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The Thirteen Club's Campaign Against Superstition

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Captain William Fowler embraced the number 13 like nobody else has. He decided to start a club to celebrate the number deemed a harbinger of bad luck by superstitious people. Fowler formed his club in New York in January 1882.

Triskaidekaphobia

That mouthful of a sub-title is the scientific word for the irrational fear of the number 13. The operative word there is “irrational.”

There are many stories about the origin of unlucky 13, such as 13 diners at the Last Supper, or the mischievous god Loki joining 12 Norse gods for supper. They don’t make much sense. Although the 13 steps from the ground to the floor of gallows does presage extremely bad luck for one person.

Why not drop in on number theory to find out more about odious digits? Mathworld.com tells us that “the term ‘evil’ is also used to denote non-negative integers that have an even number of 1s in their binary expansions, the first few of which are 0, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 20, . . .”

That’s good to know although I'm sure all readers are well aware of the need to steer clear of non-negative integers. They can cause all manner of mischief.

Whatever the cause, the number 13 has a bad rap.

Captain William Fowler

By all accounts, Capt. Fowler was an outgoing and sociable man and he thumbed his nose at the superstition surrounding number 13.

In his younger days he attended Manhattan’s Public School No. 13 and graduated, of course, at the age of 13. Employed in the construction trade, he erected 13 buildings. He raised and led 100 volunteers during the Civil War and took part in 13 engagements, then surrendered his commission August 13, 1863. And on and on it went.

He bought a well-known restaurant in New York, signing the deeds on September 13. He sold the place 20 years later on Friday, April 13, 1883. He joined the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and a number of other organizations―13 in all.

With his bona fides established as a lover of 13, he decided to start a supper club to celebrate the number.

Captain William Fowler.

Captain William Fowler.

The Thirteen Club Arrives

Fowler’s hostelry was called the Knickerbocker Cottage and it was here he gathered 12 stalwart fellows to help him scoff at superstition. It took him about a year to round up the required number. The first meeting was held, of course, on Friday the 13th and proceedings got underway at 8:13 p.m. precisely.

To get to Room 13 where the dinner was held, diners had to walk under a ladder. There was a banner proclaiming “Morituri te Salutamus,” this being the salutation of gladiators that translates to “Those of us who are about to die salute you.”

Fowler did the number 13 proud. The dinner was illuminated by 13 candles and had 13 courses. Some guests flaunted disaster and opened umbrellas while tucking into lobster salad molded into the shape of a coffin.

A year later, the club was able to report that poking the ogre of superstition in the eye had brought about no misfortune. At the Annual General Meeting of The Thirteen Club this announcement was made: “Out of the entire roll of membership . . . whether they have participated or not at the banquet table, NOT A SINGLE MEMBER IS DEAD, or has even had a serious illness.”

At other club dinners, salt was deliberately spilled and nobody threw a pinch over their shoulders. Likewise, mirrors were broken.

Members of the Thirteen Club listen to a speaker with rapt attention.

Members of the Thirteen Club listen to a speaker with rapt attention.

The Thirteen Club Journeyed on

Members of the Thirteen Club tempted fate for several decades, willing black cats to cross their paths.

A chapter was opened in London and it similarly boasted good health and prosperity among its members. When one member did indeed shuffle off this mortal coil, the club secretary thought it noteworthy to point out that the deceased had not paid his annual dues.

Back in the United States, the club’s membership had swollen to more than 400 and counted four presidents in its company―Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The club seems to have faded away sometime in the 1920s having achieved nothing of its goal of banishing superstitions.

Number 13 Trivia

Not so unlucky is the Friday the 13th slasher movie franchise. There have been 12 films in the series and, as of 2021, they had grossed more than $468 million at the box office.

There was an explosion in space on April 13, 1970 that prompted the famous radio message “Okay Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” A blast had crippled the Apollo 13 spacecraft. Happily, the crew made it safely back to Earth.

On January 13, 2012 the mammoth cruise ship Costa Concordia smacked into a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the west coast of Italy. The wreck took the lives of 32 people.

Reportedly, there were 13 honeymoon couples aboard the Titanic.

On the other hand, the outbreak of World War I, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the outbreak of World War II, and the 9/11 terror attacks did not happen of the 13th of any month.

The number 13, is just a number with no more malevolence attached to it than any other number. Now, where’s my four-leaf clover and rabbit’s foot?

A baker’s dozen, 13, constitutes a bit of good luck.

A baker’s dozen, 13, constitutes a bit of good luck.

Bonus Factoids

  • If hosts in France find themselves with 13 guests at their dinner table, they can call on the services of a Quatorzième (Fourteenth). This is a person who hires themselves out to be the fourteenth diner, thereby averting supposed disaster.
  • Belphegor’s Prime is known as the most evil of all numbers; here it is 1000000000000066600000000000001. It has 13 zeros on either side of 666, believed by some to be the mark of the Beast. The number contains 31 digits, which is, of course, 13 backwards.
  • The fear of Friday the 13th is called friggatriskaidekaphobia or paraskavedekatriaphobia. Both words have 23 letters.

Sources

  • “Evil Number.” Wolframsmathworld.com, undated.
  • “Friggatriskaidekaphobes Need Not Apply.” Joseph Ditta, New York Historical Society, January 13, 2012.
  • “Morituri te Salutamus.” Sadie Stein, Paris Review, March 13, 2015.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 09, 2021:

Thanks Shauna

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on April 09, 2021:

Fascinating article, Rupert. I love stuff like this.

In the construction industry, many high rises skip the 13th floor. Well, they don't really skip it, they call it the 14th floor.

I actually like the number 13. When I was in 9th grade I won all the Stones albums from a radio station on Friday, the 13th.

My son was born July 13th.

Great article, Rupert. I really enjoyed this.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 30, 2021:

Misbah - Thank you for your kind comments.

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on March 29, 2021:

You have given a nice message in it too.. all numbers are just numbers as you said, The number 13, is just a number with no more malevolence attached to it than any other number, True !!

Blessings :)

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on March 29, 2021:

Rupert, This is very interesting and well structured article. Well researched too. After Rutabagas, I am sure friggatriskaidekaphobia gonna rock too... Lol...

Very well written, I knew about friday, the 13th, but I was unaware of the name of this phobia.. still too long for me to remember.. I hope media will give it further good coverage after your article.. don't mind please that was just a joke...

I love the story about Captain William Fowler.. awesome presentation, it kept me reading-very engaging

In the end, I would say I don't believe in superstitious beliefs, so for me the number 13, is just a number like other numbers. Further more, I would like to tell you there are people who don't arrange wedding ceremonies or receptions on 3, 13,23,8,18,28, it is very common belief in the middle east especially in the rural areas.

I have also heard Many people view 23 number as an evil one because of its association with Satan. The letter “W,” which is regarded as Satan's symbol, is the 23rd letter in the Latin alphabet.

Well after telling you a long story, I would like to tell you that even I don't believe in all these number things but I enjoyed reading your article

Peace and Blessings :)

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