On June 2, 1884 Grant stopped and winced as he swallowed a peach during
lunchtime, saying "Oh my. I think something has stung me from that peach."
He left the table, paced back and forth on the porch in distress (limping), and rinsed
his throat multiple times, but remained in great pain, saying "water hurt
like fire." The pain persisted all summer, intensifying in July.
Jacob Mendez Da Costa
examined him and found a growth on the roof of the mouth.
He prescribed pain medication and recommended Grant consult his family physician,
B. Fordyce Barker,
as soon as possible. Dr. Barker was on a European trip, however,
and so Grant did not see him until October
After discovering a suspiciously swollen area on the back of the tongue,
Barker referred Grant to
a throat specialist. Douglas, too, found a hard, swollen area on the back of
the tongue and, using a mirror, saw three lesions on the roof of the mouth.
Grant asked, "Is it cancer?" Douglas replied, "General, the disease is
serious, epithelial in character, and sometimes capable of being cured"
("epithelial" being a euphemism for "cancer" in that era). Douglas lessened
the pain by topical application of cocaine and swabbed away tissue debris
and mucus from the area, recommending that Grant return twice daily for
He did this, for a time riding a public streetcar to and from
Douglas's office, no doubt startling his fellow passengers with his presence.
In Chernow's unforgettable phrase,
"Gradually Grant was ground down into a mass of pain"
After a severe attack of neuralgia, his dentist extracted three teeth without
anesthesia; this facilitated Douglas's cleanings, but did not lessen the pain
In November an eminent pathologist,
reviewed some tissue Douglas took from Grant's tumor and was "perfectly sure"
that it was "a lingual epithelioma -- cancer of the tongue." He forecast that
Grant would endure agonizing pain and die within a year. Shrady told Grant
himself that he suspected a connection between Grant's smoking and his cancer,
and advised Grant to smoke at most one cigar a day. Grant lost his taste for
tobacco soon after, and gave up smoking (see above).
What followed was tragic and triumphant. Grant had recently been swindled
and was broke. To provide for his soon-to-be widowed wife, he resolved to
write his memoirs for publication, racing against the cancer. Despite suffering unrelenting
pain and harboring a baseball-sized tumor in his neck, for four to six hours
a day he would sit and write in an overstuffed chair, his legs up, a wool cap
on his head, and a muffler around his neck. When he could not sleep, he wrote.
He reluctantly took opiates to ease the pain, but that slowed his work.
Because swallowing magnified the pain, he went without water and food for
extended periods, to swallow less. His valet applied hot compresses to Grant's
head and sprayed his throat with numbing "cocaine water." To spare his
family, Grant maintained a stoic face... during the day.
Despite all this, Grant's output was phenomenal, in both quantity and
quality. Although a man of lifelong taciturnity, Grant could produce
10,000 words of superb, lean prose in a day (that's 40 double-spaced
typewritten pages). All told, he wrote 336,000 words in one year.
By May 1885, he was forced to dictate. His friend and publisher,
Mark Twain, described Grant "never pausing, never hesitating for a word,
never repeating" as he dictated 9000 words describing Lee's surrender at
Appomattox Court House -- in one sitting. The quality of Grant's writing
astonished Twain. "There is no higher literature than these [memoirs]...
Their style is flawless... no man can improve upon it."
Grant died July 23, 1885 -- a week after finishing the manuscript.
He weighed 90 pounds. He had already told a pastor, "I am ready to go.
No Grant has ever feared death. I am not afraid to die."
Twain thought the book had kept him alive for several months
It was an explosive, record-setting best-seller, providing his
wife the modern equivalent of $14 million
Grant's memoirs are recognized today as the
greatest presidential autobiography ever written -- and one of the greatest
autobiographies written by anyone, anay time.