The name Curse of Tippecanoe (also known as Tecumseh's Curse, the Presidential Curse, Zero-Year Curse, the Twenty-Year Curse, or the Twenty-Year Presidential Jinx) is used to describe the regular death in office of Presidents of the United States elected or re-elected in years evenly divisible by twenty, from William Henry Harrison (elected in 1840) through John F. Kennedy (1960). Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was shot and survived; George W. Bush (2000) survived an attempt on his life unharmed.
The curse, first widely noted in a Ripley's Believe It or Not book published in 1931, began with the death of William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841 after having been elected in 1840. For the next 120 years, presidents elected during years ending in a zero (occurring every 20 years) ultimately died while serving in office, from Harrison to John F. Kennedy (elected 1960, died 1963).
The name "Curse of Tippecanoe" derives from the 1811 battle. As governor of the Indiana Territory, William Harrison used questionable tactics in the negotiation of the 1809 Treaty of Fort McHenry with Native Americans, in which they ceded large tracts of land to the U.S. government. The treaty further angered the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, and brought government soldiers and Native Americans to the brink of war in a period known as Tecumseh's War. Tecumseh and his brother organized a group of Indian tribes designed to resist the westward expansion of the United States. In 1811, Tecumseh's forces, led by his brother, attacked Harrison's army in the Battle of Tippecanoe, earning Harrison fame and the nickname "Old Tippecanoe". Harrison strengthened his reputation even more by defeating the British at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812. In an account of the aftermath of the battle, Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, supposedly set a curse against Harrison and future White House occupants who became president during years with the same end number as Harrison. This is the basis of the curse legend.
After the observation by Ripley, talk of the curse resurfaced as the next cursed election year approached. A similar oddities cartoon feature, Strange as it Seems by John Hix, appeared prior to Election Day 1940, with "CURSE OVER THE WHITE HOUSE!" A list, running from "1840 - Harrison" to "1920 - Harding" was followed by the ominous "1940 - ??????" (Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1940, died in 1945) and the note that "In the last 100 years, Every U.S. President Elected at 20-Year Intervals Has Died In Office!" Ed Koterba, author of a syndicated column called "Assignment Washington", referred to the subject again in 1960.
As 1980 approached, the curse was sufficiently well-known, and Americans wondered whether the winner of that election would follow the pattern. The Library of Congress conducted a study in the summer of 1980 about the origin of the tale, and concluded that "although the story has been well-known for years, there are no documented sources and no published mentions of it". Running for re-election in 1980, President Jimmy Carter was asked about the curse at a campaign stop in Dayton on October 2 of that year. Taking questions from the crowd, Carter replied, "I'm not afraid. If I knew it was going to happen, I would go ahead and be President and do the best I could, for the last day I could."
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was not followed by his death in office, despite being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt within months of his inauguration. Days after Reagan survived the shooting, columnist Jack Anderson wrote "Reagan and the Eerie Zero Factor" and noted that the 40th president had either disproved the superstition, or had nine lives. Reagan, the oldest man to be elected President, also survived treatment for colon cancer while in office. First Lady Nancy Reagan was reported to have hired psychics and astrologers to try to protect her husband from the effects of the curse. Interestingly, as governor of California prior to his presidency, Reagan refused to approve a major dam project that would have flooded an Indian reservation, on the grounds that "we've already broken enough treaties with the Indians." Reagan left office on January 20, 1989, and ultimately died of Alzheimer's Disease on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93. His would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., was found by a jury to be insane, but there was no evidence that he was motivated by a belief in the curse.
The next president in the line of the curse, George W. Bush in 2000, was unharmed in an assassination attempt in 2005. He finished out his final term on January 20, 2009 and survives to the present day. Those who are predisposed to belief in the curse may rationalize that the curse has been broken by Reagan surviving his assassination attempt. Those who are not so predisposed would point out that no break in the pattern would be possible if the curse were real.
The only president who died in office without being elected in a "cursed" year was Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848 and died in 1850. However, Taylor also fought against Tecumseh, during the War of 1812, and is considered by some as having also been "killed" by the curse.
Presidents in the line of the alleged curse
|Elected||President||Term of death||Term of election that was a multiple of 20||Cause of death or attempted assassinations||Date of death|
|1840||William Henry Harrison||First||First||Pneumonia||Apr 4, 1841|
|1860||Abraham Lincoln||Second||First||Assassinated||Apr 15, 1865|
|1880||James A. Garfield||First||First||Assassinated||Sep 19, 1881|
|1900||William McKinley||Second||Second||Assassinated||Sep 14, 1901|
|1920||Warren G. Harding||First||First||Uncertain (heart attack or stroke)||Aug 2, 1923|
|1940||Franklin D. Roosevelt||Fourth||Third||Cerebral hemorrhage||Apr 12, 1945|
|1960||John F. Kennedy||First||First||Assassinated||Nov 22, 1963|
|1980||Ronald Reagan||N/A||First||Attempted assassination (injured but not killed)||Jun 5, 2004
(Did not die in office)
|2000||George W. Bush||N/A||First||Attempted assassination (targeted with a man that had a live grenade; uninjured)||Living|
- List of Presidents of the United States who died in office
- Second-term curse
- List of United States presidential assassination attempts and plots
- Bald-hairy, a regularity observed in the sequence of Russian rulers since 1825.
- Ripley's Believe it or Not, 2nd Series (Simon & Schuster, 1931); an updated reference is on page 140 of the Pocket Books paperback edition of 1948
- The New Big Book Of U.S. Presidents By Todd Davis, Marc Frey
- Randi Henderson and Tom Nugent, "The Zero Curse: More than just a coincidence?" (reprinted from the Baltimore Sun), November 2, 1980, in Syracuse Herald-American, p C-3
- Oakland Tribune, November 5, 1940, p12
- "Pennsylvania Avenue Ponderings", Hammond Times, February 25, 1960, p18
- Presidential Prophecies, History Channel
- The Sunday Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), April 5, 1981, p 8
- Wadler, Joyce (23 May 1988). "The President's Astrologers". People Magazine. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- Zuckerman, Laurence (16 May 1988). "Nancy Reagan's Astrologer". Time Magazine. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- Cohen, Richard (22 October 1989). "Where Was Nancy's Astrologer?". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
- Reisner, Marc (1993). Cadillac Desert. Penguin. pp. 199–200. ISBN 0-14-017824-4.
- CNN.com - Bush grenade attacker gets life - January 11, 2006
- Facts About The Presidents by Joseph Nathan Kane
- The Curse of Tecumseh on Snopes.com
- The Mortal Presidency: Film and Documentary Shapell Manuscript Foundation