Grover Cleveland’s Buffalo
Presidential election of 1884. Grand ovation to Governor Cleveland in the city of Buffalo, NY. Oct 2, 1884.
Image courtesy Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
Grover Cleveland, born in 1837, came west across New York State to find a place to study law. He found one, working in Buffalo with his well-connected uncle, Lewis Allen, and that was the start of a remarkable career for Cleveland that included Erie County Sheriff, Buffalo mayor, New York governor, and president of the United States.
Among other landmarks, Cleveland is remembered with a statue at Buffalo City Hall, his name on a golf course, and a high school. (Buffalo’s Allen Street is named after Uncle Lewis, incidentally, whose cattle once walked that route.)
Cleveland was also the only US president elected in two non-consecutive terms, gaining the White House in 1884 by beating James Blaine, losing it in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison despite winning the popular vote, then defeating Harrison in 1892. He began his first term as a bachelor, and married the young daughter of a colleague in 1886, history’s only marriage of a president in the White House.
His two terms in office were marked with a recession, labor strikes, military modernization, a Long Island vacation that was actually secret cancer surgery aboard a boat, and later ill health and retirement to his birthplace of New Jersey, where he died in 1908.
New Jersey regards him as a native son. So does Buffalo.
As a lawyer in Buffalo, Cleveland developed a reputation for hard work and dedication to his job, and became a partner in Cleveland and Bissell, a law firm included in the lineage of current Buffalo law firm Phillips Lytle. He was elected Erie County Sheriff in 1870, when Buffalo still maintained something of a Wild West vibe, and presided over two executions, events not found on any other president’s resume. Patrick Morrissey murdered his mother. John Gaffney shot a man to death in a Buffalo saloon. Both were convicted, and both swung from the gallows in 1872 and 1873, respectively, at Erie County Jail, where the Central Library now sits. In both cases, Cleveland pulled the lever to engage the trap door after undersheriffs declined the duty. That a sheriff would serve as an executioner was unusual at the time.
He was elected mayor of a very corrupt city in 1882, exposing municipal graft and refusing raises for the Common Council members, but served only ten months before winning the state gubernatorial race. Then came the White House.
The reputation of Cleveland in Buffalo was that of a dignified and driven workaholic, living simply in a boarding house and supporting his mother and sisters. It’s why his fistfight with furniture maker Mike Falvey seemed out of character. Falvey allegedly called Cleveland a liar, and Cleveland punched him hard enough to put Falvey into a Seneca Street gutter. They walked several blocks, swinging and brawling until the fight was broken up, and later made up over drinks, the story goes.
Cleveland also had what historian Alan Nevins described as an active social life in the “easy-going sociability of hotel lobbies and saloons.” That may have driven the rape accusation by an attractive widow and alleged alcoholic, Maria Crofts Halpin, who gave birth to a baby boy, last name Cleveland. Competing stories muddied the truth, one saying that Cleveland took the rap to protect law partner Oscar Folsom, the father of the woman Cleveland eventually married in the White House. Halpin’s testimony was rebutted by discovery of a contract by which she agreed to a $500 settlement and never to bother Cleveland again.
When Cleveland ran for president, “Ma, Ma, where’s my paw?” was a rallying slogan of his opponents. “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha,” was the response from his supporters. All this figures into City of Light, the celebrated 1999 novel by Lauren Belfer.
The various scandals may have been responsible for Cleveland’s lack of interest in returning to Buffalo, after Albany and Washington. He died in New Jersey after eleven years as a private citizen there. Buffalo has not forgotten him.
Ed Adamczyk is the municipal historian of the Village of Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda.