Reasons to be careful

This week sees the 13th of the month fall on a Friday. I’m not particularly superstitious, and yet I do experience mild hesitation when thinking about plans that involve that date. I would probably avoid arranging to travel or do anything else significant unless I absolutely have to. Just in case.

It surprised me to learn that this superstition is relatively modern, and there are no written references to it before the nineteenth century. One early suggestion comes in a biography of Italian composer Gioachino Rossini written in 1869 by Henry Sutherland Edwards who says that ‘If it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November, he passed away.’

And then in 1907, American millionaire stockbroker Thomas W Lawson, who had a reputation for being superstitious, wrote the novel ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ in which the protagonist chooses that day to take revenge upon Wall Street. Lawson’s misgivings about the date were compounded when a boat bearing his name sank off the Isles of Scilly at around 1.15am UK time on 14th December 1907. With the time difference, in Boston where Lawson was living, it would have still been Friday the 13th for him. Some believe that it was Lawson’s book that triggered the fear associated with the 13th day of the month landing on a Friday.

But if this was the case, then you would have expected a mention in a 1910 book by T. Sharper Knowlson called ‘Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs’, but there is nothing about it. Connecting bad luck with the number 13 does go back further, as do references to Friday being the unluckiest day of the week, but the two are rarely joined together before the early part of the 20th century.

Some would argue that it does go back much further, attributing it to the Christian belief that there were thirteen people at Jesus Christ’s last supper on Maundy Thursday. Judas is considered to be the unlucky 13th guest who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, sealing his fate to be crucified the next day, a Friday.

And yet, there are no early written references to Friday the 13th specifically being an inauspicious date. Just because we can’t find anything written down does not mean that it didn’t exist though – it could have just been a ‘word-of-mouth’ kind of fear. But conflicting with this is the fact that in the 17th century, the publication of almanacs became very popular. These were books containing information, folklore and superstitions relevant to every date in the year, and no mention of the unlucky Friday the 13th has ever been discovered. Before almanacs, scholarly types would keep diaries detailing their everyday lives and thoughts (Samuel Pepys being the most famous) and yet again, no reference to this unlucky date has ever been found.

So with all that in mind, I can’t be certain when or where this most famous of superstitions originated. And is it actually any more unlucky than any other date in the year? It could be said that it is rather unlucky for the economy as it has been proven that people travel less, spend less and party less on that particular date.

If the month starts on a Sunday, then the 13th will be a Friday and it can happen up to three times in one year. In 2022 there is only one, while in 2023 there will be two (January and October). The next time that three occur in the same year will be 2026. There are four notable unfortunate events that did occur on the date. On Friday 13th, 1307, King Philip IV of France ordered the mass arrest (and later, execution) of hundreds of members of the religious and military order, the Knights Templar, successfully disrupting their power and influence. On Friday 13th September 1940, the Germans bombed Buckingham Palace during World War II, and in November 1970, a cyclone killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh on that date. Then, in 1996, rapper Tupac Shakur was shot dead on Friday 13th September. But that is not a lot of significant events over so many hundreds of years, is it?

Do you think it is worth make any changes to your regular routine to minimise the risk of a calamity befalling you?

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 13th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 11th May 2022.

Buckingham Palace was bombed during the Second World War on Friday 13th 1941.
Picture by Lucien Smith