Monday, October 29, 2012

Suffer From Triskaidekaphobia? You Might Not Want to Read This.

The Halloween season is upon us. It's time for costume parties, trick or treaters, bobbing for apples, ghost stories and a superstitious grip that seems to take over people. However, not everyone is susceptible to these superstitions. No black cat, spilled salt, broken mirror or any other symbol of bad luck seemed to even bother certain men at the end of the 19th century. The Thirteen Club seemed to laugh in the face of superstition and bad luck and why? Well because they were awesome. But not only were they awesome, they were also one of the United States best kept secret society.

Before we jump into the inner workings of the Thirteen Club, why are people so afraid of the number 13? Well there are a few theories behind why. First, one of the earliest stories comes from Norse mythology. At the Valhalla Banquet, 12 gods were seated and Loki joined the party making 13. This is only bad because as Loki entered he killed Balder, a god much loved by the Norse people. The second origin follows the same suit. The story of the Last Super from Christian beliefs plays a major role in the spread of the fear of the number 13. At the Last Super, Jesus and his 12 disciples were seated at a table, 13 in total. As most know this was were Judas had betrayed Jesus, ultimately leading to his crucifixion. It is from here that the idea of 13 people sitting at a table would invite death to someone within that year. Here we see two similar stories, both with the same result, 13 guests and one person killed. But these are not the only theories, throughout ancient civilizations the number 13 was feared, Babylonians, Romans, Greeks and Persians all had reasons to fear that dark number of 13. But what about here in the good ol' U-S of A?

The name William Fowler my be new to you, but he was one of the most unsupuerstitious people in perhaps the world. Fowler had a unique relationship to the number 13 throughout his life. He was born in New York City and attended P.S. 13 and graduated at the age of 13. He later worked for a construction company which built 13 buildings in New York City. On April 13, 1861 he reported to Washington D.C. to report for service in the Union Army. There Captain Fowler, fought in 13 different battles. He would serve for two years and again ironically retire from duty of August 13, 1863. After the war he purchased a popular tavern in New York, The Knickerbocker Cottage. It was there that Captain Fowler were go on the offensive to prove that the number 13 was merely just a number and not the dark, spooky and terrifying number it was made out to be. 

 Those of us who are about to die salute you!

Fowler would establish the Thirteen Club in his Knickerbocker Cottage. The 19th century Zagat Guide would describe the Cottage as a "popular, quiet resort for merchants and sporting fellows." And like any good local watering hole the ideas of the day were freely shared amongst its patrons. It was here that Fowler would establish his Thirteen Club. It was an unsuspecting Friday in January of 1882, and if you've seen the pattern develop so far you know it was the 13th. The meeting started at 8:13pm and was hosted by Fowler who planned on entertaining 12 guests. Who were those 12 guests? Well they were patrons of the Knickerbocker Cottage, which Fowler hand picked over the prior year. Upon entering the guests passed under an open ladder which was under the above banner reading, "Morituri te Salutams" or in English "Those of us who are about to die salute you!" When reaching the round table, 13 chairs awaited them. In front of them 13 candles which provided the light and ambiance. The men dinned and conversed over 13 courses. Also while dinning if salt was spilled, it was forbidden that no salt was to be tossed over their right shoulders. Now this is really tempting fate, and to add more insult to the dark side, the candles held a greater meaning. It was claimed that the first candle to go out, that member would not be returning the following year if you get my drift.

The dinner was a success and all the members from the original meeting returned again the following year. This report sums up the first year of the Thirteen Club:

 "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."

Fowler would live out the rest of his life without any repercussions from his activities. He would die in Jersey City, New Jersey and was described to be in a picture of health. The Club would continue for some time and even include several Presidents. That's right, Presidents, as in Presidents of the United States of America. Presidents Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and T. Roosevelt were all members of the group. The Club also consisted of governors, mayors, and many more influential types of the 19th and early 20th century. However, as superstitious beliefs began to loss grip on society and with the on coming of World War I the Club ceased  to exist, or just perhaps went deeper underground. But that's the story of the Thirteen Club, brave men who laughed at superstitious ideas, and set out to disprove the fear that gripped people in the late 19th century. So this week go out, celebrate Halloween and don't be afraid of those dark shadows and bumps in the night. Go out to dinner with a group of 13 in honor of the Club, push for buildings to have  a 13th floor, but more importantly don't let those silly superstitions stop you from living.

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