It seems that no one is exempt from being the subject of an urban legend—including United States Presidents. Such is the case with the Curse of Tippecanoe.
William Henry Harrison was the eighth President of the United States and the first one to die while in office. He also has the unfortunate distinction of having served the shortest amount of time. His tenure only lasted one month.
Prior to his election, Harrison was a military officer who fought in what’s known as 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 1811, during the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison defeated Tenskwatawa and his troops. It was then that Harrison earned the moniker “Old Tippecanoe.”
In 1931 and 1948, the trivia book series Ripley’s Believe it or Not, noted a pattern in the deaths of several presidents and termed it “The Curse of Tippecanoe.” Strange as it Seems by John Hix ran a cartoon prior to the 1940 election titled The Curse of the Whitehouse and claimed that “In the last 100 years, every U.S. President elected at twenty-year intervals has died in office.”
In 1960, journalist Ed Koterba noted that “The next President of the United States will face an eerie curse that has hung over every chief executive elected in a year ending with zero.”
Let’s look at these presidents.
- William Henry Harrison, elected in 1840, died of pneumonia.
- Abraham Lincoln, first elected in 1860, died at the hands of an assassin during his second term.
- James A. Garfield, elected in 1880. Assassinated.
- William McKinley’s second election was in 1900. He was also assassinated.
- Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, died of a heart attack.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose third election occurred in 1940, died of a cerebral hemorrhage during his fourth term.
- John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960. Assassinated.
It seems the curse was broken after Kennedy’s death. To date, no elected president has died in office. Ronald Reagan, first elected in 1980, lived fifteen years after he left office. George W. Bush, first elected in 2000, is still living after leaving office in 2009. The current president, Joe Biden, was elected in 2020.
When running for reelection in 1980, a high school student in Dayton, Ohio, asked Jimmy Carter if he was concerned about the supposed curse and predictions. Carter responded he’d seen the predictions and said, “I’m not afraid. If I knew it was going to happen, I would go ahead and be the President and do the best I could until the day I died.”
At age 97, Carter is the longest living U.S. President in history and has lived forty-one years and counting since he left office in 1981.
Reagan survived an assassination attempt. In 2005, someone threw a live grenade at Bush, but it didn’t explode. Two presidents, Thomas Jefferson (1800) and James Monroe (1820) preceded the supposed curse. They survived their presidencies by seventeen and six years, respectively. Of the eight presents who died while in office, only Zachary Taylor was elected in an “off-year” in 1848.
Like Reagan and Bush, many presidents faced assassination attempts or health problems while in office and survived.
What do you think? Curse or strange coincidence?