Written by Peet Banks
On Friday 13 January, 1882, at 8:13pm in room 13 of the Knickerbocker Cottage, New York, a group of individuals got together to flout superstition!
The evening was initiated by Captain William Fowler, a man surrounded by 13’s. As a boy, he attended New York City’s public school number 13 until his 13th year, and as a builder, assisted in the erection of 13 of the city’s buildings. On April 13 he commanded union volunteers and participated in 13 major battles in the US Civil War. He resigned his military post on 13 August, and on 13 September bought the Knickerbocker Cottage, which he operated until selling it on Friday the 13th of April… He was also a member of 13 social and/or secret societies – the Thirteen Club being one that he founded.
At the Thirteen Club’s first meeting, 13 attendees sat around a dinner table, consumed a 13 course meal (including a lobster salad in a coffin shape), under a banner which read “Morituri te Salutamus.” (translation: we who are about to die, salute thee.)
Guests were encouraged to do everything they possibly could against superstition. No salt was to be tossed over their shoulders, all attendee’s walked under a ladder, and umbrellas were definitely opened indoors. Mirrors were cracked, and although not mentioned, I’m sure that if they had access to a black cat, it would’ve also been taken along.
One year after its inception the club secretary reported that “out of the entire roll of membership, whether they have participated or not at the banquet table, NOT A SINGLE MEMBER IS DEAD, or has even had a serious illness. On the contrary, so far as can be learned, the members during the past twelve months have been exceptionally healthy and fortunate.”
I’m sure Captain Fowler was disappointed to not die on a 13 – he passed away on 6 July (6+7=13???), 1897, of a stroke (or apoplexy as they called it in his death notice).
On 24 March, 1914, The Telegraph (Brisbane) reported that a similar club was formed in London.
“…a company of sceptics formed a Thirteen Club in London, as a protest against superstition. On the way to dinner the members passed under ladders, they sat down in thirteen’s at separate tables, broke mirrors, opened umbrellas over each other’s heads, spilt salt and helped their neighbours to it. Crossed knives and forks and did many other equally foolish and daring things. The club no longer exists, but it was not superstition that killed it. The percentage of mortality, or even of evil fortune, among its members has not been higher than the average rate applicable to the community as a whole.”
On 10 October 1896 the Newcastle Morning Herald had a public notice stating that a Mr Marquardt, the only surviving passenger of the SS Drummond Castle, had joined the London Thirteen Club. From his point of view, superstition did not exist, as he had occupied berth 13 on the ship – which struck rocks at 11pm near the island of Ushant at the south-western end of the English Channel. The only other people rescued were two crew members, with 242 other passengers and crew drowning.
Australia was not to be outdone by the USA or London. On 23 August, 1932, the Daily Mercury reported:
“That 13 is an unlucky number is laughed at by the Rose Club, a strange coterie of Melbourne. Limited to a membership of 13, the club meets on the thirteenth of every month, and there are 13 ‘buds’, or associates who take places made vacant by death or departure from the State. Each member has his own beer mug of earthenware, with a pewter top and 13 roses embossed. The mugs were made specially in Germany where such manufacture is treasured art.”
(Note: I find it very typically Australian that the writer was more focussed on what the members were drinking their beer out of, rather than what went on at the club.)