Unlucky 13

Maybe NH Politicians need all the luck they can get
illustration by peter noonan

The New Hampshire Statehouse is a lot of things. It is the oldest continuously used statehouse in the country. The building houses the third-largest legislature in the English-speaking world. But did you know it is also a place for superstition?

This February there will be a Friday the 13th, which in Western culture is considered to be a day that brings bad luck. It turns out that because of a superstitious state legislator there are also no seats labeled 13 in the House. It has been this way since 1958.

How we got there is a case of politics, of course. In 1957 the New Hampshire House voted to buy new chairs for their chamber, replacing ones that had been installed in 1900. While the purchase had been approved in concept, there appeared to be a lot of argument about where they would be bought and how much they would cost.

In 1958 Gov. Lane Dwinell found himself in a standoff with the state Executive Council on the process of how to purchase new chairs for the House; there was an issue about the two main bids that were submitted. He favored a company in Boston and the council preferred a cheaper bid from Canton, Mass.

This back and forth went on for seven months. (This may have contributed to the fact that years later Dwinell, as a former governor, advocated during a constitutional convention abolishing the Executive Council because it was “archaic and obsolete” and tied the hands of a governor.)

"Since 1865 there had been five seats in different sections with the number 13."

But when it came to the chairs, it is not as though the governor and Executive Council could take up the matter later. When the House had closed their session earlier, they let members take their chairs home with them.

It got to the point where an election was about to happen and a new session was starting in three months. According to one newspaper account, the Statehouse chamber resembled a “skating rink.”

In late September Dwinell went on vacation out of the country. It was at this time when an 87-year-old veteran lawmaker, Joseph Geisel of Manchester, presented Acting Governor Earlsey Ferguson a check for $23,134 to buy the new chairs. They would use the company Dwinell preferred. After then-Attorney General Louis Wyman signed off on the idea that Geisel could do this, it was done.

Geisel said that part of the reason he did it was selfish — he didn’t want to stand up the whole time. He also said he didn’t want to be paid back, but if the next legislature wanted to pay him back, he’d take the money. In 1959 they paid him back.

But there was just one request from Geisel that came with the original check: He wanted the number 13 removed from all House seats. Since 1865, when Representatives Hall was enlarged, there had been five seats in different sections bearing the number 13.

It’s unclear if the luck of NH government improved as a result, but Statehouse leaders granted him that request and it has been that way ever since.

Categories: Politics