Friday the 13th: Is It Lucky or Unlucky in Your Family?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches old newspapers to find out more about the superstition of Friday the 13th being an unlucky day—and finds that the day has been unlucky for many, but lucky for some.

I believe every family, no matter where, is aware of some sort of adage, saying, or superstition. For instance, in my family my maternal grandmother always seemed to have some saying or another that would help us get through the day. “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck” was one of her favorites. I guess this old family saying is not quite as prevalent today as back then—when almost everyone in my family knew how to sew and straight pins were a constant menace to my bare feet.

Then of course there is the granddaddy superstition of them all: Friday the 13th! Since today is indeed one of those special Fridays, I decided to look up its history in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. I found out quite a lot!

Friday the 13th a Very Old Superstition

The superstition about Friday the 13th being unlucky has been with us for a long time. Talk about an old superstition! This 1912 Washington, D.C., newspaper article explains that this belief goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, the ancient Persians, and Norse mythology. Now that is old. For example, the Norsemen believed that Loki, the dark god of evil, was the 13th god at the banquet table—and he proceeded to wreak havoc against the good gods there.

article about Friday the 13th, Evening Star newspaper article 13 September 1912

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 13 September 1912, page 20

Kenneth Nalley & Triskaidekaphobia

I learned that the fear of Friday the 13th is actually called “triskaidekaphobia.” I discovered this tidbit when I came across this 1963 Texas newspaper article. It seems Kenneth Nalley was loaded with 13. He was celebrating his 13th birthday on Friday the 13th, there are 13 letters in his name, and the number on his football jersey was 13. But on the good news side of the ledger, it seemed the only thing he was concerned about was his pending spelling test.

article about Friday the 13th, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 13 September 1963

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 13 September 1963, page 12

Friday the 13th Is Unlucky for Charles Hitchcock

On the darker side of Friday the 13th is this 1908 Texas newspaper article. It seems that a certain Charles Hitchcock was given a banquet in his honor on Friday the 13th, during which all the guests noted that there were 13 people seated at the table. While the guests all reportedly laughed, they weren’t laughing when Mr. Hitchcock, while getting off a train, fell, hit his head and died!

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article about Friday the 13th, Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper article 19 March 1908

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), 19 March 1908, page 1

The Tale of John Gentile

There is also the just plain inexplicable side to Friday the 13th. Take for example this story published in a 1985 Ohio newspaper. Ship’s captain, Lt. John Gentile, was interviewed about his adventures with the icebreaker Neah Bay, and he had this recollection:

There was one day, a Friday the 13th, when we had 30 ships stuck in 1,000 yards of the (St. Clair) River, with seven of those all jammed up together and 200 more waiting to get through. It was total chaos, the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, ships hitting each other and running aground all over the place. It was a real mess.

I think after that experience, Lt. Gentile is most likely a true believer in the power of Friday the 13th.

article about Friday the 13th, Plain Dealer newspaper article 17 February 1985

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 17 February 1985, page 222

Ice Storm Freezes NC

Mother Nature played her nasty game again on another Friday the 13th, as explained in this 1978 North Carolina newspaper article. It reported that on the last Friday the 13th, in January, a terrible ice storm hit the city of Greensboro leaving some 8,000 homes without power and heat. Plus, the article went on to explain, that Friday the 13th was also the day that “the happy warrior,” Sen. Hubert Humphrey, passed away.

article about Friday the 13th, Greensboro Record newspaper article 13 October 1978

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 13 October 1978, page 25

Lucky Talismans for Protection

Then of course there are the interesting talismans that are said to protect us from the evils of Friday the 13th. This 1896 Illinois newspaper article reports on the sale of rabbits’ feet decorated in gold to help ward off the voodoo of Friday the 13th.

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article about Friday the 13th, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 2 September 1896

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 2 September 1896, page 10

Woodrow Wilson & Lucky #13

And speaking of good luck, this article from a 1912 Georgia newspaper explains that 13 was presidential-candidate Woodrow Wilson’s lucky number. On Friday the 13th, he sat in seat number 13 “in a parlor car.” Seems there was something good about 13 throughout the life of President Wilson. For example, in his 13th year teaching at Princeton University he was elected the school’s 13th president.

article about Friday the 13th and Woodrow Wilson, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 23 September 1912

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 23 September 1912, page 12

Dr. Naftzger & Auspicious 13

And if you want really lucky, check out this article from a 1908 Indiana newspaper. It provides an incredibly extensive list of how lucky the number 13 and Friday the 13th were in the life of Dr. Leslie J. Naftzger, presiding elder of Muncie, North Indiana M. E. Conference. Among other signs of good luck for Dr. Naftzger was that he was born on a Friday the 13th as the 13th child of his parents—plus twin boys of his own were born on a Friday the 13th. Amazing!

article about Friday the 13th, Elkhart Weekly Review newspaper article 18 March 1908

Elkhart Weekly Review (Elkhart, Indiana), 18 March 1908, page 5

Good Luck Soldier

An article from a 1919 Pennsylvania newspaper really caught my eye. This soldier also relates a history of Friday the 13th good luck, including once being offered a free ride from Tacoma to Seattle.

article about Friday the 13th, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 9 February 1919

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 9 February 1919, section 2, page 17

The Cubs Win!

Proving that good luck can really happen on Friday the 13th, this 1906 article from a Washington newspaper reports on a victory by the struggling Chicago Cubs baseball team. It does seem like unusually good luck to hear “Cubs Win!” even today, Friday the 13th or not, unfortunately, as the team continues to struggle.

article about Friday the 13th, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 14 April 1906

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 14 April 1906, page 7

My Wife’s Grandfather Mario

And, I’d like to add, my wife’s grandfather, Mario Casagrande, always considered Friday the 13th as his luckiest of days. He closed many of his business deals on that day, as well as using it as the day he’d buy a new car.

photo of Scott Phillips and his wife on their wedding day

Photo: the author and his bride on their wedding day in one of the lucky cars that grandfather Mario bought on Friday the 13th. Credit: from the author’s collection.

So leave a comment here and tell me: is Friday the 13th lucky or unlucky for you? Got any Friday the 13th birthdays or stories in your family tree?

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Family Search Uncovers Circus Elephant Story

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott speaks of his love of genealogy, and shares some of the family history discoveries he’s made—including the tale of an ancestor, a zookeeper, who was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, in 1915!

Right off the bat I’ll admit it. I’m a genealogy nut! My wife calls my pursuit of family history “our shadow.” My favorite quote is “I used to have a life and then I started doing genealogy.” Plus, I am hoping for another grandchild, simply because I have a myriad of historic family names that I think need to be carried on. I wonder what my chances are for either Lovejoy Cinderella for a granddaughter or Sylvia Marathan for a grandson?

Well, maybe not.

Additionally, it is a matter of great personal satisfaction that I have been able to trace my family roots, with documentation, to the 1500s on my father’s side (Phillipps and Cottle) in Cornwall, United Kingdom; to the early 1600s on my mother’s side (Vicha and Knechtl) in Bohemia, now the Czech Republic; and to the 1700s with my wife’s families (D’Aquila and Casagrande) in the Molise district of Italy. My Cornish and Bohemian immigrant ancestors all happened to find their separate ways to Cleveland, Ohio, between 1852 and 1911. My wife’s ancestors made their way to the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota.

The “Chase-of-the-Trace”

While the thrill of what I have dubbed the “chase-of-the-trace” is always amazing, I have to admit that, for me, the best part is more often the “little things.” You know, those human interest stories or unexpected items that one discovers pursuing genealogy and/or family histories. Sure there is the rush of excitement when we chip a brick out of a longstanding wall by finding a birth, marriage, or death certificate we’ve long been looking for, but to see the real lives of our ancestors unfold is what gets me truly excited.

A personal goal in my family tree and website (which I keep on the genealogy/social network site MyHeritage.com) is to find, capture, and then weave the threads of the culture, times, and values of our ancestors into what I call the quilt of our family history. For instance, in my family I will be the last person who will have grown up hearing Czech spoken in our home. I don’t want that memory to be lost. Not ever!

Sister Marjorie: the Chase Begins

Recently I got a phone call from a Cleveland cousin. Since I use our genealogy website as our worldwide family social network, she wanted to inform me of the passing of another cousin, Sister Marjorie. In the family we knew Sister Marjorie, before her vows, as Florence Kotrsal, a member of our Knechtl family branch. Cousin Florence had always intrigued me, especially since she was a twin (rare in our family tree) and I had not done any significant amount of work on her. As so often happens, the loss of a family member caused me to be doing something a bit too late.

First, I began learning more about her life as a member of the Order of the Sisters of Holy Humility of Mary where she lived for 73 years in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania. Next, I began to work more on her family members. I knew Florence was the daughter of Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (later, as with so many Slavic names in my family, “Americanized” to Kottershall) and Florence Kapl, and that Florence was the twin sister of Josephine. I began to move back in time and soon discovered I was in my favorite element, which is the early Bohemian community of Cleveland, Ohio.

As always, one of my first stops during my family history search was at GenealogyBank.com. I love the site and the coverage in the Cuyahoga County/Cleveland/Northeast, Ohio, area through the Plain Dealer and the Leader is excellent and very deep. Plus, with bated breath, I am awaiting their forthcoming additions of some of the early Cleveland Czech-language newspapers they recently acquired from the Balch Museum in Pennsylvania.

Sister Marjorie’s Father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kottershall)

J.J. Kotershall, Physician, Is Dead, Plain Dealer 11 December 1945

Obituary for Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal (Kotershall), Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 11 December 1945, page 6

During my family search my first exciting discovery was that Florence’s father, Dr. Joseph J. Kotrsal, was the same medical doctor whose name I had seen frequently on death certificates and other documents. As I searched farther, I found his obituary, always a terrific find. As I read, I was amazed to see that Dr. Kotrsal was instrumental in bringing the very first x-ray machine to Cleveland, Ohio. Now you might think this would have changed him as a person or his practice, but his obituary states that he continued to focus on providing medical care in the Bohemian community of Cleveland his entire life.

An additional precept in my personal family history work is that I want to be as inclusive as possible, so I study spouses and their families for equal inclusion in my family tree. In this case, I directed my searching to Florence’s maternal grandparents, Joseph F. and Louise Mary (Babicky) Kapl.

Circus Elephant Story

But Never Again! Says Keeper Kapl of Minnie, Plain Dealer newspaper article, 23 March 1915

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 23 March 1915, page 4

The next item I found brought me to a stop. The first “hit” (of 31) in Historical Newspapers on Joseph Kapl, Florence’s grandfather, was a real keeper. Zookeeper that is! Not only was there a full newspaper article on this man, but there was a story, a terrific ink drawing of Joseph (so far the only picture anyone in the family has of him), and the unique story of how he was nearly trampled to death by Minnie, the lone elephant at Cleveland’s Brookfield Zoo, where Joseph happened to be Minnie’s keeper. Very kindly, the newspaper reporter even thought to list Joseph’s home address in the article, which matches spot-on with the 1920 United States Census listing for the Kottershall family.

Between the obituary for Dr. Kottershall and the wonderful circus elephant story with Joseph Kapl these newspaper articles gave me the exact threads I was seeking—ones that allow me to weave a bit of what the real lives of my ancestors were like into the quilt of our family history that I am still laboring over.

Ah, but what a labor of love it is!