Far-Out Friday: Friggatriskaidekaphobia and the Thirteen Club

ThirteenClubDo you suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia (and you say, I don’t even know how to pronounce it, so how could I be afflicted with it!?!).  Maybe not, but it may affect between seventeen and twenty million Americans.  According to the Mayo Clinic, in clinical terms a phobia “is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.”

This particular phobia, as it relates to a certain calendar date, may only be experienced one to three times per year.  This year it will haunt millions of people three times on a Friday – February 13, March 13 and November 13 – and no one seems to know definitively when and where the notion of “Friday the 13th” being an unlucky day, or for that matter the number “13″ being associated with misfortune and bad luck, originated.

Theories abound, including those who believe it dates back to hundreds of years before Christ in 1780 B.C. when Code of Hammurabi was enacted without a thirteenth law (but, then again, there was no numeration in the text either), according to History.com.

Some point out that the number 12 signifies completeness and evidence abounds for this theory: 12 Zodiac signs, 12 months in a year, Jesus had 12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 hours on the clock, just to name a few.  Of course, there is the exception to that rule – a “baker’s dozen” always refers to one extra donut or pastry added to the order, making it thirteen.

Some believe that biblical history records that Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit on the 13th day and Jesus died on the cross on the 13th.  Whether or not these theories are valid, the notion of “unlucky 13″ became more prevalent in the nineteenth century and someone decided to challenge it.

The Thirteen Club

William Fowler, a Civil War veteran, who had served in thirteen battles, retired from the Army on August 13, 1863 and leased the club’s headquarters on the 13th day of the month, founded the Thirteen Club.   Headquarters was Knickerbocker Cottage (Knickerbocker has thirteen letters, you see) was located at 454 6th Avenue, which was okay because 4+5+4=13.

Fowler started planning his club in 1880 and on January 13, 1882, convened the first meeting of the Thirteen Club in New York’s Knickerbocker Cottage at 7:13 p.m.  According to The Cincinnati Enquirer (20 Feb 1882), “the dinner was given in Room 13, and the members on entering passed under a ladder with thirteen rungs, decorated with an old American flag, with thirteen stars and thirteen stripes.”

The first dinner was held on January 13 and successive dinners were held with thirteen members around each table.  William Fowler, whose name of course had thirteen letters, led the procession for the second dinner which was held in a banquet room lighted by thirteen gas jets.

One of the meetings was one person short due to a death in the family.  At that dinner one waiter, obviously superstitious (guess they didn’t vet the wait staff), refused to bring in thirteen plates of soup, bringing only twelve.  Another incident was noted when fourteen glasses of wine were poured and the waiter had one for himself.  The same waiter brought in fourteen cups of coffee “and at all times refused to pass under the thirteen-rung ladder.”  After dinner, members “devoted the rest of the evening to the cheerful telling of stories about catastrophes in the circumstances of which the number 13 was conspicuous.” (The Times-Picayune, 21 Feb 1882)

Successive meetings of the Thirteen Club were always held on the 13th of the month.  On March 13, 1882 the meeting convened at 8:13 p.m. at the thirteen-letter Knickerbocker in Room 13 and each table seated thirteen members.  The New York Times described it this way:

Each table was lighted by 13 colored candles, and prominent on each were big platters of lobster salad, moulded into coffins, surrounded by 13 little craw-fish, and bearing “13″ on the coffin plates.  The menu cards exhibited the mournful motto: “Morituri te Salutamus” [Translation: “we who are about to die salute thee”].

During the business session, following a thirteen-course dinner served by thirteen waiters, several honorary  members were elected, including President Chester A. Arthur.  Presidents Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt would later join the Thirteen Club as honorary members.

Primarily, the club was challenging the belief that seating thirteen people around a table would result in the death of one or more of those individuals within a year’s time.  That notion, combined with all the other ways the club dared to thumb their noses at silly superstitions, was challenged and mocked during their monthly meetings.  April’s meeting included a large cake surrounded by thirteen lilacs with a figurine of an old woman on a broom chasing a black cat.

On September 13, 1882 the Thirteen Club was officially incorporated with the express purpose of combating “by argument, by essays, literary articles and example, the prevalent superstition against ‘Fridays’ and against thirteen at a table – superstitions believed to be at variance with the enlightened intelligence of the present century.”

The club was already proactively working toward their goals.  In May the club’s secretary had sent a letter to the governor New York requesting he wield any influence available to him to “remove the superstition from Friday as an unlucky day by inducing Judges to select some other day than Friday for hangings.” (New York Times, 07 May 1882)

The club continued to expand and charter other branches.  By April of 1884 there were 338 members, or “twice thirteen times thirteen”, and by 1887 membership had risen to about five hundred.  These were essentially men’s social clubs, although some branches allowed women to join.  Some referred to it as a “strange club”.  The Atlanta Constitution had this headline on November 12, 1882:


A Strange Club in New York, Whose Aim in Life is to Slop One Over the Round Dozen – Now Dinner is Served for the Eccentric Old Baldheads – Peculiar Invitations

The Constitution included a depiction of the menu card:

ThirteenClubMenuThe club’s last meeting on October 13, 1882 had also included a “handsome rosewood coffin, in which rattled the bones of a delicious and well proportioned female skeleton.”

The Constitution asked Fowler whether any misfortune had befallen any member of the club since its founding.  He answered “no” but that hadn’t stopped others from blaming the club or the unlucky number thirteen for their own misfortune.  Nevertheless, very few members had resigned, for after all they had a “jolly good time” at each meeting by relating anecdotes that exposed, mocked and debunked popular superstitions of the day.

The Constitution questioned whether Atlantians were too superstitious to join.  After all, it only cost one dollar and thirteen cents for the initiation fee, $13.13 for the charter, monthly dues were thirteen cents and lifetime membership for only thirteen dollars.  They were impressed with Fowler, yet wary of the club’s unusual orthodoxy, cautioning that although an interesting club, “and if it does not lead to dissipation – and dissipation is far worse than superstition – it may do much good.”

The Thirteen Club may have encouraged other “eccentric and silly” clubs as the Reading Times noted on February 11, 1884.  The Jerusalem Club had recently been organized and a few nights earlier “seventeen of its members sat down the other night to a dinner of dog meat.  It was not surprising to learn that they highly enjoyed it.”

In April of 1884 the club noted at the monthly meeting that, after three years, their organization had continued to flourish and at least thirteen members had shown up for each dinner since its founding.  But, how were they doing at challenging the superstition about thirteen people seated around a table?  “Thus far no member has died within the year prescribed by superstition as the allotted time of life after dining in a party of thirteen.”  One member, however, had died within fifteen months of his last dinner at the club and one ex-member who had never attended died.

At each meeting the club’s motto “Morituri te Salutamus” was proudly on display.  Members insisted the mortality rate of their club was no different than that of other organizations or associations, for they themselves were mere mortals after all.  Still, some questioned whether the club was successful in debunking the notion of “unlucky thirteen.”  Whether they ever did or not, the fellows (and ladies) had a jolly good time until the Thirteen Club finally closed sometime in the 1940s.

NOTE:  Friggatriskaidekaphobes, fear not!  Check out The Friggatriskaidekaphobia Treatment Center here — they seem to have a “jolly good time” as well.

headsupUnlucky Friday the 13th?  No way!  Today marks the 500th article published since October of 2013 :).

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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