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May 14, 2016

Remembering Philly's wacky Friday the 13th Club

Group met for decades to debunk superstitions

Twenty years ago, one in four Americans considered themselves superstitious. Not among them were 13 men who, for decades, met in Philly to break mirrors, let black cats cross their paths and walk under ladders.

The year's first — and only — Friday the 13th came and went in May, and if the Friday the 13th Club was still around, they would have convened for the 80th consecutive year.

The club was founded by philanthropist Philip Klein on March 13, 1936. Klein and a group of friends decided to take Ben Franklin's advice of celebrating Friday the 13th like a holiday, according to a 1995 Associated Press story.

And boy, was the club something. When they'd meet for lunch, they'd open black umbrellas indoors, throw the salt over their right shoulder and "generally poke fun at popular notions of bad luck," the AP story says.

Stock footage of one luncheon shows a bizarre display of monkeys, skeletons and the gamut of "bad luck" symbols.

Were there unexplainable consequences to defying superstitions? No, one club member told AP, saying all the under-the-ladder walking never netted him any bad luck.

While members never took their myth-busting club too seriously, they did have rules: Only 13 members (obviously — new members could only join if someone died or left), never meet in the same place twice, and the club must disband in 2000.

Which it did. At 12:13 p.m. on October 13, 2000, the club had their final meeting at the Swann Memorial Fountain on the Ben Franklin Parkway; a calendar marking all the 13ths chalked up by Klein explained, "To give the world a break we should all be dead by 2001."

By the time of the last lunch, Klein had passed away, according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story. But his family helped continued the tradition up until its final hurrah, with his 66-year-old son and 82-year-old younger brother in attendance.

Bala Cynwyd resident Murray Saltzman, who had been in the club since the 1970s, told the Inquirer about the unusually simple way he was initiated:

"I was doing business with the Kleins since the '60s. I'm in the insurance business. My office was at Fifth and Chestnut. One day, I'm walking in front of the Bourse Building and see people walking under a ladder. And I see Phil Klein.

I asked him, 'What are you up to?'

He said, 'It's Friday the 13th.'

I said, 'So?'

"He said, 'This is the Friday the 13th Club.'

‘What else do you do?'

'Not much.'

'How do I make an application?'

"'You just did.'

Couple of years later, I got a phone call: 'Are you available at lunchtime?'"

Sixteen years later, the memory of the Friday the 13th Club is not lost. Margaret Downey, originally of West Chester, has been hosting parties on the ominous day since 1996, according to a recent profile in Time. She was inspired by the Philly club and started her own.

Max Buten, 83, one of the handful of remaining living members of the Philly club, told Time he did crash his bike on a Friday the 13th once, spending the night in the hospital for a concussion.

That could have just been a coincidence, though.