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!

Enter Last Name










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.

Enter Last Name










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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Dispelling Superstitions about 13: History of the Thirteen Club

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post—appropriate for Friday the 13th—Gena searches old newspapers to find stories about Captain William Fowler and the Thirteen Club he founded in 1880 to defy superstitions about the number 13.

Superstitions about 13

There are four Fridays in September and one of those—today—is a day that some look upon with dread. September marks the first of two occurrences of Friday the 13th in 2013; the other happens in December. While popular horror movies have been made about this day, it’s not just Friday the 13th that scares some people—it’s also the bad luck associated with the number 13 in general.

Many superstitions have existed around that number, whether it’s about a room numbered 13 or the 13th floor. All kinds of cautions exist including numerous warnings about sitting 13 people at a table. One such superstition declares that whenever 13 sit at a table, one will die within the year. Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13, was something well known to our 19th century ancestors.

History of the Thirteen Club

Because of these numerous superstitions around the number 13, in 1880 a Captain William Fowler decided to test some of those superstitions and prove them false by creating a social club known as the Thirteen Club in New York. He tested the fates by decreeing that his club would meet on the thirteenth day of the month and he would have 13 people sit at a dining table in room 13. Other superstitions he incorporated included having guests walk under a ladder and breaking a mirror.

His club was a way to show that superstitions were “a relic of the past that impeded progress.”* Should none of his 13 members die during the year after the meeting, he would show that the superstition around the number 13 was unfounded. Although his club was organized in 1880 it took a year to find 13 members brave enough to join.**

We get a sense of what a meeting of the Thirteen Club might have entailed from old newspapers. This article from an 1898 New York newspaper provided the menu for a meeting, related some of what occurred, and gave a few names of those in attendance.

Train as Master of the Feast: Lively Dinner of the Thirteen Club, New York Tribune newspaper article 14 February 1898

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 14 February 1898, page 7

Those original 13 members of the New York Thirteen Club grew to 487 members by 1887. Soon other Thirteen Clubs started around the United States, both official and unofficial clubs.*** This article from an 1885 Missouri newspaper recounted a Thirteen Club meeting in Chicago.

Defying Fate: Thirteenth Dinner of the Thirteen Club of the City of Chicago, Kansas City Star newspaper article 15 May 1885

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 15 May 1885, page 2

While the Thirteen Club began as an all-male club, they eventually decided that they needed to encourage female participation because women were “the more superstitious sex.” Special dinners were held where women were invited, and women spoke on the superstitions that kept them subjugated—including the need for suffrage. Eventually, separate Thirteen Clubs for women were also formed.****

This historical newspaper article from an 1894 New York newspaper reported on one of the Annual Ladies’ Dinners including the fact that a mirror broke, and pieces from it were given out as souvenirs of the night. The women in attendance were listed at the conclusion of the article.

Bade Defiance to Superstition: Members of the "Thirteen Club" Give Their Fourth Annual Ladies' Dinner, New York Herald newspaper article 14 April 1894

New York Herald (New York, New York), 14 April 1894, page 11

It appears that Thirteen Clubs died out in the early 1920s. Today, there are various mentions online of similar revival clubs meeting in an attempt to thumb their collective nose at superstitions.


* The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press. 2004. Page 3.

** Ibid.

***Ibid, page 7.

****Ibid, page 10.

 


Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!