JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.
Every now and then a story appears in the newspapers that is apparently a striking confirmation of some one or other of the old superstitions that still cling to mankind. For the ordinary reader it is scarcely more than an out-of-the-way story. For those who have certain tendencies to believe superstitions and to be affected by them, such stories are often “confirmations strong as Holy Writ” of their peculiar notions. During the past few months a story regarding the number thirteen has been going the rounds with striking effect. It has been contradicted, categorically, but then contradictions never travel so fast or so far as the original story. The incident that forms the basis of the tale is taken from the biography of Sir John Millais, the English painter, and first appeared in the columns of M. A. P., Mr. T. P. O’Connor's London weekly, whose enigmatic title is translated into words as “Mostly About People.” According to the biographer, one day at dinner at Millais' house it was discovered that there were thirteen at table and one of the women diners was much disturbed. In order to reassure her, Mr. Matthew Arnold is said to have remarked: “Now the idea is that whoever leaves the table first will die within a year. With the permission of the ladies, then, we shall cheat fate for once. I and these fine strong lads,” pointing to two husky young fellows, “will all rise together and I think that our united constitutions will be able to stand the assault of the reaper.” According to the sequel of the story as told, Matthew Arnold died six months later, one of the young fellows committed suicide about the same time, and just within the year the third of the trio was drowned on the steamer Quetta off the coast of New Guinea.
HOW SUPERSTITIONS ARE REINFORCED.. JAMA. 2008;300(8):971. doi:10.1001/jama.300.8.971