“Ma, Ma, Where's My Pa” haunted the Cleveland election in one of the nasty election sex scandals. So what’s the whole story here?
On July 21 the presidential campaign was jolted by news of a sex scandal involving Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. The Buffalo Evening Telegraph reported that the bachelor Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock (born 1874) by a widow named Maria Halpin; that he had callously abandoned mother and child, then later arranged Halpin's commitment to an asylum and the child's placement in an orphanage. The story became a major embarrassment to the Cleveland camp. Since the negative image of Blaine was of a corrupt politician, and the positive image of Cleveland was of a man of integrity, the Halpin scandal was a threat to the public persona promoted by Cleveland's strategists.
The revelation's early date in the campaign, though, allowed the Democrats to respond effectively, although the story still had legs into November. Yet, while defenders argued that the affair was a youthful discretion that Cleveland righted, the Telegraph, joined by some other anti-Cleveland newspapers, painted the nominee as a habitual womanizer, brawler, and drunk, whose wild ways continued into his governorship. That context, plus the public's unfamiliarity with Cleveland, gave the Halpin allegation more plausibility.
When presented with the news, Cleveland was alleged to have instructed his managers: "Tell the truth." It was admitted that he had the affair, and, although he thought he was not the father, had financially supported both mother and child. When Maria Halpin's alcoholism seemed to threaten the boy's well being, Cleveland saw to it that she was placed in a sort of half-way house, not an insane asylum, and that the boy was placed in an orphanage, where he was soon adopted by a wealthy couple. The other stories were shown to be false. The diligently hardworking governor had no time, much less inclination, to spend his evenings on the seedy side of town. (Apparently no one on either side, though, bothered to interview Maria Halpin.)
The Cleveland version of the story portrayed the Democratic nominee (at the expense of Halpin's reputation) as acting justly after falling from grace, and honestly after his private life became public. Consequently, the incident actually reinforced the perception of Cleveland as a man of good character. Furthermore, his actions were contrasted with the behavior of Blaine who supposedly acted in his own self-interest and lied about his financial dealings.