Dead Presidents

Either late in high school or early in college, I got caught up in the intrigue of a “curse” — one of those things that probably just happens but which we humans like to ascribe mystical powers to. You know, like bad things happening in threes, or the nonsensical Curse of Tut’s Tomb, which took decades (some might say the duration of people’s natural lives) to zap everyone involved in the opening of the pharaoh’s tomb in 1922.

It’s not even clear if there was said to be an actual curse for the one that caught my interest, which has been referred to by various names. But it starts with William Henry Harrison, “Ol’ Tippecanoe,” who battled all manner of Native Americans but survived only 30 days as president of the United States in 1841.

Presidents elected every 20 years thereafter ended up dying on the job, up until Ronald Reagan, who was shot but did not die. Somewhere along the line, who knows when but probably long after the rainy inaugural address that did in Harrison, someone decided this was the Curse of Tecumseh, after a Shawnee leader who fought Harrison at the 1811 battle that gave Ol’ Tippecanoe his nickname.

As we were coming up on one of those elections, back in 1980, I put more thought into this than I probably needed to. I even sat down and worked out an involved pattern concerning these deaths and even — yes, I recognize this is ghoulish — made a prediction for newly-elected President Reagan’s expiration.

But to really make this work, you have to make lots of exceptions and “yeah, buts” and twist facts to fit your theory. Starting with poor President Zachary Taylor, who gets thrown out immediately because he doesn’t fit the pattern at all.

Harrison, elected in 1840, was inaugurated in March 1941 (which is when they did it back then) and died exactly one month after that event. Nine years later, in 1850 and two years into his term, Taylor died of an indeterminate digestive ailment five days after initially being stricken. But we don’t care about that, because this in-presidency death doesn’t fit the pattern.

Abraham Lincoln was first elected in 1860 and then assassinated five years later, in the first year of his second term. James Garfield — we’re coming back to him — was elected in 1880 and shot in the first year of his first term.

While I would like to think William McKinley continues an established pattern, here’s one where we have to twist. He was first elected in 1896, which is not 20 years after Garfield. But he was re-elected in 1900 and assassinated the next year. So it was the first year of his second term, but really only the first year after the “curse” year.

Warren Harding, a very portly president, also didn’t stick to curse requirements when he made it to the third year of his term before expiring, after being elected in 1920. Franklin Roosevelt already had two terms when he got the “curse” year of 1940, but true to form made it to the fifth year after that by dying in 1945.

John Kennedy, the last president to die in office to date, followed the Harding tradition when he was assassinated in the third year of his term, after his 1960 election.

So, in 1980, I studiously reviewed all this material and determined that Ronald Reagan was likely to die in the first year of his second term, in 1985. I think I went so far as to predict a day of the year, based on when all his fellows had died. He had no guarantee of a second term, having just been elected to his first one, but that didn’t matter because he proceeded to break all the patterns, especially the lethal one.

He was shot just two months after his inauguration and initially declared “close to death.” He was able to leave the hospital two weeks later, apparently having broken the curse that stretched back to Tippecanoe or perhaps Tecumseh. He also became the only U.S. president to survive an assassination attempt.

I am going to have to leave you all here. The garage loft had a minor technical malfunction that occupied blogging time yesterday and again this morning. But be sure to come back for a further discussion of James Garfield, shot at a train station but in all likelihood really killed by inept doctors who were busy telling the country just how well their patient was doing. I wonder why this topic has come up today?

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