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The Unlucky '13'

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The Unlucky '13'

Author Interviews

The Unlucky '13'

The Unlucky '13'

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Host Liane Hansen speaks with author Nathaniel Lachenmeyer about his book 13. In the book, Lachenmeyer attempts to uncover the history, psychology and evolution of the unlucky number 13.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, many of us are superstitious. The condition manifests itself in many different ways. We avoid black cats and walking under ladders. We don't change socks or headgear during the playoffs. We throw salt over our shoulders or count the cracks in the sidewalk to avoid breaking our mother's back. Superstitions often begin because we seem to get lucky or unlucky depending on whether we engage or avoid certain behaviors.

The number 13 still carries certain superstitious weight. Today, although a Sunday, is still the 13th day of the month. In his new book "13: The Story of the World's Most Notorious Superstition," Nathaniel Lachenmeyer examines the unlucky number 13, and he's in our New York bureau.

Hi, how are you?

Mr. NATHANIEL LACHENMEYER (Author, "13"): Hi, thanks for having me.

HANSEN: How did the number 13 first begin to appear unlucky?

Mr. LACHENMEYER: The number 13--first record of it being a superstition was in the late 17th century, and the first incarnation of unlucky 13 was '13 at a table.' If you sit 13 people at a table, one will die within a year. And at the time, everyone knew, really, the origin of the superstition, and it was the 12 plus one of Christ and the disciples at the Last Supper. It's only in the centuries since that there's been sort of confusion and alternative theories that have come up.

HANSEN: OK, now tell us, then, about the 13 Club. This was a club that used to get together once a month and try to dispel that myth, that superstition, that it's unlucky to sit 13 to a table. Elaborate a little bit on--about this club and its mission.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: Well, the 13 Club is how I came to the subject. I came across an article in an old scrapbook from the late 19th century that said that someone--you know, a person or persons unknown had tried to blow up a 13 Club in New Jersey. And I'd never heard of the 13 Club, and so began to research it.

The 13 Club began in 1882. And it was founded by a man named Captain William Fowler, who was a Civil War veteran and a wealthy man-about-town in New York. And, at that point, the 13-at-a-table superstition was really at its peak, and, you know, one out of every two people you'd meet would really have the morbid fear that if they were unfortunate enough to sit one of 13 at a table, they'd die within a year. And he got together with another sort of an early rationalist and decided that he had to put an end to the superstition. And it took him a long time to find another 12 people who would agree to sit with him as 13 at a table, and what they did was they sat 13 at a table on the 13th day of the month and challenged fate to--you know, to kill one of them off. And, you know, empirically, I mean, they proved that the superstition wasn't valid, but in the end they didn't do much to dampen it.

HANSEN: Really? I mean, nobody? Even though they didn't drop dead, and given the fact that they were also eating lobster salad in the shape of coffins?

Mr. LACHENMEYER: Oh, yeah, they had a wonderful sense of humor. That's what really got me into the subject. It--they were very macabre. They--and they attacked all superstitions. So in order to, you know, partake in the meal you had to walk under a ladder and you had to break mirrors and there were silhouettes of black cats. And all of the superstitions that were current at the time, and some of which still are around today, they broke. And they did it with a lot of humor. They had--the menus were in the shape of gravestones. And Captain Fowler got together very prominent people of the day, including journalists, so they got a lot of media attention. And I think it made for an entertaining read, but in the end 13 at a table really fell by the wayside after the 13 Club. The 13 Club disbanded in the '20s, and at that point 13 at a table was still active.

HANSEN: People who fear the number 13 are thought to suffer from triskaidekaphobia. When did this become an official condition, and, you know, how does it manifest itself?

Mr. LACHENMEYER: Well, you know, it's interesting. Triskaidekophobia, the term, originated about 1910. And it was the creation of a psychoanalyst at a time when psychoanalysis was, you know, the predominant type of psychiatry. And at that point there was a lot of focus on phobias. And so triskaidekophobia is one of a couple of--one of three things, really, that the 20th century brought to the 13 superstition. The other two were Friday the 13th. That superstition didn't come around until the 20th century. And the third was the missing 13th floor.

HANSEN: And, in fact, there are still hotels that still do not have a 13th floor. I think the Waldorf-Astoria does not have a 13th floor.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: Actually, the Waldorf-Astoria is one of the few that does...

HANSEN: Oh, oh.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: ...one of the few in New York that does.

HANSEN: Oh.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: But it's interesting, though. The missing-13th-floor phenomenon actually perpetuates today, not just the 13th floor. Sort of architects and developers will more often than not still omit the 13th floor, but also people who design--I've talked to architects who design mausoleums, and they'll also skip the number 13. But basically that works by, you know, sort of inertia at this point--it's an established tradition and no one knows how many people are still--wouldn't rent or buy an apartment if it were labeled the 13th floor. So it's, you know--it's easy to continue the tradition. The effect of that, though, is it kind of--it exaggerates for the general public the sense that the superstition is very much with us. I think that really unlucky 13 exists more today as a--less as a national superstition and more as public awareness of what was once a national superstition.

HANSEN: You quote Stephen King in the beginning of a chapter, chapter eight, "Triskaidekophobia Today." And Stephen King--and he says, `When I'm reading, I will not stop on page 94, page 193, page 382 at all. The digits of these numbers add up to 13.' I mean, you can really take this to the point of no return. And there are actually phobia clinics to deal with people who suffer from this malady.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: There are. There are. Some are reputable and some are, you know, arguably not. The interesting thing is, I mean, the period when The 13 Club was active, it really--at that time, it took a great deal of--really, it took something close to bravery to openly reject the 13 superstition the way the members of the 13 Club did. And at that point, there were many triskaidekophobes. P.T. Barnum, for example, in his autobiography actually thought enough of the number to devote an entire chapter to analyzing 13 in his own life, very earnestly, to try to figure out whether or not it was a--whether it was a malevolent force or not. And in the 20th century, you had people in both camps. You had--Adolf Hitler and Herbert Hoover were both triskaidekophobes. Wilson and Ed Eastman of Eastman Kodak were triskaidekophiles. You had ardent believers on both sides. I think that's faded since.

HANSEN: Your book, curiously enough, examines the number 13 from 13 perspectives, 13 pages of illustrations, 13 lists, 13 chapters, 13 answers to the questions and so forth. Obviously you don't have this phobia.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: I don't. No, I'm not superstitious. I mean, I've definitely experienced that, you know, some people in life are luckier than others, but I wish it could be reduced to a number.

HANSEN: Huh. But since you've published the books, have you noticed any malevolent or benevolent effects?

Mr. LACHENMEYER: You know, just the same degree: too much malevolence, too little benevolence, but it really didn't change before or after I wrote it.

HANSEN: Nathaniel Lachenmeyer wrote the book "13," published by Plume Books, and he joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot.

Mr. LACHENMEYER: Thank you very much.

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