Triskaideka-Dinner Party

The fear of the number 13 — triskaidekaphobia, if you’d like the actual word for it — is irrational nonsense. It’s origins are unclear and the dangers of the number 13 are therefore based in, well, nobody knows.  Nevertheless, like many ideas based on nothing, triskaidekaphobia is very real to a significant number of people. And it roosts in many different ways. Some people believe Friday the 13th to be unlucky. Many buildings do not have a 13th floor (or, more accurately, lack a floor labeled “13”). In 2013, Ireland re-did its car registration system to avoid putting the number on license plates. And then there’s the dinner party example — having 13 people at a table is bad luck, apparently. (It’s even referenced in the Harry Potter series.)

According to Mental Floss, in the 1880s, a man named William Fowler wanted to put that last superstition — and triskaidekaphobia generally — to test. Fowler was a Civil War veteran who had seen the number 13 pop up in his life time and time again and therefore wasn’t fearful of its mythic promise of doom. He formed an anti-triskaidekaphobic organization called the “Thirteen Club,” starting with a curious dinner party:

[Fowler’s] fascination with the prime number resulted in a gathering of 13 men on Friday, January 13, at 7:13 p.m. The group walked under a ladder to get to their seats at the dinner table and then insisted on spilling salt without throwing some over their shoulders. They sat down to forks crossed in an “x” and dined under a red banner that said “Morituri Te Salutamus,” or “We who are about to die salute you.” It would appear that none of them had any trouble living over the next 12 months.

The death-baiting gathering became a tradition in and of itself. Shortly thereafter every month, on the 13th day — Friday or otherwise — members of the Thirteen Club would gather for dinner. And thirteen people sat at each table, tempting fate and eating a thirteen course meal perhaps featuring filet mignon. (The menu probably varied by month.) By 1887, the Thirteen Club had over 400 members in its ranks.

And they all died.

(But that’s only true because the Thirteen Club met more than 130 years ago, and people don’t live to be 130.)

Before they died, though, many ended up having very successful lives. For example, five of the members — Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt — all were Presidents of the United States. To be fair, Arthur was President before joining the Club, and Cleveland was President when he joined, although he’d become President again later on. (And of course, McKinley was assassinated.) And with this success came incredible popularity. By the end of the 1800s, Thirteen Clubs were popping up around the country, and many even introduced “Ladies Clubs,” as GeneologyBank notes. Taunting triskaidekaphobia over wine and cheese became a monthly event across the nation.

By the early 1920s, Thirteen Clubs had almost entirely vanished. There’s no obvious reason why, but there’s a good chance they were simply a victim of their own success. After all, when was the last time you counted the number of people at the table before sitting down to eat your dinner?

AnchorBonus Fact: While many institutions shy away from the number 13, one U.S. college embraces it. For Colgate University, the number 13 is lucky; as the university’s website explains, “the university was originally founded as The Baptist Education Society of the State of New York by 13 men who each offered $13 and 13 prayers.” The year 2013 was particularly strong for Colgate — one day that year, the college used the number 13 as a rallying point around a major fundraising drive. The drive was successful: Colgate netted over $5 million during the one-day campaign.

From the ArchivesOneteen and Twoteen: The phobia-free history behind the words “eleven” and “twelve.”

RelatedA Felix Felicis shot glass. If you cared about the Harry Potter quote above, you’ll understand why this is here.