Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com


On October 5, 1813, nearly 4,000 American soldiers led by General William Henry Harrison engaged in a battle near the Thames River in present-day Chatham, Ontario, Canada against a much-smaller allied force of British troops and Native American warriors from a confederacy of tribes led by the great Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.  It was the final battle of a long feud between Harrison and Tecumseh and their respective militias.  As Governor of the Indiana Territory several years earlier, Harrison negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which induced a delegation of Indian leaders to cede over 3 million acres of land to the United States government.  There were some questions about the treaty, mainly the fact that President Madison hadn’t authorized Harrison to negotiate it and some of the Indian lands didn’t belong to the tribal leaders who sold them.  Not only that, but Harrison used some fairly controversial bargaining tactics — he bribed the tribes that agreed to sell the land and provided whiskey to the Indian delegation in order to get them liquored up nicely during the negotiations.

Tecumseh’s people, the Shawnee tribe of present-day Indiana, had no claims to the land purchased by Harrison, yet Tecumseh had major qualms about the treaty and worried about the precedent of Native Americans selling huge tracts of land to the government of the fledgling United States and being forced to relocate elsewhere.  Traveling throughout different tribal areas of the Ohio country, Tecumseh urged tribes to band together as a confederacy, to oppose the treaty, and to cast out the tribal leaders that sold their land out from under them.  In the summer of 1810, Tecumseh and a band of warriors showed up at Harrison’s home in Vincennes, Indiana and asked the Governor to rescinded the Treaty of Fort Wayne.  Harrison angrily refused and the scene nearly turned into a violent clash between Tecumseh and his warriors and Harrison and the people of Vincennes, but the tensions were calmed by another Indian chief who persuaded the warriors to leave.  Tecumseh continued building an alliance with various tribes and warned Harrison that they would partner with the British if the treaty stood.

In November of 1811, Harrison and a detachment of over a thousand soldiers decided for some payback, returning the visit of Tecumseh and marching from Vincennes to Tecumseh’s settlement in Prophetstown.  Tecumseh was away recruiting warriors and tribes for his alliance, but his brother Tenskwatawa led an attack on Harrison’s men while they rested at an encampment near the Tippecanoe River.  Harrison’s men easily defeated the Native Americans, forced them to abandon their village, burned Prophetstown, and handed Tecumesh’s confederacy a serious setback.  The Battle of Tippecanoe became synonymous with William Henry Harrison and gave him the nickname “Old Tippecanoe”.  Thirty years later, he campaigned for President alongside John Tyler with the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!”.

By the time the War of 1812 broke out, Tecumseh had rebuilt his shattered confederacy and entered the war as a solid ally of the British Empire.  Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation helped pester American forces along the Canadian border, allowing British troops to invade the United States from the Northwest as the Royal Navy attacked along the Atlantic seaboard.  When the British attacked Fort Detroit, the maneuvers of Tecumseh and his warriors deceived American General William Hull into believing he was vastly outnumbered and resulted in the surrender of Detroit to the British.  When the British General Henry Procter took over the troops allied with Tecumseh’s warriors, the two military leaders disagreed on tactics and the British/Indian alliance and war effort suffered setbacks.  After promising Tecumseh that he would support his effort against Harrison at Chatham, Ontario in the autumn of 1813, Procter didn’t follow through and Harrison attacked Tecumseh’s force on the Thames River while they waited for Procter’s reinforcements.

The Battle of the Thames was short, but had long-lasting effects for students of Presidential folklore and believers of superstition.  When Harrison’s troops attacked Tecumseh’s on October 5, 1813, a Colonel named Richard Mentor Johnson charged into the Indian force and, in the midst of battle, killed the 45-year-old Shawnee chief.  Johnson was wounded five times and the men of his cavalry regiment suffered the heaviest losses, but Johnson became as big of a political hero as his commander, General Harrison.  In 1836, merely on the strength of the belief that he personally killed Tecumseh, Richard Mentor Johnson was elected Vice President of the United States. 

Four years later, it was William Henry Harrison’s turn to win high office.  “Old Tippecanoe” campaigned on his military victories and the defeat of Tecumseh was certainly one of his biggest triumphs.  Unbeknownst to the man soon to become the 9th President of the United States was that a “curse” was rumored to have been placed on the occupants of the White House, beginning with Harrison.  Whether it was truly an “Indian curse” placed on Harrison and his successors by Tecumseh (sometimes attributed to his brother, Tenskwatawa) or simply a superstition that was somehow realized, the “curse” lasted for 140 years and, even then, almost claimed another victim, which makes it an extraordinarily odd historical coincidence.  The “curse” is simple:  beginning with Harrison’s election in 1840, every President elected in a year ending in “0” would die in office.  This prophecy indeed began with Harrison in 1840, and continued to come to fruition every 20 years until the late-20th century, as you will see.

1840:  William Henry Harrison
To this day, William Henry Harrison is still the second-oldest man ever elected to the Presidency.  When he took office on March 4, 1841, he was 68 years old and suffering from a bad cold.  Frigid temperatures on Inauguration Day kept the audience in front of the Capitol small, but the new President gave the longest Inaugural Address in history, a massive 8500-word-long speech that took over 90 minutes to deliver — and that was AFTER noted orator Daniel Webster took some scissors to it.  Harrison also decided to give the speech without wearing a hat or an overcoat, and the cold, wet weather left the new President damp and shivering.  Exactly one month later — on April 4, 1841 — William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, the first President to die in office and the first victim of his old nemesis Tecumseh’s curse.

1860:  Abraham Lincoln
Originally elected in 1860, Lincoln guided the nation through the devastating Civil War, was re-elected in 1864, and finally brought the war to a close in April 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9.  Five days later, Lincoln told his wife Mary during a carriage ride that, for the first time, he felt that the war was truly over.  With his spirits finally rising, Lincoln took Mary to the theater that night to watch famous actress Laura Keene perform in “Our American Cousin”.  During the play, another famous actor, John Wilkes Booth, shot Lincoln, 56, in the back of the head, and Tecumseh’s Curse claimed another victim the next morning, April 15, 1865.

1880:  James A. Garfield
James Garfield was a rising star in American politics in 1880.  A brigadier general in the Civil War, at one point during 1880 he was simultaneously a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives, Senator-elect from Ohio, and President-elect of the United States.  Garfield never took his Senate seat, of course, deciding to accept the Presidency instead and was inaugurated in March 1881.  Just four months later, President Garfield was fighting for his life after being shot in a Washington, D.C. train station.  He hung on for 80 days, but infections caused by the poking and prodding of doctors and their unsterilized instruments weakened his 49-year-old heart and killed him on September 19th on the Jersey Shore where he was seeking the fresh air of the ocean.

1900:  William McKinley
Like Garfield, William McKinley was a decorated Union soldier from Ohio and in 1896 he was elected President, defeating William Jennings Bryan.  Four years later, he destroyed Bryan once again and was re-elected.  McKinley was an enormously popular President and an extraordinarily kind-hearted man who wore a carnation in his lapel so that he had something to give to people.  In September 1901, the President was shot by an anarchist as he shook hands at Buffalo’s Pan-American Exposition.  Thinking of others, as always, the wounded President first implored that the arresting officers be sure not to hurt the man who had just shot him.  Then he asked that the news of his shooting be broken to his epileptic, semi-invalid wife as carefully as possible.  McKinley lingered for eight days, once again hindered by medical practices of the era, and died, aged 58, on September 14, 1901 — the fourth victim of Tecumseh’s Curse.

1920:  Warren G. Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding looked like a President and spoke like a President, but as he often said himself, he had no business living in the White House.  Widely considered one of the worst Presidents in American history, Harding’s Administration was plagued by corruption, although Harding wasn’t involved in it.  Harding was involved in several extramarital affairs, however, including one that resulted in an illegitimate daughter and trysts in a closet near the Oval Office.  Depressed by his administration’s many problems, Harding grumbled that he wished his ship would sink in the summer of 1923 when he became the first President to visit Alaska.  Continuing to tour the West Coast, the 56-year-old Harding was ailing from food poisoning and died in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel on August 2nd of either a stroke or a heart attack.  The exact cause of death is unknown because the First Lady refused to allow an autopsy — an action which resulted in many rumors that she had poisoned her husband to protect him from possible impeachment.  It didn’t help her cause when she spent the night before the funeral sitting next to her husband’s open casket in the East Room of the White House while saying, “No one can hurt you now, Warren.”  Harding was the fourth victim of Tecumseh’s Curse to be shipped back to Ohio for burial, preceded by all of the other victims other than Lincoln who was buried in Illinois.

By now, Tecumseh’s Curse was no longer a secret.  Every twenty years since William Henry Harrison’s election in 1840, a President had died.  In fact, only one President besides those elected in years ending in “0” had died in office — Zachary Taylor, who died of cholera in July 1850.  Every other death in office or assassination was coincidentally struck down each and every President elected in the years covered by Tecumseh’s Curse.  In 1934, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not published a story noting the coincidence of the 20-year-intervals between Presidential deaths and listed the the years that they had occurred along with an ominous “1940: ???”.  After the election of 1940 was decided, the cycle continued and Tecumseh’s Curse remained unbroken.

1940:  Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was President longer than anyone in American history ever was and will ever be (unless someone decides to ignore the Constitution).  In 1940, Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented third term and as the United States fought a World War from both oceans, he won his fourth term in 1944.  The Roosevelt of 1944, however, was a weary, sick man.  Even today, we can see how quickly the Presidency visibly ages the occupants of the Oval Office.  FDR was President for twelve years — twelve years which included crises such as the Great Depression and World War II.  When he was re-elected in 1944, he dumped eccentric Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket in favor of Harry Truman and likely knew that he wouldn’t survive his fourth term.  On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt was posing for a portrait while resting at his vacation home in Warm Springs, Georgia.  The President was joined by the woman painting the portrait, one of his cousins, and his mistress, Lucy Rutherfurd, and startled the women when he held his hand to his head and said, “I have a terrific headache” before slumping over.  Shortly afterward, he was dead, the victim of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 63.  Mussolini died 16 days later, Hitler died 18 days later, and Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered less than a month after President Roosevelt was buried at his home in New York.

1960:  John F. Kennedy
The first President born in the 20th century wasn’t able to escape Tecumseh’s 120-year-old curse.  John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the youngest President elected to office (Theodore Roosevelt was a few months younger when he succeeded the assassinated President McKinley in 1901) and the youngest President to die in office.  Just 46 years old, JFK was brutally assassinated in front of the world while sitting next to his wife during a motorcade in Dallas, Texas.  Kennedy’s assassination launched numerous investigations, scores of conspiracy theories, and approximately 85% of the History Channel’s regular broadcast lineup.  It also finally brought an end to the cycle of Presidents dying every twenty years that had started with “Old Tippecanoe” back in 1840.

Barely.

In 1980, the 20-year-curse was a big enough issue that incumbent President Jimmy Carter was asked by a voter in Ohio whether he was worried about the odd coincidence as he ran for re-election.  Carter responded that, “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 (until) the last day I could”.  Carter didn’t have any reason to be afraid; he was not re-elected in 1980, losing in a landslide to former California Governor Ronald Reagan.  Reagan was the oldest President in history when he was inaugurated on January 20, 1981.  At 69 years old, he was almost a full year older than the first victim of Tecumseh’s Curse, “Old Tippecanoe” himself, and Reagan turned 70 less than three weeks after the inauguration.

On March 30, 1981, Reagan very nearly became the eighth victim of the curse when he was seriously wounded during a shooting in Washington, D.C.  Reagan’s wounds, in fact, were much more severe than those suffered by President Garfield a hundred years earlier and President McKinley eighty years earlier.  Reagan, however, was saved by modern medical practices — most significantly from the absence of unsterilized fingers and medical instruments being jabbed into his wound by a wide variety of doctors and medics.  Reagan recovered and served his full eight year term, retiring in 1989, and, to further prove that the cycle was broken, was the longest-living President in history (since surpassed by Gerald Ford) when he died in 2004 at the age of 93.

Was it really a curse?  Well, since Tecumseh died almost 25 years before William Henry Harrison decided to run for President, it would have been an amazingly precise guess that the General would someday make it to the White House.  I’m not the type of guy who believes in “curses” anyway, but the coincidence of the 20-year-intervals between Presidents dying in office is striking, and the near-miss of Reagan in 1980 just adds to the intrigue.  President George W. Bush, elected in 2000 (well…kind of), made it through his two terms safely, so whatever the cause of the cycle, it is definitely over now.  All I know is that, coincidence or not, I’m not messing with Tecumseh.  

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