Almost 140 years ago, a skeptical geezer called Captain William Fowler founded a dining club in New York to cock a snook at superstitious beliefs, particularly the one that considers the number 13 unlucky.
Superstition in all it many forms faced two significant challenges in 1881. This was the year that G W Foote launched his UK atheist magazine, The Freethinker, saying that “it will wage relentless war against Superstition in general, and against Christian Superstition in particular.”
Meanwhile, across the pond, bon viveur William Fowler found a different method of poking fun at superstition beliefs by establishing the Thirteen Club in New York on September 13 of that year.
Atlas Obscura reports that In Fowler’s time, fear of the number 13 was most often associated with the Last Supper, where Jesus dined with his twelve disciples shortly before he was crucified. As one superstitious person explained in 1863:
Since the Last Supper, whenever there are thirteen persons assembled, one of them is sure to be a Judas.
This belief was common enough to interrupt social occasions. Such luminaries as Victor Hugo would reportedly leave a table if exactly twelve other people were there.
Cara Giaimo, writing for AO explained that Fowler thought this was “bunk” and, as a lover of social clubs decided to start one of his own. And so it came to pass that the an inauguration dinner was held in Manhattan’s Knickerbocker Cottage restaurant.
Thirteen guests were treated to platters of lobster salad, each moulded into the shape of a coffin, surrounded by 13 crawfish. And there were 13 candles on the table.
The number 13 figured largely in Fowler’s life. He graduated at the age 13 and during a brief stint as an architect, he built 13 public buildings. Later, he fought in the Union Army, and survived 13 battles. Eventually, he adopted the number as a sort of talisman.
In 2015 BBC report, Trevor Timpson said of the club members:
They met on the 13th of the month, sat 13 to a table, broke mirrors and spilled salt with exuberance and walked in to dinner under crossed ladders.
I learned about the Thirteen Club after a British friend recently expressed dismay that the tower block in which I live has a 13th floor. “Oh jeez,” said Geoff, “Don’t the Spanish know how unlucky that number is?
His query immediately prompted some research, and I discovered that the Spanish do have a thing about floor levels; they eschew 17th floors because, according to the Elevator Wiki website, 13 is regarded as an unlucky number in many cultures. Unreasoned fear of the number 13 is termed triskaidekaphobia.
Due to this fear, some tall buildings have resorted to skipping the thirteenth floor, either by numbering it ’14’ (though it’s really still the thirteenth floor) or by designating the floor as 12A, or 12B and 14A or something similar. 17 is regarded as ‘the number of disgrace’ in Latin cultures.
I rushed off to check our lifts, and sure enough 17 was omitted. In the 11 years of my living here this was the first time I’d clocked the omission.
At the December 13, 1886, meeting of the Thirteen Club, a prominent member—one of my favorite early American skeptics, lawyer Robert Green Ingersoll—was present. There “the Great Agnostic” toasted “the superstitions of public men” by saying:
We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.’
Earlier, in 1879, Ingersoll said in words that resonate strongly today:
It will probably will not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this Government will be destroyed. The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.
Geoff’s triskaidekaphobia reminded me of another example of superstition—to my mind an exceptionally bizarre one involving owls.
Some years back a Greek neighbor in London asked whether I knew how to get rid of an owl that had taken up residence in a tree in her back garden.
She explained that her mother-in-law, on a short break from her home in Athens, had become aware of the bird, took it as a sign of bad luck, and was flatly refusing to travel back home.
It’s driving me nuts. The superstitious old bat won’t budge from our house until the owl leaves.
“Well,” I replied, “it’s a protected species, so you can’t harm it, but I’m told if you shine a red light in its direction it may find itself a new location.”
As if it sensed plans were being made to scare it off, the bird suddenly vanished, and the old lady was hurriedly bundled into a taxi and sent to off to Heathrow airport
There are a number of cultures that associate owls with bad luck. The Owl Pages website informs us that superstitious Malayans believe that they “eat new-born babies”, that in Ireland “an owl that enters the house must be killed at once, for if it flies away it will take the luck of the house with it”—and that some in Poland believe married women turn into owls when they die. Single females become doves.
And In Spain legend has it that the owl was once the sweetest of singers, until it saw Jesus crucified. Ever since it has shunned daylight and only repeats the words “cruz, cruz” (‘cross, cross’).
My fervent wish is that a latter-day Captain Fowler will re-establish the Thirteen Club, and set up branches across this baloney-plagued planet on which we live.