The Zero Factor ► Throwback Thursday

William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841) was the
first president to run afoul of The Zero Factor.

The Zero Factor is a spooky superstition which insisted that all Presidents elected in a year ending in zero — which happens every 20 years — will die in office. The Zero Factor was blamed for an uninterrupted chain of presidential deaths that didn’t end until President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.

The first inkling I had concerning Presidential Deaths and the Zero Factor was back in grade school when I had to do an essay on William Henry Harrison, a presidential name drawn from a hat.

William Henry Harrison was the 9th president, elected in 1840 running on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Tippecanoe was his nickname and referred to his military victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe, when his troops repulsed a Native American confederacy that was opposed to the illegal European aliens’ continued expansion west. As the Wiki puts it simply, “The defeat was a setback for Tecumseh‘s confederacy from which it never fully recovered.”

Harrison was the oldest president until Ronald Reagan and the first to die in office, a mere 32 days after taking the oath. He was his own worst enemy. As we learn from the WikiWackyWoo:

He took the oath of office on March 4, 1841, a cold and wet day.[62]
He wore neither an overcoat nor hat, rode on horseback to the ceremony
rather than in the closed carriage that had been offered him, and
delivered the longest inaugural address in American history.[62] At 8,445 words, it took him nearly two hours to read, although his friend and fellow Whig Daniel Webster had edited it for length. Harrison then rode through the streets in the inaugural parade,[63] and that evening attended three inaugural balls,[64]
including one at Carusi’s Saloon entitled the “Tippecanoe” ball, which
at a price of US$10 per person (equal to $229 today) attracted 1000
guests.

Three weeks later he caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia and pleurisy. He died on April 4, 1841, the first victim of the Zero Factor, which also became known as Curse of Tippecanoe, blamed on a curse that Tecumseh was supposed to have uttered before his death during the War of 1812.

The next victim of The Zero Factor was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. We all know what happened to him.

James A. Garfield was elected POTUS in 1880 and assassinated by deranged office seeker Charles J. Guiteau in 1881. Garfield might have lived had he been shot just a few years later when all doctors accepted the practices of Joseph Lister concerning infection. Again from the Wiki:

According to some historians and medical experts, Garfield might have
survived his wounds had the doctors attending him had at their disposal
today’s medical research, techniques, and equipment.[187]
Standard medical practice at the time dictated that priority be given
to locating the path of the bullet. Several of his doctors inserted
their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe for the bullet, a common practice in the 1880s.[187] Historians agree that massive infection was a significant factor in President Garfield’s demise.[187]
Biographer Peskin stated that medical malpractice did not contribute to
Garfield’s death; the inevitable infection and blood poisoning that
would ensue from a deep bullet wound resulted in damage to multiple
organs and spinal bone fragmentation.[188] Rutkow, a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey,
has argued that starvation also played a role. Rutkow suggests that
“Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have
gone home in a matter of two or three days.”[187]

Next up? That would be President William McKinley, elected in 1900 and assassinated by a crazed anarchist Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901. It happened inside the Temple of Music during the Pan-American Exposition. On the 14th he died of the gangrene that had infected his body. The Zero Factor takes another life.

Twenty years later it was Warren Harding‘s turn to run up against The Zero Factor. Elected in 1920, he died on August 2, 1923, of a cerebral hemorrhage in San Francisco while on a swing through the west.

Also dying of a cerebral hemorrhage was the next victim of The Zero Factor, our longest-serving president, Franklin Roosevelt. Originally elected in 1932, Roosevelt was re-elected for an unprecedented (and no longer possible) 3rd term in 1940. Re-elected again in 1944, during World War II, Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. His last words were reportedly, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.”

John F. Kennedy was the 35th President of the United States and the last to be assassinated.

The next president to be elected in a year ending in Zero was Ronald Reagan. When, on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., slipped out of a crowd at the Washington Hilton and attempted to assassinate him, I was convinced it was The Zero Factor at work again. However, Reagan survived his wounds and eventually went back to work.

It wasn’t until years later the public learned how close to death Reagan had been and how much the assassination attempt took out of him.

In 2000 George W. Bush was elected president and, except for starting wars against countries that didn’t attack the United States, there were no incidents even remotely resembling The Zero Factor.

In 2000 Arianne R. Cohen of The Harvard Crimson wrote of George W. Bush and The Zero Factor:

According to legend, our new president has an extremely high chance of
dying while in office–an 87.5 percent chance, in fact, based on the
seven of eight eligible presidents who have died by the legend. Many
voters–45 percent, to be exact–would probably find this statistic to
be the only positive thing about Election 2000, although I personally
would prefer to have a president too incompetent to do damage in office
over one who voted against the Clean Water Act (our new Vice
President-elect Richard B. Cheney). However, a legend’s a legend, and a
legend doesn’t care about personal opinions.

[…]The only other president to die in office was President Zachary Taylor,
elected in 1848. However, President Taylor allegedly spent July 4, 1850,
eating cherries and milk at a ceremony at the Washington Monument. He
got sick from the heat and died five days later, the second president to
die in office. Frankly, he should have known better–that cherries and
milk combination is always a killer.

What’s amusing about this curious slice of history is how for more than a century this silly superstition was considered to have been a Native curse against the White interlopers. Guilt much?


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Headly Westerfield
Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.