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!