American presidents elected in a year ending with a zero have a tendency to die in office. Will Joe Biden (elected in 2020) also be a similar statistic?

Presidents are elected every four years in even-numbered years. This means that a president could be elected in a year ending with a 2, 4, 6, 8, or zero.

However, virtually every president who has died in office, was elected in a zero year:

  • William Henry Harrison: elected 1840, died 1841
  • Abraham Lincoln: elected 1860, died in 1865
  • James A Garfield: elected in 1880, died 1881
  • William McKinley: elected in 1900, died in 1901
  • Warren Harding: elected in 1920, died in 1923
  • Franklin D Roosevelt: re-elected in 1940 for an unprecedented third term, died in 1945
  • John F Kennedy: elected in 1960, died in 1963 

Seven presidents, most of whom were assassinated. 

Only one president who died in office was elected in a non-zero year: Zachary Taylor, elected in 1848 and died in 1850. His death remains unexplained, despite an exhumation in 1991 and a modern autopsy. The official explanation is that it cannot be proved he was assassinated by poison, and it cannot be disproved either.

Resuming the chronology, Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. On March 30 1981, John Hinckley shot Reagan and the bullet came within three millimetres of his heart, nearly killing him. (John Hinckley served time as a mental health patient and was released about four decades after the attempted assassination; he now leads a quiet life out of the public eye).

George W Bush was elected in 2000. On September 11 2001 (“9/11”), one of the four hi-jacked planes was bound for Washington DC, perhaps targeted at the White House. Passengers fought the terrorists, and the plane crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all onboard. (Bush himself was not at home – he was at a school in Florida).

When Joe Biden was elected in 2000 there were concerns about his health and potential longevity. He was aged 78, the oldest person ever elected as president.

Biden is currently standing again in November 2024. He seems (from the opinion polls) to have a good chance of being re-elected, not because there is any great enthusiasm for him, but he is currently seen as the better alternative to the presumed Republican candidate, Donald Trump.

This zero year phenomenon is called “Tecumseh’s Curse” or the “Curse of Tippecanoe”. It allegedly began in 1811, when then Governor William Henry Harrison beat the Shawnee Indigenous leader Tecumseh at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory. 

A curse was said to be placed on all US presidents elected at the beginning of each new decade. This is probably a folk tale because there is no contemporary evidence of it.

But the “curse” has exerted a strong memory in American politics.

The first victim to be elected in a zero year after the curse was supposedly imposed, was Harrison himself. He delivered one of the US’s longest inaugural addresses in appalling weather. He died from pneumonia 30 days after the 1841 inauguration.

Some Americans are aware of the curse. Lincoln’s beloved stepmother, for example, predicted his fate just before he was inaugurated and pleaded with him not to become president.

Leaping ahead to the Biden situation, one advantage that he has is the great improvement in medical science. It certainly saved Reagan’s life. If Reagan had been shot decades earlier, he would have died.

Given the prominence of a president, each president to die in office had his final hours minutely recorded. All of the victims who were shot, have graphic descriptions of surgeons trying to extract bullets from the bodies. (Kennedy’s moment of fatal injury, with the top of his head being blown off, is even captured on a colour home movie). Modern readers are aghast at the brutality and unhealthy conditions of bullet extraction. Reagan was saved by the application of modern medical methods.

A related positive factor is the improved overall level of health of Americans. They work in healthier conditions, with a reduced risk of being caught in fire traps, reduced smoking, and the limitations on the consumption of drugs and alcohol in the workplace. Americans are therefore living longer than ever before. 

American presidents – even elderly ones like Biden – are entering office with a healthier lifestyle. They are also subject to more sophisticated daily health monitoring than were most of their predecessors. 

On the other hand, the job is even more demanding. An Australian prime minister is simply the “first among equals” and while tempted to have a unilateral “captain’s pick” occasionally, they must keep their colleagues on their side, or else risk being removed from office by their colleagues, as Hawke, Rudd, Gilliard, Abbott, and Turnbull all found.

A US president by contrast is more like a king, and the cabinet is simply composed of advisers. A president cannot suffer from a backbench revolt and so be removed by his own colleagues (unless Congress finds he has committed high crimes and misdemeanours).

On the other hand, the president makes all the key decisions – if necessary, without consulting anyone. It is interesting to see how a term in office “ages” a president. They look much greyer and wearier when they leave office.

Additionally, the communications revolution has accelerated the need for speedy decisions and less time for reflection. There is the constant stress and wear and tear of office, with strict limitations on how a president can delegate his authority. He is at work for four years straight, whether in the US or overseas at, say a conference. There is no let up.

Finally, there is the US’s notorious gun culture. Of the seven dead “zero year” presidents, four were shot.

American political culture is ambivalent on how much a president should be shielded from the general public. On the one hand most citizens do not want their president shot, and he has continual, somewhat intrusive, secret service protection.

On the other hand, there is a requirement for openness and accessibility. He has to “press the flesh” in campaigning and mix with crowd. The White House itself is not protected by a high wall but gives the impression of an ordinary fence through which people can see and even climb over (although the secret service is alert to such risks).

Modern weapons are a lot more dangerous than the pistols of the old days. There is also the new factor of a drone attack.

The zero year curse hangs over Biden for as long as he remains in office, whether that is until January 2025 or (if re-elected) January 2029.

Keith Suter


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