It is, after all, July. We
have, in previous midsummer ramblings, explored the true genesis
of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln's seances, etc. It's
always a source of joy to me to ponder on how many strange oddities
and downright uncanny occurrences seem to surround our early
national history, and especially the Presidency.
And yet, I've never told my
favorite story: the Legend of Tecumseh's Curse.
Was I saving it for a special
occasion? Was I suffering year-to-year amnesia? Was I making
it all up?
Well . . . truth be told, I
had a devil of a time getting any information whatsoever on the
origins of this wonderful legend.
Happily, due to a combination
of years of research and the vast information bank now available
on the net, the time has come to tell the tale.
Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were
brothers - Native Americans of the Shawnee Nation. Tenskwatawa
as a youth was by all accounts something of a hell-raiser, and
at age 30 passed into a coma and was believed dead. At his own
funeral service, however, he miraculously revived, and told his
astonished friends and family of how he had been visited by two
angels sent by God, who had given him a mission.
His mission was to unite the
various Native American peoples, and free them from the European-induced
slavery of alcohol. He soon had many converts, and began to be
known as The Prophet. With his brother Tecumseh as his political
machinist, he began to forge a great alliance of Indian Nations
- an alliance which gave great hopes to the British, who saw
in this early "united nations" a potential means of
recapturing their lost colonies - an alliance which caused great
chagrin in the United States for pretty much the same reason.
At any rate, the brothers allied
themselves with the British in the early 1800's, with The Prophet
setting up headquarters at Tippecanoe while Tecumseh wandered
far and wide firming up the Alliance. Tensions between the British
and their former American colonies were heating up, and by 1811
war seemed inevitable.
In the fall of 1811 a company
of troops led by William Henry Harrison ventured into the Tippecanoe
area to ascertain the threat of The Prophet's movement, and presumably
to take action if necessary. The Prophet, somewhat naturally,
decided to attack the troops. The result, on November 7 of that
year, was the famed "Battle of Tippecanoe" in which
The Prophet and his warriors were routed and sent fleeing into
the wilds, their town burned to the ground.
The War of 1812 soon commenced,
with Tecumseh and The Prophet now firmly allied with the British
against the United States. Harrison again led his forces against
the brothers repeatedly, and in October of 1813 Tecumseh was
killed at the Battle of Thames.
After the war The Prophet vanished
into Canada, where he remained for the next twenty years.
In 1836, he learned that his
hated enemy, William Henry Harrison, was running for President.
It was reported that he took a great interest in this matter,
and some said it had caused him to make one final prophecy .
In November of that year, just
as Harrison lost the election, The Prophet died.
Having apparently heard the
last of his former foe, Harrison spent most of the next four
years campaigning for the next election. Rumors began to circulate
that his loss in the 1836 campaign had been the doing of The
Prophet, who had cursed Harrison for the death of Tecumseh and
denied him the Presidency.
Such rumors seemed groundless
when in 1840 Harrison was elected President.
Then, one month after taking
office, he caught pneumonia and died - the first U.S. President
to die in office.
This set some to wonder if
maybe they'd merely misinterpreted the curse. It was as if the
ghostly hands of The Prophet had reached out of the grave to
exact a final vengeance, and now people wondered what would happen
next. Was this the end of it, or was the next President also
doomed to die in office?
Over the next couple of decades
the legend of "Tecumseh's Curse" (as it was beginning
to be somewhat inaccurately called) faded, as Presidents came
and went, all leaving office very much alive.
Then, exactly twenty years
after Harrison's election, Abraham Lincoln was elected - precipitating
the unparalleled mass secession of Southern states that led to
the worst national conflagration ever - the Civil War. A few
old-timers, remembering, wondered if this might have had something
to do with the now all-but-forgotten curse.
Then, as you probably know,
Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, shot from behind by the
brother of the nation's foremost actor of the time.
There were now two Presidents
who had died in office.
And Lincoln had taken office
exactly twenty years after Harrison.
Again the years passed without
incident (in that regard, anyway), and then it was 1880.
This time, the man elected
to the highest office in the land was a towering fellow named
He managed to last four months
(they took office in March in those days).
On July 2, 1881, Garfield was
assassinated by an unbalanced fellow who was distraught at failing
to secure a government post.
We now had three dead-in-office
Presidents, each elected exactly twenty years apart. I imagine
the ancient curse began to be remembered around this time.
Again the years passed, again
no President died, and this time the "twentieth-year"
election would be different.
For in the election of 1900
the candidate thought most likely to win was already President:
William McKinley. It's true that the Vice President had died
during Mckinley's first term, but that hardly seemed Tecumseh-like.
Perhaps the curse was limited to the nineteenth century . . .
To replace the dead V.P. for
the 1900 campaign McKinley chose a man he wasn't particularly
comfortable with, but who had become something of a legend even
then: Teddy Roosevelt.
They won overwhelmingly.
This time the President almost
made it into the fall.
On September 6, 1901, McKinley
was felled by an anarchist's bullet. The Curse, still working,
was now as old as The Prophet had lived to be.
Again, the next few Presidents
emerged alive from their terms, though Wilson was ill and essentially
incapacitated for the last part of his Presidency.
Then came 1920, and Warren
Harding became President.
He actually lasted quite some
time, but on August 2, 1923, he was suddenly stricken by thrombosis
You know how the story works
by now, so let's simply jump ahead to the next 20 Year Anniversary,
to 1940. The man who became President this time had already held
that post since 1933 - Franklin Roosevelt (yes, a relation of
Teddy's). When he was reelected for an unprecedented third time
in 1940 people began to recall the curse and wonder - but FDR
was unprecedented all the way around and actually survived to
win a fourth term as President! Had the curse finally run its
course, on this, the 100th anniversary of its inception?
Less than a year into his fourth
term Roosevelt died.
We now had six Presidents who
had succumbed while holding that venerable post, all apparent
victims of Tecumseh's Curse.
In the election of 1960, of
course, John Kennedy landed the job, only to be assassinated
in Dallas in 1963, and as I remember the moment very clearly
I'd just as soon not dwell on it any more than necessary. (Yeah
right - you know there's a Kennedy column somewhere in the near
future of this newsletter . . .)
Well, perhaps a few words are
not entirely out of place. After all, the previous six Presidential
deaths were essentially just names in a book to me - but the
Kennedy Assassination was something I lived.
I was in second grade at a
Catholic elementary school. Kennedy was the only President I
really remembered, and in my innocence I simply assumed he'd
always be President. It seemed to me the natural order of things
that an Irish Catholic should be running things, especially to
a child who pretty much assumed the whole world was Catholic
and hadn't really yet made the distinction between Presidents
Sometime after eleven a.m.
on a late November morning a nun came racing into the classroom,
dragging our teacher outside, where they spoke in hushed, frantic
tones, filling us all with the greatest excitement (anything
that disrupts a school day is never a bad thing).
Our teacher reappeared, a small
transistor radio in her hand. She explained that someone had
tried to shoot the President. That's all anyone knew then.
For the next half hour or so
we attempted to get better reception, waiting breathlessly to
learn what had happened. As the minutes dragged by it was announced
that Kennedy had actually been hit, and taken to a hospital.
One of my classmates began sobbing uncontrollably, and the rest
of us attempted to stop this unseemly display by pointing out,
in our infinite wisdom, that "they're not gonna let the
President die . . ."
I'm not sure why they turned
off the radio, but I imagine that when it became clear that Kennedy
might not survive, someone decided that a classroom full of seven
year olds might be better off not getting the news live.
So school was cancelled, and
as we waited for our hastily summoned parents to fetch us we
were running around like reporters outside a Liz Taylor wedding.
Is he dead? Is Johnson dead? Somebody said that they heard .
. . etc. etc.
Mom (that's Sheryl, owner of Book Again) picked me up, and I
must have lasted about eleven seconds before I began bombarding
her with questions. Bless her heart, she didn't know what to
say except that she didn't know and all we could do now was pray.
I have to assume that his death was pretty much official by now,
especially as she wouldn't let me turn on the radio.
Of course Mom had forgotten
about the evening paper, and so it was that I discovered, upon
arriving home, a special edition of the Herald Examiner exclaiming
"JFK IS DEAD".
And that's how I found out.
The event was much more traumatic
in the long run than at that moment. I was only seven - as far
as I and my younger brothers were concerned the real tragedy
was the canceling of all Saturday Morning Cartoons. (All three
networks were doing round the clock coverage of the assassination's
aftermath all weekend.)
In retrospect of course, it
hit hard - especially as I began to feel the grief vicariously
through the older kids, who were devastated.
He'd been our President,
the pied piper to a generation of kids who couldn't wait until
they were old enough to join the Peace Corps, a generation absolutely
entranced with the wit, the glamour, the sheer perfection of
And now the old guys had taken
it all back.
And now there was a tremendous
void that December of '63, each kid feeling they'd lost a favorite
relative, a friend.
You'd see someone break into
tears for no reason, and no one would have to ask why. Everyone
knew, everyone understood. Life had lost meaning for a lot of
And "Louie Louie"
on the radio just wasn't cutting it.
So anyway there was this rock
band who'd been the biggest band in their own country for almost
a year, who were completely unknown in America. All their hit
singles had bombed here, but when their latest record caused
a sensation in their own country unlike anything since Elvis,
Dick Clark played it on "American Bandstand," asking
the assembled teenagers for their opinions.
The assembled teenagers laughed the poor record off the turntable.
It sounded weird, you couldn't really dance to it, it wasn't
as cool as the Beach Boys, etc.
That record also bombed in
That record was "She Loves
You." The group, of course, was The Beatles, and by late
November Beatlemania in the form of near-riots and screaming
girls had all of England in its grip.
Within days of Kennedy's assassination
the group released a new single: "I Want To Hold Your Hand."
Their track record, and the fact that no English rock group had
ever made a dent in the American charts, had caused their label's
U.S. arm (Capitol) to refuse even to release their previous singles
(they'd come out on three different small labels here). However,
even Capitol was impressed with the rioting now occurring in
England, and decided to release this new single some time in
January . . .
No one yet realized just how
much things had changed.
Sometime in early December,
a disk jockey on the East Coast got hold of an import copy of
the single, and started spinning it.
Imagine being a kid then -
especially a young teenaged girl who might very well have had
Kennedy photos on her wall vying for space with Fabian and Ricky
Nelson, one perhaps of the many teens who would line up for hours
on the street if Kennedy was going to be passing by, who would
scream in sheer manic exuberance at this glamorous young Leader.
A girl who now felt empty, weighted down by the horrible unfairness
of a world that could take someone like that away. America had
turned into a horrible monster. Anything American had suddenly
become suspect. And politics had died, as far as she was now
Imagine, if you will, the first
time she hears the Beatles.
They're different than anything
she's heard, and in December of 1963 "different" is
a very good thing to be.
And they sing funny - by god,
Anyway, to cut a long column
short, the reaction is predictably immense, and completely unexpected.
Calls start pouring in, and poor Capitol has to keep the presses
rolling nonstop to rush release the domestic version of the single
- and during the Christmas season, yet!
The rest is too well known
to more than touch on - there was a void left by Kennedy's assassination,
and the Beatles filled it. The same screams that used to greet
the fallen President were now aimed across the Atlantic. JFK's
death had left an unknown, unfulfilled yearning in millions of
American kids, and is certainly a major factor in the Beatle's
sudden rise to the top of the American charts. They became the
biggest pop phenomenon ever, everybody grew long hair, and for
quite some time the charts were dominated by bands from England,
as the desire for something different, something not American,
created a teenaged buying frenzy for anything and everything
English - a frenzy soon known as the "British Invasion."
Hmmmm . . .
Of course, The Prophet and
Tecumseh had been hoping for a British Invasion of a different
sort, but still . . .
There is something universally
magical in the number seven (especially for prophets and their
ilk), and Kennedy was the seventh victim of the Curse . . .
Granted, my tongue is at least
partly in cheek at this moment, but there is something
a little bit uncanny about all this.
So we jump another twenty years.
It's now 1980, Reagan's elected, and I know what's coming (I
was hip to the Curse legend by then, as were many). No one was
much surprised when Ronald Reagan was felled by an assassin in
But wait - he survived! Yes,
folks, Ronald Reagan served two terms and lived, and lives to
this day. He broke the curse. Whether the British domination
of teenaged American currency in 1964 satisfied The Prophet,
whether it was always meant to be seven Presidents only, we will
never know. One thing's for sure, though - nothing happened in
the wake of Reagan's election.
Well, almost nothing.
I nearly forgot: exactly one
month after Reagan was elected President, the Beatles' founder,
John Lennon, was shot to death by an assassin . . .
Hmmmm . . .
. . . but Harrison will die, I tell you. And when he dies you
will remember my brother Tecumseh's death. You think that I have
lost my powers - I who caused the sun to darken and Red Men to
give up firewater. But I tell you Harrison will die. And after
him, every Great Chief chosen every 20 years thereafter will
die. And when each one dies, let everyone remember the death
of our people . . ."
( - the actual
wording of the Curse, as pronounced by The Prophet in 1836)