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20/20: Curse of Tecumseh Comes into Focus

Lincoln shot in Ford's Theater. Garfield gunned down at a Washington railway station. McKinley struck by the bullet of an unemployed millworker. Kennedy assassinated from the seventh floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Since 1840, every president elected in a year ending in zero has had his term cut tragically short, either by illness or assassination: William Henry Harrison (elected 1840), Abraham Lincoln (1860), James A. Garfield (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) and John F. Kennedy (1960).

The exception? Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt March 30, 1981.

Coincidence? Or could there be something more?

For the believers of an old prophecy, the seven presidential deaths are linked by more than just a string of bad luck. And now, in the year 2000 - on the cusp of a presidential election - the numbers may be up.

Enter the Curse of Tecumseh.

It starts with President Harrison, who caught a cold while giving his inauguration speech. The cold developed into pneumonia, and Harrison died only one month later. Harrison served the shortest term of any American president, and his surprising and untimely death was the start of a pattern that has resurfaced every 20 years since his election.

As the story goes, his death was foretold by the Prophet, the half-brother of Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh, Harrison's rival in the quest for Westward expansion.

"Harrison will die I tell you," the Prophet reportedly said. "And after him, every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death of my people."

And now, with the 2000 presidential election, the "curse" threatens to re-emerge.

"Should we worry about the curse? Maybe," University history Ph.D. candidate Leonard Sadosky said. "There are simply too many [instances] for this to be a coincidence."

Cursed Beginnings

Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh promoted the idea that land owned by Native Americans belonged to the whole community and could not be ceded by individual tribes. Harrison had different ideas.

A fervent believer in manifest destiny, Harrison negotiated treaties with individual tribes and gained millions of acres of land for new American settlers.

"The white people have no right to take land from the Indians, because [the Indians] had it first; it is theirs. They may sell, but all must join. Any sale not made by all is not valid," Tecumseh allegedly said to Harrison on Aug. 12, 1810.

Threatened by Tecumseh's growing alliance aimed at stopping the settlers, Harrison ordered American troops to occupy Prophetstown, the town Tecumseh had built with his half-brother the Prophet.

As legend has it, Tecumseh warned his half-brother to resist the conflict, but the Prophet nonetheless launched a surprise attack on the Americans camped along the Tippecanoe River. The Prophet, inexperienced in military matters, misjudged Harrison's strength and the battle was deemed a draw until the Native American allies abandoned camp. The battle became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, a symbol of Native American oppression.

So Tecumseh was enraged when in 1840, Harrison and his running mate John Tyler ran their campaign on the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"

And according to the story, the Prophet then cast those infamous and deadly words that have haunted the presidency since 1840.

Too Far Fetched?

But not everyone is quick to jump to the Tecumseh conclusion.

"I've heard of this ridiculous theory, although I didn't know it was called the Curse of Tecumseh," University political historian Michael Holt said. "The facts just don't support it."

Holt said that a few of the presidents, notably Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who supposedly fell victim to Tecumseh's curse, were first elected in a zero year but did not die until a later term. Lincoln was killed in his second term and Roosevelt died in his fourth term.

"To count [Roosevelt] as one of the victims seems crazy to me," Holt said.

And bad luck isn't limited to Tecumseh year presidents. Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford all suffered attempted assassinations.

Another glitch: President Zachary Taylor died while in office in 1850 but was elected in a non-Tecumseh election year of 1848.

"The curse does not seem to be exclusive - presidents elected in non-curse years also get cursed," History Prof. Joseph Kett said. "I'm not going to lose sleep over it."

So it is with Tecumseh. Inconsistencies that lend credence to skeptics.

How did Reagan survive if he was doomed by his 1980 election year?

Professional astrologer Mark Dodich, who hosts a Web site dedicated to the Curse of Tecumseh, said the reason is one of "cosmic coincidence."

He said the curse overlaps with the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, whose orbits have lined up every 20 years.

In the year of the cursed presidents' election, the alignment occurred under an "earth sign" such as Taurus, Capricorn or Virgo. The alignment during Reagan's term, however, occurred during an "air sign" such as Aquarius, Gemini or Libra. Dodich cites this as the explanation for Reagan's survival of the curse.

According to Dodich, year 2000's Jupiter-Saturn alignment once again occurred under the earth sign of Taurus, a phenomenon he said won't happen again for another 600 years. It's the end of a cycle, he said. And he's worried.

"I'm looking at the vice presidents big time," the Portland-based astrologer said sincerely.

In this valid Tecumseh year of 2000, is the press asking the right questions? Rather than scrutinizing the presidential candidates' tax cut plans, Dodich would argue, perhaps we should be inquiring into their medical histories or researching possible assassins.

So when you go to vote this year, don't forget to ask yourself which sounds better: President Lieberman or President Cheney?


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