The 20-Year Jinx

The president elected every twentieth year from 1840 through 1960 died in office. Ronald Reagan appeared to have broken the so-called “20-Year Jinx,” but the Gipper may have cheated destiny when he survived an assassination attempt in 1981. Was George W. Bush’s escape from the 9/11 terrorist attacks simply another stroke of good fortune or has the spell truly ended?

This remarkable string of presidential bad luck spanning seven generations began with the 1840 election when WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON succumbed to pneumonia after only one month in office. Old Tippecanoe gave luck a push, though, delivering his inaugural address on a snowy day in March, 1841 without the benefit of an overcoat. The 68-year-old president stood outside for the entire proceeding, greeted crowds of well-wishers at the White House later that day, and attended several celebrations that evening. Harrison was succeeded by John Tyler.

ZACHARY TAYLOR, a career soldier, was the second U.S. president to die in office and the only one to do so outside the purview of the 20-Year Jinx. “Old Rough and Ready” was elected in 1848 and ran the government with an iron fist, threatening to personally lead the federal army against Southern secessionists if they followed through on their threats to split the Union over the issue of slavery. In an unusual twist, the 65-year old former general was felled by a bowl of cherries, and civil war was delayed eleven years. Taylor spent July 4, 1850, eating cherries and milk at a ceremony at the Washington Monument on a blistering day. He got sick from the heat and died five days later. Millard Fillmore was Taylor’s vice president.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN was the first president to die by the hand of an assassin (or so it is told by recorded history). Lincoln was first elected in 1860, but was murdered by the actor John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre in Washington on April 14, 1865, early in his second term. He was 56 years old at the time of his death. Andrew Johnson succeeded Lincoln and supervised the post-war Reconstruction.

JAMES GARFIELD was elected president in 1880, but on July 2, 1881, one Charles J. Guiteau, an embittered attorney who had sought a consular post, shot the 50-year old president in a Washington railroad station. Garfield lay mortally wounded in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device which he had designed. Garfield was moved to the New Jersey seaside in early September and seemed to be recuperating, but he died on September 19, 1881, from an infection and internal hemorrhage. Chester Arthur completed the balance of Garfield’s term.

WILLIAM McKINLEY’s second term as president ended tragically when the 58-year old chief executive was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, a deranged anarchist, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901. Theodore Roosevelt completed McKinley’s term and one more of his own.

WARREN G. HARDING’s scandal-ridden presidency came to an untimely end when he succumbed to a heart attack in San Francisco on July 29, 1923 after a grueling cross-country journey to Alaska during which the 58-year old leader of the free world made 85 speeches. After his death, rumors circulated that Harding had been poisoned, either by his own hand or by that of his wife. Questions were raised about the extent of Harding’s knowledge of the corruption in his administration and allegations concerning his marital fidelity were made. No autopsy was performed. Harding was succeeded by Calvin Coolidge.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT was elected to a record four terms as president, but the crippled head of state died on April 12, 1945, early in his fourth term. History tells us that FDR, 63, was stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing in Warm Springs, Georgia. Harry Truman filled out his fourth term.

JOHN F. KENNEDY was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. At 46, JFK was the youngest president to die in office (and the youngest to be elected). Conspiracy theories have abounded in the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, yet none has ever been proven. Lyndon Johnson completed Kennedy’s term.

RONALD REAGAN was elected president in 1980. Only 69 days after he was sworn in, he was felled by a would-be assassin’s bullet. Reagan survived the attack by young John Hinckley, Jr., and he completed two terms in office. George H. W. Bush was Reagan’s vice president.

Eight presidential elections—1840, 1860, 1880, 1900, 1920, 1940, 1960 and 1980—produced seven dead presidents and one near-miss. Only one U.S. president, Zachary Taylor, has died in office outside this 20-year pattern. Yet no serious historian has ever questioned that this bizarre footnote to American history is anything more than coincidence. There are no apparent connections among the dead presidents, their vice presidents, or the known assassins. But now, in The Jinx, Atlanta attorney Larry Kahn offers a conspiratorial explanation for The 20-Year Jinx that left George W. Bush looking over his shoulder for eight years and still could spell trouble for the 2020 nominees. To the best knowledge of the author, The Jinx is pure fiction.

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