Breaking mirrors. Spilling salt. Walking under ladders. Lighting a third cigarette with one match. The list of arcane superstitions influencing the behavior and peace of mind of human beings around the world is, it seems, almost limitless. And for the superstitious, no day holds as much peril as Friday the 13th. The very thought of, say, a black cat crossing one’s path on such a day is enough to send ordinarily sane men and women into conniptions.
But for a group of Chicago-based businessmen and inveterate debunkers in the middle part of the last century, each Friday the 13th was the perfect opportunity to point out how thoroughly preposterous — and, from an economic point of view, how counterproductive — such fears can be. In December 1941, LIFE magazine photographer William C. Shrout attended a dinner of the venerable Anti-Superstition Society of Chicago, and came away with incontrovertible proof that just because grown men don’t believe in fairy tales doesn’t mean they’re opposed to having a good time.
As LIFE explained to its readers in its Jan. 6, 1941, issue, in which some of the photos in this gallery first appeared:
At 6:13 p.m. on Friday, the 13th of December, 169 audacious and irreverent gentlemen sat down to dine at 13 tables in Room 13 of the Merchants & Manufacturers Club of Chicago. Each table seated 13. Upon each rested an open umbrella, a bottle of bourbon and 13 copies of a poem called The Harlot. The speaker’s table was strewn with horseshoes, old keys, old shoes, mirrors and cardboard black cats. Before it reposed an open coffin with 13 candles. The occasion was the 13th Anniversary Jinx-Jabbing Jamboree and Dinner of the Anti-Superstition Society of Chicago … [which] meets regularly on Friday the 13th. (There have been 13 Friday the 13th’s in the last eight years.) Behind the ribaldry of its recurrent dinners lies the very sound thesis that superstition annually costs this country an inexcusable sum of time and money. People postpone trips because of mirrors and cats. Businessmen defer decisions because of calendrical coincidences.
To combat these persistent bogies, the Society has assembled much counter-evidence. According to mathematical laws of probability, one of 13 guests of different ages at any dinner party may very well die within a year. But the ratio of probability will soar even higher if 14 guests attend. One corpse out of 18 is a 50-to-50 bet.
Happy Friday the 13th, everyone. Go spill some salt on a black cat beneath a ladder, or something.