by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho
As he approached the gallows on the morning of Friday, April 13, 1923, Gull Mohammed’s step was light. He nodded and smiled at the spectators he passed on his final stroll up the 13 steps that would launch the convicted murderer into Eternity.
All attempts to save his neck had failed, and at 10:17 a.m., the trap was sprung at San Quentin, a fitting end for the butcher of a Petaluma rancher named Ali Akbar, Mohammed’s very own business partner.
It took Akbar’s slayer twelve minutes to die.As another Friday the 13th passes at the dawning of a new year, the checkered legacy of the world’s unluckiest day leaves a curious trail of tomfoolery and terror in its cursed wake across the Central Valley.
A superstition with origins as murky as the tule fog blanketing a winter Valley, Friday the 13th marries the biblical and the pagan in a cursed pair of Last Suppers: that of the Bible’s New Testament, in which the 13th guest (Judas) brings about Christ’s Friday crucifixion, and that of Norse mythology, in which the 13th guest (Loki) sets in motion the killing of Baldur, a Norse sun god.
But the precise pairing of Friday with the number 13 wasn’t to occur until the 1881 founding of the superstition-defying Thirteen Club by New York business tycoon Captain William Fowler, whose lucky number was 13, and at whose macabre soirees sat 13 to a table for a 13-course meal, on the 13th of every month. (The Friday gatherings were savored with particular relish.)
But this fledgling superstition cemented itself in the public imagination with the 1907 publication of Thomas W. Lawson’s Wall Street novel Friday, the Thirteenth, about a greedy stockbroker manipulating the eponymous unlucky date to purposely crash the stock market.
But by 1923, the feared date’s infamy was on the wane, at least in the Central Valley. The day that saw Gull Mohammed meet his fate on the San Quentin gallows also bore witness to a veritable slew of ghoulish parties and dances.“Friday, the thirteenth, 1923, is some hoodoo date,” crowed The Fresno Morning Republican that particular Friday, April 13th. “But members of The Collegian staff, the bi-weekly publication of the State College of Fresno…[are] staging a benefit dance in the college gymnasium, and are confident that all the black cats, etc., couldn’t make a ‘mess’ of their party.”
And though his birthday actually fell on Tuesday, April 10th, one Henry McFarland, Jr., of Fresno, saved his birthday celebration for that unluckiest of dates. “Being Friday, the thirteenth, a hoodoo party was featured, when many rules of etiquette were disregarded,” the Republican reported Saturday, April 14th.
The capital city of Sacramento homed in on the Jinx Day hijinks as well, as the local Timoian Club threw a “hoodoo dance” at the Del Paso Country Club.
“Even the decorations brought the idea of the hoodoo,” according to The Sacramento Star
of Saturday, April 14th. “However, the entire group of guests showed evidences of enjoyment. There were 13 dances, 13 numbers showing the order of the 13 dances.”
Others felt as if the date itself was lucky, like Fresno County Superior Court bailiff Henry Russell, an 86-year-old Civil War veteran.“‘I joined the army on Friday, the thirteenth,’” Russell told The Fresno Bee that second Friday in April, “‘and fought during the Civil War, and came out unscratched. I’ve never had the so-called jinx day treat me badly yet, and I’m not expecting anything unusual to happen to-day.”
Some at the Fresno County Courthouse, however, were inclined to disagree with that sunny assessment. Pausing to each light a cigarette on the courthouse’s second-floor landing, a trio of young men all leaned over the same match.
Harrison Watson, of Kernville—the third one to light up—ignored his companions’ jests that “three on a match” was bad luck. “‘I have no fears, I have done it before,’” he boasted, continuing down the stairs. But “hardly had the words left his lips when he slipped and fell, about eight steps, to the bottom.” (“Some Fear Jinx” 1923)
“‘I have changed my [mind] about my former statement,’” Watson told The Fresno Morning Republican, “‘and especially on Friday the 13th.’”
And what of the supernatural on a day like Friday the 13th? The otherworldly forces of Fate were indeed at work for some.
“A premonition that Friday the Thirteenth would bring his misfortune, turned into realism yesterday for Frank Bosco, 21,” announced the Saturday, April 14th edition of The Fresno Morning Republican. As he cranked his automobile, the vaudeville artist found himself sprawling backward as “the engine backfired and the crank struck Bosco on the forehead.”
Bleeding from a gash in his forehead, Bosco made his way to the emergency room, where the laceration was duly patched up. And “vowing that, inasmuch as several hours of the ‘hoodoo day’ remained, he would be extremely careful to avoid returning to the [hospital].”
But for two Sacramento gentlemen, the day would welcome a literal miracle in the form of a car crash.
“Friday, the 13th, took on a new meaning to-day for S. Fred Bovyer, local automobile dealer, and E.J. Currier, prospective customer, when death swooped across their path, and escaped them by a matter of inches,” reported The Sacramento Bee on Friday, July 13, 1923. “A big touring car, in which they were driving out H Street, turned completely over at Eleventh Street, pinning both men to the pavement. And they escaped without a scratch!”
Speeding up to demonstrate the auto’s prowess, Bovyer attempted to outrun a delivery truck, only to find himself and Currier airborne before flipping over and sliding about twenty-five feet, their vehicle crunching itself up against the curb.
“‘This is my lucky day,’ said Currier, when after the first few minutes of shocks, he became articulate again… ‘Friday, the 13th!’ said Bovyer. ‘So it is, so it is. Gosh, I never thought of that! And still they call it unlucky!’”
As the hangman lowered the black hood over his head, Gull Mohammed found his final words muffled. The spring had never left his step, even as the trap was sprung.
But his neck did not snap as anticipated; he dangled, strangling for twelve long, agonizing minutes, fighting for one last breath on a beautifully blue spring day.
Friday the 13th.
“Rancher Found Dead; Partner Under Arrest.” The Los Angeles Evening Express, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 1921, p. 10.
“Friday the 13th Has No Terror for Members of the Exchange Club.” The Sacramento Bee, Monday, April 9, 1923, p. 6.
“Here is One Man Who Braves Jinx.” The Fresno Bee, Friday, April 13, 1923, p. 6.
“Collegians to Hurl Defy at 13, Friday in Dance.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Friday, April 13, 1923, p. 10.
“Some Fear Jinx, Some Don’t.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, April 14, 1923, p. 13.
“Mohammed Executed on Friday, 13th, at State Penitentiary.” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, April 14, 1923, p. 19.
“Timoians Give ‘Hoodoo Dance’ at Country Club.” The Sacramento Star, Saturday, April 14, 1923, p. 5.
“Henry McFarland, Jr., last night…” The Fresno Morning Republican, Saturday, April 14, 1923, p. 8.
“Friday—the 13th.” The Sacramento Star, Tuesday, July 10, 1923, p. 10.
“Friday, 13th, Lucky Enough for This Pair.” The Sacramento Bee, Friday, July 13, 1923, p. 19.
“Friday, the Thirteenth…By Buel.” The Fresno Bee, Friday, June 13, 1924, p. 12.
“Friday, the Thirteenth!” The Fowler Ensign, Thursday, Sept. 16, 1926, p. 2.
Giaimo, Cara. “The 1880s Supper Club That Loved Bad Luck.” Atlas Obscura, Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
Hastings, Christobel. “Why is Friday the 13th Unlucky?: The Cultural Origins of an Enduring Superstition.” CNN Style, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.