Do you believe Friday the 13th is unlucky? Refuse to sleep in a hotel room on the 13th floor? Scorn baker’s dozens because they might be poisoned?
No? Neither did members of the Thirteen Club. Back in 1882, Civil War vet Captain William Fowler set out to debunk the myth that 13 is a “bad” number. You see, he had fought in 13 major battles; had to retire from combat on August 13, 1863; and purchased a cottage on the 13th of the month shortly thereafter.
His 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 Thirteen Club pushed the limits of superstition more and more every year. In 1887, the New York Times reported that not only did members of the club repeat the practice of dining 13 to a table and meeting on the 13th of the month at 13 minutes past the hour, they threw in a new twist. An old wives’ tale claims that if 13 people sit at a dinner table together, one will die within the year, so to test it, each attendee received a short wax candle at their place setting. The person whose candle died first, would, of course, be the one who needed to update his will. “At 13 minutes of 10, to a second, the candle belonging to Dr. Allan Fitch flickered, sputtered, and flared up for an instant, and then went out,” the Times noted. “The doctor looked on very calmly.”
At another dinner, 13 undertakers were all seated at a table together. Open umbrellas often decorated the dining room, and people broke glass with abandon.
Some of the illustrious men in the club included at least five presidents—Time notes Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland (while he was president, in fact), Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt—and a whole slew of governors, senators, judges and important military men.
This story originally appeared in 2011.