Were They Really Cursed?
From 1840 through 1960, every United States president elected in a year ending in zero died while in office. Some called it “The Curse of Tecumseh,” after the Shawnee chieftain who was killed by the forces of General William Henry Harrison in 1813. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, supposedly prophesied bitterly that Harrison would die if he were elected president. (In truth, there’s no proof that Tenskwatawa ever said any such thing.) Harrison was elected in 1840, died after barely a month in office, and the “curse” was off and running.
140 long years later, Ronald Reagan finally broke the string by serving two full terms as president before stepping down in 1989 — though he had to survive a 1981 assassination attempt to do so. George W. Bush was elected in 2000 and also served two full terms, seemingly breaking the curse for good; the Curse of Tecumseh turned out to be the Coincidence of Tecumseh after all.
Still, it was quite a deadly run. Here’s the full roll call of 0-year presidents in American history.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON was elected president in 1840, and he was 68 years old when he delivered his inaugural address on March 3, 1841. Harrison spoke for an hour and 40 minutes, in frigid weather, while refusing to wear a coat or hat. Bad idea. The new president soon came down with a cold, which rapidly developed into pneumonia. Harrison was bedridden for a month and finally died on April 4, having been president for just a month and a day.
President ABRAHAM LINCOLN was just beginning his second term in 1865 when he was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. It was the evening of April 14th, only six days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and the end of the Civil War. Lincoln survived the night but died the next morning at a house across the street from the theater, becoming the war’s last martyr.
JAMES GARFIELD was shot by assassin Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881 in a Washington railway station. The shots were not immediately fatal, but a bullet ended up lodged in Garfield’s chest, and he lived for two months while surgeons tried to decide if it would be most dangerous to operate or not operate. Garfield finally died from complications on September 19th.
WILLIAM McKINLEY was elected in 1896 and re-elected in 1900 for a second term. He was attending the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York when he was shot by unemployed millworker Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901. The President died a week later, from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds. (William McKinley was replaced as president by Theodore Roosevelt, who a decade later was shot but not killed while trying to regain the presidency.)
President WARREN HARDING began a cross-country rail tour of America in June of 1923. It was a major undertaking for that time. Harding became the first president to visit Alaska on that trip — but while returning south to California, he came complained of exhaustion, then came down with intestinal cramps and then pneumonia. Harding was convalescing from those injuries in San Francisco when he suffered an apparent heart attack in his hotel room and died.
It takes some stretching to make the “Curse of Tecumseh” apply to FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT. He was first elected president in 1932, and was reelected in 1936, 1940 and 1944. He was beginning an unprecedented fourth term when he died in April of 1945. Worn down by years of exertion leading the country during the Great Depression and World War II, FDR suffered a cerbral hemorrhage while on a working vacation in Warm Springs, Georgia. His last words were simple enough: “I have a terrific headache.”
JOHN F. KENNEDY‘s death has replaced Abraham Lincoln’s as the most famous and shocking of presidential assassinations. Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald as he rode in a motorcade through Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Two days later Oswald was himself shot and killed on national TV by Jack Ruby.
RONALD REAGAN served two full terms, 1981-1989, ending the string of deaths among ‘0’ year presidents. But good heavens, he was very close to joining the group. As he left a Hilton Hotel after making a speech on March 30th, 1981, Reagan was shot by a deranged would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr. Reagan was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and barely survived. He was reelected in 1984 and live through the end of both terms.
(Photo: The shooting of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley in 1981. The wounded president has been rushed into his limousine; Hinckley is hidden in a mob of police and Secret Service agents. Photo from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Archives.)
President GEORGE W. BUSH also served two full terms, from 2001-2009, thereby putting the final kibosh on Tecumseh’s Curse. It’s true that President Bush narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by a pretzel on January 14, 2002, but his administration was otherwise healthfully uneventful.
JOE BIDEN was elected president in 2020, defeating incumbent Donald Trump in a race where the electoral vote was so close that it wasn’t decided until mail-in and absentee ballots were counted in several critical states. (Biden won the popular vote by more than four million votes.) Biden had previously been vice-president under Barack Obama from 2009-2017.
The final 0-year tally: four presidents killed, three who died of natural causes, four who lived out their full terms, and one preparing to take office.
Only one president has died in office who was not part of this group: Zachary Taylor, who died of natural causes in 1850. But there have been near-misses! Teddy Roosevelt is among many world leaders who almost bought the farm. See how in ALMOST ASSASSINATED »