On the morning of July 6, 1897 Captain William Fowler was discovered dead in his bed. According to those who knew him, Fowler was “in the best of health” when he retired the night before, but he evidently suffered a stroke and would never wake again. Of course, otherwise healthy or not, it could not have surprised many that Captain Fowler might suffer some bad luck.
Fowler was a man who laughed in the face of this world’s truest dangers, and according to his obituary, he sure did live a dangerous life. As a boy, Fowler attended New York City’s Public School No 13 until 13 years of age. After a brief stint in the printing industry, he became a builder who participated in the erection of 13 of the city’s buildings.
On April 13, 1861, Fowler took command of 100 (which is 7 x 13 + 9) Union volunteers and over the course of nearly three years (only 10 less than 13) participated in 13 major battles in the US Civil War (okay, that actually does sound fairly dangerous). Wounded, the captain was forced to resign his military position on August 13, 1863. One month later, on September 13, he bought the Knickerbocker Cottage on Sixth Avenue in New York, which he operated with his sons until finally selling it on Friday April 13, 1883.
Privately Captain Fowler was a participating member of exactly 13 social and/or secret societies, including The 13 Club, which he founded on Friday January 13, 1882. His hope was that the group might dispel the popular notion that the number that had plagued him his entire life was inherently unlucky.
First on the list of superstitious beliefs to tackle was the notion that if 13 dined together, the first to rise from the table would die within a year’s time. And so the group sat down together. Fortunately, none of these first diners did die within the year, and the society grew, continuing to meet at tables of 13 and adding new superstitions along the way.
At subsequent meetings, members entered the dining room (decorated with open umbrellas) by walking under a ladder, read from menus shaped like coffins, broke glasses with abandon, and carelessly spilled salt without throwing a single grain over their shoulders. We can assume that The 13 Club survived until the 1920’s, when mentions of its meetings disappear from newspapers. Its membership at times swelled to as many as 400 people and allegedly included US presidents Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt.
I suspect that the fate-tempting activities of prominent men would not have inspired a great deal of confidence among the American population during what was a highly superstitious era. Recovering from a bloody civil war, the still relatively young United States was struggling to reinvent itself. As it tends to do, uncertainty bred superstition. And the efforts of Fowler’s club didn’t serve to assuage the public’s fear, but they certainly gave it a good try.
I suppose that is often the role of the well-educated and influential. At least that’s what I am going to assume that my sons’ school is playing at by placing the most dreadful day of the entire school calendar on Friday the 13th. I’m speaking, of course, of school picture day, that annual nerve-wracking event that causes bad hair days, toothpaste spills, facial injury, and inevitable disappointment.
Maybe this wasn’t your experience in school, but for me, no matter how long I spent gazing into the mirror to make sure I arrived at school unspoiled and looking as “okay” as I had it in me to look, sometime between the morning bell and picture line-up, disaster would strike. My hair got stringy (yes, that’s probably the way it looked most of the time, but definitely not how it had looked in the mirror earlier that morning) and stuck out at odd angles, and my skin which was perfectly clear only moments before, erupted in zits roughly the size and shape of Australia, and somehow I managed to get spinach in my teeth.
I guess it wasn’t always that bad, but you get the idea. I actually don’t know what I looked like in the sixth grade because there is no photographic evidence. I came home with the pictures, after refusing to show them to my friends and told my mom (who isn’t fond of having her picture taken) they were terrible and no one would ever see them. In the kind of awesome Mom moment that a grateful daughter (obviously) never forgets, my mom told me to throw them away. That’s right. No updated photo for the grandparents. No wallet photos traded with friends.
If it hadn’t been for the yearbook (curse it!) I would have gotten away completely clean. So at this point I think it’s only right to warn any readers out there who may have gone to grade school with me that if that picture were to resurface, my rage would be swift and my vengeance, terrible.
Even though I am not a particularly superstitious person (except as it applies to baseball fandom), I admit I am not above a little bit of anxiety at the thought of my boys heading to school to face a potentially emotionally scarring event on a day when many people still call in sick to work, just in case. I guess if the pictures don’t turn out well, we can take advantage of retakes, which, I assume, will be scheduled for Friday December 13, exactly 13 weeks away. But now I’m just being silly.
After all, The 13 Club may not have risen from their tables of 13 only to be struck dead by a tour bus on the way home, but even Captain Fowler couldn’t escape it when bad luck finally came calling for him and he died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 69 (only 4 years beyond the age of 13 x 5), a mere 5 weeks and 3 days prior to Friday August 13, 1897. That can’t just be a coincidence.