As the 2020 presidential election approaches, talk of the presidential death curse has been renewed. Yet this hex has more to do with human psychology than the malevolent musings of a nineteenth-century medicine man.
In November 1811, Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory led a detachment of nearly one thousand soldiers on a mission to disband the Native American village of Prophetstown. The settlement, founded by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, or the “Prophet,” served as the headquarters of a tribal confederacy that opposed the United States’ encroachment upon native lands (Mahon 1991).
As the governor’s soldiers established a camp at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, Tenskwatawa daubed his warriors with sacred clay, assuring them that the white man’s bullets would turn to mud, and ordered them to attack. What became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe was a quick, albeit brutal, affair. Contrary to the assurances of the Prophet, several Indian fighters succumbed to the hail of gunfire unleashed by Harrison’s forces, and the natives were compelled to abandon both the battlefield and their village. Soon thereafter, the governor’s men marched on Prophetstown and burned it to the ground (Mahon 1991).
Several months later, the United States declared war on Britain in the War of 1812. Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s confederacy allied with the Crown and proceeded to wreak havoc on the American frontier. In October 1813, however, Harrison won a decisive and far-reaching victory over the Shawnee brothers at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. In fact, Tecumseh’s death during the fight would result in the dissolution of his confederacy, the end of native resistance east of the Mississippi River, and the establishment of U.S. hegemony over the Great Lakes frontier (Mahon 1991).
But the Battle of the Thames did more than change the course of American history. It also contributed to the canon of American lore. Indeed, legend holds that Tenskwatawa avenged the death of his brother by placing a hex on his archenemy and other future U.S. presidents. The Prophet allegedly exclaimed, “Harrison will die, I tell you! And after him every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of my people” (Mikkelson 2014).
This malediction, commonly referred to as the Curse of the Prophet, was apparently set in motion when William Henry Harrison was elected president in 1840. Sure enough, “Old Tippecanoe” succumbed to pneumonia just one month after taking office. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 and shot to death by John Wilkes Booth in 1865; James Garfield was elected in 1880 and assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker in 1881; William McKinley was elected in 1900 and shot to death by an anarchist in 1901; Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920 and died of a heart attack in 1923; Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1940 and died from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945; and John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 and assassinated three years later by Lee Harvey Oswald. In all, seven Great Chiefs, chosen every twenty years, had died while in office.
Yet the first published report to attribute this mortiferous pattern to the Curse of the Prophet may not have surfaced until the latter years of the twentieth century. Indeed, when the ethnographer C.C. Trowbridge interviewed Tenskwatawa in 1824, their conversation produced over seventy pages of material but not a single reference to the alleged hex or curse (Trowbridge 1939). In 1866, John Smith Dye, in his book History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America, wrote about the deaths of William Henry Harrison, whom he insisted had been poisoned with arsenic, and of Abraham Lincoln. Yet the sensational text, which attributed the presidential partings to the nefarious machinations of the southern Slave Power, similarly made no mention at all of the Curse of the Prophet (Dye 2008).
In fact, the first printed account of the twenty-year presidential death cycle may not have appeared until 1931 when Robert LeRoy Ripley reported on the pitiful pattern in his illustrated column, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (Pohl 2013). The famous cartoonist published a list that included the five presidents who had been elected every twenty years since 1840 and died while in office as well as a series of ominous question marks next to the year 1940 (Ripley 1946).
And the first published account to ascribe the deaths to an actual hex may not have appeared until November 1940 when the syndicated cartoonist John Hix wrote, “The man who attains the executive chair for the next four years faces the jinx of a 100-year-old ‘curse,’ for death in office has come to every President elected at 20-year intervals since 1840” (Hix 1940). In February 1960, the journalist Ed Koterba similarly noted, “The next President of the United States will face an eerie curse that for more than a century has hung over every chief executive elected in a year ending with zero” (Koterba 1960). Still, neither Hix nor Koterba referenced the tale of Tenskwatawa.
A written account that specifically described the Curse of the Prophet apparently did not appear in print until 1980 (Pohl 2013). During that year’s presidential contest between Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, Parade magazine’s celebrity columnist, Lloyd Shearer, wrote: “Legend has it that the Prophet, who was the Shawnee shaman, or medicine man, thereupon invoked a curse upon [William Henry] Harrison and his government. The curse was that all future U.S. presidents, starting with Harrison, who were elected in a year whose last digit was zero would die in office” (Shearer 1980).
By now the pattern had embedded itself into the minds of many. For instance, during a campaign event in Dayton, Ohio, a member of the audience asked Jimmy Carter whether he was concerned about the “predictions that every 20 years … the President dies in office.” The sitting president replied, “I’ve seen those predictions … 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 till the last day I could” (Carter 1981). Nancy Reagan was similarly indifferent. In her memoir, the wife of the Republican nominee remembered that although “the so-called twenty-year death cycle for American presidents … had been written about during the 1980 campaign … I hadn’t paid it much attention” (Reagan 1989).
Of course, that all changed when President Reagan was shot and wounded by John Hinkley Jr. on March 31, 1981. Now the First Lady found “the historical pattern [to be] terrifying” and she wondered, “Was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, next?” (Reagan 1989). No, Mr. Reagan was not next. He fully recovered from the attempt on his life and went on to serve two full terms as president. Nor did George W. Bush die in office. Despite the fact that he was elected in 2000, he survived several assassination attempts and even a brief bout of unconsciousness after choking on a pretzel. As of this writing, Mr. Bush remains alive and well.
So too, however, is belief in the Curse of the Prophet. This conviction is, in part, sustained by four common logical fallacies: (1) confusing correlation with causation, (2) the lottery fallacy, (3) cherry picking, and (4) moving the goalposts.
Confusing correlation with causation is a fallacy that assumes cause and effect for two variables simply because they occur together (Novella et al. 2018). For instance, proponents of the Curse of the Prophet believe that because being elected president in twenty-year intervals from 1840–1960 was correlated with dying while in office, something about the former must have caused the latter. But a correlation does not necessarily imply causation. In fact, the correlation might simply be due to chance.
Yet the lottery fallacy presumes that the more improbable a correlation, the more probable a cause. The likelihood that the twenty-year presidential death cycle would come to pass by chance alone is extraordinarily low. But come to pass it did. As such, advocates of Tenskwatawa’s hex conclude that the cycle must have had a cause and that a curse was as good an explanation as any. The lottery fallacy, however, confuses the probability of one outcome with the probability of some outcome (Novella et al. 2018). If one million people each purchase a single raffle ticket, the odds that any one of them will win are one in one million. But the odds that someone will win are certain. Similarly, while the odds of the twenty-year presidential death cycle are low, the odds that some presidential death cycle would occur are rather high. If the twenty-year death cycle failed to develop, then perhaps a Virginia death cycle (every president from Virginia died while in office), or a William and James death cycle (every president with the first name William or James died while in office), or a whiskers death cycle (every president with facial hair died while in office) would have materialized in its stead. It is the endless number of improbable death cycles that renders such a death cycle so probable.
Cherry picking, or the selective use of data, occurs when an individual includes information that confirms his or her position while excluding information that does not (Novella et al. 2018). For example, adherents of the Curse of the Prophet readily consider the elections of Abraham Lincoln (1860) and Franklin Roosevelt (1940) as evidence for the hex because they were both elected in years that ended in zero. Yet the fact that neither Lincoln nor Roosevelt died until they were reelected in 1864 and 1944, respectively, is often pushed aside. Of course, this reelection sleight-of-hand conveniently allows the curse more time to unfold. While Thomas Jefferson (1800) and James Monroe (1820) were elected in years that ended in zero, they are summarily ignored because both men survived their time in office. But if either one of them had died while in office, we would have been regaled with a tale of how the curse was initially placed on Jefferson because he instructed Governor Harrison to “drive [the Natives] across the Mississippi” (Jefferson 1803) or on Monroe because he was the first person to ascend to the presidency following the Battle of the Thames. Although Zachary Taylor died while in office, his election (1848) is disregarded because he was not elected in a year that ended in zero. Needless to say, if he had been elected in such a year, his death would have been attributed to the curse as opposed to the consumption of cherries and milk (Bordewich 2012).
Finally, moving the goalposts occurs when a previously agreed-upon standard of proof for accepting a claim has been arbitrarily changed once it has, or has not, been met (Novella et al. 2018). According to Shearer’s telling, there are four criteria for the Curse of the Prophet: “The curse was that [i] all future U.S. presidents, [ii] starting with Harrison, [iii] who were elected in a year whose last digit was zero [iv] would die in office” (Shearer 1980). The presidencies of Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush obviously failed to meet the final criterion. As such, those who wished to maintain their belief in the hex were forced to move the goalposts. For instance, Gary Bergel of the Intercessors for America (IFA) argued that the elections of 1980 and 2000 were exempted from the Curse of the Prophet because the IFA successfully encouraged its membership “to pray for the death curse to be broken” (Bergel 2015).
Likewise, the paranormalists Joel Martin and William J. Birnes argued that the hex failed to take Ronald Reagan’s life while in office because the First Lady “always made sure that [the president] avoided travel and exposure to danger on days when his astrological chart said he was particularly vulnerable.” Nevertheless, the authors also suggest that Tenskwatawa’s hex may still have been invoked because “Ronald Reagan began suffering from the effects of incurable Alzheimer’s Disease during his time in office and actually began to die” (Martin and Birnes 2003). Martin and Birnes similarly proposed that an alleged attempt made on then-President George W. Bush’s life on September 11, 2001, illustrates that the Curse of the Prophet “has lingered on … in one form or another” (Martin and Birnes 2003). Thus, an uncompromising death curse has been transmogrified into one that can encompass the onset of an enduring health problem or an unsuccessful assassination attempt as well as one that can be assuaged through prayer, astrology, or presumably other means.
In October 2015, the United States entered its longest period without losing a sitting president to an assassin or illness. In truth, advances in security and medicine have made presidential deaths historically uncommon (Friess 2015). Nevertheless, the coming presidential election of 2020 has already renewed speculation about the Curse of the Prophet (Kelly 2019). Yet we should take solace in the fact that the hex has more to do with human psychology than the alleged malevolent musings of a nineteenth-century medicine man, and we should take this opportunity to remind ourselves that a correlation doesn’t necessarily imply a causation, that unlikely events are often quite likely, that we should consider the misses as well as the hits, and that we can change our minds rather than our standards of proof.
- Bergel, Gary. 2015. The breaking of the “Zero Year Curse” on the U.S. presidency. Intercessors for America (September 29). Available online at https://www.ifapray.org/blog/the-breaking-of-the-zero-year-curse-on-the-u-s-presidency/.
- Bordewich, Fergus M. 2012. America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Carter, Jimmy. 1981. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Jimmy Carter, 1980–1981, 2032.
- Dye, John Smith. 2008. History of the Plots and Crimes of the Great Conspiracy to Overthrow Liberty in America. Whitefish: Kissinger Publishing.
- Friess, Steve. 2015. Today the US sets a record for not having a president die in office. Quartz (October 28). Available online at https://qz.com/534641/today-the-us-sets-a-record-for-not-having-a-president-die-in-office/.
- Hix, John. 1940. Strange as it seems. Oakland Tribune (November 5): 18.
- Jefferson, Thomas. 1803. President Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory. Digital History. Available online at http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/indian_removal/jefferson_to_harrison.cfm.
- Kelly, Martin. 2019. Did Tecumseh’s curse kill seven US presidents? ThoughtCo (February 17). Available online at https://www.thoughtco.com/tecumsehs-curse-and-the-us-presidents-105440.
- Koterba, Ed. 1960. Pennsylvania Avenue ponderings. Hammond Times (February 25): 25.
- Mahon, John K. 1991. The War of 1812. Boston: Da Capo Press.
- Martin, Joel, and William J. Birnes. 2003. The Haunting of the Presidents. A Paranormal History of the U.S. Presidency. Connecticut: Konecky & Konecky.
- Mikkelson, David. 2014. Presidential 20-year death curse. Snopes (April 24). Available online at https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-curse-of-tecumseh/.
- Novella, Steven, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, et al. 2018. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
- Pohl, Robert S. 2013. Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, D.C. South Carolina: The History Press.
- Reagan, Nancy. 1989. My Turn: The Memoirs of Nancy Reagan. New York: Random House.
- Ripley, Robert L. 1946. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Two Volumes in One. New York: Garden City Publishing.
- Shearer, Lloyd. 1980. Curse or coincidence? Parade (September 28).
- Trowbridge, C.C. 1939. Shawnese Traditions, C. C. Trowbridge’s Account. Vernon Kinietz and Erminie W. Voegelin (eds.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.