In A Nutshell
The Battle of Tippecanoe was a victory for the United States government against the Shawnee Indians, but according to legend, it was also a curse. Since that battle, any president elected in a year ending with “0” died in office, a phenomenon often attributed to a hex laid on the office by the losing side at Tippecanoe. When Ronald Reagan survived his assassination attempt, it seemed like the curse had been broken. The survival of George W. Bush reinforced that notion.
The Whole Bushel
Tecumseh was a powerful Shawnee Indian chief from the Ohio territory, known for his resistance of US authority. Tecumseh was not a stranger to war and in 1811 found himself leading a force against future president William Henry Harrison at Tippecanoe. Tecumseh lost—and thus was born the Curse of Tippecanoe (also variously referred to as the 20-Year Death Curse, or the Curse of Tecumseh).
According to myth, Tecumseh (or sometimes his brother, a medicine man named Tenskwatawa) laid a curse on the presidency for his loss at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tecumseh was later killed at the Battle of Thames in 1813, fighting another army led by Harrison.
Appropriately enough, Harrison was the first president to die under the curse. Harrison was elected in 1840, and died of pneumonia a month after his election. Following Harrison’s death, any president elected or re-elected in a year ending with “0” died in office.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. He was famously assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre at the start of his second term in 1865. James A. Garfield was elected in 1880. He was shot in July the following year at a railroad station in Washington and died of his wounds in September.
William McKinley was elected for a second term in 1900. He was shot in 1901, while greeting his audience after a speech in Buffalo, New York. Warren G. Harding was elected in 1920. In 1923, he died of unknown causes—possibly a heart attack, stroke, or poison.
And it just keeps going. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to his third term in 1940. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in his fourth term in 1945.
John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960. He was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963 while riding through Dallas.
Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. John Hinckley Jr., desperate to impress Jodie Foster (ironically a lesbian), thought it would be a good idea to assassinate Reagan. Hinckley shot him in 1981. But, unlike the previous seven presidents, Reagan survived, the bullet barely missing his heart. The next president elected in a year ending with a zero—George W. Bush—also survived his presidency, implying that Reagan has broken the curse.
No historical evidence exists for the attribution of any curse to either Tecumseh or Tenskwatawa. Their apparent affinity for the number zero also remains unexplained.
During the period of the curse, one other president died in office: Zachary Taylor was elected in 1848, and died in 1850 of a stomach virus.