The so-called “Zero-Year Curse”, also known as the Curse of Tecumseh or the Curse of Tippecanoe, was first widely popularized by a “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” cartoon from 1931. The cartoon noted that since 1840, every U.S. President elected in a year ending with a zero had died in office.
The first victim of the curse, William Henry Harrison, was a general who had received fame for defeating the great Shawnee chief Tecumseh in the battle of the Tippecanoe River in the Indiana Territory in 1811. Because of this victory, Harrison was nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe”. (His election slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!”)
Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, another leader of the Shawnee tribes, was a holy man often called “The Prophet”. It has been speculated that Tenskwatawa might have placed the curse on the man who killed his brother and upon anyone else ascending to the presidency in a like-numbered year.
- 1840 William Henry Harrison (aka “Old Tippecanoe”) — died April 4, 1841 of pneumonia — one month after being inaugurated
- 1860 Abraham Lincoln — died April 15, 1865 — assassinated
- 1880 James A. Garfield — died September 19, 1881 — assassinated
- 1900 William McKinley — died September 14, 1901 — assassinated
- 1920 Warren G. Harding — died August 2 1923 — believed to have died of a heart attack or stroke; but some believe he was poisoned.
- 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt — died April 12, 1945 — died of cerebral hemorrhage.
- 1960 John F. Kennedy — died November 22, 1963 — assassinated
- 1980 Ronald Reagan — attempted assassination on March 30, 1981, but survived to serve two terms
The only president to die in office who wasn’t elected in a Zero Year was Zachary Taylor, who died of gastroenteritis on July 9, 1850. Reagan seems to have broken the curse, because he served both his terms and did not die until 2004, nearly two decades after leaving office. George W. Bush, elected in 2000, also survived his presidency without incident.