This Historic Presidential Election Scandalized New Rochelle

Back in 1884, the Cleveland-Blaine rivalry rippled right through Westchester County.

It stands as one of the dirtiest, nastiest, most sensational presidential campaigns ever. Voters had to choose between two unpopular candidates — one accused of being an influence peddler and the other accused of rape.

The mudslinging was so malignant that, according to one newspaper’s opinion, any foreign visitor “must have been convinced … that the American people had selected the two worst men among them for whom to vote for president.”

Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it? But set aside for a moment the obvious comparison to Trump-Biden of 2024 and consider the “terrible tale” of Cleveland-Blaine of 1884 — a Gilded-Age melodrama that scandalized New Rochelle.

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In 1884, Chester A. Arthur, hands down the least remembered of our 46 presidents, chose not to run for re-election because of ill health. This cleared a path for Grover Cleveland, the Democratic governor of New York and Sen. James Blaine, a Republican from Maine.

Blaine was smart, powerful, and a bit of a crook. Called “Slippery Jim,” for among other things, taking bribes from railroad companies, he was summed up by the taunt, “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, continental liar from the state of Maine.”

Cleveland was a reformer who rose quickly through the rough-and-tumble ranks of Buffalo politics. Practically a confirmed bachelor, he loved beer and bratwurst, and spurned exercise. Weighing north of 260 pounds, he was nicknamed “Big Steve” and “Uncle Jumbo,” and as such, he ranks second behind William Howard Taft on the list of heaviest US presidents. (Donald Trump is a close third.)

Cleveland chased women and was known to frequent the bawdy houses of Buffalo. On July 21, just four months shy of the 1884 election, one of his dalliances came back to haunt him. A partisan Buffalo newspaper broke the lurid story of a sexual encounter he had with a widow, Maria Halpin, the alleged result of which was the birth of a boy in 1874.

The “terrible tale” went viral. Cleveland was stung by a slew of wild claims — among them that he had reneged on a promise to marry Halpin, had her committed to an insane asylum, and heartlessly placed the boy in an orphanage.

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Cleveland took financial responsibility for the baby, but without DNA testing, it is not certain that he was the actual biological father. His defenders believe he nobly covered for a philandering married friend — Oscar Folsom. In any case, facts hardly mattered to anti-Clevelanders who sneered, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

Phil Reisman
Phil Reisman photo by Stefan Radtke.

Consider the “terrible tale” of Cleveland-Blaine of 1884 — a Gilded-Age melodrama that scandalized New Rochelle.

Word eventually leaked out that Halpin, no longer residing in Buffalo, had been quietly living in anonymity for several years in New Rochelle and had taken up with an older man, James Seacord, a humble carpenter. An army of newspaper reporters, as well as mendacious political operatives from both parties, descended on New Rochelle, which was described as a village “largely populated by the families of men doing business in the metropolis.” Armed with a pair of rifles and four revolvers, Seacord hid Halpin from view and chased away the snooping intruders who came to his door — though one reporter, disguised as a plumber, managed to sneak in.

Cleveland has been lauded for telling his supporters, “Whatever you do, tell the truth.” But this remains a complicated story and the unvarnished truth remains elusive. Halpin herself seemed to be a bundle of contradictions. In a signed affidavit, she said Cleveland, in effect, committed date rape. But she also told the New York World newspaper that he was “a good, plain honest man.”

One thing is certain, she did not capitalize on the scandal and quickly receded into obscurity. She died of pneumonia in New Rochelle in 1902, and left an estate totaling $200 in cash and $2,000 in real estate.

In short, she was no Stormy Daniels. With it all, Cleveland defeated Blaine, but just barely. Many voters thought he was simply the lesser of two evils. One of the better newspapers of that age, the New York Sun, said it supported Cleveland for president “not because he is qualified or deserving, but because we can’t stand Blaine.”

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So here we are 140 years later, faced once again with a choice between two extraordinarily unpopular presidential candidates. According to a recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, the word most voters chose to describe their sentiment of a Biden-Trump rematch was “dread.”

To that extent, history repeats itself.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

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