Colonel Harland Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, in Henryville, Indiana. At the age of 40, Sanders was running a popular Kentucky service station that also served food—so popular, in fact, that the governor of Kentucky designated him a Kentucky colonel. Eventually, Sanders focused on franchising his fried chicken business around the country, collecting a payment for each chicken sold.
KFC has been eager to celebrate kitschy parts of the Colonel’s history, while ignoring more complex attributes that made him both successful and dangerous to the brand while alive.
- For most of his life, he was a terrible businessman
Sanders had an extremely varied résumé before finding success in the fried-chicken business in his 60s. As a young man, he toiled as a farmhand and streetcar conductor before working for railroad companies across the South. Aspiring to be the next Clarence Darrow, Sanders studied law by correspondence and practiced in justice-of-the-peace courts in Arkansas until a courtroom brawl with a client derailed his legal career. He operated a steamboat ferry that crossed the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, and he sold life insurance and automobile tires. During his time in Corbin, Sanders even delivered babies. “There was nobody else to do it,” Sanders recounted in his autobiography. “The husbands couldn’t afford a doctor when their wives were pregnant.”
- He once shot someone for his brand.
What Sanders lacked in business skills, he more than made up for in passion. When Sanders painted a large sign pointing potential customers from the highway toward his gas station in Corbin, Ky. (it would eventually expand into Sander’s first cafe), he enraged the owner of a competing gas station, Matt Stewart. Stewart painted over Sanders’ sign, leading to Sanders threatening to “blow [his] goddamn head off” and repainting the sign himself. When Sanders discovered Stewart once again painting over the sign, he and two Shell officials ran to catch him red handed, heavily armed. In the resulting gun fight, the Shell manager was killed and Sanders shot Stewart in the shoulder.
- He cheated on his wife (a lot).
While KFC loves certain quirky details about Sanders personal life, one of the facts KFC chooses not to highlight is his relationship with women, especially his two wives. Sanders married his first wife, Josephine, at the young age of 19. According to Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, his second wife’s nephew said Josephine wasn’t interested in a sexual relationship after giving birth to three children. So, Sanders “found what he needed to find in other places.”
- He’s not a military colonel.
If you’re not from Kentucky, you may have assumed that Sanders served as a military leader at some point in his long life. In fact, he was a Kentucky colonel, a title of honor awarded by the state of Kentucky. Sanders became a colonel in 1935 as the founder and owner of the gas station-adjacent restaurant Sanders Cafe, but misplaced his certificate, receiving his second colonelship in 1949.
In the 1950s, Sanders began marketing himself as a southern gentleman and Kentucky colonel, dying his beard white, crafting a string tie and donning his iconic white suit. As he franchised his concept starting in the ’50s, selling the recipe for his Kentucky fried chicken to restaurants across the U.S., this identity as a Kentucky colonel linked Sanders to a southern ideal that lent the Indiana-born man an air of legitimacy.
- He only made $2 million selling KFC.
After KFC went from a single cafe to a franchised concept, Sanders sold the business in 1964, feeling out of his league at the age of 75 as the chain rapidly grew. The $2 million, plus an ongoing salary to remain the face of the brand wasn’t a terrible deal. However, after the company’s profitable IPO, in which shareholders made millions, Sanders began to feel as though he got the short end of the stick.
At the company’s first franchisee convention after the IPO, Sanders took the stage and spent 40 minutes railing against management. He claimed executives were thinking only about the short-term and ruining his reputation. While he failed to win over the franchisees and went on to continue his duties as a spokesperson, it seems a part of him remained convinced he had been tricked into giving up his business.
- He tried to sue KFC for $122 million.
After KFC was sold to Heublein in 1971, Sanders’ appetite for disruption grew. When the chain denied him the right to open an antebellum-themed restaurant selling Original Recipe chicken, Sanders sued the company for $122 million. He eventually settled out of court for $1 million and a promise that the Colonel would stop embarrassing the company. Sanders did not keep up his end of the bargain.
- According to him, KFC doesn’t use the famous secret original recipe of 11 herbs and spices.
While very few people in the world know exactly what is in Colonel Sanders’ mix of 11 secret herbs and spices, we do know that the Colonel said many times in his life that KFC stopped using his recipe. Whether or not the Colonel’s original recipe is in use today, it is clear that Sanders was dismissive of KFC’s menu in his final years. In 1970, the New Yorker quoted him saying the company’s new gravy recipe “ain’t fit for my dogs.” While the chain turned business around and reportedly improved food quality in the ’80s under new leadership, Sanders’ wasn’t around to see it. He died on Dec. 16, 1980, at the age of 90 .
- Sanders swore (darn it!).
The colonel may have appeared the epitome of a Southern gentleman, but his language was notoriously salty, particularly when he wasn’t pleased with the quality of food served up by franchisees. “The Colonel is famous among KFC people for the force and variety of his swearing,” reported a 1970 New Yorker profile. “I used to cuss the prettiest you ever heard,” Sanders admitted. “I did my cussin’ before women or anybody else, but somehow nobody ever took any offense.”