R&R

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Grover Cleveland underwent a secret surgery for cancer during his second term as president. The United States was in the grip of a financial panic in 1893 when Cleveland noticed a sore on the roof of his mouth. Doctors diagnosed a cancer and urged the president to have it removed, but Cleveland insisted on secrecy — Ulysses Grant’s death by an apparently similar cancer only eight years earlier had unsettled the nation, and Cleveland was loath to publicize his health concerns in the midst of an economic depression.

So on June 30 Cleveland boarded a friend’s yacht under the pretense of a four-day fishing trip to the president’s summer home in Cape Cod. The ship’s saloon had been outfitted as an operating room, and six doctors quietly joined the president before the yacht set sail. Cleveland was anesthetized and surgeon Joseph Bryant removed five teeth and a large portion of his palate and upper jawbone. The team fitted him with a rubber prosthesis to conceal his disfiguration and told the press that only two bad teeth had been removed.

The secret was nearly lost when E.J. Edwards, a reporter for the Philadelphia Press, published an article about the surgery after confirming it with one of the doctors. But Cleveland denied it flatly and launched a smear campaign against him. The president returned to health, served out the remainder of his second term, and died finally in 1908. The disgraced reporter was vindicated only 24 years later, when one of the surviving doctors finally published an article acknowledging the truth.

(Thanks, Colin.)

Word of Mouth

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Letter to the Times, Jan. 15, 1915:

Sir,

May I add another illustration to those which have already appeared in your columns, showing how near two lives can bring together events which seem so far apart? I remember my father telling me how, when he was attending a country grammar school in 1805, one day the master came in, full of a strange excitement, and exclaimed, ‘Boys, we’ve won a great victory!’ Then he stopped, burst into tears, and added, ‘But Nelson — Nelson is killed!’ When I was myself a boy Waterloo was a recent event, and even ‘the ’45’ was remembered and talked about.

In a few weeks I shall be 85, but I can still ride my bicycle.

William Wood, DD

Friendly Fire

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Most of the civilians who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were killed by American antiaircraft shells. “There was so much excitement and confusion,” harbor worker John Garcia told Studs Turkel for The Good War, his oral history of World War II. “Some of our sailors were shooting five-inch guns at the Japanese planes. You just cannot down a plane with a five-inch shell. They were landing in Honolulu, the unexploded naval shells. They have a ten-mile range. They hurt and killed a lot of people in the city.”

Garcia spent three days at the base dealing with the aftermath of the attack. When he returned to Honolulu, “they told me that a shell had hit the house of my girl. We had been going together for, oh, about three years. Her house was a few blocks from my place. At the time, they said it was a Japanese bomb. Later we learned it was an American shell. She was killed. She was preparing for church at the time.”

Rise and Shine

In the 1650s an intriguing handbill appeared in London:

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A merchant named Dan Edwards had brought the first coffee to England in 1652, and his Greek servant, Pasqua Rosee, opened the first coffee-house there. Evidently he saw some potential.

A Letter Home

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Besieged in Stalingrad during the bitter winter of 1943, the German 6th Army sent home one last post before surrendering in February to the encircling Red Army. An excerpt from one anonymous letter:

It’s strange that one does not start to value things until one is about to lose them. There is a bridge from my heart to yours, spanning all the vastness of distance. Across that bridge I have been used to writing to you about our daily round and the world we live in out here. I wanted to tell you the truth when I came home, and then we would never have spoken of war again. Now you will learn the truth, the last truth, earlier than I intended. And now I can write no more.

There will always be bridges as long as there are shores; all we need is the courage to tread them. One of them now leads to you, the other into eternity — which for me is ultimately the same thing.

Tomorrow morning I shall set foot on the last bridge. That’s a literary way of describing death, but you know I always liked to write things differently because of the pleasure words and their sounds gave me. Lend me your hand, so that the way is not too hard.

It was never delivered. Hitler ordered the letters analyzed to learn the state of army morale. The Wehrmacht reported that 2.1 percent of the letters approved of the conduct of the war, 3.4 percent were vengefully opposed, 57.1 percent were skeptical and negative, 33 percent were indifferent, and 4.4 percent were doubtful.

Reputation

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In 1908, while traveling in the northern Caucasus, Leo Tolstoy regaled a local tribe with tales of the greatest warriors and statesmen in history. When he had finished, the chief said, “But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise, and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.”

“I looked at them,” Tolstoy recalled, “and saw their faces all aglow, while their eyes were burning. I saw that those rude barbarians were really interested in a man whose name and deeds had already become a legend.”

Tolstoy reflected that this “little incident proves how largely the name of Lincoln is worshipped throughout the world and how legendary his personality has become. Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? … [H]is supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. He had come through many hardships and much experience to the realization that the greatest human achievement is love. He was what Beethoven was in music, Dante in poetry, Raphael in painting, and Christ in the philosophy of life. He aspired to be divine — and he was. It is natural that before he reached his goal he had to walk the highway of mistakes. But we find him, nevertheless, in every tendency true to one main motive, and that was to benefit mankind. He was one who wanted to be great through his smallness. If he had failed to become President he would be, no doubt, just as great as he is now, but only God would appreciate it. The judgment of the world is usually wrong in the beginning, and it takes centuries to correct it. But in the case of Lincoln the world was right from the start.”

Name-Dropper

Letter to the Times, March 10, 1950:

Sir,

I should like to place on record that at my son’s baptism today there was present one lady whose father, born in 1794, had fought under Wellington in the Peninsular War.

If this boy or others of my children live the allotted 70 years they will be able to claim to be among the very few people who in 2020 will say: ‘I had a friend once who told me how cross her father had been at the postal delays when he was in Spain with Wellington 200 years ago.’

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

P.J.M. Rous

Oops

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Astrologer William Lilly managed to torpedo his own reputation. Nettled at rumors abroad in London, he published this advertisement in the Perfect Diurnal of April 9, 1655:

Whereas there are several flying reports, and many false and scandalous speeches in the mouth of many people in this City, tending unto this effect, viz., that I, William Lilly, should predict or say there would be a great fire in or near the Old Exchange, and another in St. John’s Street, and another in the Strand, near Temple Bar, and in several other parts of the City. These are to certify the whole City that I protest before Almighty God that I never wrote any such thing, I never spoke any such word, or ever thought of any such thing, of any or all of these particular places or streets, or any other parts. These untruths are forged by ungodly men and women to disturb the quiet people of the City, to amaze the nation, and to cast aspersions and scandals on me.

He should have held his tongue — the Great Fire of London broke out on Sept. 2, 1666, and consumed more than 13,000 houses, fulfilling the prophecy that Lilly had disclaimed.

“He must have misread the stars,” wrote Walter George Bell in Fleet Street in Seven Centuries. “Not to have forecasted the fire would not have mattered; but to have prophesied that it would not take place! The fool! the abject, intolerable fool!”

Charity

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Letter to the New York Times, March 26, 1911:

Dear Mr. Editer

i Went down town with my daddy yesterday to see that terrible fire where all the littel girls jumped out of high windows My littel cousin Beatrice and i are sending you five dollars a piece from our savings bank to help them out of trubble please give it to the right one to use it for sombody whose littel girl jumped out of a window i wouldent like to jump out of a high window myself.

Yours Truly,

Morris Butler

Windfall

One day [A.J. Conant] asked Mr. Lincoln how he became interested in the law. ‘It was Blackstone’s “Commentaries” that did it,’ said Mr. Lincoln, and then he related how he first happened on the books. ‘I was keeping store in New Salem, when one day a man who was migrating to the West drove up with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it and paid him, I think, half a dollar. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it. Sometime after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel and emptied its contents upon the floor. I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time, for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read’ — this he said with unusual emphasis — ‘the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.’ …

— Ida M. Tarbell, Selections From the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, 1911