It’s hard to know what to make of such a sequence, but folks have certainly tried over the years. Such a string of presidential mortality is deemed too improbable to have occurred naturally, giving rise to rumors about a fatal Indian curse among those unwilling to recognize that chaos sometimes takes the form of coincidence.
1840 … William Henry Harrison
1860 … Abraham Lincoln
1880 … James A. Garfield
1900 … William McKinley
1920 … Warren G. Harding
1940 … Franklin D. Roosevelt
1960 … John F. Kennedy
Randomness is disquieting; Indian curses are, in comparison, the lesser of the evils because they at least support the illusion that there is order in our universe. In this odd way, belief in predestined fatalities is comforting.
Tecumseh’s Curse — also called the Curse of Tippecanoe — refers to the claim that an 1809 dispute between U.S. President William Henry Harrison and Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh might be the actual cause of the deaths in office of presidents elected or re-elected in years ending in zero, from Harrison himself through John F. Kennedy.
I n 1840, William Henry Harrison won the presidency with the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too." That slogan referred to his participation in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 when Harrison led the Americans to defeat the Shawnee, led by Tecumseh.
As a result, Harrison was celebrated as a war hero
Tecumseh’s hatred of Harrison dated to 1809 when while governor of the Indiana Territory, he negotiated a treaty with Native Americans in which the Shawnee ceded large tracts of land to the U.S. government. Angered by what he considered Harrison’s unfair tactics in negotiating the deal, Tecumseh and his brother organized a group of local tribes and attacked Harrison’s army in the Battle of Tippecanoe.
During the War of 1812, Harrison furthered his reputation as an Indian fighter when he defeated the British and the tribes that aided them in the Battle of the Thames. Angered at yet another defeat and loss of more land to the American government, Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa — known by the Shawnee as “The Prophet” — supposedly place a curse of death on all future U.S. presidents elected in years ending in a zero.
While Harrison was elected president with almost 53% of the vote, he never really had a chance to take office.
After delivering a very long inaugural address on a cold, windy day in March, he was stuck in a rainstorm and caught the serious cold which would eventually turn into pneumonia and kill him. He served as president for just a few short weeks, from March 4 to April 4, 1841. His death was first in a long series, a pattern that would become known as Tecumseh’s Curse, or The Curse of Tippecanoe.
Other Presidents Touched by Tecumseh’s Curse
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the first person to run under the Republican party. The United States quickly moved into a Civil War which would last from 1861-1865. On April 9th, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, thereby ending the rift that was tearing apart the nation. Only five days later on April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
In 1880, James Garfield was elected to the presidency. He took office on March 4, 1881. On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau shot the president, which eventually led to his death on September 19, 1881. The mentally unbalanced Guiteau was upset because he had been denied a diplomatic post by the Garfield administration. He was eventually hung for his crime in 1882.
In 1900, William McKinley was elected to his second term as president. Once again, he defeated his opponent, William Jennings Bryan as he had in 1896. On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot by Leon F. Czolgosz. McKinley died on September 14th. Czolgosz called himself an anarchist and admitted to killing the president because "...he was the enemy of the people..." He was electrocuted in October 1901.
In 1920, Warren G. Harding is widely known as one of the worst presidents of all time. Scandals such as the Teapot Dome and others marred his presidency. On August 2, 1923, Harding was visiting San Francisco on a cross-country Voyage of Understanding to meet people across the nation. He suffered a stroke and died at the Palace Hotel.
In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third term as president. He would be elected again in 1944. His presidency began in the depths of the Great Depression and ended shortly after the fall of Hitler in World War II. He died on April 12, 1945, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Since he was elected during one of his terms in a year that ended with a zero, he is considered part of Tecumseh’s curse.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the youngest elected president. This charismatic leader suffered some highs and lows during his short term in office, including the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the creation of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was riding in a motorcade through Dallas and was assassinated. Lee Harvey Oswald was found to be guilty as a lone gunman by the Warren Commission. However, many people still question whether more individuals were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president.
Breaking the Curse?
In 1980, Ronald Reagan became the oldest man to be elected president. This actor-turned-politician also suffered highs and lows during his two terms in office. He is seen as being an important figure in the breakdown of the former Soviet Union. However, his presidency was tarnished by the Iran-Contra Scandal. On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley attempted to assassinate Reagan in Washington, D.C. Reagan was shot but was able to survive with quick medical attention. President Reagan was the first to foil Tecumseh’s curse and, some hypothesize, the president who finally broke it for good.
President George W. Bush, elected in the curse-active year of 2000, survived two assassination attempts and several alleged plots during his two terms in office. While some devotees of the curse suggest that the assassination attempts themselves were the Tecumseh’s work, every President since Nixon has been the victim of at least one assassination plot.
Elected in 2016, President Donald Trump is considered immune from the curse — at least for his first term. The next presidential election will be held in November 2020. Tecumseh will be watching!