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Defying Fate: the macabre antics of Brooklyn's Thirteen Club

May 13, 2011 3:06 PM | 0 comments

"It never before looked as it did last night.  It never will again.  The blinds were drawn, the only light being from a dozen candles, which flickered in burnished holders, placed around a big coffin in the center of the room.  The walls were draped in black.  Grinning skulls beamed down upon the bones which were strewn along the coffin top, and the figure of a skeleton dangled from an invisible wire..."

 

Thirteen gentlemen in long black robes solemnly marched into the chamber and seated themselves around the immense coffin; their leader seated at the head, and a lurid skull at the base.  The stage was set for a funeral.  Not of a cherished friend or family member, but for what those in attendance considered an outdated nuisance--superstition. 

 

Being that it is, right now, a dreaded Friday the 13th, it seems a fitting time to tell the story of Brooklyn's own anti-superstition league, the Thirteen Club.  The group was organized "for the distinct object of shattering the rock which the dark ages left behind as a ghastly relic."  In less strident terms, it was a fraternity of young gentleman who threw eccentric parties with the goal of flaunting the advice of old wives' tales.  By breaking the rules of superstition and living to tell about it, they hoped to disprove all notions of bad luck.  At this funerary party described above, appropriately held on December 13th, 1883, members tempted the fates by dancing to the tune "See that My Grave is Kept Clean" before ceremoniously smashing a mirror.

The club was started in Brooklyn in 1882 with just 13 members, but its fame and reach quickly spread, so that by 1886 it boasted 550 members from all over New York City (who, at the monthly dinner, were split into groups of 13).  Sympathetic Chicagoans opened their own chapter in 1885.  The antics of club members appeared regularly in the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle well into the 1920s.  More than an actual campaign for reason and logic, the club was largely an excuse for good-natured prankery, as these headlines attest:

June 13, 1906

June 13, 1913

December 14, 1922

Although early members of the club argued that women were the originators and propogators of superstition, by 1910, this quintessential boys' club was admitting the fair sex into its ranks.  An uncharacteristically serious and timely meeting that year was devoted entirely to the discussion of women's suffrage, with leaders from the League of Self Supporting Women, the National Woman Suffrage Organization, and the Women's Consumers League discussing their cause before the "usual anti-superstition stunts were done". 

Less noble was the club's "love feast" on January 13, 1921.  What was to be the annual ladies' dinner, with an address from the recently re-elected club president Col. John F. Hobbs, turned into what the Eagle described as a "wild orgy" which could only be controlled by the arrival of policemen.  Eight-term leader Hobbs was so disgusted by the proceedings that he resigned from his post on the spot.  Tellingly, the Eagle clippings about the Thirteen Club peter out within a year of that infamous night, leading me to guess that the group disbanded.  In defiance of the club's ideals, I'd like to suggest a superstitious reason for the group's eventual demise.  That fateful night in 1921, as drunken members wreaked havoc, the ceremonial "breaking of the mirror, with which the club defies superstition, was forgotten in the general melee."  Perhaps, in this case, not breaking a mirror brought on years of bad luck?