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Curse of Tippecanoe

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William Henry Harrison, nicknamed Old Tippecanoe, died just a month after taking office in 1841. His death is the first attributed to the Curse of Tippecanoe.

The Curse of Tippecanoe (also known as Tecumseh's Curse, the 20-year Curse[1] or the Zero Curse[2]) is an urban legend[3] about the deaths in office of presidents of the United States who were elected in years divisible by 20. According to the legend, Tenskwatawa, leader of Native American tribes defeated in 1811 at the Battle of Tippecanoe by a military expedition led by William Henry Harrison, had cursed the "Great White Fathers".

Since 1840, eight presidents have died in office. Seven of them were elected in years divisible by 20: William Henry Harrison (1840), Abraham Lincoln (1860), James A. Garfield (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren G. Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) and John F. Kennedy (1960). Two former presidents elected in applicable years, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, did not die in office.


Thomas Jefferson, elected in 1800, and James Monroe, elected in 1820, preceded the supposed curse and outlived their presidencies by 17 and 6 years, respectively. Neither of them was ever targeted by an assassin. However, there is a curious coincidence that both men died on the Fourth of July.

William Henry Harrison was elected president in 1840 and died in 1841, just a month after being sworn in. In Tecumseh's War, Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his younger brother Tenskwatawa organized a confederation of Indian tribes to resist the westward expansion of the United States. In the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison defeated Tenskwatawa and his troops, acting as the governor of the Indiana Territory. Harrison thus earned the moniker "Old Tippecanoe".

In 1931 and 1948, the trivia book series Ripley's Believe It or Not! noted the pattern and termed it the "Curse of Tippecanoe".[4] Strange as It Seems by John Hix ran a cartoon prior to the election of 1940 titled "Curse over the White House!" and claimed that "In the last 100 years, Every U.S. President Elected at 20-Year Intervals Has Died In Office!"[5] In February 1960, journalist Ed Koterba noted that "The next President of the United States will face an eerie curse that for more than a century has hung over every chief executive elected in a year ending with zero."[6] Both of their hints at the elected president's death came true, with Roosevelt's death in 1945 and Kennedy's assassination in 1963.

The first written account to refer to the source of the curse was an article by Lloyd Shearer in 1980 in Parade magazine.[3] It is claimed[by whom?] that when Tecumseh was killed in a later battle, Tenskwatawa set a curse against Harrison.[2]

Running for re-election in 1980, President Jimmy Carter was asked about the curse at a campaign stop in Dayton, Ohio, on October 2 of that year while taking questions from the crowd. A high school student asked Carter if he was concerned about "predictions that every 20 years or election years ending in zero, the President dies in office." Carter replied, "I've seen those predictions. [...] 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 till the last day I could."[7]

Since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, no president has died in office. Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded severely two months after his 1981 inauguration. Days after Reagan survived the shooting, columnist Jack Anderson wrote "Reagan and the Eerie Zero Factor" in The Daily Intelligencer and asserted that the 40th president either had disproved the superstition or had nine lives.[8] As the oldest man to be elected president at that time, Reagan also survived surgery in 1985. First Lady Nancy Reagan was reported to have hired psychics and astrologers to try to protect her husband from the effects of the curse.[9][10][11] Reagan left office in 1989 and ultimately died from natural causes in 2004. He was 93 years old and had survived his presidency by 15 years.

The president elected in 2000, George W. Bush, also survived two terms in office. In 2005, a live grenade was thrown at him but failed to explode.[12] Bush left office in 2009 and is currently living.

The only one of the eight presidents who died in office who was not elected in a year covered by the curse was Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848, but died in 1850, a year ending in zero.[13] Like Reagan and Bush, many presidents outside the curse have faced assassination attempts or medical problems.

Applicable presidents

Elected Term of election President Death Term of death Cause of death
1840 First William Henry Harrison April 4, 1841 First Pneumonia
1860 First Abraham Lincoln April 15, 1865 Second Assassinated
1880 First James A. Garfield September 19, 1881 First Assassinated
1900 Second William McKinley September 14, 1901 Second Assassinated
1920 First Warren G. Harding August 2, 1923 First Heart attack
1940 Third Franklin D. Roosevelt April 12, 1945 Fourth Cerebral hemorrhage
1960 First John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963 First Assassinated
1980 First Ronald Reagan June 5, 2004
(did not die in office)
Pneumonia, complicated by Alzheimer's disease
2000 First George W. Bush Living
(did not die in office)
2020 First Joe Biden Living


Snopes rates the claim that a "death curse threatens U.S. presidents elected in years evenly divisible by twenty" a legend and undocumented folktale not supported by actual records of Tecumseh cursing the "Great White Fathers" after his defeat at Tippecanoe.[14] Multiple sources have called the failure of the curse after 1960 a disproof of a curse as an explanation for the deaths in office.[citation needed]

According to Timothy Redmond of the Skeptical Inquirer, the supposed curse demonstrates a number of logical fallacies, including confusing correlation with causation, cherrypicking, and moving the goalposts. In layman's terms, out of many unlikely eerie patterns, at least one of those hypothetical patterns is likely to come true.[15] Snopes rates the curse on its fact-checking scale as a "legend", a rating given to over-general or unprovable claims, and denies a supernatural explanation for the curse.

In 2009, Steve Friess of Slate sought to interview notable presidential historians and security experts such as Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Richard A. Clarke on the alleged curse, but none of them returned his calls. Michael S. Sherry, American history professor at Northwestern University, replied, "I doubt I have anything profound to say about this particular factoid, odd though it is."[16]

See also


  1. ^ Purdy, Mike (August 17, 2011). "The End of the 20 Year Curse". Mike Purdy's Presidential History. Archived from the original on November 8, 2021. Retrieved November 8, 2021.
  2. ^ a b 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
  3. ^ a b Pohl, Robert (2013). Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington D.C. South Carolina: The History Press. ISBN 978-1540209030.
  4. ^ 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
  5. ^ Oakland Tribune, November 5, 1940, p12
  6. ^ Koterba, Ed (1960). "Pennsylvania avenue ponderings". No. 25. Hammond Times.
  7. ^ Carter, Jimmy (1981). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1980-1981. Best Books on. pp. 2031–32. ISBN 1623767806.
  8. ^ The Daily Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), April 5, 1981, p 8
  9. ^ Wadler, Joyce (May 23, 1988). "The President's Astrologers". People. Archived from the original on June 2, 2013. Retrieved June 12, 2013.
  10. ^ Zuckerman, Laurence (May 16, 1988). "Nancy Reagan's Astrologer". Time. Archived from the original on July 8, 2008. Retrieved June 12, 2013.
  11. ^ Cohen, Richard (October 22, 1989). "Where Was Nancy's Astrologer?". Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved June 12, 2013.
  12. ^ "Bush grenade attacker gets life". CNN. January 11, 2006. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved June 11, 2016.
  13. ^ "Death of the President of the United States". Boston Daily Evening Transcript. July 10, 1850.
  14. ^ Staff (October 30, 2000). "Presidential 20-Year Death Curse". Snopes. Archived from the original on November 9, 2021. Retrieved November 9, 2021.
  15. ^ Redmond, Timothy J. (November 2019). "The Presidential Curse and the Election of 2020". Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 43, no. 6. Center for Inquiry. pp. 40–43. Archived from the original on April 13, 2020. Retrieved April 13, 2020.
  16. ^ Friess, Steve (January 14, 2009). "Bush's Legacy: He Survived!". Slate. Archived from the original on February 27, 2021. Retrieved November 16, 2020.

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