Grover Cleveland was both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States of America. He actually won the popular vote in three straight elections—1884, 1888, and 1892—thereby proving himself to be one of the most popular politicians of the late 19th century. But he only won the electoral college votes needed to secure the election in two of those presidencies. In that middle election of 1888, Benjamin Harrison carried the electoral college vote and swept into the White House, pushing Cleveland out for four years before his eventual return.
Now, Grover Cleveland stands as a modern-day trivia tidbit as the only American president to ever serve two non-consecutive terms in the White House. But beyond that, what do you really know about the guy? Unless you’re a presidential historian or, for some reason, an expert on politics in the 1880s, we’re betting you don’t know much. So let’s change that! In this list today, we’ll take a look at ten surprising facts about America’s only non-consecutive President!
The Birth Of Big Steve
Grover Cleveland’s name wasn’t actually Grover—not his first name, at least. He was named by his parents as Stephen Grover Cleveland when he was born in 1837 in New Jersey. His proud parents intended for the name to highlight and honor the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell, the town in which the President-to-be grew up. And all throughout childhood—and then on later into his adulthood—Cleveland was a very big person. He was always thick, and stocky, and eventually quite overweight. As a kid, his peers began calling him “Big Steve.” The name stuck, and everywhere around Caldwell and wherever else Cleveland went, he was known to pals and introduced to new acquaintances as “Big Steve.”
There was only one problem: he absolutely detested the name. In his early 20s, Cleveland resolved to get rid of the name once and for all, and he left “Stephen” behind. He started using his middle name, Grover, when he introduced himself to new people. He eventually left Caldwell and went on to live the rest of his life as Grover, even though it took a while at first for people to pick up on his name adjustment. As for his weight, that really never changed. When Cleveland first became President in 1884, he was sworn into office as America’s first obese leader. The country has had several since (most notably William Howard Taft), but Cleveland was the one who led that charge, thanks to an all-too-frequent diet of cigars and beer.
Dropping Out, But Not By Choice
Grover’s father was a man named Richard Falley Cleveland. And while Richard did good, honest work as a pastor and a missionary, he didn’t make a ton of money to support his family. That became all the more complicated when Richard and his wife had a whopping nine children in total—of which Grover was the fifth-born. So, all nine kids had to pitch in as they got older just to help the family survive. That meant Grover had to drop out of school several different times during his childhood to do odd jobs, take on local work, and bring in a couple dollars to the family coffers to keep food on the table.
That whole family dynamic became far more complicated in 1853, when Grover was just 16 years old. That year, Richard died, leaving his wife and the couple’s nine children in a lurch. Grover had to quit school for good then, and he eventually went to work as an apprentice for a merchant. Over the next two years, he painstakingly learned about the business world—and later said it taught him more about life than school ever could. Still, school was an afterthought for Grover (or, at the time, Big Steve), because he had to do whatever it took to keep food on the table for his mother and siblings.
College? No Thanks!
After Cleveland’s apprenticeship and the completion of other various odd jobs following his father’s death, the fifth-born son was hurtling towards adulthood with no real plan other than to survive. He took on a job as an assistant teacher for a while and found he was good at relating to the children and teaching them things. The pastor at his church saw that, and knew Grover needed some help, so he offered to pay for the young man’s college education. There was just one catch: if Grover accepted the offer, he had to become a pastor upon graduating from school.
Grover wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to get out of life, but he knew he didn’t want to do that. So, he turned down the pastor’s offer and declined the opportunity to go to college. Instead, he moved to New York State and latched on with his uncle, gaining a clerkship with his influential uncle. As it turned out, declining the college offer and moving to New York was one of the best things Grover could have done for himself—even if it seemed like a poor choice at the time. Still, years later, Cleveland would lament his decision not to attend college while also acknowledging that university education simply isn’t for everybody.
A Very Helpful Uncle
After the slow start to Grover’s professional life, considering his relative lack of education when compared to many of America’s elites at the time, he caught a big familial break. Upon moving to New York, Grover landed in Buffalo. There, he hit up his uncle Lewis W. Allen for help. Allen was an influential lawyer and public figure in Buffalo, and he knew many other powerful people in that community, too. So, Allen took to the task of introducing Grover to the decision-makers around the western New York community. Soon enough, Cleveland landed a gig at the then-notable law firm Rogers, Bowen, and Rogers.
That job really did wonders for Cleveland. Not only was he clerking for some of the most tied-in people around the major western New York metropolis, but he also quickly discovered that he was very good at learning the law. He studied hard at the craft while clerking, and in 1859, he passed the bar exam. Over the next three years, he would become a full-fledged lawyer, hang out his shingle to start his own law firm, and he even became the district attorney for Erie County, too. Suddenly, the man who had worked so hard at menial jobs to keep his and his family’s heads above water as a child was flourishing in Buffalo.
Oh, and by the way: Grover’s uncle wasn’t the only influential person related by blood to the future President-to-be. The child who grew up as “Big Steve” was also a descendant of Moses Cleveland—the man who famously founded the city of Cleveland, Ohio. Moses died in the early 19th century, so Grover never knew the man. But even though Grover’s life saw humble beginnings, he had deep connections to impactful people all the way through.
Cleveland Killed Two Men
After serving as the district attorney of Erie County in western New York for a stint, Cleveland later parlayed that work into another law-related job: as the Sheriff of the county. From 1870 to 1873, Grover served as the head lawman in Erie County, looking over a stable of deputies that patrolled the streets of Buffalo and its environs. But that’s where this story takes a surprisingly dark turn. As sheriff of Erie County, he was the one required to do the executions should anyone in the jurisdiction be convicted of murder or another hangable offense. And sure enough, in 1872, one of those disturbing crimes came right across Cleveland’s desk.
That year, a man named Patrick Morrissey was arrested and convicted on a murder charge. As the law stated, he was then condemned to die at Cleveland’s hand. Now, Grover had an out in the matter. Legally, if he didn’t want to hang Morrissey himself, he could order a deputy to do so in his place. The only catch was that Cleveland would have had to have paid the deputy $10 for the act. Grover was a renowned penny pincher throughout his life, and the thought of paying $10 for another man to do his job didn’t sit well with him. So, Cleveland did the killing himself. And the next year, when another convicted murderer named John Gaffney came up for execution, Grover once again completed the act as required.
Paying Not To Fight
So, we now know Grover Cleveland was enough of a penny pincher that he refused to pay $10 to a deputy to perform an execution in his stead. But when it came to military service, Grover was down to lay out a lot of money NOT to fight. Yes, you read that right. In 1863, during the Civil War, Congress passed something called the Conscription Act. That bill required that all able-bodied Americans serve in the military if (or, with the ongoing war, when) they were called upon to do so. But there was a catch! If men had the money to get out of it, they could hire a substitute to serve in their place, pay that man, and be done with their military service by financially avoiding it.
So, later in 1863, that is exactly what Grover Cleveland chose to do. Rather than be called upon to fight in the bloody Civil War against the Confederacy, Grover found a Polish immigrant in New York named George Beninsky. The President-to-be paid Beninsky a princely sum of $150 (nearly $4,000 in today’s money), and the Polish-American man went off to fight in Grover’s place. The practice of paying another man to fight (and possibly die) for you might be a bit of an uncomfortable thing, but it was perfectly legal at the time. So, Cleveland used that option to stay out of war, stay alive, and continue on with his legal career.
Cleveland Culls Corruption
While Cleveland was reasonably popular in Buffalo thanks to his stints as a private lawyer, the district attorney, and the sheriff, he didn’t really gain major notoriety until he became the mayor of New York City in the early 1880s. He won that election in 1882, and then immediately went to clean up the city and the corruption that had plagued it for decades before that.
See, at the time, it was very common for NYC officials to award city and state services contracts (like garbage pick-up and street cleaning) to the job’s highest bidder, rather than the lowest. That was great for the city and the politicians who were able to quietly pocket extra funds and kickbacks for handing out these public service jobs and offers. It was very bad for the taxpayers, though, and NYC residents were sick and tired of all the money that was flying around with less and less to show for the contracts.
Cleveland saw this in the run-up to the 1882 election and immediately set out upon changing the system altogether when he got into office. He began by publicly shaming the city leaders who had been doing those sketchy deals with companies for city service contracts. Then, he changed city rules to ensure actions like that would be more difficult to do in the future. New Yorkers immediately loved him, and saw him as a true man of the people for his determination to root out the cronyism and corruption that had been so endemic. That, in turn, was a major catalyst for Cleveland’s national political ambitions.
An Illegitimate Child?
Grover Cleveland may have been a very conscientious civil servant during his career, but that didn’t mean he was perfect. In fact, a massive scandal nearly ruined his entire national political career before it got off the ground. In early 1884, while Cleveland was running for the presidency, a woman named Maria Crofts Halpin came forward with a story. She claimed that Grover was the illegitimate father of her child, who had been born a decade earlier. Halpin was single, and thus, Cleveland’s alleged sexual liaison with her leading to pregnancy was a major scandal. Considering the social mores of the time, it was one that even threatened to derail his campaign.
But then something interesting happened: Cleveland owned up to it. While the President-to-be couldn’t say for sure if he were the father of Halpin’s child, he did admit that the two of them had a sexual affair. And he even acknowledged paying her child support for the baby ever since way back in 1874. Amazingly, while Republicans seized on Cleveland’s admissions about the birth out of wedlock as him being unfit for the presidency, his honesty moved people. Because he copped to the act, was open about it, and showed contrition, the public took to him anyway. What could have derailed his election didn’t, and Cleveland soon took to the White House.
After a reasonably successful four years in the White House for his first term, Cleveland ran again for the presidency in 1888. The Democrats backed him fully, and expected the popular president to win as the incumbent candidate. However, he didn’t. Well, he sort of didn’t. See, Cleveland won the popular vote across the United States. When all individual citizens’ ballots were tallied up, Grover had more votes to his name than did his Republican opponent Benjamin Harrison. But as any American can tell you based on recent election events, it’s not the population’s raw vote that matters, but that of the electoral college.
Thus, while Harrison didn’t win the popular vote, he took home key electoral votes in three swing states: New York, New Jersey, and Indiana. Those critically-placed votes were enough to give him the electoral advantage, and Harrison was crowned the winner of the 1888 election over Cleveland for it. Amazingly, it was later uncovered that Republican political bosses in the important swing state of Indiana had actually stuffed the ballot boxes in Harrison’s name, and he likely never should have won there. Regardless, Cleveland accepted his defeat humbly and left the White House. He was back four years later, though, to serve out his second term after the brief hiatus from office.
A Spartan Life Lived Right
After the humble beginnings of his childhood and young adult days, Cleveland eventually found his footing in Buffalo, as we’ve learned. Ever since he became a lawyer, and then a DA, and then the sheriff, life finally seemed to start working out for him. His legal career saw him take on many high-profile cases, too, including the successful defense of a Buffalo magazine editor in a high-profile libel suit back in the 1860s. With all those successes came money, and more cases, and more money. But even as Cleveland racked up the dough, so to speak, he didn’t care about living life large to show off what he’d accomplished.
Rather than flaunt his wealth, Grover Cleveland lived in simple boarding houses during much of his time in Buffalo. Then, when he moved to New York City, he lived in a spartan apartment without many high-end things or collectibles. He simply didn’t see the need to acquire many possessions in his life, or flaunt what he’d made while working. Instead, he sent nearly all of his money home to support both his widowed mother and his eight siblings whenever they had a need as adults.
Even after leaving the White House, Cleveland continued to live simply. He moved to Princeton, New Jersey for the last few years of his life, and became a trustee of the renowned University in that city. But he never pushed his way into see-and-be-seen elite society, even though he certainly had the professional resume to do so. Instead, he simply wanted to do his work and improve the country as he saw fit. His last words just before dying in June of 1908 would prove prophetic in that regard. After being felled by a heart attack that would lead quickly to his death, Cleveland reportedly said: “I have tried so hard to do right.”
[Image via ABC News Australia/YouTube]