On this day, March 30, in 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by the deranged John Hinckley, Jr. As news came into the school, all of us kids were lined up in the hallway outside our second floor classrooms to be led downstairs to the cafeteria for parental pick up. As we waited to go, Mrs. Lynch, my still-favorite teacher of all time and space, spoke to me sharply, saying, “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’!”
Let me back up and explain that. In March 1981, I was a sixth-grader at St. Michael’s School in Dallas, Texas. Somehow, I had learned about the “Zero Effect” or ‘Tecumseh’s Curse,” maybe from Ripley’s Believe it or Not, which had brought the tale to public prominence in prior decades. I can’t recall my source but I was very interested in this story. Supposedly, Tenskwatawa, the brother of Shawnee leader Tecumseh, laid a curse on William Henry Harrison, the Indiana Territory’s governor and future president, following the American’s victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Or maybe Tecumseh himself put on the mojo following dirty dealing with the territorial governor in addition to the military defeats. Whoever did it and why, the curse was that somehow Harrison and all future presidents elected in a year ending in the same digit as Harrison’s election would die in office. (How the aggrieved Indians would have been able to surmise Gov. Harrison’s election to president nearly 30 years later is its own mystery.)
But I didn’t think about that timeline problem when I was 11. Instead, I was fascinated by the fact that, true to the “curse,” Harrison and a string of presidents elected every 20 years, with one interruption, did die at some point during their presidency:
- Harrison, elected 1840, died 1841
- Lincoln, elected 1860, assassinated 1865
- Garfield, elected 1880, assassinated 1881
- McKinley, (re) elected 1900, assassinated 1901
- Harding, elected 1920, died 1923
- Roosevelt, (re) elected 1940, died 1945
- Kennedy, elected 1960, assassinated 1963.
The only other U.S. president to die in office outside this pattern was Zachary Taylor, “Old Rough and Ready,” who was elected in 1848 and died in 1850 from an intestinal ailment related to his consumption of cherries and milk on a warm Independence Day in the nation’s capital.
So, seven of 26 chief executives elected at 20-year intervals consistently died in office. That meant that, according to Tecumseh’s Curse, the president elected in 1980 was going to die in office, too.
At some point during sixth grade, I chose to share my interest in the Zero Effect with my class for show-and-tell. Indeed, I stood before my classmates and explained how every president from Harrison to Kennedy, elected at 20-year intervals, died in office. I doubt that I “predicted” the same for the next president-elect, but who knows. (I was also the kid who shared the word “antidisestablishmentarianism” for show-and-tell.)
Whatever I said, it must have made an impression on Mrs. Lynch. For as we lined up in the hall, I was not thinking about the curse at all. But apparently she was. She walked right up to me, with a stern look on her face, pointed at me, and uttered those words that I will never forget: “Don’t you dare say ‘I told you so’!”
I dared not! President Reagan, of course, survived (but it was a very close thing as we later learned). And then the next president elected at a 20-year interval, George W. Bush, emerged from his 8-year presidency (physically) unscathed.
Maybe Ronald Reagan broke the curse after all.
– Fred Dews,