The number 13 has been unlucky for centuries. Some historians peg the superstition to the 13 people who attended the Last Supper (neither Jesus nor Judas came out of that one O.K.), but ancient Babylon’s Code of Hammurabi omits the number 13 in its list of laws, so the superstition dates back to at least 1700 BC. Thirteen is so unlucky, in fact, that in 1881 an organization called the Thirteen Club attempted to improve the number’s reputation. At the first meeting, the members (all 13 of them) walked under ladders to enter a room covered with spilled salt. The club lasted for many years and grew to more than 400 members, including five U.S. Presidents: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Despite the club’s efforts, triskaidekaphobia (that’s fear of the number 13) flourished; even today, most tall buildings don’t have a 13th Floor.
The number’s association with Friday, however, didn’t take hold until the 20th century. In 1907, eccentric Boston stockbroker Thomas Lawson published a book called Friday the Thirteenth, which told of an evil businessman’s attempt to crash the stock market on the unluckiest day of the month. Thanks to an extensive ad campaign, the book sold well: nearly 28,000 copies within the first week. In 1916 the book was turned into a feature-length silent film.
Wall Street’s superstitions about Friday the 13th continued through 1925, when the New York Times noted that people “would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path.” Some stock traders also blamed Black Monday — Oct. 19, 1987 — on the fact that three Fridays fell on the 13th that year. The Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute estimates that $700-$800 million dollars are lost every Friday the 13th because of people’s refusal to travel, purchase major items or conduct business.