Are you superstitious? How do you feel about the number 13, a broken mirror, walking under a ladder, spilling salt, or opening an umbrella indoors? These are all things that are supposed to foretell bad luck. But what brings bad luck in one country might be a good omen in another. For example, in the United States, seeing a black cat is generally considered bad luck, while in the UK black cats are lucky.
The Thirteen Club
All this superstition was a bit too much for one group of brave men who felt that they were enlightened and above all that “folklorish nonsense.” In 1880 Captain William Fowler set up the Thirteen Club in New York. He intended to gather together influential men to perform all the deeds that were considered unlucky to prove to the public that they had nothing to fear. London wasn’t far behind in forming their own Thirteen Club in 1890.
Dinners for the Bravehearted
When these brave men met for a meal, they entered the room by walking under an open ladder. Then they sat at tables of thirteen people each and the breaking of mirrors would announce the start of dinner. Tables were decorated with black cats and coffins, and everyone spilled salt. They even introduced things that were unlucky in other countries, such as making a toast to a donkey, which is considered unlucky in Sardinia.
They held these strange banquets annually, but when a Friday 13th would roll around they would call a special meeting. The number thirteen on its own has long been considered unlucky and Friday was traditionally an unlucky day as well (possibly because Friday was the day of executions). But when the two were combined, Friday the 13th became double unlucky.
No Harm Done
It seems that all the flaunting of superstition did no harm to the politicians and prominent men who made up the Thirteen Club. In the London club, it’s claimed that only one member died an untimely death – but, as it turned out, he hadn’t renewed his membership so it didn’t count.
Not all educated men were against superstition, however: When Oscar Wilde was asked to join the Thirteen Club, he refused saying, “I love superstitions. They are the opponent of common sense.” I think I have to agree with Oscar Wilde. I’m rather fond of superstitions myself. They make for very curious stories – like the one about another group of thirteen and Kaspar the black cat…
Unlucky Thirteen and a Lucky Black Cat
The story of Kaspar, the Savoy cat, began in 1898 when another table of thirteen didn’t end very well. Woolf Joel, a South African businessman who often stayed at the Savoy hotel, had a dinner party for some friends. There was supposed to be fourteen of them, but at the last minute one of them was unable to attend. This reduced them to a party of thirteen – an unlucky number. They enjoyed their meal, but at the end, one of the guests brought up the superstition that the first one to leave a table of thirteen would die within a year. They all laughed a bit nervously, then Mr. Joel, the host, got up saying that he didn’t believe in superstitions and that he would gladly be the first to leave.
He left for Johannesburg the next day where he was shot and died within a few weeks. This made people believe even more in the “unlucky thirteen superstition.” The Savoy Hotel was convinced too, and they wanted to make sure it never happened again at their establishment.
From then on, if there was ever a group of thirteen dining at the Savoy, the hotel would send one of the waiters to sit and eat with them. This made both the guests and the waiter uncomfortable. So, in 1926 the Savoy came up with a better idea. Since black cats bring good luck in the UK, they commissioned Basil Ionides, the architect who was rebuilding the Savoy Theatre, to design a large black “good luck cat” to sit with parties of thirteen.
The black art deco style cat, called Kaspar, is made of wood and is approximately two feet tall. Kaspar becomes the fourteenth guest and chases away the bad luck of any party of thirteen. He sits in his chair, with a napkin tied around his neck, and has a saucer of milk placed in front of him. He has become a beloved feature of the hotel.
Churchill and Kaspar
Winston Churchill was a fan of Kaspar the cat and often shared meals with him – no matter how many diners were present. Then during the Second World War, Kaspar was taken prisoner – not by the Nazis, but by some RAF officers who took him as a prank. Winston was not amused and made sure Kaspar was returned safe and sound.
Today, you can see Kaspar represented in the cat-shaped shrubs in front of the hotel. There is also a statuette of him in the hotel lobby and a restaurant named after him. If you are dining at the Savoy – even if you don’t have a table of thirteen – you can ask to see Kaspar. If he’s not busy bringing luck to other guests, he might be able to visit your table.
You can see Kaspar at the Savoy Hotel on the Strand, London WC2R 0EU
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