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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > November/December 2019 > The Presidential Curse and the Election of 2020

The Presidential Curse and the Election of 2020

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, talk of the presidential death curse has been renewed. Yet this hex has more to do with human psychology than the malevolent musings of a nineteenth-century medicine man.

In November 1811, Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory led a detachment of nearly one thousand soldiers on mission to disband the Native American village Prophetstown. The settlement, founded by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, or the “Prophet,” served as the headquarters of a tribal confederacy that opposed the United States’ encroachment upon native lands (Mahon 1991).

William Henry Harrison

As the governor’s soldiers established a camp at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, Tenskwatawa daubed his warriors with sacred clay, assuring them that the white man’s bullets would turn to mud, and ordered them to attack. What became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe was a quick, albeit brutal, affair. Contrary to the assurances of the Prophet, several Indian fighters succumbed to the hail of gunfire unleashed by Harrison’s forces, and the natives were compelled to abandon both the battlefield and their village. Soon thereafter, the governor’s men marched on Prophetstown and burned it to the ground (Mahon 1991).

Several months later, the United States declared war on Britain in the War of 1812. Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s confederacy allied with the Crown and proceeded to wreak havoc on the American frontier. In October 1813, however, Harrison won a decisive and far-reaching victory over the Shawnee brothers at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. In fact, Tecumseh’s death during the fight would result in the dissolution of his confederacy, the end of native resistance east of the Mississippi River, and the establishment of U.S. hegemony over the Great Lakes frontier (Mahon 1991).

But the Battle of the Thames did more than change the course of American history. It also contributed to the canon of American lore. Indeed, legend holds that Tenskwatawa avenged the death of his brother by placing a hex on his archenemy and other future U.S. presidents. The Prophet allegedly exclaimed, “Harrison will die, I tell you! 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” (Mikkelson 2014).

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