In the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea I first encountered the rudiments of the 23 enigma. As the history of the origin of the 23 enigma has it, Robert Anton Wilson first heard of this puzzling bit of Forteana from William Burroughs. Writes Wilson in the May, 2007 issue of Fortean Times:
"According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark's ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23."
This chain of events so struck Burroughs, that he began to collect data on odd incidents and synchronicities involving the number 23. The 23 enigma did not, however start with Burroughs' Captain Clark in the 1960's. Neither did it start with what is probably the earliest example from Burroughs' collection of cases involving the 23 enigma and notorious gangster Dutch Schultz during the 1930's. Inspired by Burroughs, Wilson began to collect data on the 23 enigma after 1965, and it is said that he believed that Burroughs' was the first person to notice the 23 enigma. But that notion of the 23 enigma can be found decades earlier as the following three examples demonstrate.
I was leafing through the pages of the German pre- second world war occult periodical Zentralblatt für Okkultismus, in search of something else, when I found an intriguing item on page 460 in its July, 1930 edition. It was written by Rolf Zahlmann and entitled 'Schicksalszahlen' (Fateful Numbers).
Rolf Zahlmann, Schickzahlszahlen, Zentralblatt für Okkultismus, July 1930.
In it, Zahlmann writes:
"Eight years ago I read in the book Der Geist meines Vaters by Maximilian Dauthendey, that the number 23 had played a possessive part in his life. The occult began to resound in my being. I was curious, if in my life too, a number would obtain a special meaning. To my surprise I noticed that I was a companion in fate of my fellow country man. I am born at a twentythird...."
After which Zahlmann lists a number of correlations in eventful affairs in his life with the number 23, ending with the remark:
"...The list could be substantially expanded."
Zahlmann referred to German painter, poet and writer Maximilian Dauthendey (1867 - 1918). Dauthendey's Der Geist Meines Vaters was published in Germany in 1912. About his strange affiliation with the number 23, and describing himself as a ‘numbers fanatic' who kept a keen eye on lucky and unlucky numbers in daily life, Dauthendey had this to say:
"My burdensome fateful number that accompanies me throughout the entire life is the number 23. Twentythree years after the death of my mother my father died, and I can be certain, that always the twentythird of the month delivers some burdening message, a twist of fate, a rare case of luck or an extraordinary case of bad luck..."
Max Dauthendey, Der Geist meines Vaters, München, Albert Langen Verlag, 1921 edition.
Then there is the strange case of motorcycle patrolman Charles Stahl, of Alton, Illinois. The 23 enigma somehow had developed a liking for him. "No. 23 Following Patrolman Stahl", as the header of a short article in the Alton Evening Telegraph of 30 October, 1940, announced.
"Motorcycle Patrolman Charles Stahl of 436a East Eight street waited with interest today to see if it were to be 23 for him as result of the draft lottery in the national capitol.
"Stahl rides city motorcycle No.23 which bears city licence No.23 And between 2 and 3 p.m. Monday he rode to the headquarters of the local draft board in the Armory of Battery F of the 123rd Field Artillery to see what number had been assigned him.
"It was No. 2323."
Alton Evening Telegraph, Alton, Illinois, 30 October 1940.
Stahl returned the curious affliction that the 23 enigma had for him. He tried to secure a state automobile licence numbered 232323. As the Alton Evening Telegraph of 17 December, 1940, noted:
"His request was not precisely filled. He drew number 232322. "Those 23's are evidently in real demand, Stahl remarked."
Alton Evening Telegraph, Alton, Illinois, 17 December 1940.
The strange twist in Stahl's 23 enigma was published nationwide in a number of American newspapers (sofar I counted four), with headers such as ‘Figure 23 Dominates Cycle Patrolman's Days' and ‘Blue Coat Finds Figure 23 Important.'