’s steward was put into a surgical gown so that he could function as orderly. Boiling water and cracked ice were on hand in good supply.

Several times during the morning Cleveland’s month was washed out and disinfected. Shortly before noon he was led pajamaed from his stateroom to the chair and there strapped in, head tilted back as though for a shave.

Dr. Bryant, in charge of everything, nodded to Dr. Hasbrouck for the gassing to begin. The importance of this part was that, deep under heavy ether, oral patients might choke to death on their own blood. From the lighter gas they could more easily be aroused to cough it up. Moreover, Cleveland was precisely the overweight, hypertensive type to go into an apoplexy if he choked at all.

Cleveland went under the gas readily, and the skillful Hasbrouck, with heavy forceps, swiftly extracted two bicuspids to make room for the surgeons’ work. Now came the moment for Dr. Keen’s specialty. From Paris he had lately brought back an ingenious cheek retractor, which would give Joe Bryant’s strong big fingers free play without a hole being cut through the face.

Into the posterior dental ridge now bared by this instrument, Joe Bryant grimly carved with his white-hot electric knife, excising with it a section of the mouth’s roof out to the midline and back to an apparently affected portion of the palate. His great concern was not to invade the orbital palate, that is, eye socket.

When Bryant was about half through cutting. Dr. Hasbrouck warned that the gas would soon wear off and the patient awaken. So at 1:14 Dr. O’Reilly administered ether and presently Dr. Bryant resumed his work.