The President’s Secret Cancer

While presidential lies today seem shocking, it’s actually rather tame in comparison to 1893. In June of President Grover Cleveland second term, the country was in a financial depression. An avid cigar-smoker, Cleveland noticed a quarter-sized bump on the roof of his mouth. He asked his doctor, Major Robert O’Reilly, to take a look. O’Reilly sent anonymous samples to two separate medical organizations. Both came back with a diagnosis of cancer.


Fearful of panicking the nation and Wall Street with news of a terminal illness and a surgery that could kill him, Cleveland decided to keep it a secret. He told the press he was going fishing on his friend Commodore Elias Benedict’s yacht. Instead, six doctors set up an operating room in the yacht’s saloon for the surgery, which took place on July 1st.. Describing the 90-minute operation, one doctor who was there later said, “The entire left upper jaw was removed from the first bicuspid to just beyond the last molar and nearly up to the middle line. A small portion of the soft palate was removed. . . The entire operation was done within the mouth, without any external incision.. .the absence of any external scar greatly aided in keeping the operation an entire secret.”


Casts of Cleveland’s palate in 1893 and 1897

Four days later Cleveland returned from his trip, vacationing at his house in Cape Cod. His trademark bushy mustache and a rubber insert in the roof of his mouth made healing less noticeable. In early August, he addressed Congress, none the wiser, and he lived another 15 years. The public didn’t find out the truth until 9 years after his death.

Posted in president

No Cure for Greed

Based on his training and background, Dr. Albert Abrams was a really good turn-of-the-century doctor. As a young man, he studied at the Medical College of the Pacific, then in Germany at the University of Heidelberg in 1882, and was awarded an MD at Cooper College in San Francisco, where he later taught for more than a decade. He published a number of articles, including one on the danger of medical fakers, writing “A physician is only allowed to think he knows it all, but a quack. . . is permitted to know he knows it all.” So when did he decide to become what he warned about?


Dr. Albert Abrams, before becoming a fraudster

In 1917, Abrams proposed that diseases had vibrations, which he called Electronic Reactions of Abrams, that these diseases can be cured with the same vibrations. The next year he conveniently created the Dynomizer, a machine that can diagnose any disease with a single drop of blood and later with only a patient’s signature, and the Oscillaclast, a machine that produces the necessary vibrations to destroy any disease. Abrams then licensed Oscillaclasts to technicians he trained, making them sign a contract they would never open the machine. He claimed opening it would upset its delicate balance but in truth he didn’t want anyone to see what was inside his machines. By 1921, there were more than 3000 technicians, many charging patients to cure diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and syphilis, and sometimes all three at once. Abrams, meanwhile, was making millions.


Abrams “curing” diseases in 1923

Gradually, people who weren’t actually cured started filing complaints against Abrams, including a high-profile case where a man who had stomach cancer died. In 1923, a case was brought against Abrams in court. For the court Robert Millikan, who had that year won the Nobel Prize in physics, examined the Oscillaclast machine and wrote “It’s a contraption which might have been thrown together by a ten-year-old boy who knows a little about electricity to mystify an eight-year-old boy who knows nothing about it.”


Abrams escaped prosecution by contracting pneumonia and, unable to cure his own disease, dying in 1924.



Posted in American History Kids, disease, medical quackery

Blackbeard’s Headless Ghost

In May 1718, Blackbeard’s large fleet of pirate ships boldly blocked the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He robbed approaching ships and captured rich Charleston citizens, who he held for ransom.

Afterwards, Blackbeard retreated to his base on Ocracoke Island, where he and his crew threw raucous parties. Fed up, the governor of Virginia hired Lieutenant Robert Maynard to arrest Blackbeard. As Maynard approached the island, Blackbeard responded with cannon fire. Maynard’s crew took a lot of casualties. The rest hid below deck. When Blackbeard boarded the ship, Maynard’s crew attacked. The fearsome pirate was shot five times and stabbed 20 times before finally dying.


Maynard cut off the pirate’s head and hung it on the front of his ship and dumped Blackbeard’s body into the cove. His crew claimed the body swam three times around the ship before finally sinking into the water. His ghost has been supposedly seen searching the empty beaches for his head.


Posted in American History Kids, ghosts, pirates

The Terrible Cherry Hill Mine Disaster

Due to an electrical outage, the nearly 500 workers in the coal mine in Cherry, Illinois on November 13, 1909 had to light kerosene lanterns and torches. One caught fire to a cart full of hay for the mules, which quickly spread when workers used a large fan to try to blow it out. Two shafts were closed off to stop the fire, which also suffocated many of the surviving miners. When they were finally able to reach the shaft, rescuers found “a group of some ten bodies, one in the center in the attitude of prayer. From there on the sights were horrifying. . . and the stench as such as to tax the strength of the rescuers.”




Deep in the shaft, twenty-one men built a wall to protect themselves from the fire and poisonous gasses. Certain of death, they wrote farewell notes to their loved ones. George Eddy wrote his wife and children, ‘I write these few lines to you and I think it will be for the last time. I have tried to get out twice, but was driven back. . . Lizzie, if I am found dead take me to bury me in Streator and move back. Keep Esther and Jenny and Clarence together as much as you can. I hope they will not forget their father, so I will bid you all good-by, and. God bless you all.”  They managed to survive eight days drinking from water than leaked from a coal seam until they were miraculously rescued. In total, 259 men and boys as young as 10 died, making is the third most deadly mining disaster in history.



Posted in disasters, fire

The Criminal Cop

Charles Becker’s life changed in July 1911. Before then, the New York City policeman had worked a few cases that brought him some renown. But then he was assigned to head up one of three Special Squads, which a newspaper described as groups of tough cops whose job it was to “travel about the City and hand out generous doses of strong-arm medicine to any and all who show unmistakable signs of being in need of it.”

The squad’s exploits, and Becker’s in particular, became a favorite topic of newspapers like the New York Times, which described Becker as “standing over six feet in his socks, tipping the scale at over 200 pounds, broad-shouldered, with the eyes, jaw, and fists of a fighter.” He reveled in the limelight, hiring a press agent to help get his story told.


Charles Becker, center

Becker also found that his position enabled him to make piles of money offering “protection” to illegal businesses in the shady section of the City known as Satan’s Circus. Although Becker only earned a salary of only $2,000 a year, it’s estimated he pocketed close to $10,000 a month in bribes. In his dirty dealings, he ended up in business with gambler Herman Rosenthal. When Rosenthal’s illegal casino was raided after he had paid protection, he went to the newspapers with tales of Becker and his associates criminal activity. Two days later, on July 16, 1912, Rosenthal was gunned down in the street.


Baldy Jack Rose, who testified against Becker

While Becker was nowhere near the site of the murder, the men charged with the shooting claimed that Becker had arranged to have Rosenthal killed. Becker was arrested and tried by District Attorney Charles Whitman. One of the criminals who testified against Becker, Jack Rose,  was granted immunity and his testimony helped convict Becker. After two trials and countless appeals, Becker was found guilty, sentenced to die, and sent to Sing Sing prison. Becker, who admitted to being corrupt, told a reporter for the Sun, “They have convicted an innocent man. . . There is not the slightest question that those men who testified against me were all liars, the worst of perjurers.”


Trial spectators outside the Tombs prison, hoping for a sight of Becker


On July 30, 1915, Becker became the first police officer in America executed for a crime. Due to a malfunction in the electric chair, it took him almost 9 terrible minutes to die.



Posted in executions, gangsters, murder, New York