A quick scan of US Presidential history reveals an eerie recurrence: from William Henry Harrison through John Kennedy, every President elected in a year ending in zero has died in office. The presidential terms of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, Warren Harding and Franklin Roosevelt were all curtailed by death. The pattern marking the interval from 1840 through 1960 has been termed “the zero-year curse” or “the twenty-year curse,” or-more evocatively-“Tecumseh’s curse,” or “the Curse of Tippecanoe,” both of which take us back to Indiana history.
Tippecanoe was a native American stronghold near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers just north of present-day Lafayette. Although, in the course of white westward expansion, Potowatomi and Kickapoo peoples were eradicated from the village by 1791, Shawnee Indians from Ohio were allowed to resettle the area in 1808.
Under the leadership of two brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (also known as “the Prophet”), Shawnee tribes joined forces with other natives in the region, with the intention of resisting further forced expatriation. Unnerved by the growing Indian confederation, Governor of the Indiana Territory William Henry Harrison made gestures of negotiation with the Shawnee, all the while preparing a militia. The ensuing Battle of Tippecanoe, November 7, 1811, decimated the village–by that time known as “Prophetstown”-and scattered the native population. Tecumseh joined forces with the British, and was killed during the War of 1812; “The Prophet” went into hiding and survived another two decades, but not before allegedly placing a curse upon Harrison.
The Battle of Tippecanoe made a legend out of Harrison, who returned to the scene of his military ascendancy in 1840 to launch his so-called “Log Cabin Campaign” for President. Though he won the nation’s highest office, his tenure in the White House was brief. After delivering a one hour-forty-five minute inaugural address March 4, 1840, Harrison caught pneumonia and died one month later. He was succeeded by vice-president John Tyler.
In 1931, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not publication called attention to the twenty-year trend, and anxieties mounted as President Roosevelt sought his third term in 1940. FDR’s, and subsequently, JFK’s death only served to reinforce the superstition. Having survived a 1981 assassination attempt, Ronald Reagan is credited with having broken “Tecumseh’s curse.”