13 of the Luckiest People in History


The concept of luck seems to be a catchall for things we just can’t explain—like surviving deadly experiences or happening upon world-altering inventions. Even though we don’t know why, some people just seem to have more luck than others.


Former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt had a reputation for being a stubborn fighter, which might have some weight considering he survived an up-close assassination attempt and lived to tell the tale (or rather, continue on with his day). On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was leaving a Milwaukee hotel for a campaign stop, where he was shot in the chest by John Schrank, a New York City saloonkeeper. Schrank’s bullet was lodged in Roosevelt’s rib, but it had been slowed by the 50-page speech and eyeglass case tucked in his coat pocket. Roosevelt refused medical attention and addressed his audience with a 90-minute speech, saying “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”


Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was incorrectly scheduled to work on January 26, 1972. Mistaken for another coworker named Vesna, Vulovic went to work greeting passengers onboard a flight from Copenhagen back to Yugoslavia. But within an hour, she laid among aircraft wreckage in Czechoslovakia, the sole survivor of a plane explosion that killed 27 people. In the crash landing, Vulovic allegedly fell 33,300 feet, trapped inside the plane’s fuselage. While she was initially paralyzed and sustained a variety of broken bones and fractures (she spent 16 months in the hospital after the incident), Vulovic fully recovered without any memory of the fall. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized Vulovic for the "Highest Fall Survived Without a Parachute," though recent investigators believe crash details were altered for propaganda uses.


Belgian musician and inventor Adolphe Sax is best known for his reedy, namesake instrument: the saxophone. The son of a carpenter and instrument maker, Sax’s early 1800s childhood was put to use perfecting already popular instruments like the clarinet and using improvements to dream up his own inventions (cue the saxtuba and saxhorn). While Sax is known for his contributions to musical history, what many don’t know is how often he escaped death. As a toddler, Sax fell the “height of three floors” before hitting his head on a rock, and was initially believed to be dead. By 3 years old, he had drank a bowl of sulfuric acid and swallowed a needle. Sax also endured serious burns from a gunpowder explosion and a cast iron frying pan, later almost suffocating in his sleep from heavy varnish fumes. Falling cobblestones and a near-drowning in a river round out some of Sax’s childhood mishaps. Sax’s mother, Marie-Joseph Sax, certainly noticed the pattern. “He’s a child condemned to misfortune," she once said. "He won't live." (She was wrong. He lived to be 79.)


The odds of being struck by lighting during your lifetime are 1 in 12,000. But this probably came as little comfort to park ranger Roy Sullivan, who survived seven lightning strikes over the course of 35 years. Sullivan’s first encounter with lightning occurred in 1942 when he ran through a storm in Shenandoah National Park. Additional lightning hits followed in 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976, and 1977. Sullivan’s relationship with lightning led to a variety of jokes and rumors, including a rumor that he kept lightning rods on his four-poster bed. Sullivan died in 1983 at the age of 71, but not from lightning—sadly, it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.


Ludger Sylbaris was known in the early 1900s for his sideshow tales of surviving a volcanic eruption on the island of Martinique. And while some of his embellishments (suggesting he was the only survivor of the eruption) weren’t quite true, Sylbaris did in fact survive Mount Pelée’s eruption in 1902—and it’s because he was in jail. Sylbaris was known for drinking and fighting, which landed him in a stone jail cell in the town of Saint-Pierre. The morning after his arrest, Mt. Pelée erupted, destroying the town and killing an estimated 30,0000 people. Sylbaris was shielded from flying debris and much of the heat in his partially underground jail cell, but still had severe burns when he was discovered by rescue teams four days later. Sylbaris used his near-death experience for a chance at fame, touring with the Barnum and Bailey Circus as “The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday.”



Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte was born the son of a French lawyer in 1763, but died as King of Sweden—mostly because he was a nice guy. Bernadotte had a lengthy military career and turbulent relationship with Napoleon that saw him leading military campaigns through Germany and Italy. While there, he kept a handle on his troops, refusing to allow looting and theft, which gained Bernadotte respect from his adversaries, though later unsuccessful battles in Bernadotte’s career led to distrust from Parisian politicians in the early 1800s. In 1810, an ill and childless King Charles XIII led Sweden to conduct a star-search of sorts for an heir, and Bernadotte was offered the role of Sweden’s crown prince. Bernadotte was selected because of his military experience, but also due to the kindness and restraint he showed to Swedish solders during his military campaigns. Bernadotte adopted the name Charles XIV John and led Sweden following Charles XIII’s death in 1818 until his own death in 1844.


In 1922, doctors took a risk to save 14-year-old Leonard Thompson’s life by injecting him with an experimental substance: insulin. The young diabetic only weighed 65 pounds due to a starvation diet (the only treatment for diabetes at the time), and he was falling in and out of a coma. His parents were desperate for a solution, and though insulin was experimental and had not yet been tested on humans, they took a leap of faith and let the doctors inject Thompson with the mysterious drug. The first round of injections caused an allergic reaction in the boy, but after 12 days of tinkering, a purer insulin was extracted. Thompson's recovery was immediate, and within a month, front-pages were touting the new miracle drug.



Washington’s famous Delaware River crossing helped win the Revolutionary War, but it could have—and really, should have—been foiled. On Christmas evening 1776, Washington moved 5400 men across the river as a surprise maneuver against Hessian troops. The strategy worked, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all because the Hessians had advance warning. Two Patriot deserters warned Hessian commander Col. Johann Rall the day prior about an imminent river crossing, but he dismissed the report as unlikely, probably due to countless false alarms. What’s more, a red coat spy in Washington’s camp passed along word of the attack, but again, Rall believed that if Patriot troops really did make an attempt, they would be easily fought off. Luckily for Washington, history shows it didn’t work out like Rall thought it would.


Chemist Constantin Fahlberg secured himself a sweet spot in history, all by accident. While Fahlberg takes much of the credit (and took much of the profit) for creating artificial sweeteners, he wasn’t the first scientist to discover saccharin. But, he was the first chemist to realize that saccharin was a sweet and edible chemistry accident that could be used in place of sugar. Legend has it that after working in his lab, Fahlberg ate a roll, which tasted sweet because of saccharin residue on his hand. He rushed back to his lab to taste-test all of his instruments—the beakers and vials, etc.—until he could determine where the sweetness came from. Soon after his discovery, Fahlberg cut out his lab partner and filed patents for a mass-produced artificial sweetener that would go on to change the food industry.


Hollywood legend Harrison Ford landed a lifetime of a luck during his younger years that spurred his acting career. Ford had an acting contract with Columbia and Universal studios, but he was primarily working as a carpenter. "I had helped George Lucas audition other actors for the principal parts, and with no expectation or indication that I might be considered for the part of Han," Ford said during a Reddit AMA (though he also had a part in Lucas's American Graffiti four years earlier). "I was quite surprised when I was offered the part." Lucas was impressed though, and the part effectively launched Ford's career.


Joan Ginther, a Texas mathematician living in Las Vegas, is often called the “luckiest woman in the world” because she’s won multimillion dollar jackpots not once or twice—but four times. Ginther’s wins have all taken place in her home state and raked in $20 million between 1993 and 2010. But because of Ginther’s background in statistics (she has a PhD from Stanford), there’s speculation that she’s not lucky at all, but rather knows how to play the odds just right.



They called him "Lucky Lindy" for a reason! Aviator Charles Lindbergh is best known for his solo transatlantic flight in 1927, but while Lindberg’s iconic trip was successful, his piloting history before that flight included four crashes: two in 1924 and two in 1926. He safely parachuted from each plummeting plane and went on to credit just how important a working chute was. “There is a saying in the service about the parachute: ‘If you need it and haven’t got it, you’ll never need it again!’ That just about sums up its value to aviation,” he wrote.


American tourist and former Alaskan firefighter Robert Bogucki became the subject of a manhunt when he disappeared into Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert in July 1999. By the time the second search team found him (the first had been called off over two weeks before), Bogucki had spent 43 days wandering nearly 250 miles through the desert, eating plants and drinking collected groundwater. Upon his discovery, Bogucki told his rescuers he was ready to go home: “Yeah, well. Enough of this walking around.” Bogucki said he wasn’t quite sure why he ventured off into the desert (where wintertime temperatures often reach upward of 90 degrees—quite a departure from the Alaskan weather he was used to), but thought it might have been to placate his spiritual needs. “I do feel satisfied I scratched that itch, whatever it was,” he told reporters. For whatever reason, Bogucki sure got lucky.

11 Black Friday Purchases That Aren't Always The Best Deal

Black Friday can bring out some of the best deals of the year (along with the worst in-store behavior), but that doesn't mean every advertised price is worth splurging on. While many shoppers are eager to save a few dollars and kickstart the holiday shopping season, some purchases are better left waiting for at least a few weeks (or longer).


Display of outdoor furniture.
Photo by Isaac Benhesed on Unsplash

Black Friday is often the best time to scope out deals on large purchases—except for furniture. That's because newer furniture models and styles often appear in showrooms in February. According to Kurt Knutsson, a consumer technology expert, the best furniture deals can be found in January, and later on in July and August. If you're aiming for outdoor patio sets, expect to find knockout prices when outdoor furniture is discounted and put on clearance closer to Labor Day.


A display of tools.

Unless you're shopping for a specific tool as a Christmas gift, it's often better to wait until warmer weather rolls around to catch great deals. While some big-name brands offer Black Friday discounts, the best tool deals roll around in late spring and early summer, just in time for Memorial Day and Father's Day.


A stack of bed linens.

Sheet and bedding sets are often used as doorbuster items for Black Friday sales, but that doesn't mean you should splurge now. Instead, wait for annual linen sales—called white sales—to pop up after New Year's. Back in January of 1878, department store operator John Wanamaker held the first white sale as a way to push bedding inventory out of his stores. Since then, retailers have offered these top-of-the-year sales and January remains the best time to buy sheets, comforters, and other cozy bed linens.


Rows of holiday gnomes.

If you are planning to snag a new Christmas tree, lights, or other festive décor, it's likely worth making due with what you have and snapping up new items after December 25. After the holidays, retailers are looking to quickly move out holiday items to make way for spring inventory, so ornaments, trees, yard inflatables, and other items often drastically drop in price, offering better deals than before the holidays. If you truly can't wait, the better option is shopping as close to Christmas as possible, when stores try to reduce their Christmas stock before resorting to clearance prices.


Child choosing a toy car.

Unless you're shopping for a very specific gift that's likely to sell out before the holidays, Black Friday toy deals often aren't the best time to fill your cart at toy stores. Stores often begin dropping toy prices two weeks before Christmas, meaning there's nothing wrong with saving all your shopping (and gift wrapping) until the last minute.


Rows of rings.

Holiday jewelry commercials can be pretty persuasive when it comes to giving diamonds and gold as gifts. But, savvy shoppers can often get the best deals on baubles come spring and summer—prices tend to be at their highest between Christmas and Valentine's Day thanks to engagements and holiday gift-giving. But come March, prices begin to drop through the end of summer as jewelers see fewer purchases, making it worth passing up Black Friday deals.


Searching for flights online.

While it's worth looking at plane ticket deals on Black Friday, it's not always the best idea to whip out your credit card. Despite some sales, the best time to purchase a flight is still between three weeks and three and a half months out. Some hotel sites will offer big deals after Thanksgiving and on Cyber Monday, but it doesn't mean you should spring for next year's vacation just yet. The best travel and accommodation deals often pop up in January and February when travel numbers are down.


Gift basket against a blue background.

Fancy fruit, meat and cheese, and snack baskets are easy gifts for friends and family (or yourself, let's be honest), but they shouldn't be snagged on Black Friday. And because baskets are jam-packed full of perishables, you likely won't want to buy them a month away from the big day anyway. But traditionally, you'll spend less cheddar if you wait to make those purchases in December.


Rack of women's winter clothing.
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash.

Buying clothing out of season is usually a big money saver, and winter clothes are no exception. Although some brands push big discounts online and in-store, the best savings on coats, gloves, and other winter accessories can still be found right before Black Friday—pre-Thanksgiving apparel markdowns can hit nearly 30 percent off—and after the holidays.


Group of hands holding smartphones.

While blowout tech sales are often reserved for Cyber Monday, retailers will try to pull you in-store with big electronics discounts on Black Friday. But, not all of them are really the best deals. The price for new iPhones, for example, may not budge much (if at all) the day after Thanksgiving. If you're in the market for a new phone, the best option might be waiting at least a few more weeks as prices on older models drop. Or, you can wait for bundle deals that crop up during December, where you pay standard retail price but receive free accessories or gift cards along with your new phone.


Row of hanging kitchen knives and utensils.

Black Friday is a great shopping day for cooking enthusiasts—at least for those who are picky about their kitchen appliances. Name-brand tools and appliances often see good sales, since stores drop prices upwards of 40 to 50 percent to move through more inventory. But that doesn't mean all slow cookers, coffee makers, and utensil prices are the best deals. Many stores advertise no-name kitchen items that are often cheaply made and cheaply priced. Purchasing these lower-grade items can be a waste of money, even on Black Friday, since chances are you may be stuck looking for a replacement next year. And while shoppers love to find deals, the whole point of America's unofficial shopping holiday is to save money on products you truly want (and love).

The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?


For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.


Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."


Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.


Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”


Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn


Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.


More from mental floss studios