Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We Just Passed Twenty-Two: The 23 Hoodoo

Well, it seems my old buddy Barney Blalock of the Portland Waterfront has been bitten by the Weird Portland bug. Here is another post from Barney on a strange superstition that infected our great grandparents and influenced the weird development of Portland. Don't forget to read his latest book from the History Press -- Portland's Lost Waterfront.

In 1910 you could hop on board the East Ankeny and Rose City Park car as it stopped in front of the St. Charles Hotel on 2nd and Morrison. That was the last stop before the car rattled over the Morrison Bridge and off into the eastern wilds. The conductor, Harry Franks, would call out the stops, "East Watta, East Second, Grand Avenoo!" Then the car turned north on Grand and east again on Ankeny where the numbered streets began. It was the conductor's habit to call out the street numbers using the form, "nineteen," "twenty," "twenty-one," "twenty-two"—but when the car reached East 23rd, Franks would cry out, "We just passed twenty-two!" When a reporter questioned Franks about this little quirk, he replied:
It's an unimportant street, and I never like to announce it because some of my women passengers might think the number offensive.
This might seem an almost unfathonable line of reasoning to an observer from the present century, but I suggest that, reading between the lines, what the women passengers would find offensive would be the cat calls and cries of, "Skidoo!" from impudent young boys following the announced number. This number, 23, along with its fellow ominous interger, 13, combined with the words "hoodoo" and "skidoo" were quite the thing in the late 19th and early 20th century. Nearly everyone has heard the phrase, "23 skidoo," but very few 21st centuryites can fathom the meaning thereof. As a kid I had seen the phrase in old comic books and heard it in old movies. In later years I even looked it up and found some implausable story about the wind blowing up skirts on 23rd street in New York. The answer, however, like many things in this world, is not simple—and it is multi-faceted.
Hoodoo and skidoo, for instance, were sometimes used interchangeably in that blissful period before the Great War, when Bertie Wooster tossed rolls at the waiters in the Drones Club on the Pall Mall, and Tom Word busted opium smoking, West Hills dandies down in Chinatown, in Portland. These were overly used slang words of the period. Hoodoo, when refering to a sports team meant the same as the word mojo (or, magic) today, and it was usually good hoodoo, but sometimes it was bad. A headline might declare: "The Beavers Hoodo Broken," which meant that the Beavers had finally lost, blowing a winning streak. Skidoo, on the other hand, refered to the end, and was never a good thing. Skidoo often had some connection with the slang term, skedaddle, and many puns were penned by hack newsmen playing on the two meanings.
An example of this would be when, on August 23, 1906, some Columbia University (now University of Portland) students organized an unofficial and macabre "skidoo party" on the bluff of Mock's Crest. It was later declared by the Oregonian to have been the "very first on the Pacific coast, perhaps the whole world." (This was most likely cynical humor since skidoo parties were a nationwide craze.) They charged 23 cents admission and large crowds of young people arrived by streetcar. The puns in the news report were nonstop:
But the "skidoo" part of the programme came when the party undertook to "skidoo" into the Columbia University building, where there is a fine, large hall. They wanted to dance in that hall, but those in charge of the building said "skidoo." The young people insisted, but still the authorities remarked to them "23" and "skidoo."
And so the article continues, groaner after groaner.
There is a lot of hoodoo connected to the number 23, not the least being the "23 enigma" attributed in later years to William S. Burroughs ( In the late 19th century superstition about the number was rampant. The expression, "Twenty-three for you!" carried with it something of the meaning of today's, "Sucks to be you!" But it could also mean something akin to, "Buzz off sucker!" When a gambler threw down a losing card an onlooker might comment, "23 for you!" Then again, a spurned suitor might hear these same words from his would-be-beloved. Suicides would sometimes leave no note, other than the number 23 scrawled onto a page that lay on the floor, next to the kicked over chair, beneath where they hung.
From the viewpoint of the roulette tables the number was seen as a constant loser. A gambler who had a bad string of sour bets would put his last money on the number 23 as a way of signaling his defeat Someone whose luck had run dry would murmur, "23 for me." Someone who had passed out drunk would have been described as having "23ed," and the mentally disturbed were called "23s." It was said to have originated with telegraph operators who used the number as a means of clearing the line for an important call.
Another, less plausible story, has to do with Sing Sing prison's 23 steps from the main corridor to the workshops. Whether or not this is true, the expression did enter into the lexicon of rogues and criminals as a spiced up version of "Cheese it, the cops!" "Twenty-three skidoo!" was shouted by miscreants in the Bowery in New York City to alert their co-conspirators to the presence of the gendarmes. The expression then passed into common usage in much the same way that words from gangsta rap, such as "bling" and "dis" have entered common usage today.
For reasons not known to me (or anyone else this side of omniscience), the whole 23 skidoo mojo took off and became a nationwide rage. The entrepreneurs hopped on the skidoo wagon and sold every conceivable manner of gadget and garment emblazoned with the phrase. Like so many other overly hyped fads, it soon disappeared, becoming an archaic symbol of the "good old days," like raccoon coats, chicken inspector badges, and straw boater hats. When Americans found themselves in the great and terrible First World War, they lay aside many frivolous things. The term was over-hyped, and yesterday's news, which may explain why the superstition towards the number 23 is gone, but 13 remains.
Oh, how strongly that hoodoo of mysterious and powerful numbers held some folks in its grasp! In October 1911 the Oregonian reported how a man named J. A. Crawley was to be released from the state pen in Salem, but balked at the gate. It was Friday the 13th and he had 23 dollars in his pocket. He pleaded with the guards not to force him out on that ominous day with that ominous number in his pocket. (He could have just given one of the guards one of his dollars.) The story tells how prison officials found an uncle in New Orleans who would take the boy in. New Orleans being the very epicenter of hoodoo, I fear that he passed from the prison built of stones into a new prison of superstition built with bricks of ignorance.

1 comment:

  1. Great stories here, and I love how the train conductor thought 23rd Street to be unimportant. But, I found these origins of "23 skidoo" to be no more plausible than the New York story.

    More specifically, the NYC claim to the origin of 23 skidoo is not just the winds along 23rd Street, but specifically in front of the Flatiron Building at the multi-angled intersection of 23rd, 5th, and Broadway.

    When it was being built in 1902, locals knew of the winds and thought the oddly shaped building would never stand. They made bets regarding its eventual failure and where the rubble would fall. Before it was complete, the building was called "Burnham's Folly" after the foolish architect who thought it would work.

    23 Skidoo, however, was supposedly what the local cops would call out to scatter the men who would loiter around the intersection waiting for the winds to lift up the dress of a passing lady.