If you look at the US presidents who have died in office, a strange pattern emerges. 1840 elected William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia just one month after his inauguration.
Abraham Lincoln, elected in 1860, was famously assassinated just after starting his second term in office. The 18th and 19th, Delacroix's James Garfield and William McKinley were both shot in office. Warren G. Harding, 1920. Stroke or Heart Attack. Franklin D. Roosevelt 1940. Cerebral Hemorrhage. And who could forget the assassination of JFK elected in 1960? This gave rise to the superstition that a president elected on 20 year intervals like 2020 was cursed to die in office.
It certainly seems to be a pattern, but has anyone in office actually tried to do anything about it? Today, we all tell a story about just how far the government might go to protect the commander in chief. Hi, everyone, I'm Alastair Murden, and this is Superstitions, a Spotify original from podcast on this show, we explore humankind's seemingly illogical fears, strange beliefs and patterns that cannot be explained by coincidence alone. Some are as small as the idea that a black cat crossing your path can bring you bad luck.
Some, like Christmas trees, seem like jovial holiday traditions, while in reality possessing very dark roots. But on today's special episode released on the day of the US presidential inauguration, we'll dive into our most timely superstition yet and one so consequential that if it holds true, it could change the fate of American politics and the entire world. Coming up, we traveled to Inauguration Day in the year 2040.
Skyler, Zachary's husband, hadn't even been sworn in as president yet, and she was already butting heads for the White House staff, the Inauguration Day schedule they sent over had been all wrong, far too tight for a president that was sure to dawdle with his fans. So Skyler had changed it. She'd kept coffee with the former president and her husband in the morning, but lengthened the parade time, moving the inaugural speech way back to 345, then at four 30 p.m.
She set off her husband's big wish for the day, a surprise display. Sure, to make this a historic event. Every minute was accounted for. Every possible delay considered. It was perfect. Well, almost perfect. The White House director had thrown a meeting on her calendar entitled First Spouse Duties, she was not looking forward to it. It has been hard enough being told she couldn't be chief of staff as the first lady. She'd been her husband's business manager his entire career, making all of his crazy ideas a reality.
And if she could wrangle Zachary, a former YouTube star who got his start making dangerous prank videos, she could certainly handle working with Congress. But instead she was going to be relegated to tasks she couldn't care less about holiday decorating, photo ops disguised as charity events and worst of all, gardening. The weather that morning was sunny and bright. Even for January, the coffee meeting between the former president and former first gentleman, Elias, went smoothly. Despite contentious politics, Prior had spent a lifetime as a civil servant.
Zach had no political experience. After making his fortune, he'd become furious with the environmental ban on latex and helium. He'd run for president with the slogan Bring balloons back a fun future ahead. They all remarked about how lovely it was out, then spoke about the parade and the speech. Zach teased that there was going to be a surprise at the end. Elias was very curious about this, but Schuyler told him she wasn't allowed to say what it was.
After some chit chat, Elias stood and said he'd walk Skylar to her meeting and they'd leave the presidents to chat politics. Skyler wanted to protest. Spouses should chat politics, too, but she held back. There would be plenty of time to expand her role. Later, inside the White House, movers were hustling about transitioning the two families things as quickly as possible. Skyler noticed one of the movers holding Zach's old flame thrower. She made another mental note to make sure that was safely stored somewhere.
Her husband wouldn't know about their walk through the Blue Room, then headed upstairs into the residential wings, she asked Elias what she could expect at the meeting. He said it was just a first spouse overview standard stuff like picking out furniture menus for a few upcoming banquets. Flower selection, great, said Skyler sarcastically. He led her into the former cosmetology room, which had been converted into a hologram studio. In 2029. He pressed his foot into one of the corners of the floor and all of a sudden a wall swung open to reveal a large hidden chamber.
Skylar's jaw dropped as she stepped in, the wallpaper was a textured purple, colourful cushions were spread out over the floor. The air smelled like ginger and cedar, and around 20 people were milling about, consulting digital screens with star maps and planets. It looked like NASA's mission control center had been taken over by a hippie commune. Elias waved over a bold, stern looking man in a dark suit and sunglasses. He did not remove the shades as he shook Skylar's hands.
Skyler was too distracted by the strange symbols flashing across a nearby screen to really listen. But she thought that his name was Clive and he was the Secret Service liaison for this bureau before Skyler could ask which bureau he was talking about. They were joined by an older woman with long gray hair. She was wearing a pastel rainbow striped caftan with pendants layered around her neck.
Welcome to the Federal Bureau of Astrology, she said. I'm Luna Clementine, chief astrologist. Skyler wanted to laugh, this is another joke of my husband's right. She turned to Elias. Where are the cameras? No joke, man. So then the woman, Luna Clementine, began guiding Skyler around the facility. She pointed out something called a third eye room, which seemed to be just a nap room, and then a station of technicians all dedicated to tracking Mercury's movements, its groundbreaking stuff, really.
She said, we can track the exact speed and intensity at which it goes into retrograde. We find this especially handy for international summits.
Schuyler stopped in her tracks and rounded on Elias, who had been following close behind with Clive. She demanded to know what Mercury's movements, what any of this had to do with her.
Luna grabbed Skylar's hand and whispered, Have you ever heard of the 20 year curse Mrs. First Lady?
Schuyler hadn't, so Luna told her. It all began in 1811, when William Henry Harrison, then Indiana governor, defeated the Shawnees at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Afterward, he took all of their territory for himself and the U.S. government. And this made the Shawnee tribe very, very upset. So they did two things. First, they declared that William Henry Harrison would be elected president. Then they put a curse on the office. From that day on, every president elected on a 20 year interval after Harrison died in office, Elias chimed in every president until Reagan.
He was the first one we were able to save from the curse. You might recall there was an assassination attempt on Reagan in 1981. I know he was shot, said Skylar. Are you suggesting that he was somehow saved by astrology? Elias shook his head. No, he survived, thanks to his own grit and a world class medical team. What matters is what happened next. When Nancy Reagan heard about the curse, she became convinced that her husband was still in danger.
So she hired a famed astrologer named Joan Quigley to help her protect him. The two women worked side by side. Joan provided astrological guidance, and Nancy used it to plan her husband's schedules and in some cases, to guide his decisions. The project was so successful that by the end of Reagan's second term, she established this bureau to predict threats and protect the president all under the direction of the first spouse. Clive added, Top secret, of course, it's of the utmost importance that information about this operation stays confidential.
Not even the president can know or it won't work. Schuyler stared at the three of them, Luna, Elias and Clive, a part of her, still wanted to laugh. It had to be one of Zach's jokes, but their stern expression stopped her.
So what exactly am I supposed to do? She asked finally. Clive gestured to the nearby wall of computers if there are any signs of danger in the positioning of the stars. The first spouse will alter the president's schedule accordingly. The Secret Service will take necessary precautions to ensure that if the president's life is threatened, they have the tools in place to save. It is our greatest accomplishment to date this time. Skyler actually did laugh. Clive frowned. We take this very seriously, Mrs Zachary.
In two thousand, 2002, George Bush choked on a pretzel and nearly died. But thanks to the courageous efforts of Lunas predecessor and this department, we knew that Saturn was moving into Taurus that day. We had a medic on staff in case of choking. Saturn is the planet of restriction, Luna said helpfully. And Taurus is the ruler of the throat. You see the implication? Skyler jumped in one corner of the room. A man had begun beating a mallet against the Gold Bowl.
They really weren't joking. Which brings us to the pressing national security matter, said Clive. Lunna nodded.
Today is of utmost importance.
A great conjunction between Pluto and Mars. Pluto, the planet of the underworld and Mars, the planet of war and aggression, are both in your Liow husbands house of death and being so close together, they will inevitably expand the other's power and energy. Very, very dangerous. Her voice dropped low and deep. The planets brewing a terrible, terrible storm for him, and its at its worst. At exactly four 11 p.m., Schuyler tried to laugh again, but she felt like all the air had gone out of her lungs.
Then Clive spoke. Mrs Zachery, due to this astrological phenomena today, your husband is at a Level five security risk. He needs to be away from strangers shielded from any possible lightning storms and kept off of balconies higher than two feet, all of which are elements. We expected today's inaugural events. If you don't make changes to his schedule, we cannot guarantee that he will survive. The day Skyler shut her eyes, she nodded gravely. Then, before anyone could stop her, she turned and ran.
Coming up, an inauguration to remember. Listeners, this month marks 60 years since John F. Kennedy became the 13th president of the United States, ushering his already prominent family into the highest enclaves of political power. But behind the storied successes lies, secrets and scandals so severe, if it were any other lineage, they would have been left in ruin this January to commemorate this iconic milestone. Dig in to the dramas of a real life American dynasty in the Spotify original from podcast The Kennedys Crime History Mystery.
This exclusive series from Spotify features your favorite podcast hosts, including me, examining one of the world's most formidable families from all angles, whether it's assassinations and conspiracies, corruption and cover ups, international affairs and extramarital ones to discover all of the Kennedy family's most controversial moments. All in one place, you can binge all 12 episodes of this limited series starting on Tuesday, January 19th. Follow the Kennedys free and exclusively on Spotify. Now back to our story.
Schuyler marched through the corridor around her, moving had picked up even more. More people, more boxes, a quicker pace. The flamethrower was still leaning against a wall, which was definitely not safe. She knew she should put it away, but all she could think about were those ridiculous secret bureau of hippies that the president's life, her husband's life would be at risk just because a couple of planets were doing something way off in the sky and even worse, that she was supposed to run the department and cut the entire Inauguration Day short because of this, Elias, the former first gentleman, called to her from behind for a moment.
Skyler thought about just ignoring him. But he was a sensible guy. He'd been a neurosurgeon before his wife had run for president. Maybe without Clive and Luna around, he'd tell her what he really thought. Maybe he was just putting on a front. She stopped walking and turned to him. It's all a joke, right? She asked. He suggested a walk outside.
Elias let Schuyler to the terrace. It's not a joke, he said, putting his hands on her shoulders. Look, I know how it feels. I was skeptical at first, too, but it saved my precious life. In 2032, we canceled a horse ride with Duchess Catherine because there was a square between Mars and Pluto in Sagittarius. The horse she was supposed to ride ended up having a stroke that day, would have bucked her right off. Skylar, ask what the heck a square was.
I've never really been sure, he said. But the point is that even if it was just a coincidence, it worked. If I had ignored their advice and she had gotten hurt that day, I would never have been able to forgive myself, not when I could have stopped it. Skyler sighed and told him she'd consider it. She still wasn't convinced, but it was clear Elias was not going to be reasonable, and she wanted time to think. But as she said this, the sky overhead darkened ominously.
Storm clouds were rolling in, by the way, said Elias, somebody in the hallway asked me where the balloon truck should unload. Do you know anything about this? Schuyler froze. First off, nobody else was supposed to know anything about the balloons. Second, they were supposed to unload at the Capitol Building, not the White House. It was not even noon and already a mistake. She told Elias she'd take care of it. What exactly is this big surprise?
He asked. Schuyler told him he'd have to wait and see. The surprise was this. After the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, her husband would give the inaugural address at the Capitol Building. And at the very end of his speech, when he said the words, there's a fun future ahead. Sparkler cannons would go off on the stage and over two million balloons would be released from behind the Capitol. But during the parade, Clive reminded her that she had to get her husband off stage by before 11pm.
And each time Zachs stopped and got out of the car to take pictures with fans or sign vintage merch, Clive tapped his watch irritatingly. Zach stopped to take a holiday photo with a group of young adults, Skyla began to grow nervous. Any one of them could have deadly germs or a knife or something she hadn't even thought of yet. Maybe she should speed it up just in case. But no, she thought if she started that kind of thinking now, when would it end?
Would she spend the rest of her husband's term making decisions based on a silly curse? She couldn't let those weirdos at the FBI get to her when they arrived at the Capitol Building. The weather had turned blustery. It was three thirty pm. Skylar checked in with her onsite coordinator to make sure the balloons were good to go. The coordinator said they were and handed Skylar the remote to set them off when the time came. But the coordinator said they would have to watch the clouds coming in if the storm moved much closer.
Releasing that many balloons could be dangerous. Maybe Elias was right that it was better to be safe than sorry. After all, if every first spouse had used the bureau for 60 years with no deaths, then who was she to ignore their advice?
But Skyland knew in her heart that she wasn't like those other first spouses. She and her husband hadn't gotten where they were by being cautious. So after the lightning disappeared, she counted the seconds. One, two, three, four.
She got to 12 before thunder boomed in the distance. That meant the storm was miles away. There was no reason to change course. Now, Skylar wasn't going to spend the next fall, hopefully eight years of her life obsessing over astrology. They'd be fine. Skylar stood at her husband's side as he took the podium behind them with two extra large balloon bouquets, something she thought would set the tone for the day in pictures. In front was a crowd of cheering supporters.
For the first time in history, the invited guests were not government officials, but fans. Zach began by saying he was starting his presidency with a thunderous roar, which only made the audience more enthusiastic. Schuyler glanced at Clive. He tapped on his watch. 340, Skylar ignored him. Her husband's speech was written to be 20 minutes, but Skylar and his staff knew he'd go long and had planned for it. He liked to ramble or take long pauses if cheering or applause demanded it.
Charming the crowd was the strength of his. Skyler took a deep breath and looked out over the crowd, many of whom were wearing Zacharie hats and T-shirts. She smiled, thinking of how far they had come to arrive at this moment. But as the speech went on, the crowd below the balcony started to get aggressive. Each was shoving each other to get into the best position to take a selfie, and Skyler found herself growing nervous again. Zach was rather exposed 357.
Skylar's heart jumped, the storm was getting closer. She fiddled with the remote in her pocket for a brief moment, she thought maybe she should call off the surprise, not because of the curse, but for the safety of the crowd. Her husband would be upset, but he'd get over it. But she'd always been able to pull off his wacky ideas. There was no way she was going to let distant thunder and lightning break that streak. For 05, she looked over at Clive, he was tapping his watch again, his face covered in so much sweat that his sunglasses slipped off and fell to the floor.
He mouthed to her, Please, but her husband was still talking. Even if she tugged on Zach's pant leg and whispered that he needed to wrap up, he wouldn't listen. But then she saw it in the audience. Just below the balcony, a man's puffy jacket blew open for a moment, revealing a massive cannon style flamethrower, just like the one Zac had used in his first famous prank video. The man was only 20 feet away from her husband.
The range on the flamethrower was 30. For 09, Schuyler looked up, suddenly, it was like she could see Uranus and Pluto conjunctive overhead. The bureau was right, the president was in danger, and she was looking right at the threat. Skyler glanced back at the team, but Clive was busy whispering in his microphone and the Secret Service all seemed focused on the storm. In the distance.
She couldn't just get her husband to duck. The flamethrowers blast was too wide. She'd have to get him out of there entirely. She looked at the balloon bookcase behind them. There were over 250 in each bouquet, each filled to bursting with helium. 411 Skylar reached into her pocket, the man in the crowd reached into his jacket, she clicked the buttons on the remote.
All of a sudden, massive fireworks shot off and two million balloons began floating up from behind the Capitol. The crowd cheered. Skylar grabbed a knife from an agent's pocket and cut the balloon strings. Zach had turned and was asking her why the surprise had gone off early. The man in the crowd had put the flamethrower on his shoulder. The Secret Service had spotted him and was closing in, but they wouldn't get there in time. Schuyler grabbed a bouquet of balloons, pulled that close and told him to hang on, then they floated up.
Two million balloons hovered around them. There was something beautiful about it, like being at the center of a Mylar and latex hurricane, Zach had turned pale and was holding on for dear life to distract him. Skyler started to say she'd saved him from the great conjunction, but she remembered he wasn't supposed to know anything. So she simply smiled and said that she hoped his speech would be as memorable as he'd wanted. Zach gave her a sly grin, slightly impressed.
It was quite the exit.
But how exactly are we planning to get down from here? Skylar shrugged and said she had no idea. But don't worry, she assured him. I'm sure the Secret Service has a department for this. As described in our story, the 20 year political curse is said to be the result of a Native American curse, though which indigenous leader placed this curse on the presidency is up for debate. Some say it was to come after his troops were defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.
Others say it was to come, says half brother, 10, squat away, a Ciani medicine man who wanted revenge for Tecumseh's death in 1813.
There's no proof that either of these men curse the presidency, nor any logical reason why it had to be only presidents elected in the year ending in zero. But regardless, the cycle began in 1840 with William Henry Harrison. The election of the eight presidents who have died, seven were elected on 20 year cycles. It certainly is a pattern until we get to Ronald Reagan. Elected in 1980.
There was an assassination attempt on Reagan's life in 1981 when he was shot in the chest outside a D.C. hotel. But the former B movie actor simply walked himself to the hospital, went into a two hour surgery and made a successful recovery. He went on to survive the remainder of his two terms as president. But Nancy Reagan was so shaken up by the attempt on her husband's life that they actually did hire an official White House astrologer named John Quigley.
We didn't make that up. Joan decided the timing of travel.
White House press conferences and even presidential debates based on astrological predictions, though John only once spoke to the president directly. She was also allegedly involved in making decisions about diplomacy and Cold War politics. If true, this means that under Reagan, astrology impacted American foreign policy when this information was leaked to the public.
Nancy and the administration were heavily mocked, a comedian quipped about the government having a secretary of the health, education and voodoo. The Democrats joked that they were happy Reagan was at least listening to somebody. And a newspaper columnist wrote that the Reagans might as well expand into an esoteric practice called channelling if the curse was ever real.
It does seem like it ended under Reagan's term. George Bush, who was elected in 2000, once choked on a pretzel, but he also survived his terms since winning the 2020 presidential election. Joe Biden does not seem particularly cursed, though he did sustain a broken foot injury less than two months before heading into office.
As far as we know, neither the Secret Service nor the staff of the president still make their plans around curses and fate. But the presidency is a perilous job.
Even when you don't believe in those things and when the stakes are so high, every threat, even the most unbelievable, might be worth taking seriously.
Better safe than sorry. Thanks again for listening to superstitions. We will be back again next week with a new episode. You can find more episodes of Superstitions and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify until next time. Be wary of the things you cannot explain. Superstitions as a Spotify original from podcast. It is executive produced by Max Cotler, Sound Design by Russell Nash with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Erin Larson.
This episode of Superstitions was written by Stacey Lee Niemiec with Writing Assistants by Andrew Keleher, fact checking by Cheyenne Lopez and research by Brian Petrus in Alistaire Murden.
Fact, fiction, fame, discover the real story behind one of history's most formidable families in the Spotify original form podcast, The Kennedys.
Remember, you can binge all 12 episodes starting on Tuesday, January 19th. Listen free and exclusively on Spotify.