We’ve survived not one, but two of them so far. That’s right, for two consecutive months now we have had the thirteenth day fall on a Friday. However, as the saying goes, “things happen in threes”… and point in case, 2009 will bless us with yet another of the unlucky pseudo-holidays again later this year. Indeed, we’ve yet to experience a third Friday the Thirteenth, scheduled to arrive on the second Friday in November of this year.
But for those of you who may be superstitious types, fear not. National Geographic reminds us that “three Friday the 13ths is the yearly maximum, as long as societies continue to mark time with the Gregorian calendar, which Pope Gregory XIII ordered the Catholic Church to adopt in 1582.” Indeed, it just so happens that we had two of them falling within consecutive months in 2009; at least we get a little break before the next one.
However, there are other strange coincidences that occur within our calendar regarding this most unlucky of numbers. According to Underwood Dudley, a professor emeritus of mathematics at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, the 13th actually falls on Friday more often than any other day of the week. Dudley told National Geographic that this is “just a funny coincidence.” But is the prominence of the number 13 throughout various cultures so simply brushed aside as something trivial, or could there indeed be more to the equation?
As far back as 1780 BC, the thirteenth law was omitted from the Code of Hammurabi, sixth king of Babylon; perhaps the earliest recorded omission of the number thirteen due to superstition. Persians also once believed they had to leave their houses to avoid bad luck on the thirteenth day of the Persian Calendar, since the thirteenth constellation of the Zodiac represented chaos. According to the Christian faith, we are reminded that there were in fact thirteen disciples seated at the Last Supper, the unlucky last to seat being (you guessed it) Judas Iscariot, who later betrayed Christ. Similarly, in Norse traditions it is maintained that the evil and mischievous god Loki crashed a dinner banquet of 12 (making him the thirteenth “guest”), where he killed Baldr with a mistletoe spear. Even some of the darkest periods in American history have associations with the number, which include, for instance, the period of Prohibition, which lasted for thirteen years.
Such traditions have helped thirteen maintain its position as an unlucky number for the last several centuries, especially in Western society. Since the 1800s, Friday the thirteenth has been considered a dark day, with fear of the number thirteen being recognized as a valid phobia (called Triskaidekaphobia). With such rampant superstition prevailing at various times, in 1881 a group of aristocratic New Yorkers that included Civil War veteran Captain William Fowler came together to put an end to the unlucky number. A dinner cabaret club was formed, and given the original title “the Thirteen Club.” At the group’s first meeting, held on none other than the 13th of January 1881 (a Friday) at 8:13 PM, 13 people sat down to dine in room number thirteen of the restaurant they had chosen, each guest strolled under a ladder to enter the room, and each was seated among piles of spilled salt. Miraculously, each and every one of the guests survived the experience. As a result of the meeting, a peculiar trend toward Thirteen Clubs began to emerge, with similar groups appearing all over North America for the next 40 years. Among the ranks of these groups would be five future U.S. presidents, including Chester A. Arthur and Teddy Roosevelt.
Another famous attendee of many Thirteen club groups was Robert Ingersoll, an American political leader and defender of agnosticism during the late 19th century. At an address at a Thirteen Club Dinner in 1886, Ingersoll stated, “If I have any superstition, it is a superstition against superstition. It seems to me that the first things for every man, whether in or out of office to believe in, the first things to rely on, are demonstrated facts. These are the corner stones, these are the columns that nothing can move, these are the stars that no darkness can hide, these are the true and only foundations of belief.” Ingersoll also famously included belief in the supernatural, miracles, spells, charms, dreams and prophecies as elements of what he collectively called superstition.
Not surprisingly, the Thirteen Clubs’ popularity did begin to curb people’s fears in many popular superstitions of the day. Still, many of these same beliefsby