In March 1981 Ronald Reagan defied an assassin’s bullet and went on to lead America for another seven years. Did the President also dodge something more powerful than a gun? Did the Gipper survive and even break the Curse of Tippercanoe?
On 7 November 1811, US army forces led by William Henry Harrison, then Governor of the Indiana Territory, defeated the Shawnee Confederacy of Native Americans under their leader Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe.
According to legend, Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa (more commonly known as “The Prophet”) was so aghast at the defeat and the subsequent desecrations of Indian graves and the burning of the Shawnee settlement of Prophetstown that he uttered a solemn curse on Governor Harrison.
The Prophet, living up to his name, foresaw that Harrison would take the Presidency, but swore that he would also die in office. Furthermore, successor Presidents who took office every twenty years thereafter would also die in office to keep fresh the memory of his tribe’s anger and disgust
Governor Harrison did go on to become the President of the United States, winning election in 1840. He died on his 32nd day, the first President to die in during their presidency and his term of office remains the shortest tenure in US history. The curse had taken its first victim, perhaps striking Harrison down so soon because of his direct involvement in the conflict.
Twenty years duly passed and six more Presidents entered the White House. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President and was assassinated a few months into his second term of office in April 1865. Three more Presidents occupied the White House until James Garfield’s election in 1880. He would only last a few months in office before being shot on 19 September 1881.
In 1900, William McKinley was elected and was assassinated on 14 September 1901. 1920’s election winner, Warren G. Harding, lasted a little longer before dying of a heart attack or stoke in August 1923. By this point, the eerie coincidence of this deadly vicennial Presdiential pattern had been noted. The 1931 edition of the popular Ripley’s Believe it or Not told the story of the battle of Tippecanoe and created the myth of the curse uttered by the Prophet.
Myth, legend or story, the curse seemed to be validated when Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected for a third term in 1940 and died on 12 April 1945 in his fourth term. The most notorious continuation of the curse came in 1963 with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He was, naturally enough, elected in 1960 and thus continued the twenty-year cycle of death.
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 at the age of 69. As he advanced into his 70s and towards a second term of office it seemed entirely possible that the curse would strike. Age would have been given a helping hand had events on 30 March 1981 turned out less favourably for the President.
John Hinckley, Jr. shot the President outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. With the bullet penetrating less than an inch from the Gipper’s heart and an announcement that the President was “close to death”, it looked certain that the curse had struck again.
But Reagan survived.
As did George W. Bush after his election in 2000 and an assassination attempt in 2005. Is the ‘curse’ now broken forever?