#3. Thomas Paine
When he wasn't busy living it up as a corsetmaker, English-born pamphleteer Thomas Paine was a major player in the American Revolution, sort of like a colonial Che Guevara.
Meaning his face was featured on t-shirts worn by college girls that had no idea who he was.
After smacking the 13 Colonies every which way towards independence with his manifesto Common Sense, Paine turned his shit-stirring eyes towards Europe, where he was literally kicked out of Great Britain for his radical ideas.
"And take your fucking book with you!"
Came Within Inches of Death When:
Paine landed in France and became a major influence in their Revolution, sticking the dick of freedom into the mashed potatoes of the Bourgeoisie. However, the group that eventually gained control of France decided that Paine was too dangerous and incendiary, so they threw him in prison with the intent of chopping his head off.
Right the fuck off.
Strangely, Paine was feeling a little less than decapitastic the night before his execution, so he slept with his door open to try and cool his fever, presumably after pinky swearing to the guards that he would stay in his cell. The official that went around that night marking the doors of those prisoners meant for the guillotine the next day mistakenly marked the inside of Paine's.
So, when his door was closed the next morning, the chalk mark was hidden from view. The guards missed it and literally left Paine alone to sleep through his own execution.
"The chime on this thing sounds like a bunch of people getting their heads cut off outside my room."
Paine was eventually released from prison, possibly because the French were too, well, French, to admit they had made an embarrassing oversight.
#2. Secretary of State William H. Seward
The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was one big Burger King toilet full of shit hitting an industrial fan, but the truth is it could have been a whole lot worse.
John Wilkes Booth's cabal called for a wider assassination attempt than just President Lincoln--he aimed to kill both Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward as well.
Evidently Booth was insanely jealous of Seward's top hat collection.
Seward isn't as famous as some of the other names on this list, but maybe he should be. He's responsible for adding Alaska to the USA, completely changing the natural resource equation in the country ever since. Also he sort of gave us Sarah Palin, but anyway...
Came Within Inches of Death When:
To kill Seward, Booth hired a real whizz-kid named Lewis Powell, who once suffered a severe case of getting kicked in the face by a donkey. Seward had recently broke his jaw in a carriage accident, so Powell got into Seward's house by pretending to be a man from the drug store bringing medicine. Powell bullshitted his way around long enough to draw a gun on Seward's son Frederick.
The gun didn't fire, though, so Powell broke it on Frederick's head and went forward with Plan B.
He rushed forward and proceeded to literally stab everyone in the entire house, including Seward himself, catching the Secretary of State several times in the face and neck.
Powell ran out of the house, leaving a trail of knife wounds in his wake, but miraculously not a single person died. Seward himself was saved by the neck brace he was wearing because of his carriage accident--the brace prevented Powell's knife from severing his jugular.
After narrowly surviving Powell's batshit insane hit, Seward continued to serve as Secretary of State for President Andrew Johnson, during which time he bought Alaska.
"I'll take it."
Nobody knew about the enormous deposits of gold and oil Alaska contained, and had it not been for Seward's maverick diplomacy, it is quite possible that the British or even the Russians would have been all over that shit instead. If the Soviets had been able to launch their invasion from Alaska in Red Dawn, they might have not lost the war to that football team.
#1. John F. Kennedy
Historians spend so much time thinking about how history would have been different should JFK have survived the assassination attempt that we forget that the man almost didn't survive long enough to become president in the first place.
Came Within Inches of Death When:
Long before he got into politics, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy of the U.S. Navy survived a shitstorm that would have killed a cybernetic dinosaur.
After Kennedy's motor torpedo boat PT-109 was rammed in half by an Imperial-Class Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific, he and two of his injured crewmates were left floating in the debris. There were more explosions roaring around them than a Michael Bay movie, the water was being patrolled by sharks and crocodiles, and every island in a 20 mile radius was occupied by hostile Japanese.
The only option for Kennedy was to swim almost four miles while dragging one of his crewmen with his teeth to an island only a few hundred yards long, just so they could swim another three miles in search of food. Eventually Kennedy came across enough coconuts to sustain his men for another six days of hell.
Kennedy had a thing for coconuts.
They were eventually spotted by a team of Solomon Islanders, men armed with Tommy guns, hated the Japanese, and operated on a rule of engagement that involved "all white people looked the same." Kennedy was somehow able to turn this stroke of death into a helping hand.
No doubt using his whiteness.
The Islanders finally agreed to help send, at great personal risk, a secret dispatch 35 nautical miles to the Allied forces via coconut.
"Can... can anyone tell what the hell this says?"
Had Kennedy been killed in the shipwreck, shot by the Japanese, eaten by the sharks or the crocs, killed by the islanders, starved or drowned while swimming between a couple dozen square miles of World War II, either Lyndon Johnson or Richard fucking Nixon would have been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is a very long way of saying we would all be totally fucked.
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For more amazing stories of people almost biting it, check out 7 People Who Cheated Death (Then Kicked It In The Balls). Or find out about some soldier stories more badass than Kennedy's, in 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy.
Stop by our Top Picks (Updated 4.12.10) to see Seanbaby's brush with Death (which was followed by Death crawling away and crying).
And for something even more historic, check out The Chive's exclusive look at a Penazzling.