Even in its heyday, the Thirteen Club didn’t do much. While the society may have boasted five presidents among its (at any given moment) thirteen members, the fact that it could only meet when the calendar cooperated—the thirteenth—meant that its activities were necessarily somewhat curtailed. In any event, the Thirteen Club’s existence was always more important than its specifics: it had been established as a blow against superstition, friggatriskaidekaphobia, and the prevailing prejudice that’s existed toward Friday the thirteenth since (depending on who you ask) the Last Supper or a certain fateful dinner in Valhalla. The founding friggatriskaidekaphile was one Captain William Fowler. Fowler had attended P.S. 13; he built thirteen structures, fought in thirteen Civil War conflicts, belonged to thirteen clubs, and, whenever possible, did significant things on the thirteenth of any month. In 1882, he decided to make this enthusiasm official.
According to an excellent write-up from the New York Historical Society, the inaugural meeting took place on Friday, January 13, at eight-thirteen in the evening, in room 13 of a building Fowler owned called the Knickerbocker Cottage. (It was on Sixth Avenue and Twenty-Eighth; apparently nothing had been available on Thirteenth Street.) The whole thing was centered around flouting superstition. To this end, the attendees passed under a ladder and consumed their thirteen courses (including a coffin-shaped lobster salad) under a banner reading “Morituri te Salutamus.” There’s no record of a black cat, but guests were expressly forbidden from tossing salt over their shoulders, and at later meetings open umbrellas were added. And it took: a year later the club secretary reported 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.”
It’s hard to blame a reeling nation for taking some comfort in superstition after a war. And Fowler’s half-serious obsession with thirteen was at least as strong (and irrational) as anyone’s negative associations. But it can’t be denied that he died in his sleep after enjoying “perfect health,” which is certainly anyone’s idea of a good death. Whether that’s your object or not, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the spirit of Fowler’s aggressive rationality—whether that means smashing a mirror, molding some lobster salad into the shape of a coffin, or just sitting around, congratulating yourself on not being dead.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.