Thursday, March 31, 2022

Was there a Curse on America’s Presidents?



William Henry Harrison, born in Charles City County, was America’s ninth president.  Harrison was also the shortest serving president, dying thirty-one days into his first term.  A military hero in his younger days, the new president wanted to demonstrate his virility when he came to Washington.  He took the oath of office outside on a cold, wet day, without wearing a hat or overcoat.  Harrison’s inaugural speech dragged on for almost two hours (the longest inaugural speech ever), after which Harrison rode a horse in his own inaugural parade.  On March 26, Harrison was ill with cold like symptoms.  The next day he developed chills, and then a high fever.  The doctors were called in to treat the ailing president.  As was often the case in those days, calling in the doctors was tantamount to signing the man’s death warrant.  A team of doctors administered a regime of bloodletting to drain off the “bad humors”.  When this failed to produce the desired results, the doctors tried ipecac, castor oil, calomel, mustard plasters, a boiled mixture of crude petroleum, and Virginia snakeroot.  All of this expert medical treatment only weakened Harrison to the point of death, at which point the doctor’s concluded that he was beyond hope and would not recover.

William Henry Harrison was the first president to die in office, and around his death arose the legend of the Curse of Tippecanoe. 

Harrison had become famous as a military commander in Tecumseh’s War, waged against the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa.  The decisive battle of that war was the battle of Tippecanoe, and it was the fame Harrison won in this battle that helped propel “Old Tippecanoe” into the White House under the campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”  Also known as Tecumseh’s Curse, a grim pattern emerged after the election of 1840.  Death stalked any person elected president in a year divisible by 20.  William Henry Harrison elected in 1840, died in office.  Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860, died in office.  James A. Garfield elected in 1880, died in office.  William McKinley elected in 1900, died in office. Warren G. Harding elected in 1920, died in office.  Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1940, died in office.  John F. Kennedy elected in 1960, died in office.  Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, broke the curse.  Reagan served two terms and lived fifteen years after leaving the presidency.

Virginia Legends and Lore