It’s no mere figure of speech to say that Colonel Harland Sanders (1890-1980), founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) fast food empire, was a legend in his own time. Images of the bespectacled, impeccably tailored, elderly southern gentleman grinning behind a white mustache and chin whiskers rival those of Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara as icons of 20th-century pop culture. Famously, Sanders’ life had more ups and downs than the hero of a Dickens novel, making his success story all the more improbable.
Born into poverty, he went to work at a very young age, picking up meager paychecks as a farmhand, a blacksmith, a soldier, railroad fireman, buggy painter, streetcar conductor, janitor, lawyer, insurance salesman, ferry operator, and countless other jobs before it ever even occurred to him to go into the restaurant business.
Sanders played an active role in the creation of his own myth, churning out two separate autobiographies, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger-Lickin’ Good (1974) and The Autobiography of the Original Celebrity Chef (written in 1966, published in 2012). As the Colonel told it, his life story was more one of self discovery than a rags-to-riches tale: He was at an advanced age when he realized that making food was his thing, and at an even later age, he finally figured out how to get rich doing it.
Predictably, the Internet invented its own abbreviated version of Colonel Sanders’ life story — actually, several versions, each with its own omissions and inaccuracies — distilling it into a timeline of losses and failures paving the way for eventual world domination (plus a moral statement, e.g., “You’re never too old, don’t give up trying!” — as if the point could have somehow escaped us).
With the caveat that even now some of the details of the Colonel’s life are in dispute (and it appears he wasn’t always the most reliable witness to the events of his own life ), we’ll take our best shot at verifying the accuracy of one of the Internet’s favorite memes: The Life of Colonel Harland Sanders.
At age 5 his Father died.
True. Harland Sanders was born in 1890. His father, Wilbert D. Sanders, died in 1895 when Harland was only five years old. (Some published sources say he was six, but the year of Wilbert’s death is listed on his tombstone, presumably accurately, as 1895.)
At age 16 he quit school.
False. He quit before that. According to Sanders himself, he dropped out of school just two weeks into the seventh grade, at the age of 13.
At age 17 he had already lost four jobs.
Roughly true. By his own account, Sanders had already held at least half a dozen jobs by the time he was 17. He didn’t “lose” them all, however. He was fired from his first job working as a farmhand at the age of 10, and received such a harsh upbraiding from his mother that he resolved never to let it happen again. Between then and the age of 18, he worked at several more farms, as a carriage painter in Indianapolis, as a streetcar conductor in New Albany, Indiana, as a U.S. Army soldier in Cuba, and in various capacities for the Southern Railroad.
At age 18 he got married.
True. Sanders married the first woman he fell in love with, Josephine King of Jasper, Alabama, in 1908. He was 18 years old.
Between ages 18 and 22, he was a railroad conductor and failed.
Partly true. Sanders worked for various railroads during the early years of his marriage, all the while studying law by mail (“I had an idea that someday I’d be another Clarence Darrow,” he later wrote) and jumping from one job to the next to stay employed. We’ve read two different versions of how he came to leave that industry. As Sanders told it, he decided he’d worked his last day on the railroad when he realized he could make more money settling the cases of workers injured in a rail accident than he could stoking steam engines, and embarked on a law career. Another source holds that he was fired from the Rock Island line after getting in a fistfight with a co-worker. In any case, it’s not precisely accurate to say he was altogether a “failure” in the railroad business.
He joined the army and washed out there.
Partly true. As noted above, Sanders did join the Army, served in Cuba, and was honorably discharged after six months (albeit, according to some accounts, because it was discovered he was underage).
He applied for law school and was rejected.
False. As noted above, Sanders studied law, but it was via correspondence courses, not in a physical law school. Apart from that, it doesn’t appear that he applied to or was rejected from any law schools. Some sources claim he acquired a law degree, though by his own account he did not. However, while taking courses he did practice law (of a sort) in a Justice of the Peace court in Little Rock, Arkansas:
That move to Little Rock was a milestone in my life. I was there for three years studying law, reading the material La Salle sent me, and reading in the office of Judge Iscreed. When any of my cases had to go to a higher court, a court above the Justice of the Peace Court, if I didn’t win in the J.P. Court, I turned them over to the judge. He’d take them from there on in and we’d split the fee. It was a slim living, but I was getting by.
Then, I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.
He became an insurance salesman and failed again.
Partly true. When he tired of being what amounted to a paralegal, he took a job as a salesman with Prudential Life Insurance Company, and was so successful during his first year that he was promoted to an executive position. He later wrote that he stayed in the insurance business “for quite awhile,” although, according to Josh Ozersky in Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, Sanders was fired from Prudential and moved on to another insurance company in Louisville.
At age 19 he became a father.
True. Sanders’ first child, Margaret, was born on 29 March 1910, when he was 19 years old. His second child, Harland Jr., was born in 1912, and his third, Mildred, in 1919.
At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby daughter.
Unclear. In his 1974 autobiography, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good, Sanders relates an incident that occurred while he was still working on the railroad, around the age of 20, involving the departure of his wife with “the kids” (although he had only had one child by that age). It was summarized on the Great Indoorsman blog as follows:
Sanders married Josephine King and started a family, but after his boss fired him for insubordination while he was on a trip, Josie stopped writing him letters. He then learned that Josie had left him, given away all their furniture and household goods, and taken the kids back to her parents’s home. Josie’s brother wrote Sanders a letter saying, “She had no business marryin’ a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job.”
He became a cook and dishwasher in a small cafe.
Undetermined. Given all the various jobs Harland Sanders held, it’s certainly possible, even probable, that he accepted work as a cook and a dishwasher, though we didn’t find a specific reference to it.
He failed in an attempt to kidnap his own daughter, and eventually he convinced his wife to return home.
Apparently roughly true. This is Sanders’ account of the denouement of the episode in which his wife, Josephine, left him with one (or more) of the kids, as summarized in the Great Indoorsman blog:
Sanders went to Jasper, Alabama, where the Kings lived, and hid in the woods near his in-law’s house, planning to kidnap his children when they came out to play. When the kids failed to come outside, Sanders came out of the woods and talked with his father-in-law on the porch, then went inside and made peace with his wife.
At age 65 he retired.
False. By age 65, Sanders was the successful owner of a combo service station, motel, and cafe in Corbin, Kentucky, but the business started tanking when the nearby interstate highway was rerouted, so Sanders was forced to sell it off at a loss. He did not regard himself as retired, however.
On the 1st day of retirement he received a check from the Government for $105.
Partly true. Retired or not, Sanders himself said he began receiving Social Security checks at age 65 in the amount of $105 a month.
He felt that the Government was saying that he couldn’t provide for himself. He decided to commit suicide, it wasn’t worth living anymore; he had failed so much.
False. This is the most egregious falsehood in the Internet version of Sanders’ life story. For all his ups and downs, there is no evidence that he ever considered suicide or even experienced suicidal feelings. True, he was in a tough spot after being forced to sell the business he had built over the previous decades for pennies on the dollar, but he was not despondent. “If I hadn’t been 66 years old and had a $105 Social Security check coming in every month, I don’t know what I would have done,” he later wrote. “But for me it wasn’t a matter of giving up. It was just a problem of what to do next.”
He sat under a tree writing his will, but instead, he wrote what he would have accomplished with his life. He realized there was much more that he hadn’t done. There was one thing he could do better than anyone he knew. And that was how to cook.
So he borrowed $87 against his check and bought and fried up some chicken using his recipe, and went door to door to sell them to his neighbors in Kentucky.
Vaguely true. He had not only perfected his signature fried chicken recipe (with its “blend of 11 herbs and spices”) before age 65, but had started licensing it, on a very small scale, to other restaurateurs. The epiphany that turned his life around was the realization that the recipe itself might be a gold mine. And it very quickly turned out to be just that, according to the Washington Post:
It was not until 1956 that Col. Sanders began selling franchises for the fried chicken that brought him fame and fortune. By 1960, he had 400 outlets. Four years later, there were 900 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in the United States, Canada, England and Japan.
Remember at age 65 he was ready to commit suicide.
False, as noted above. He was down and out, but feisty and resourceful as ever.
But at age 88 Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Empire was a billionaire.
False. Not to cast doubt on Sanders’ achievements — which were real — but the Colonel himself did not live to be a billionaire. He sold off the U.S. portion of the business in 1964 for $2 million, and, according to the Washington Post, held a personal fortune valued at $3.5 million when he died at the age of 90 in 1980. The business he singlehandedly built, however, is now worth billions.
Ozersky, Josh. Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.
Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2012. ISBN 0292742851.
Plante, Chris. “The Real Story of Colonel Sanders Is Far Crazier Than This Bland Inspirational Meme.”
The Verge. 5 July 2016.
Sanders, Colonel Harland. The Autobiography of the Original Celebrity Chef.
Louisville: The KFC Corporation, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9855439-0-7.
Sanders, Colonel Harland. Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good.
Creation House, 1974. ISBN 0884190536.
Smith, J.Y. “Col. Sanders, the Fried-Chicken Gentleman, Dies.”
The Washington Post. 17 December 1980.
Whitworth, William. “Kentucky-Fried: How Col. Sanders Built a Fried Chicken Empire.”
The New Yorker. 14 February 1970.
The Great Indoorsman. “Breast Man: The Life and Career of Colonel Harland Sanders.”
13 May 2012.