The Curse of Tippecanoe

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.

President William Henry Harrison (Public Domain)

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?

The 27 Club

February 3, 1959, is what many refer to as, “The day the music died.” It was on that day a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa claimed the lives of three popular Rock and Roll Stars. Buddy Holly, age 22, Ritchie Valens, age 17, and J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper), age 28.

(Bit of trivia. Did you know Country Music legend Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper?)

Their deaths are a few of the many music stars who have died young—many as the result of plane crashes. Others include Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves, Otis Redding, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zant, Rick Nelson, and John Denver. One might conclude it’s not safe for singers to travel by air.

But there is another group of singers who have died young. Some of the more well-known are:

  • Blues singer Robert Johnson—1938 (For a fascinating story about Johnson, check out Mae Clair’s January 11 post.)
  • Founding member of the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones–1969
  • Alan Wilson of Canned Heat—1970
  • Jimi Hendrix—1970
  • Janis Joplin—1970
  • Jim Morrison—1971
  • Ron McKernan of the Grateful Dead—1973
  • Badfinger’s Pete Ham—1975
  • Kurt Cobain—1994
  • Amy Winehouse—2011

None of these singers died in plane crashes and the cause of the death varies, including drug overdoses, suicide, and alcohol poisoning. But there is one common factor. All of them died at the age of twenty-seven.


Promotional photo of The Doors with Morrison in front. Attribution: Elektra Records-Joel Brodsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison within a few short months caused some talk and speculation. However, it wasn’t until Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide years later that the term “27 Club” came about. Some have even referred to it as “The Curse of Twenty-Seven.”

A statement from Cobain’s mother, Wendy Cobain O’Connor, appeared in the Aberdeen Washington newspaper Daily World. “Now he’s gone and joined that stupid club. I told him not to join that stupid club.” According to Cobain’s biographer, Charles R. Cross, she was referring to the deaths of Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison.

Eric Segalstad, author of The 27s: The Greatest Myth of Rock and Roll disagrees. He believes Cobain’s mother referred to the deaths of his two uncles and a great-uncle who all died as the result of suicide.

Curse or coincidence there is an extraordinary number of singers who died at the age of twenty-seven. Some singers never reached that age including Valens, Holly, and Otis Redding. Living to the age of twenty-eight and beyond is no guarantee of survival. With the exception of Redding who was twenty-six at the time of his death, the ages of other singers I mentioned who died in plane crashes ranged from twenty-eight to fifty-three.

But still, there are probably several singers who breathe sighs of relief on their twenty-eighth birthday.