A WHILE back I wrote about 1881, a significant year in which the Fray Bentos meat company was formed and the atheist magazine for which I work – The Freethinker – was launched.
Well 1881, I’ve just learned, also marked the first meeting of New York’s Thirteen Club. I made the discovery after a friend recently expressed dismay that the tower block in which I live has a 13th floor.
“Oh my ears and whiskers,” said Geoff, “Don’t the Spanish know how unlucky that number is?
His query immediately prompted some research, and I discovered that the Spanish do have a thing about floor levels; they eschew 17th floors because, according to the Elevatorpedia website, 17 is regarded as ‘the number of disgrace’ in Latin cultures.
I rushed off to check our lifts, and sure enough 17 was omitted. In the eight years of my living here this was the first time I’d clocked the omission.
Elevatorpedia also lists other ‘unlucky’ floor numbers. In Chinese culture, for example, fourth floors are omitted. I then found a 2015 BBC item that reported the establishment of the Thirteen Club, formed, appropriately, on September 13, 1881.
It was ‘a gathering of jolly gents determined to defy all superstitions’. BBC’s Trevor Timpson wrote: “They met on the 13th of the month, sat 13 to a table, broke mirrors, spilled salt with exuberance and walked in to dinner under crossed ladders.”
It was founded by Captain William Fowler and in April 1882 it adopted a resolution deploring the fact that Friday the 13th had ‘for many centuries past, been considered an unlucky day … on unreasonable grounds.’
At the December 13, 1886 meeting of the club, a member – one of my favourite early American atheists, lawyer Robert Green Ingersoll – declared:
“We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the 19th century’.”
Earlier, in 1879, Ingersoll said – in words that resonate strongly today, especially in Trump’s America – “It will probably not be long until the churches will divide as sharply upon political, as upon theological questions; and when that day comes, if there are not liberals enough to hold the balance of power, this government will be destroyed.
“The liberty of man is not safe in the hands of any church. Wherever the Bible and sword are in partnership, man is a slave.”
The horror Geoff expressed over our 13th floor reminded me of another example of superstition – an exceptionally bizarre one.
Some years back a Greek neighbour in London asked whether I knew how to get rid of an owl that had taken up residence in a tree in her back garden.
She explained that her mother-in-law, on a short break from her home in Athens, had become aware of the bird, took it as a sign of bad luck, and was flatly refusing to travel back home. “It’s driving me nuts,” she groused. “The superstitious old bat won’t budge from our house until the owl leaves.”
“Well,” I replied, “it’s a protected species, so you can’t harm it, but I’m told if you shine a red light in its direction it may find itself a new location.”
As if it sensed plans were being hatched to scare it off, the bird suddenly vanished, and the old lady was hurriedly bundled into a taxi and sent to Heathrow, a fortnight later than planned!
There are a large number of cultures that associate owls with bad luck. The Owl Pages website informs us that superstitious Malayans believe that they ‘eat new-born babies’, that in Ireland ‘an owl that enters the house must be killed at once, for if it flies away it will take the luck of the house with it’ and that some in Poland believe married women turn into owls when they die.
Single females become doves. My fervent wish is that a modern-day Captain Fowler will re-establish the Thirteen Club, and set up chapters across this superstition-plagued planet on which we live.