Curse of Tippecanoe

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The name Curse of Tippecanoe (also known as Tecumseh's Curse) 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 wounded by gunshot but survived; George W. Bush (2000) survived his terms in office, despite a close assassination attempt.

The curse[edit]

The curse, first widely noted in a Ripley's Believe It or Not! book published in 1931,[1][non-primary source needed] began with the death of William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841 after having been elected in 1840. For the next 120 years until 1960, presidents elected during years ending in a zero (occurring every twenty years) died while serving in office, from Harrison to John F. Kennedy (elected 1960, died 1963).

The name "Curse of Tippecanoe" derives from the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. As governor of the Indiana Territory, William Harrison used questionable tactics in the negotiation of the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne with Native Americans, in which they ceded large tracts of land to the U.S. government.[2] 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".[2] Harrison strengthened his reputation even more by defeating the British at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812.[2] 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 presidents elected during years with the same end number as Harrison. This is the basis of the curse legend.[3]

Media mentions[edit]

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 "1940—??????" and the note that "In the last 100 years, Every U.S. President Elected at 20-Year Intervals Has Died In Office!"[4] Ed Koterba, author of a syndicated column called "Assignment Washington", referred to the subject again in 1960.[5]

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".[citation needed] 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 while 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 till the last day I could."[6]

In Fiction[edit]

In his 1980 book The Zero Factor, author William Oscar Johnson described a fictional president Augustus York who was elected in 1980's election after winning his party's nomination after a hung convention nominated him as a candidate not expected to succeed. The president is worried about the "Zero Factor" and subsequently survives two assassination attempts before resigning to defeat the factor's effect.


Presidents after 1963 have not died in office, even when elected on twenty-year marks.

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 1981 inauguration.[7] 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.[8] Reagan, the oldest man to be elected President at that time, 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.[9][10][11] Reagan left office on January 20, 1989, and ultimately died of pneumonia complicated by Alzheimer's disease on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93 — coincidentally, during the presidency of George W. Bush, the only other survivor of the "curse".[12]

The president elected in 2000, George W. Bush, also survived two terms in office, which included fainting from choking on a pretzel in 2002,[13] and a 2005 assassination attempt by Vladimir Arutyunian in which a live grenade was thrown at Bush and Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili but failed to explode.[14] He completed his final term in office on January 20, 2009.[15]

What could also be considered an exception is a president dying in office that did not fit the 20 year pattern. There have been eight presidents who died in office. Seven of these eight deaths fit the 20 year pattern. The exception was Zachary Taylor. 1850 was his second year as president and he died that year.

Presidents in the line of the alleged curse[edit]

Elected Picture 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 by James Reid Lambdin, 1835.jpg William Henry Harrison First First Typhoid Apr 4, 1841
1860 AbrahamLincolnOilPainting1869Restored.jpg Abraham Lincoln Second First Assassinated Apr 15, 1865
1880 James Garfield portrait.jpg James A. Garfield First First Assassinated[16] Sep 19, 1881
1900 Official White House portrait of William McKinley.jpg William McKinley Second Second Assassinated Sep 14, 1901
1920 Wh29.gif Warren G. Harding First First Uncertain (heart attack or stroke) Aug 2, 1923
1940 Franklin Roosevelt - Presidential portrait.jpg Franklin D. Roosevelt Fourth Third Cerebral hemorrhage Apr 12, 1945
1960 John F. Kennedy, White House color photo portrait.jpg John F. Kennedy First First Assassinated Nov 22, 1963
1980 Official Portrait of President Reagan 1981.jpg Ronald Reagan N/A First Assassination attempt Jun 5, 2004
(Did not die in office)
2000 George-W-Bush.jpeg George W. Bush N/A First Assassination attempt,[14] pretzel choke,[13] and shoe attack Living

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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
  2. ^ a b c The New Big Book Of U.S. Presidents By Todd Davis, Marc Frey
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Oakland Tribune, November 5, 1940, p12
  5. ^ "Pennsylvania Avenue Ponderings", Hammond Times, February 25, 1960, p18
  6. ^ Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1980-1981. 1981. p. 2032. ISBN 1623767806. 
  7. ^ Presidential Prophecies, History Channel
  8. ^ The Sunday Intelligencer (Doylestown, PA), April 5, 1981, p 8
  9. ^ Wadler, Joyce (23 May 1988). "The President's Astrologers". People Magazine. Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  10. ^ Zuckerman, Laurence (16 May 1988). "Nancy Reagan's Astrologer". Time Magazine. Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  11. ^ Cohen, Richard (22 October 1989). "Where Was Nancy's Astrologer?". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 12 June 2013. 
  12. ^ "Former President Reagan Dies at 93". Los Angeles Times. June 6, 2004. Retrieved July 9, 2013. 
  13. ^ a b Altman, Lawrence K. (January 15, 2002). "Bush to Be Monitored in Wake of Fainting Episode". The New York Times Company. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  14. ^ a b "Bush grenade attacker gets life". Cable News Network. January 11, 2006. Archived from the original on July 4, 2008. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Obama inauguration: George Bush - the man who was no longer president". The Guardian (U.S. online ed.). New York City: Guardian News and Media Limited. 20 January 2009. Retrieved June 11, 2016. 
  16. ^ Facts About The Presidents by Joseph Nathan Kane

External links[edit]