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How the Presidency Sort of, Maybe, Almost Might Have Gotten Cursed

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William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh, and Tenskwatawa.

In 1809, William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territories, was negotiating the Fort Wayne Treaty to secure native lands for white settlers in Indiana and Illinois. He was buying the land from the Delaware, Eel River, Miami and Potawatomi tribes, but these weren’t the only people actually living on the land. The Shawnee had a few settlements in the region, and, despite the fact that they had previously been asked to leave by other tribes, Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnee, took it upon himself to protest the sale.

Tecumseh claimed that the American Indian nation was one big tribe, and that no single tribe had the right to sell their land without the approval of rest of the tribes. He began traveling to the lands of the different tribes to promote this idea, as well as his brother Tenskwatawa’s ("The Prophet") religious teachings. He called for warriors to abandon the chiefs that would cede their land, return to their ancestral ways, and join his resistant pan-tribal confederacy at Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe River.

With hundreds of armed warriors from different tribes, he went to meet with Harrison to claim the treaty as illegitimate and ask the governor to nullify it. Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s request. Before the chief left, he promised that he would form an alliance with the British unless the treaty was undone.

Hostilities broke out here and there between Tecumseh’s followers and white settlers, and the tension escalated through the year. Harrison denounced Tenskwatawa as a fraud, and Tecumseh and his brother allied with more tribes and procured firearms from the British in Canada. White settlers in the region finally demanded that the government take action.

Tippecanoe: The Battle and The Curse

Harrison received permission from Washington to take the territorial militia and a small force of army regulars to Prophetstown in November 1811 and make a show of force, in hopes that the Indian confederacy would back down. Unfortunately for both sides, Tecumseh was away from his camp and seeking more supporters for his alliance when Harrison arrived, and Tenskwatawa was left in charge. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire through the night and to meet in the morning to negotiate a truce, but the Prophet had less military experience and grace under pressure than his brother, and appears to have cracked under the pressure of having an army camped so close to Prophetstown.

There are different accounts of what happened next. Tenskwatawa may have given orders to attack. A few warriors may have encouraged an attack against Tenskwatawa’s orders and led the charge. Tenskwatawa may have sent a small group of warriors, protected by a spell he cast on them, to kill Harrison while he slept in his tent. However things started, Harrison's sentinels spotted advancing Indian warriors just before dawn the next morning and soon discovered they were surrounded. The Indians made two charges at the camp, each of which Harrison’s forces countered, forcing the Indians to flee.

Harrison feared that Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, so he ordered his men to fortify their camp for the rest of the day. The next day, scouts moved down into Prophetstown and found the town completely deserted except for one elderly woman. The woman was spared, but the town was razed and all the equipment in it destroyed. After Harrison's troops left the area, Tenskwatawa returned with some warriors to find the town in ruins.

According to legend, The Prophet, seeing his tribesmen’s graves desecrated, became enraged and placed a curse upon his nemesis, saying:

“If Harrison becomes the Great Chief, he will not finish his term. He will die in his office. You think that I have lost my powers. I who caused the Sun to darken and Red Men to give up firewater, 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.”

(Alternate versions of the story say that Tecumseh himself placed the curse a few years after the battle).

Dead Presidents

Sure enough, William Henry Harrison was elected ninth President of the United States a few decades later, in 1840. He soon fell ill with a cold, which turned into pneumonia. His schedule, and the throngs of people arriving at the White House seeking political jobs, kept him from getting much rest, and his condition rapidly worsened. He died on April 4, 1841, 30 days into his presidency.

For the next 120 years, no president elected in the curse's 20-year cycle would leave the White House alive.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected, and was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.

In 1880, James Garfield was elected, and was shot and killed by Charles Guiteau in 1881.

In 1900, William McKinley was elected to his second term, and was shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz in 1901.

In 1920, Warren Harding was elected, and suffered a stroke and died in 1923.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt was elected to a third term, and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1945.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected, and was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected, and survived an assassination attempt by John Hinckley. The President as injured but made a full recovery, suggesting that the Curse of Tippecanoe, or a streak of coincidences, had been beaten.

George W. Bush, elected in 2000, also tested the "curse" and won, surviving assassination plots and a pretzel-induced choking fit. Skeptics saw the breaking of the line as proof that the curse was nonsense, while believers insisted the Gipper and Dubya were just very lucky.

This makes a great story, a layer of mystique that covers decades of American history, but there's one catch: a lack of reliable historical evidence that Tenskwatawa actually proclaimed a curse on the presidents. The curse doesn’t appear to have been documented at any time in between the Battle of Tippecanoe and Harrison’s death, and received no national attention until Ripley's Believe It or Not mentioned it in 1931. Given that, it seems more likely—to me, anyway—that the 20-year death cycle was a strange coincidence and that someone took note of it in the early 20th century, and publicized with the tale of the curse to mythologize the presidency. What do you think?

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Hamilton Broadway
A Hamilton-Themed Cookbook is Coming
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Hamilton Broadway

Fans of Broadway hit Hamilton will soon be able to dine like the Founding Fathers: As Eater reports, a new Alexander Hamilton-inspired cookbook is slated for release in fall 2017.

Cover art for Laura Kumin's forthcoming cookbook

Called The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating, and Entertaining in Hamilton’s World, the recipe collection by author Laura Kumin “takes you into Hamilton’s home and to his table, with historical information, recipes, and tips on how you can prepare food and serve the food that our founding fathers enjoyed in their day,” according to the Amazon description. It also recounts Hamilton’s favorite dishes, how he enjoyed them, and which ingredients were used.

Recipes included are cauliflower florets two ways, fried sausages and apples, gingerbread cake, and apple pie. (Cue the "young, scrappy, and hungry" references.) The cookbook’s official release is on November 21—but until then, you can stave off your appetite for all things Hamilton-related by downloading the musical’s new app.

The Man Who First Made Childbirth Pain-Free

The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology in Schaumburg, Illinois—a sprawling exurb of Chicago—is home to an obstetric treasure: a plaster cast of a newborn infant’s head. The bust shows the trauma of birth, the infant's head squeezed to a blunted point. The cast was made on January 19, 1847 by Sir James Y. Simpson in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a very special reason: It commemorates the first time that modern anesthesia was used to ease the pain of childbirth.

Simpson was not only a titled 1st Baronet but a gifted obstetrician. At age 28, he became Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at the University of Edinburgh. Many his senior in the medical community thought Simpson was an upstart—in fact, it's said that his middle name, "Young," was originally a derogatory taunt by his elders. In response to their jeers, Simpson adopted it for good.

Simpson initially used ether as an anesthetic in deliveries, but he soon began looking for an alternative anesthetic because of the gas's "disagreeable and very persistent smell" and the fact that it was irritating to the patients' lungs. His experimentation with chloroform—invented in the United States in 1831 by physician Samuel Guthrie—began in November 1847, with a brandy bottle and some post-dinner party research. The story goes that he presented the filled bottle to his guests to inhale. The next morning, the party were all found on the floor unconscious.

Scholars say this dramatic version of events is likely overblown, but the story illustrates the dangers of discovery. As Simpson's experiments continued, one neighbor and fellow doctor reportedly [PDF] came around to his home at 52 Queen Street every morning "just to inquire if every-one was still alive."

A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.
A drawing said to depict the effects of liquid chloroform on James Y. Simpson and his friends.

Eventually, Simpson got the formulation right with some help from his assistants, who were also local chemists. Over time, the delivery method also improved: Instead of a whiff of fumes from a brandy bottle, doctors developed an apparatus that resembled a glass hookah with long tubes attached to a mask. Later in the century, a soft flannel-covered, metal-handled cup or pouch placed over the nose and mouth of the patient was the preferred delivery method. The doctor—hopefully competent—doled out the anesthetic drop by drop. This method sought to reduce the risk of overdose deaths, which were a significant concern early on.

Simpson was the first to discover the anesthetic properties of chloroform, and soon began to use the drug to help women in labor. The medical community applauded his achievements, as did many women of childbearing age, but some Scottish Calvinists (and members of other religions) were not so happy. Genesis 3:16 was very clear on the matter of women suffering in childbirth as punishment for eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge: "To the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children." For those who took the Bible literally, easing a woman’s pain was anathema.

Some reports from the time describe the divide between medicine and religion on this issue as an all-out revolt, while other accounts claim the religious response to anesthetizing "the curse of Eve" has been overblown by history. In general, it's fair to say the church wasn't thrilled about the use of anesthesia in labor. When Simpson introduced his discovery in 1847, the Scottish Calvinist Church proclaimed it a "Satanic invention." Pregnant women were reportedly warned by preachers: Use this “devilish treatment” and your baby will be denied a baptism.

Simpson disagreed—he didn't think women should have to suffer the pain of childbirth. He made both a scientific and biblical argument for anesthesia during labor. In a pamphlet, Answers to the Religious Objections Advanced Against the Employment of Anaesthetic Agents in Midwifery and Surgery and Obstetrics, Simpson pointed to Genesis and the deep sleep of Adam while his rib was being removed as being evidence "of our Creator himself using means to save poor human nature from the unnecessary endurance of physical pain." He went further, declaring that labor pains were caused by anatomical and biological forces (a small pelvis and a big baby caused uterine contractions)—not a result of the curse of Eve.

Public opinion changed after Queen Victoria took chloroform (applied by Dr. John Snow, famous for his work related to cholera) for the birth of her eighth child, Leopold, in 1853. The queen wrote in her diary: "Dr Snow administered that blessed chloroform and the effect was soothing, quieting and delightful beyond measure." Her final child, Princess Beatrice, was also born with the aid of anesthesia. Clearly, she approved.

Edinburgh is still proud of Simpson and of its special place in the history of anesthesia. From August 16 to 18, 2017, the Edinburgh Anesthesia Research and Education Fund will host the 31st Annual Anesthesia Festival, featuring lectures on anesthesia and pain medicine as well as drinks receptions, a private viewing of a Caravaggio, recitation of the works of Robert Burns (Scotland's most revered poet), and bagpiping.

According to the event website, the past success of the festival has led to moving the whole thing to a larger space to accommodate demand. Apparently there are a great number of people with a passion for medical history—or at least, a great deal of gratitude for the development of anesthesia.


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