January 15, 2011

Tecumseh's presidential curse

I've heard of the so-called 20-year presidential curse before, but not that it was attributed to Tecumseh. Here's the scoop:

Curse of TippecanoeThe term Curse of Tippecanoe (also known as Tecumseh's curse, the presidential curse, zero-year curse, the twenty-year curse, or the twenty-year presidential jinx) is sometimes used to describe the pattern where from 1840 to 1960 each American President who had won election in a year ending in zero (such as 1880 or 1900) died in office. The pattern ended with Ronald Reagan, who won the presidential election in 1980, but did not subsequently die in office.

The curse

The curse, first widely noted in a Ripley's Believe It or Not book published in 1931, began with the death of William Henry Harrison, who died in 1841 after having been elected in 1840. For the next 120 years, presidents elected during years ending in a zero (occurring every 20 years) ultimately died while serving in office, from Harrison to John F. Kennedy (elected 1960, died 1963).
Tecumseh’s Curse and the Death of President Bush

By Ken KalbThere was a deep mystical tradition among the Shawnee Indians of the Ohio valley, embodied in the teachings and practices of a sage called "the Prophet," emboldened by his brother, the great Chief Tecumseh. Tecumseh felt that all Indians were one people, and insisted that only with the consent of all--could land rightly be ceded by or purchased from an individual tribe. For several years, he successfully journeyed from tribe to tribe, working with Indians of all sections to secure their cooperation in this great work of unification. Tecumseh was a daring visionary--a powerful orator, remarkable military chief, successful negotiator, and enthusiastic leader. Indeed, the flame of hatred for the white man burned in his heart, and he swore eternal vengeance against the white race for decimating his proud nation.

When the United States refused to recognize Tecumseh’s unification principle, he bound together the Native Americans of the Old Northwest, the South, and the Eastern Mississippi Valley as a military force to defend Native American rights to the land. His plan failed with the defeat of his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, at the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Although history reports the battle of Tippecanoe a draw, it nevertheless broke the power of the Shawnee, and became known historically as marking the collapse of the Native American military movement.

Legend transmits that after the historic battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh released prisoners with a prophetic message for General William Henry Harrison--a prophecy that has come to be known as--"Tecumseh's Curse."
A Plague on Your White House

The presidents killed by a Native American curse

By Nick Parkins
Legend tells that the wrathful chieftain now uttered a dire prophetic forewarning:

“Harrison will not win this year to be the Great Chief. But he may win next year. If he does… He will not finish his term. He will die in his office. You think that I have lost my powers. I who caused the Sun to darken and Red Men to give up firewater… I tell you Harrison will die. And after him every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of our people.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, accounts of the curse’s origin conflict. Some say it was born out of the defeat at Tippe­canoe; others claim that it was some time later, and that under the shadow of Tecumseh’s death the following year at the Battle of the Thames, it was Tenskwatawa who uttered the fateful words. The confusion doesn’t end there. Some say the curse is simply nonsense and that no records exist that support the existence of such a native Indian jinx. What is not in doubt is that the sinister malediction came to pass.
Comment:  So the "curse" may be a folktale someone made up decades after the fact...but it came true? Wrong. The curse didn't come true unless it existed in the first place, before Harrison's death, which no one can prove.

The Tecumseh book A Sorrow in Our Heart doesn't mention the curse. Author Allan Eckert has hundreds of pages of footnotes documenting how reliable each of his claims is. If he didn't think the curse was worth mentioning, you can bet there's no evidence Tecumseh uttered it.

As for the string of deaths, they're easily explained by mathematics. If you look at the series of American presidents, you literally can find millions of patterns. Maybe every fifth president was left-handed. Or every sixth president had a cat. Or every seventh president liked broccoli. And so forth and so on.

Let's say each of these patterns has only a one in a million chance of coming true. But there are at least a million of them. Therefore, it's almost certain that one of the million-to-one patterns will come true. The 20-year "curse" happened to be the one.

If it hadn't been this pattern, it would've been something else. For instance, every third president had a mailman named Mr. Brown. It's a coincidence, nothing more.

For more on Tecumseh, see 37th Outdoor Tecumseh Play and Freemasons, Washington, and Tecumseh.