One of the earliest memories I have of Hallowe’en is watching Disney’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I was thrilled by the almost relaxing chaos of a world turned topsy-turvy by spooks and ghosts. Perhaps life was out of our hands, perhaps we had to be careful where we stepped. That was fascinating to me as a five year old. I remembered Ichabod Crane avoiding ladders and black cats, and taking care to toss spilled salt over his shoulder. I diligently copied his example (to my mother’s chagrin), before it was explained to me that superstitions are silly and those who follow them are fools.
But sometimes – as I learned watching Ichabod’s careful traipsing around evil omens – it feels good to be a fool. What follows are thirteen of the weirdest and most devoutly believed Victorian superstitions.
Here at Oldstyle Tales, we have an appreciation for the nightside of Victoriana (The Best Victorian Ghost Stories was my first book), and if you share that feeling, you’ll enjoy this sample of 19th century anxiety. Maybe read them and laugh, or maybe – even if it’s just for today – let yourself be a fool. Throw that spilled salt over your shoulder and grin.
13. OMENS OF DEATH
There are so many! The Victorians were famously death-obsessed, and – living as they did in a world where death was never far away – they developed an intricate code for detecting the Grim Reaper’s presence. Some included seeing an owl during daylight, noticing a sparrow land on a piano, seeing a single snowdrop in a garden, or seeing your face in a dream. With death always around the corner, Victorians found comfort in detecting ways to predict his arrival – even if it meant thinking that your death was eminent just because you had cheese before bed.
12. BEWARE OF THREES
“Celebrities die in threes.” This superstition is still believed today, but in Victoriana, you didn’t have to be famous to suffer it. After two deaths in a family, a third was anticipated. Another variation (developed in World War One) held that if three people lit their cigarettes off of one match, the third was a goner (this was more due to snipers than spirits).
11. CEMETERY PROTOCOL
Before electric street lamps, cemeteries (still no cheery places) were even more chilling at night, and walking past them was no treat. Andrew Carnegie famously remembered holding his breath as he walked past a graveyard in his youth, and his approach was not original: one superstition held that by doing this, you prevent possession. Another said that if you managed to hold your breath the entire way, you would never be buried alive.
I always was fascinated by stories of clocks stopped by moments of tragedy: wristwatches, pocket watches, or wall clocks frozen in time by explosions, train derailments, or shipwrecks. The Victorians made sure that if nature didn’t stop the clock after a death, someone living did: it was considered unlucky not to stop all the clocks in a house at the moment of a death – failing to do so invited more bad fortune, and disrespected the lost life.
As mentioned previously, dreams – that glimpse into the uncanny – were considered a portal to the supernatural. Dreaming of yourself was never good, but there was much more that could leave a Victorian waking up in a cold sweat: dreaming about a birth was ironically a sure sign of coming death. Other ominous nocturnal guests include black cats sitting on a bed, bees swarming in a rotten tree, owls perched on a rooftop, dogs scratching on the floor, a shark following a ship, a white horse, white rabbit, or a cow giving birth to twins.
8. EVIL FLYERS
Birds are usually considered signs of good fortune: cardinals, albatrosses, doves. But some put the fear of God into Victorians. Little sparrows were believed to carry the souls of the dead to heaven, and killing one was considered a quick way to get your own personal haunting. Owls, of course, have long been feared for their intelligent, grumpy eyes, twisting heads, and plaintive hoot. To see one looking in your window was a sure sign of impending death. Crows and bats are also ill omened: to see six crows was a fatal omen, and bats were considered messengers of the devil (hence “like a bat out of hell”), bringing no good luck to those who encountered them.
Mirrors were tremendously expensive until the industrial revolution, and their ability to portray an absolute reproduction of reality was understandably mesmerizing. Throw in the way that right-to-left is shifted to left-to-right, and it makes sense that it was considered a mystical apparatus. Mirrors seemed to capture the soul, and to break one (especially one that has just been holding your image) was thought to invite a karmic reply to the non-mirror-world.
Ichabod was right! Salt – once a precious commodity believed to have supernatural powers of preservation and protection – was not something to waste foolishly. And yet, if accidentally spilled, the ancient wisdom held that an offering must immediately be made to prevent bad luck from following it. The correct treatment of this superstition is to toss salt over the left shoulder with the right hand. Medieval Christians believed that Satan stood at God’s left hand, and hence was always hovering over our left shoulder. Throwing the salt blinded Satan and distracted him from blighting you.
5. EVIL ANIMALS
Victorians – and many of the generations that proceeded them – felt that certain animals were best left alone. Often considered a Christian invention, the famous fear of black cats actually comes from pagan beliefs: Celts feared the shapeshifting witch Cat Sidhe who took the form of a black cat with a white patch on her chest, and numerous pagan religions told of black cats who turned into wicked witches in the moonlight. Black dogs were also nerve-wracking mammals to encounter (possible hell hounds, you know), as were solitary grey horses, which -- if their hooves point backwards -- could prove to be a malicious kelpie (both leftovers from pagan superstitions about malevolent fairies).
4. FUNERAL PROCEDURES
The Victorians breathed in death. They held wakes at home and carried bodies from their houses to the graveyard with no intermediaries like we have today. If you ran into a funeral procession – a common experience – it was considered bad luck to continue in the same direction: regardless of what you were doing, it was wisest to turn in the opposite direction. If you had to continue the same way, discreetly squeezing a button the whole way was a possible preventative.
3. KEEPING BAD LUCK AT BAY
Elementary school was a veritable master’s program in superstition. During Halloween kids taught each other about what not to do to attract bad luck. On Saint Patrick’s Day, we learned the more positive folk wisdom on how to be lucky. Four leaf clovers were a sure sign of good fortune: they were rare, and the number four – the same number of letters in Yahweh, the Hebrew name of God – has been considered lucky since Ancient Babylon. Found horseshoes also promised positive things, and would bring good fortune if nailed with the ends up (like a goblet to catch and retain the luck raining from heaven) over a threshold. Many barns still have a horseshoe nailed over their big doors. Found pennies were also fortuitous – unless you gave them away. Knocking on wood (the medium of spirits) would also frighten away the evil ones, and crossing your fingers (along with sanctifying a lie) created an impromptu holy sign, warding off gremlins and the sort.
2. UMBRELLAS, LADDERS, AND CRACKS
These three popular jinxes were at one time required curriculum for every school child (I knew and respected each of them with the solemn awe of a Midwestern second grader). It is unlucky to step on a crack (the adage warns us that to do so will invite your mother’s back to be broken – a truly bizarre and terrifying consequence). It’s origins are obscure to this day. Walking under a ladder will invite misfortune (some associated it with the ladders used by hangmen, others claimed that the triangle created by leaning a ladder on a wall represented the Trinity, and to pass through it invited the devil to follow you), and opening an umbrella inside invites evil spirits to plague you for seven years. Worse yet, a Victorian variation on this warned that if you drop an umbrella inside a house, that house would eventually be the site of a murder. Yikes.
1. NUMBER 13 / FRIDAY THE 13th
This one is famously obscure. The most popular theories are that thirteen people sat down to eat at the Last Supper (the night of Jesus’ betrayal), and that the Knights Templar were arrested on Friday the 13th. It is also one digit away from 12 – a holy number in all Abrahamic religions – and 14 – the double of 7, another holy number in Judaism. Sitting awkwardly between the two, it seems like an unwanted step child. Friday the 13th is especially unlucky because Christ was crucified on a Friday. Bad things happen every day, but we remember the ones that happen on Friday the 13th (see: confirmation bias), and consider it a day to avoid risky ventures. My favorite 13 superstition is the “Thirteen at Dinner” belief that if thirteen people sit down to dinner, the first among them to rise will die at some point in the coming year. Talk about an awkward way to end a party.
You can read more macabre details of Victorian life, culture, and art in our ghostly tome, The Best Victorian Ghost Stories: Tales of the Macabre -- an annotated and illustrated collection of the Victorian era's most bizarre and unforgettable supernatural tales.