Fear not the hoodoo


Somewhere on the online I read that at least 10 percent of Americans (that would be about 32 million people) fear the number 13, or have triskaidekaphobia, which sounds no better. This, of course, has resulted in buildings with no thirteenth floor (or rather, let’s be honest, no labeled thirteenth floor), which I’m sure was totally reassuring to people who have triskaidekaphobia, and totally infuriating to people who were, for example, in wheelchairs and whose legitimate modification needs were not met.

Meanwhile, years ago, when the leisure class seemed to have lots more time on their hands, Captain William Fowler created, in 1880, a social club in New York called the Thirteen Club. The members met on the 13th day of every month and sat 13 at each dining table to a meal that cost 13 cents, etc. etc., you get the picture. An article about one of these meetings, in the New York Tribune on February 14, 1898, began this way: “The Thirteen Club, which fears not the hoodoo nor regards signs and omen, held its February dinner last evening at Mills Hotel No. 1. It was in all probability as gloriously an informal time as even the Thirteen Club ever had. It was not as informal as the great and famous Prince of Wales hoax with which the club imposed upon a confiding public, but that was a hoax, and not a dinner.” It is, of course, at this point, that the famous Prince of Wales hoax seems entirely more interesting, but sadly, that is all the information that is mentioned about it.

The Thirteen Clubs were so popular that they spread throughout the country. A description of a Thirteen Club dinner from the Kansas City Star around this time described the members as being “utterly reckless about spilling salt on the table” and noted that “they will go blocks out of their direct route to find ladders to step under.” Well! These were guys who did not fuck around! But isn’t it something that the people who had the least to worry about in the world hardly worried about anything? Probably there is dissertation out there somewhere about how the most superstitious people actually do have the most to fear.

The Thirteen Clubs did not last past the 1920s or so, when, I’m guessing, walking under ladders fell out of favor. But to this day many people certainly do have opinions about the number 13, whether positive or negative. Even I used to feel vaguely uneasy about the number 13 (and if I were truly honest I’d admit that I still do, kind of), and I don’t know why. But then when my older daughter was born on the 13th of the month I had to stop thinking of that number as unlucky. Thirteen really isn’t all that bad.

Which brings us to the baker’s dozen, pretty much the only thing in our culture involving the number 13 that is not terrifying at all. In fact, it’s actually quite nice (unless you take it literally and infer that bakers are just terrible at math). One common theory about the baker’s dozen is that because there were strict laws regarding the weights and prices for bread in medieval times, a baker would throw in an extra loaf for any dozen that were sold. That way, the weight of an additional loaf would make up for any loaves that had been skimped on when all 13 were weighed together. This still doesn’t explain why this method was not employed if someone was buying just six or seven loaves, but sometimes medieval logic is lost on the modern reader. In any case, even someone suffering from triskaidekaphobia would have to agree that an extra cookie is quite a nice treat. Even on this, the most terrifying of days.


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