LUCK FOR SALE (Aug, 1954)
LUCK FOR SALE
Even the best of us ore superstitious and we pay magic-charm sellers millions of dollars yearly.
By Irv Leiberman
Cleveland, Ohio Gentlemen: I notice your Life Everlasting Herb and if it is so good and luckey 1 would like to have one. Also tell me how to use it.
I remane, Mr. B. F.
THIS actual letter, typical of thousands, is the foundation stone of many a huge business fortune. It represents the average customer in a series of flourishing and highly profitable superstition transactions.
Millions of Americans are in constant and ever hopeful search for ready-made luck and herbs to solve all their problems. And hundreds of energetic salesmen sell them almost anything their heart desires for a mere pittance.
A dozen large companies stud the big cities of America and function independently or collaboratively as the fountain-heads of occultism. They print dream books and package herbs; they mold magical candles and fill small bottles with perfumed chemicals bearing such exotic names as Bat’s Blood; they stuff little square boxes with Live Lodestone and Graveyard Dust. Then specially-trained salesmen dispose of them to the eager men and women all over the country.
Even many well-known people believe in luck charms. The hairy-chested novelist, Ernest Hemingway, a man who would seem far removed from misty beliefs, is a veteran carrier of good luck charms. For years, he kept an Old Indian luck stone in one of his pockets. One night during World War II when Hemingway was in London as a correspondent and was about to leave with a bombing squadron for a raid over Germany, he discovered the stone was missing.
Unwilling to leave without his lucky charm, he turned to a cleaning woman in the hall of his hotel and said, “Quick, give me something for luck!”
She handed him an old champagne cork. That night Hemingway’s plane, caught in a hail of flak, was scarcely able to limp back to base. The writer was the only occupant unscratched. He still carries the cork. As a matter of fact, he had it with him when he was involved in the recent African incident in which he escaped from not one plane crash but two!
The theatre world is honeycombed with strange beliefs about good luck omens. Almost every well-known actor or actress has pet superstitions. For many years before Rita Hayworth became a star, she could be seen, before stepping on the set, slipping a shiny new dime under the garter on her left leg. “This is for luck,” she explained. Although few observers would attribute her luck to the presence of that dime, few will deny that she has had good luck.
When Jane Cowl began her career, Belasco gave her a doll. It brought luck and never left her dressing room. Helen Hayes has always prized the frayed rabbit’s foot with which she dabbed rouge on her face for her first appearance on the stage.
Americans are probably no more superstitious than any other people, but in putting their luck beliefs into concrete form they have put this peculiar kind of know-how into big-business brackets. Official sales figures show that in this country more than 10,000,000 rabbits’ feet and 3,333,000 plastic-covered four-leaf clovers are sold annually.
Americans’ insistent belief in Lady Luck put Charles Brand of New York City into the rabbit foot business in 1938 and has kept him there—at a profit—ever since. Known as the Rabbit Foot King, Brand has turned out about 1,000,000 of these furry charms annually for the past 15 years in his rabbit-foot factory in New York’s fur district and has cleaned up a small fortune in doing it.
Although Brand does not guarantee his product, he has a lot of faith in it. Not only have rabbits’ feet changed his own luck, he says, but he [Continued on page 218] is constantly getting enthusiastic letters from satisfied customers.
One came from a happy bride who had been a lonely middle-aged spinster until she risked a dime on a rabbit’s foot. With the bunny’s paw in her purse she set out for a Florida vacation. Within two weeks she reported she had bagged a husband on the beach.
“Ninety per cent of the people are superstitious,” Brand says. “It isn’t just the country folks, either, who like to have a luck-inducer on a chain. Actually, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta are the biggest markets.”
Brand wears bunny paws himself and is rarely at a loss to prove their mystic power. His favorite experience recently concerned the time he was on a train and noticed a little old woman across the aisle weeping bitterly. As he got off at his station, he dropped a rabbit foot, along with a note, in her lap.
“I don’t know your trouble, but I hope this will help,” he had written.
She showed up in his shop a few weeks ago, full of smiles. “That was a wonderful day when you presented me with that rabbit foot, son,” she announced. “I’d been losing my shirt on the horses before and that was why I was weeping. But ever since, my luck has been unbelievably good.”
Four-leaf clovers are big business for Charles Donald Fox, onetime Hollywood publicity man. To date he has sold 30,000,000 to countless Americans who carry them on key chains, to big companies which use them in advertising cards, calendars and souvenirs and to men’s accessory manufacturers who put them into suspenders, cuff links and tie pins.
Back in 1938 while on a cruise through the Panama Canal, Fox ran into Chester T. Daniels, a man who doubled as chief telephone operator for the Canal Zone’s telephone system and amateur horticulturist. In his latter capacity he had been successful in cultivating a strain of clover that produced only four-leaf specimens.
“Ship them to me just as fast as you grow them,” Fox told Daniels. “I’ll take your entire output.”
Fox did. During the years that have passed, Fox has virtually enjoyed a four-leaf clover monopoly.
Of course Brand’s bunny paws an4 Fox’s clovers are honest, legitimate enterprises, but there are also many swindlers in the superstition field. Some of them sell their wares by mail through the company catalogue, an elaborately designed affair that appeals gaudily and directly to the lowliest dreams of fame and sexual power, health and wealth, and categorically promise the attainment of them all.
Here are a few excerpts from one such catalogue: Five Finger Grass—hang over bedstead to ward off evil.
Smellage Root—Rub on foot of person who has been a bad influence.
Life Everlasting Herb—said to prolong life; one teaspoonful to one cup of water.
The response to these catalogues is constant and tremendous. The file of original letters making inquiries or purchases is cross-indexed by name, product and geographical location. Known frankly as the sucker list, it is the blood and tissue of the superstition rackets and insurance of a perennial golden harvest of orders and cash. Indeed, it forms a business in itself for one distributor will rent it to another at prices ranging from $12 to $30 for each 1,000 names.
Sometimes these mail-order companies have to be on the lookout for customers who decide to pay a personal call. For example, one such man (whom we shall call Carl S.) who lived in the Bronx, trekked to a New York City mail-order firm in answer to an ad in a cultist magazine concerning the magic of a wondrous “pendulum.”
Carl asked to see the president, who immediately went straight into a lecture on how he first got interested in the pendulum in Syria when he saw a character walking along with one, stopping occasionally to dig in the ground.
“When the pendulum began to swing, he dug,” explained the president. “Always he came up with some valuable old vase or some other buried relic—worth lots of money.”
Carl said his wife was crazy about antiques and that was just the sort of instrument he needed.
The man then explained that the swinging of the pendulum could tell you the darndest things. “For example,” he said, “the pendulum can predict the sex of an unborn child. It can advise you what to do about your business, counsel you in love and marriage, find long lost relatives (if you want to find them) and tell you where to go on your vacation.”
When Carl left the talkative swindler—he also left $3.95 for the “magic pendulum.” Not only did this instrument fail to bring Carl luck, it cost him $125 to pay the man who fixed up his back yard after Carl had dug holes all over his land.
To the superstitious folks of the circus, luck charms are as necessary as food. Un fortunately, these good luck tokens don’t always do their job well.
Several years ago a lucky shoestring failed to save Rosello, billed as the Man in the Moon, on opening night of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden. He lost his grip while sliding down a rope after finishing his act of spinning on his head on a platform 70 feet above the ground and crashed heavily, breaking both wrists and suffering internal harts.
Another circus performer with Barnum and Bailey who learned that his good luck charm was not infallible was Alfred Court, the famous animal trainer. One day, Doutchka, a rare and beautiful Siberian snow leopard with a large, bushy tail, got caught in the runway at rehearsal with Indo, a savage Indian leopard. Indo promptly killed the highly trained and extremely valuable Doutchka. As if this were not enough bad luck for the trainer who always wore a charm on his shirt, a little while later, Indo, still excited, burst out of his cage and clawed the face of Alfred Court. So you see, lucky charms don’t always work.
“Superstition,” says Professor Brew ton Berry of Ohio State University (who estimates that $1,000,000 is spent annually in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama for charms, magic philters, hoodoo bags and similar gimmicks), “is just a euphonious term for our ignorance.
“Surrounded by a world we do not fully understand, we lazily fall prey to escapes, to easy ways out, to laying off the responsibility for our decisions and our fate upon talismans, charms and pagan rites.”
Jimmy Dykes, while he was the hardheaded leader of the Chicago White Sox, hooted at players who professed a belief in the lucky properties of certain uniform numbers but one day his locker was found to be chock-full of horseshoes, rabbits’ feet, four-leaf clovers, wishbones, sharks’ teeth, and other equally potent talismans.
Some ball players have suffered unbelievably because of their belief in superstition. For example, a taboo on bathing led to some decidedly uncomfortable days for the New York Giants a few years ago.
After a bad losing streak the Giants finally won a ball game, and on that same day the player responsible for the victory developed a case of itch. Luck and the itch were put together like two and two, and the other players wouldn’t let him take a bath or do anything else to relieve the ailment although it was contagious.
After that the Giants kept winning day after day and soon half the team was scratching and squirming. None of them dreamed of bathing or employing other anti-itch measures, however, until an opposing pitcher finally took them to the cleaners.
Fighters, too, have been especially prone to believe in luck. The most superstitious of all was John L. Sullivan. Sullivan had a standing, ironclad rule: the other fighter had to enter the ring before him.
Only once did John L. slip up on this ritual —and once was enough. At the memorable bout in New Orleans, in 1892, the other fighter, aware of the champion’s belief, preceded him down the aisle to the edge of the ring. Then the opponent suddenly whirled and backtracked toward his dressing room. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said, as he brushed by Sullivan and his manager, “I forgot something.”
Left at the ringside and greeted by cheering crowds, Sullivan had no choice but to climb in. Twenty-one rounds later he was a has-been; the polite jinx-setter was “Gentleman Jim” Corbett.
Important people in politics believe in luck, too. Until his death George Washington, one of the most unsuperstitious of men, carried in his hip pocket the gold piece he happened to have with him the day of his inauguration. The late Mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, had a favorite campaign superstition, also. Toward the close of every campaign he always put on an ancient black overcoat “for luck.” Even President Eisenhower is reported to carry with him seven old, time-worn gold coins.
There are several hundred thousand luck beliefs known today. Most of them exist in so many forms that the problem of classifying them seems nearly impossible. Research seems to make only one point clear; everybody believes in luck—even the skeptics.
Many a sage has tried to nail down just what “luck” really is, but no one has come closer than the hardy New England farmer who once remarked, “I’m always luckiest with the potatoes I hoe the most.”