Popular Superstitions - Thirteen At Table
( Originally Published 1884 )
Dining lately with a friend, our conviviality was suddenly interrupted by the discovery of a maiden lady, who observed that our party consisted of thirteen. Her fears, however, were not without hope, till she found, after a very particular enquiry, that none of her married friends were likely to make any addition to the number. She was then fully assured that one of the party would die within the twelvemonth. Though I did not in any degree partake of the old lady's apprehensions, yet my curiosity was excited, and I was at a loss to account for the origin of this vulgar error. You, Mr. Urban, or some of your correspondents, will, I dare say, be able to assign a reason for the prevalence of this popular persuasion ; which will confer a favour on many of your readers.
One of your ingenious correspondents, who styles himself Incredulus, informs us, p. 573, that, in a company where he happened to dine, a maiden lady was suddenly alarmed by observing that the party consisted of thirteen persons, and, consequently, that one of them would die within the twelvemonth. The party, I suppose, were some of the wise men of Gotham, who attempted, as tradition informs us, to hedge-in the cuckoo. The ladies were certainly of that description. For, you will observe, Mr. Urban, that " their conviviality," that is their wit and their merriment, was interrupted and depressed by the lady's alarming discovery. The worthy gentleman, your correspondent, seems to have been thrown into some perplexity on this occasion. " His curiosity," he tells us, " was excited ; he was at a loss to account for this prevailing opinion ;" and in this state of anxiety he applies for satisfaction to the oracle, the Gentleman's Magazine. If this learned writer is inclined to employ his sagacity on the fancies, the dreams, and the follies of old women, let him study some of the following questions, which, no doubt, are founded upon principles equally rational and satisfactory as the enquiry he proposes.
Why are ghosts usually transported into the Red Sea ? Why is the howling of a dog, the screeching of an owl, the clicking of an insect, or a loud knock at the bed's-head of a sick person, deemed in-fallible signs of death? Why is it supposed that a slice of bride-cake, drawn nine times through a wedding-ring, will excite prophetic dreams of love and marriage ? Why is a dead man's hand reported to have the quality of dispelling wens and tumours ? Why is a halter, with which anyone has been hanged, reckoned a cure for the head-ache? Why are the chips of a gibbet used as a charm or a preservation against the ague ? Why is a stone with a hole in it hung at the bed's head to prevent the night-mare ? What grounds are there to imagine that the wounds of a murdered person will bleed on being touched by the murderer ? Why should it be thought extremely unlucky to kill a cricket, a swallow, a martin, a robin, or a wren ? Why is two persons washing their hands in the same water, supposed to forebode a quarrel ? Why does every old woman hold it as an indispensable rule to set her hen upon an odd number of eggs?
Why is the seventh son of a seventh son accounted an infallible doctor ? Why is a pillow, filled with the feathers of a pigeon, said to prevent an easy death? Why is the over-turning of a salt-cellar reckoned an unlucky omen ? Why is it usual to throw an old shoe after a person for the sake of good luck ? What philosophical reason can be given for believing that a child's caul can preserve a man from drowning ? Why is it deemed lucky to put on a stocking the inside outwards? Upon what principle is it customary for women to sit cross-legged in order to bring their friends good luck at cards?
If any of your correspondents will condescend to answer these questions ; or if the learned querist, who styles himself Incredulus, will employ his pen on these important subjects, you will be able to produce some curious disquisitions, which cannot fail of being highly acceptable to many Gothamites, unlearned gentlemen, and inquisitive old women.