Presidents, Curses and Resurrectionists

William Henry Harrison’s inaugural presidential address was, at nearly two hours, the longest in US history. March 4, 1861 was a cold, wet day but Harrison chose not to wear a coat or hat during the speech, perhaps to demonstrate that, at 68, he still possessed the vigour of his military days.

In fact, Harrison owed his victory in large part to his successful campaigns against the great Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, thirty years earlier. Harrison led US forces against Tecumseh in two conflicts: the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The latter resulted in Tecumseh’s death and gave rise to the legend of Tecumseh’s curse, dooming every US president elected in a year ending in zero to death before completion of their term (until Reagan):

Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, assassinated.

James Garfield, elected in 1880, assassinated.

William McKinley, elected in 1900, assassinated.

Warren Harding, elected in 1920, heart attack.

Franklin Roosevelt, elected in 1940, cerebral hemorrhage.

John Kennedy, elected in 1960, assassinated.

Tecumseh and William Harrison have a disagreement, 1810. (By W. Ridgway).

The first victim was Harrison himself. Elected in 1940, he died of pneumonia less thirty days after his two hour inauguration speech (officially the shortest US presidency, although there is an argument that David Atchison was president for a single day in 1849; he spent most of the day asleep). Many at the time blamed Harrison’s disregard for the weather for his death, so when his grandson, Benjamin Harrison attended his own inauguration during a rainstorm, he delivered a short speech from under an umbrella (held by his predecessor, Grover Cleveland.)

The fate of William Harrison’s son, John Scott Harrison, the only man to have been both the father and son of US presidents, was also unusual. On the day of his funeral, his family were disturbed to discover that another body recently buried nearby was missing. Grave robbery to supply corpses to medical colleges was an ongoing problem at the time. After the funeral, one of Harrison’s sons received information on the location of the missing body and travelled to Ohio Medical College to retrieve it.

There they found a body hanging from a rope in a shaft. It turned out to be not the body they were looking for, but that of John Scott Harrison who had been buried less than twenty-four hours before.

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