Today’s date, with its double dose of bad luck karma, draws an age-old line in the psyche. For the superstitious, it’s big news; for nonbelievers it’s no big deal.
Friday the 13ths aren’t common—this year there will only be one, and the most possible in any year is three—but they are predictable. With that predictability comes preparation against bad luck.
Time is money, the saying goes, and time spent changing behavior in order to avoid bad fortune adds up quickly. As many as 20 million people have a true, phobic fear of Friday the 13th, and countless others simply choose not to tempt fate by flying, making major purchases or doing anything that the winds of ill fortune might sabotage.
The price tag of all that avoidance is in the $800 million range, according to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute of Asheville, North Carolina.
This unlucky calendar date is of relatively recent vintage, as superstitions go, drawing its notoriety from two ancient omens of bad luck: the day Friday and the number 13. The earliest reference to Friday the 13th as ill-fated appeared in the late 19th Century, and widespread recognition wasn’t achieved until some years later.
The number 13’s unlucky legacy spans millennia, however. There is no definitive explanation for why 13 came to be associated with misfortune, though historians point to theories involving Norse mythology, the Last Supper and the Knights Templar—each of which linked the number to tragedy and death.
Numerologists also note that the numeral 12 represents completeness, as evidenced by the twelve months of the year, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve hours of the clock, twelve labors of Hercules, twelve gods of Olympus, twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of Jesus.
The integer 13 is thus considered irregular, transgressive and threatening.
Whatever the reason, 13 equals bad luck in many people’s books, period. And before you brush off such superstitious fear as folly, consider that it has been taken seriously by architects, developers, airport planners and even governments.
High rise buildings routinely omit a 13th floor (the Phobia Institute estimates as much as 80 percent skip straight from 12 to 14). Many airports lack a 13th gate. It’s not unusual for hotels or hospitals to have no room number 13.
Even the U.S. Navy refused to launch ships on Friday the 13th.
At one time, even the most educated people avoided a baker’s dozen at a table, which so annoyed a wealthy New Yorker that he formed The Thirteen Club in 1880 to dispel the frightful number’s unlucky powers.
A former Civil War officer, Captain William Fowler “threw down the gauntlet to fate” (as the New York Times described in his obituary) and set out to invite a dozen well-known men to join him for dinner. Most invitees laughed at the superstition when told of the dinner’s purpose, but made excuses when it came to committing to attend.
Finally, more than a year later, The Thirteen Club held its first dinner on Friday, September 13, 1881, with members forced to walk under ladders at the entry and salt spilled all over the table for good measure. Nobody met their demise of course, but even 130 years later, the number 13’s infamy survives.
Luck itself, good or bad, is no superstition. Call them what you may—twists of fate, fortuitous occurrences—but strokes of luck have often changed the course of American history. The entire Revolutionary War was a compendium of lucky breaks that prevented defeat, including the time when a British soldier had a clean shot at George Washington, but refused to shoot the general in the back.
Fortune and misfortune were prominent in the Civil War as well, such as the time a Union soldier found a small package of cigars on the ground near Frederick, Maryland in mid-September 1862. The wrapper contained extensive writing, which turned out to be the Confederate plans for the impending battle both sides were expecting.
Even possessing advance notice of the rebel positions, Gen. George McClellan’s characteristic hesitancy cost him a decisive victory when the armies clashed September 17 on the battlefield near Antietam Creek. But the loss was destructive to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s plan to bring the war to the north.
The stars lined up for Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 as well, when a gunman rushed up to the former president (running again on the Bull Moose ticket) and jammed a revolver into Roosevelt’s chest and fired. Luckily for Roosevelt, his speech manuscript—thick because of the large words needed for his bad eyesight—was in his topcoat’s left breast pocket.
The bullet was slowed enough that it only superficially wounded Roosevelt, who continued to the podium where he spoke for nearly an hour before seeking medical attention.
Thomas Jefferson said he was a great believer in luck, observing that the harder he worked the more he had of it.
Maybe the best gesture to today’s superstitious nomenclature is simply this: