Written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian
Happy Friday the Thirteenth! Are you cowering under the covers, hoping to escape the horrible tragedies that are doomed to hit you should you set foot out of bed? If you answered yes, we are sorry to say your friggatriskaidekaphobia (that’s fear of Friday the Thirteenth, folks) disqualifies you from membership in the Thirteen Club. You’ve never heard of the Thirteen Club? We confess we were only vaguely aware of it until we searched our online library catalog for material about superstitions and found a box of annual reports from that mildly kooky, but now sadly defunct organization. But more on the Thirteen Club in a bit.
How did Friday the Thirteenth gain its sinister reputation? (No, its not because Jason Voorhees ran amok through the horror films of that name.) One common theory points to the Last Supper: Christ plus his twelve disciples numbered thirteen. He was crucified and died the following day, on Good Friday. From this rose the superstition (among Christians, at first) that thirteen guests seated at a single table courted death. One of their party would die before dawn. Or within the year. Perhaps it would be the last who sat. Or the first who rose. Or the oldest. Or youngest. The variations are endless, and the theme so pervasive that many of us would rather avoid all association with the number 13, especially on Fridays.
But we aren’t all scaredy cats. Captain William Fowler (1827-1897), a gregarious man about town, was the thirteenth member of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, one of 13 secret and social organizations to which he belonged. In his youth he attended Manhattan’s Public School No. 13, naturally graduating at the age of thirteen. Later employed as a builder, he erected thirteen structures in New York. On April 13, 1861 he went to Washington at the head of 100 Union volunteers, and fought in thirteen battles of the Civil War. He resigned his commission on August 13, 1863, and on September 13 of that year bought a popular watering hole on Sixth Avenue at 28th Street, the Knickerbocker Cottage (he eventually sold it on Friday, April 13, 1883). Since 13 ran inextricably through his life without ill consequence, Fowler championed the cause of the bedraggled number by forming a supper club in its honor.
At 8:13 p.m. on Friday, January 13, 1882 (130 years ago today), in room 13 of his Knickerbocker Cottage, Captain Fowler and twelve men he recruited over the previous year (it took that long to find candidates brave enough), assembled for a highly symbolic dinner. To reach their meal guests passed beneath a ladder and under a banner that read “Morituri te Salutamus,” or “Those of us who are about to die salute you.” Thirteen candles lit the first of 13 courses: big platters of lobster salad molded into coffin shape. Salt cellars lay toppled about the table, but tossing a pinch of spilled salt over the shoulder was strictly forbidden. Thus was born the Thirteen Club.
Subsequent dinners followed the same pattern. Reporting on the club’s first annual meeting the following January, the scribe crowed gleefully 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.
The Thirteen Club would count among its honorary members no fewer than four former presidents of the United States (Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt), whose endorsements brought in men from every hall of power. Similar groups like the “Morgue Club” (alas, we have no box of their reports for comparison) and the “Vampires” sprang up around the country, but eventually enthusiasm waned, and while the Thirteen Club pops up in newspaper stories as late as the 1920s, it quietly faded out of existence. So, come on, get out of bed and raise a glass of hemlock in memory of Captain Fowler. Just take care not to splash any on that approaching black cat….