Halloween Special: Spooky Folklore and International Curses

In the spirit of Halloween, the Matters of State crew seeks to learn about some of the spookier events in international affairs. This episode presents various bits of folklore and curses from Ireland, Central Asia, Central Europe, and the United States that have purportedly made a significant impact on history. Disclaimer: the content of this episode is not presented as factual, but as a collection of interesting stories fit for Halloween!

Irish Folklore and the Kennedy Family

One of the most famous families in the United States, the Kennedys, may have links to one of the more mischievous figures in Irish folklore. The family of the 35th President, John F. Kennedy, is claimed to suffer from a multi-decade curse, in which many of its members and close associates have succumbed to early deaths from assassination, plane crashes, car accidents, and war. The Kennedy Family Curse may have been caused by a mistake made by the Kennedy ancestors before emigrating to the United States from Ireland in the 1840’s.

Fairies, euphemistically referred to as “good people” in Ireland, have a feared reputation as a supernatural race native to Ireland and banished to the underworld after its defeat at the hands of the human invaders who currently occupy the island. “Fairy forts”  (circular earthen mounds often covered with hawthorn bushes) are considered to be the living spaces of  fairies and other supernatural creatures, or as gateways to their world.  Irish folk tradition posits that damaging or disturbing the trees results in retaliation from their fairy occupants. The ancestors of the American Kennedy family are rumored to have damaged a fairy fort prior to leaving for the United States. Does the Kennedy Curse owe its origins to vengeful Irish fairies?

The Curse of Timur and World War II

Timur, or Tamerlane, was a successor to Genghis Khan who greatly expanded the Mongol Empire in the 14th century. Known as a cunning and brutal military strategist, Timur conquered much of Asia – including what is today eastern Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, India, Russia and Turkmenistan. When he ultimately died, he was interred in an elaborate mausoleum in modern-day Uzbekistan.

In 1941 in the midst of World War II, Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin ordered anthropologists to exhume to Mongolian leader’s tomb. Upon exhumation, the anthropologists discovered the tomb to be inscribed with the curse: “Whosoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.” Days later, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa – the largest military campaign in history  – to invade the Soviet Union. When Timur’s tomb was later restored, the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany at the Battle of Stalingrad, ending Operation Barbarossa.

The Cursed Car of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

The assassination of an archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, is considered the cataclysmic event that triggered World War I. The Archduke and his wife were gunned down in an open top car while traveling through the streets of Sarajevo in 1914. It is rumored that, since the assassination, the car’s four subsequent private owners have also met untimely deaths. One of our sources also suggests that the car’s license plate may have foreshadowed the end of World War I. Its number, “A III 118,” may be interpreted to stand for “Armistice 11 November, 1918,” the date of Armistice Day, the last formal day of the conflict. The car was eventually donated to a museum, where it currently remains on display.

The Curse of Tippecanoe

In 1811,  an amalgamated confederacy of Native American tribes, led by Shawnee Nation leader Tecumseh,  was defeated by the United States military at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee spiritual leader (and Tecumseh’s brother), purportedly placed a curse on the United States government. Since 1840, seven out of nine US presidents elected in years ending in “0” have died in office. The only two exceptions thus far are the two most recent presidents who fit the criteria proscribed by the supposed curse: Ronald Reagan (elected in 1980) and George W. Bush (elected in 2000), both of whom were the targets of nearly-successful attempted assassinations.

Dig Deeper

Take a look at some of our favorite articles that we came across while researching this topic:

About the Author
Grace is the Program Assistant for the Wilson Center’s Africa Program and received her M.A. from the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, focusing on international development, conflict resolution, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Grace holds a B.A. in both Global Studies and Political Science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Previously, she served as the assistant to the President and Executive Vice President of the Henry L. Stimson Center. Grace has traveled to Africa on multiple occasions, most recently to Kenya as a field manager for the health textiles manufacturer Vestergaard-Frandsen.