Eight Presidents have died in office, either through assassination or illness. Seven of those Presidents were elected in a year ending in ‘0’, including those elected in 1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940 and 1960. Not to mention two losing candidates, Stephen Douglas in 1860 and Wendell Willkie in 1940, died before the end of the term for which they ran. Is it a coincidence or is there is another possible explanation – the “Curse of Tippecanoe” or “Tecumseh’s Curse”?
1840—The Start of the Curse
William Henry Harrison was an American general who defeated Chief Tecumseh’s Shawnee Indians at the battle of Tippecanoe. Legend has it that Tecumseh’s brother put a curse on Harrison and future Presidents. Not knowing about the curse, Harrison was elected President with the campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”. Harrison died one month into his Presidency and John Tyler became the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency. It was thought Harrison died of pneumonia contracted on his cold and damp inauguration day, but recent analysis has pointed to typhoid, with the illness likely worsened by treatment from his doctors.
1860 – Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was in constant danger from the day of his election in 1860, likely avoiding assassination attempts in Baltimore on his way to his inauguration. The Southern states seceded from the Union before his inauguration, and the Civil War started shortly after he took office. Lincoln served his first term and was reelected in 1864. He had replaced his first term VP with Andrew Johnson of Tennessee to include a Southerner on the ticket. Lincoln was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth as part of a larger plot which included the serious wounding of Secretary of State William Seward, just a month into his second term and five days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. His successor, Johnson, became the first President to be impeached.
1880 – James Garfield
James Garfield was elected in 1880 and besieged in the White House by hordes of office seekers. Only months into his term he was shot in a Washington railroad station by Charles Guiteau, an unqualified job applicant who had been to the White House on several occasions looking for a job. Ironically, among those at the railroad station was Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. Garfield lingered for eighty days before finally succumbing to infection. It is now believed that he may have survived the shooting had his doctors not probed for the embedded bullet with their bare hands and non-sterile instruments. Alexander Graham Bell even attempted to locate the bullet in Garfield with a metal detector. Garfield's successor, Chester Arthur, although owing his position to corrupt New York political bosses, oversaw Civil Service reform, but failed to win election on his own.
1900 – William McKinley - the Curse continues into the 20th Century
Popular William McKinley was easily re-elected in 1900 and was assassinated in 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. Theodore Roosevelt at age 42 became the youngest President. Roosevelt had obtained the Vice-Presidential nomination after the death of McKinley’s first Vice President in 1899, mainly through jockeying by party bosses who wanted him out of New York.
1920 – Warren Harding
Warren Harding was elected in 1920, and died of a heart attack in 1923, two months into an exhaustive journey up to Alaska, and along the West Coast. He was extremely popular in office, but his reputation has subsequently suffered because of scandals by appointees and the revelation that he had extramarital affairs. Conspiracy buffs have theorized that Harding was poisoned, possibly with involvement by his wife, who refused to have Harding autopsied. His successor, “Silent Cal” Calvin Coolidge won re-election in his own right in 1924.
1940 - FDR
Franklin Roosevelt had served two terms by 1940 and, with war raging in Europe and relations with Japan deteriorating, he decided to be the first, and due to the 22nd Amendment the only, President to buck the example set by George Washington and seek a third term. Roosevelt had survived an assassination attempt when President-elect in 1933. Roosevelt’s health deteriorated greatly during his third term (the war years), unknown to the public, and he was reelected in 1944. His Vice President was a comparatively unknown Senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia in March 1945. A guest at the time of his death who was hurried out of the residence was Lucy Mercer Rutherford, a former mistress. FDR’s daughter, Anna, had facilitated Lucy’s visits to him. When Truman became President, he did not even know of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. Truman was a strong leader and upset Republican Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election.
1960 - JFK
John F. Kennedy, although appearing young and robust, suffered from many serious ailments. He had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church during some critical illnesses including after back surgery in the 1950’s. JFK was assassinated by Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas in November 1963. The Warren Commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, found that Oswald acted alone, as did Jack Ruby who shot and killed Oswald in the Dallas Police Headquarters basement on live television two days later. However, conspiracy theories still abound, pointing to, among others, the CIA, the Mafia, J. Edgar Hoover, Fidel Castro, LBJ and the KGB. Texan Lyndon B. Johnson became President and was re-elected in 1964 in a landslide. He led the US into the Vietnam War, and he declined to run again in 1968 due to the deepening war and strong antiwar sentiment.
1980- Ronald Reagan - The end of the curse, barely
Ronald Reagan broke the curse in 1980, but not without some angst. As the oldest person elected President (age 69) at the time, Reagan was close to death after being seriously wounded in an assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. just a couple months after taking office. While seriously wounded Reagan maintained a sense of humor. Heading into surgery Reagan he said to his wife “Honey, I forgot to duck”. In the operating room he said to the surgeons “Please tell me you're all Republicans.” Reagan was re-elected in 1984 and able to end the Cold War, exemplified by his “Tear down this Wall” speech at the Berlin Wall.
2000 – George W. Bush - Did the curse stop?
George W. Bush, elected in 2000, survived an assassination attempt when Armenian Vladimir Arutyunian threw a hand grenade at Bush and the President of the Republic of Georgia. It failed to detonate. Bush later survived an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoes at him. Bush ducked in time, but even if he had been hit, it was not likely to have been fatal.
2020 - ??
Is the curse still in effect for the President to be elected in 2020? Time will tell. But it seems unlikely that a curse could be placed in 1811 that wouldn’t take effect until 1840, years before Harrison ever considered becoming President. So I don’t think we have to worry.
Submitted by Guest Blogger - Jeff Eichner