The History of the unlucky number 13
By Michael Williams
Without a doubt, the number 13 has had an impact on our society, even on architectural design in the United States. Step into any hotel or office building in the U.S. and step into the elevator. Once inside, look for the button that corresponds to the 13th floor. You won’t find it because nearly all high rises and hotels in this nation intentionally exclude the number 13 in the design of the building. In most buildings in the U.S., there is no such thing as a 13th floor. Nearly all go from the 12th floor to the 14th.
The question is often persistently asked how did such a seemingly innocuous digit get such a bad reputation? Why are many Americans convinced that the number 13 represents doom and misfortune? Particularly, Friday the 13th.
To understand the dark history of the number and the association of bad luck with it we must go all the way back to the Bible. You may recall that there were 12 people at the last supper. The 13th supper guest, Judas Iscariot, arrived last. And he set into motion a series of events that would lead to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. From this historical dinner there arose the belief that if 13 people sit at the table then death will come to one of them before the year is over. Many Christians believe that Jesus was crucified on Friday, though there is no historical evidence to support the belief. But, Good Friday is traditionally regarded as the day Christ was crucified. Many Christians also believe that Cain slew Abel on Friday the 13th.
Over the years there have been detractors who allude to the number 13 being associated with successful enterprises. Remember there were 13 colonies when the U.S. broke free from England. In an effort to debunk that belief, 13 men founded the Thirteen Club in the late 1870s. Their purpose was to debunk the legend that seating 13 people at a table would result in the death of one of them in the year to follow. They met on the 13th of the month and had dinner 13 people to a table, and to make matters worse, they purposely spilled salt on the table without throwing it over their shoulders. They also fined members who showed up late an unlucky sum of 13 cents. Members of the club included five U.S. presidents: Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and Chester A. Arthur. It’s a fact that two of these five presidents were shot. One of which was fatal. Roosevelt was wounded at the hands of an assassin and Garfield was murdered.
But the ill-reputation of the number goes beyond the United States and the Christian belief. There’s a Norse legend that has 12 gods sitting down to a banquet when the 13th (uninvited) god, Loki, shows up. Loki killed one of the other gods, which led to events that eventually resulted in Ragnarok — the death of a numerous gods, a litany of natural disasters, and the destruction of everything on Earth save for two human survivors.
Similarly, other historical days associated with the number 13 includes Friday, October 13, 1307. On that day there was a mass arrest and execution of the Knights Templar ordered by King Phillip IV. Most historians believe the king ordered the executions because his kingdom was in debt to the Knights’ Templar and destroying the order also erased his debt. At any rate the knights were tortured and coerced into giving false confessions and burned at the stake.
Even in the criminal justice system we see references to the number 13. Traditionally, there have always been 13 steps leading up the gallows where criminals received the ultimate punishment for their crimes. There’s also a legend that a hangman’s noose traditionally contained 13 turns, but it’s actually more like eight.
Apparently, the people at NASA never had any concerns over the number 13. That is until catastrophe struck. The only unsuccessful manned moon mission was the Apollo 13. And as we recall from the Tom Hanks movie of the same name the space craft failed to make the journey and almost never made it back to Earth.
Many believe that a witch’s coven was made up of exactly 13 members. But in reality, covens are comprised of a varying number of members and most covens are small, not by design but rather circumstance. The dark reputation of the religion discourages potential members. So they will take anyone they can recruit.
Many are familiar with the old Shakespearean quote ‘What’s in a name?’ Consider how the number 13 affects your child’s name. There’s an old superstition that says if you have 13 letters in your name, you’re bound to have the devil’s luck. This may seem ridiculous until you consider these names; Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Theodore Bundy and Albert De Salvo all contain 13 letters. And let us not forget Devil Hatfield, the patriarch of the infamous Hatfields who battled the McCoys for more than 20 years in a family feud. Devil was a nickname but it certainly seemed to fit his personality.
In popular culture the number 1313 Mockingbird Lane was the address of the most famous family of ghouls the Munsters. Kids officially become teenagers at the age of 13, and we all know that’s a scary phase.
In numerology, the number 12 is considered to be the representation of perfection and completion. It stands to reason, then, that trying to improve upon perfection by adding a digit is a very bad idea indeed — your greed will be rewarded with bad luck.
Friday, October 13, 1972, was a bad day in the history of aviation. That’s the day that Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 infamously crashed in the Andes, killing 29 people. On the exact same day, 174 people were killed when a Soviet Aeroflot crashed in a lake about a kilometer from the runway.
Fear of the number is so deeply ingrained in modern American culture that psychiatrists are making money from it. Some people have such an irrational fear of the double digit that a term has been invented for their illness. The term triskaidekaphobia first appeared in the early 1900s. It was derived from treiskaideka, the Greek word for thirteen and phobia, fear of the number thirteen. But psychiatrists aren’t the only ones deriving a windfall from the unfortunate double digits of doom. The writers, producers and directors of the popular movie franchise “Friday the 13th” has made an untold fortune from the film series that gave a bad name to summer camps.
Noted paranormal expert J-Adam Smith warns that people should not be so quick to dismiss the number with silly superstition. After all, when considering history, the fear of the number has its merit. Smith maintains superstition has had an impact on Paranormal investigations.
“Superstition will heighten your awareness,” said Smith. “Through my travels I have seen and experienced many different kinds of phenomena including activity at those superstitious locals. Is it the curse or superstition? I am uncertain, but the more people are scared, the higher the probability that the spirit world will want use that fear as leverage.”
There is one more Friday the 13th that will occur on the calendar in 2016 and that will be in October. Across the nation there is a growing trend of people pushing the conventional bounds with the superstition. There is a growing trend of Americans taking haunted ghost tours to commemorate the unlucky day. In Knoxville, Tennessee the most popular ghost tour is offered by Haunted Knoxville Ghost Tours led by noted paranormal researcher J-Adam Smith. To learn more about ghost tours visit the web site: http://hauntedknoxville.net/