Cigarettes have always been a symbol of danger. Think of a young James Dean hair slicked, leaning against a motorcycle, a cigarette dangling between his lips, the epitome of live fast, die young. And over the years, as we learned more about the deadly consequences of smoking, that association with tempting fate has only grown stronger. In 1894, author and Army captain John Gregory Burke described a peculiar belief among the Mexicans of the Rio Grande region. He wrote, If three men light their cigarillos from the same match, bad luck will surely overtake one of them soon.
This superstition was known as three on a match. It is said to be a harbinger of disaster and even death, certainly more than just a rush of nicotine. Hi, everyone, I'm Alistair Madden, and this is Superstitions, a Spotify original from podcast Belief in the Supernatural does not belong to religion alone. Our world is a strange place full of unsettling patterns and idiosyncrasies. We struggle to understand it is here at the intersection of chaos and fate that we find superstitions.
We'll tell stories illustrating the horror, the weirdness and the truth behind these beliefs. We'll explore how they began and what their continued existence says about the fragile human mind. Today, we're exploring a modern superstition with ancient roots. The belief that lighting three cigarettes with a single match is unlucky and sometimes might even spark your demise.
You can find episodes of superstitions and all of our originals from podcast for free on Spotify. Coming up, we'll strike a match and tempt fate.
Have you ever thought about how many rituals involve fire, we blow out birthday candles, light votes for holidays and burn incense in prayer, these rituals are warm and comforting their flames. Someone wishes or blessings, but do it in the wrong way. And that same fire can invite grave misfortune.
Lighting three objects from a single flame has been considered unlucky for centuries, whether it was candles, lamps or kindling, lighting to things from one source was no problem for even was perfectly boring. But light three and you'd be struck by tragedy.
But the modern version of three on a match involving cigarettes is more survival tactic than superstition. There's evidence that it may have come from the trenches of World War One, perhaps originating as early as the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century. As a soldier, lighting a match at night could mean signing your own death warrant. The longer a flame stayed lit, the more time it gave a sniper to put you in their crosshairs. To be the last or third man on a match was especially dangerous.
Soon, this habit came home from war. In the early to mid 20th century, the three on a match superstition was ubiquitous from soldiers to city folk lighting a third cigarette from one match was considered taboo, or at least impolite.
Today, the superstition has been all but snuffed out by the winds of time. And so we continue our rituals around flame none the wiser, striking a match, lighting first one, then two and three.
But who's to say that when we ignite that third cigarette that we aren't beckoning fate from the shadows? I'm afraid I have no answers. After all, superstitions are a matter of belief, not facts. But I can offer you a story. It's one that came to me long after the legend of three on a match had been forgotten. And yet the events that followed suggest it never truly disappeared. Sam rang the doorbell and shivered even at six p.m., the air was already chilly, goosebumps were sprouting on her bare legs.
She wished she hadn't worn a skirt, but it was the night of the homecoming dance.
So the skirt won out. The front door swung open and Mrs. Ramirez ushered her inside some mirror. Come in. Come in.
She gasped as Sam stepped into the entryway. Oh, my.
Look at you. Sam's own mother had rolled her eyes at the Doc Martins in the men's suit jacket.
Why don't you ever wear any color? She asked. But Mrs. Ramirez had a way of making her feel pretty, even if she was wearing black from head to toe. Maybe because her own daughter injected enough color into her life, Sameera headed upstairs and slipped into Eva's room.
Inside, it looked as if a rainbow had exploded everything, the floor, even the ceiling, was coated in Technicolor J. Pop blasted from a boombox in the corner. Sam's best friends, Eva and Frankie, were crowded around the dresser mirror, a massive makeup spread out in front of them. They squealed in delight as Sam entered and flopped onto the bed next to Eva's German shepherd, Bruce. Look who finally showed up.
And in a skirt, Frankie teased. Frankie had embraced the under the sea theme of the dance. She'd gone full mermaid in a teal gown and shimmering eyeshadow.
Eva was also decked out in glitter and unsurprisingly, an iridescent rainbow dress.
She almost glowed. Sam gawked. Eve, you look amazing. Eva smiled at her in the mirror.
Thanks, Sammy, but I don't feel like it. Frankie whipped around shimmery eyelids narrowed. Don't listen to her. She knows she looks incredible because I did our makeup. Frankie struck a pose, throwing back her long mermaid hair. Breathtaking. Sam assured her. Why don't you let me spice you up a little? Frankie pleaded for a Goth. You think you'd be all about eyeliner? Sam declined. It just wasn't her thing. Plus she wasn't a goth.
Oh, come on, Eva chimed in. You'd look so hot with a Catti. Sam felt her heart speed up. OK, fine. Just some lynagh. Some hadn't wanted to go to homecoming, but Eva had begged them it was their senior year, she whined their last chance to at least try it before college. She playfully threatened that she'd get a date if they didn't all go together. Sam couldn't bear to imagine her with some random guy pinning on her corsage, his arms around her waist for the obligatory photo.
So she gave in just like ever planned. And now here she was getting a makeover, all for Eva. Sometimes Sam thought she knew how she felt about her. Two hours later, Sam emerged with a full face of makeup, the three girls devoured a pizza and piled into Sam's old Subaru. It was drizzling as they drove to the marina. Red and yellow street lights blurred across the windshield. Sam found a spot in the event center parking lot and they filed inside under a banner with letters so large it almost screamed Welcome West Seattle High.
Inside, shiny blue and green streamers cover the walls and dangle from the ceiling like cheap foil and enemies, a machine pumped an endless stream of bubbles into the air while the disco ball showered the room encircling stars. It was pretty, almost magical. But then there was the dance floor. A sweaty horde of their peers was grinding to the latest top 40 hit stinking of B.O. and pheromones, the deafening bass pounded against Sam's eardrums. Why did she ever think this would be fun?
She looked over at evah, relieved to see the same look of disgust and disappointment on her face. Good. She thought maybe they could just go home, smoke a joint and watch Twilight Zone reruns like they always did. Frankie Side. Well, this was a waste of makeup, but before Sam could open her mouth to suggest they go, another voice did it for her.
You will want to leave. Sam looked around in her chair. Standing behind her was a young man, tall with tussled curly hair. He had sharp cheekbones and dark brown eyes so dark they looked almost black. He grinned. Sam knew him. His name was Luke. They had a drawing together. He was a senior too, but he just entered that year and he almost never spoke until now. The three girls sat stunned for a moment. Then Eva finally spoke up.
Yeah, we just got here, but not sure it's really our scene. Luke nodded thoughtfully. It's not really mine either and just thought, why not? How am I supposed to know? It isn't going to be the night of my life. Like some vapid John Hughes movie ever smiled, Sam could tell it was a genuine one. Luke smiled back at her. So you want to get out of here or what? Eva didn't hesitate, definitely.
She said. Luke led the way they snuck past the chaperones out into the marina, they passed polished sailboats heading toward the creaking docks near an old Cannery Row. They came to the end of a pier and dangled their feet off the edge. Franki side.
God, it's beautiful. Luke looked up the marina. Frankie nodded the water.
One day I'm going to live on a boat and just float float until I die.
Sam frowned. That's so morbid. Frank even piped up. You know it's too cold on the water freezing my ass off. Sam could feel Eva shiver beside her. But before she could offer her suit jacket, Luke, who was sitting on Eva's other side, had already draped his over her shoulders. Eva beamed.
He was actually hitting on her when Luke spoke next, Sam nearly gagged, he asked them, what do you guys want from life like really, really want? Sam scoffed herself. Or kind of weird Tony Robbins question was that. But Eva answered almost immediately. All my life, I've wanted to work with animals. I'm planning on veterinary school after undergrad. Luke smiled, not surprised, he seemed like a real bleeding heart. He turned to Sam. What about you?
Is there something you really desperately want? Sam looked at Evea for a fleeting moment and felt her face grow hot, suddenly thankful for the dim marina lights, she looked down at the dock and gave a nonanswer to the rotting wood. Honestly, I just really love to get high right now. Luke laughed. Then he paused, looking at them all with a sudden intensity. What if I told you I could make that all happen? That I could give you everything you ever wanted, that this could be the actual best night of your lives?
The three girls went silent, then burst out laughing, Frankie snorted. Who are you, Bill Gates son. Do you have all the money in the world? Not exactly, he said. But if you come with me, I can show you. I promise you won't regret it. Alarm bells went off in Sam's head, she couldn't let them leave with this creep. I don't know, man.
It's a little weird you don't say a word to us all year and now you're asking about our hopes and dreams and inviting us over at one a.m.. Luke nodded. No, no, it is weird. I don't want you guys thinking I'm some creep. Sam froze. Did he just read her mind? He continued. We can smoke and hang out here. Ever turned to Sam? You brought weed, right? Sam fumble through her purse and dug out a few joints, but she couldn't find her lighter.
She swore it was there, she always had it need a light? Luke asked before Sam could answer. He pulled a matchbook from his pocket and struck a match.
He lit each girl's joint carefully. Franky's, then Evers', then Sam's. Then he blew out the flame. I hope you don't mind having three on a match. Eva blew a puff of smoke into the cold air. Three Anawat Luke chuckled.
Three on a match. It's an old war superstition my uncle told me about. He always said that if you like three cigarettes on one match they'd find you. The hair stood up on the back of Sam's neck. Who? She asked. Luke shrugged. Evil, the devil, whatever you want to call it, Frankie scoffed. Now you tell us, Luke whipped around, sneering like an animal on the attack. You all could have had whatever you wanted.
I offered, but you wanted to stay to smoke. Even jumped in. Whoa, whoa. There's no reason to get upset. But Luke was already on his feet walking down the pier, Sam stood to give the jerk a piece of her mind, but when she turned around, there was nothing but fog. Luke was gone. Something soft crunched beneath Sam's foot when she stooped down, she realized what it was, Luke's matchbook. She picked it up, turning it over and her hand, it was old and yellowing with only a single match left, and on the front was an image of a black goat.
Sam turned around to show her friends just in time to hear Frankie scream. Coming up, the girls learn the consequences of three on a match. Now back to the story. Sam remembered it all as if it happened in slow motion. She could recall every movement, every sound, every expression of terror on her best friend's face, the night of Frankie's death was seared into her memory. Sam was relieved Luke had left all night, he'd been trying to get close to Eva, her Eva, but then all of a sudden he was just gone after Luke disappeared on the docks.
Sam turned around. Eva had come up to stand right behind her, but Frankie was still at the end of the pier, dangling her feet over the water. Then Sam heard it a groan. It was a deep, almost earthy sound, like a tree taking the force of a storm or old wood straining under a bird. And it could no longer hold a moment later, the pier collapse. Sam heard the planks snap before she saw Frankie thrown off the edge, her scream sounded both like primal terror and pure surprise as she plummeted the 30 foot drop to the waves below.
Sam and Eva ran down the pier screaming her name. By the time they reached the end, all they saw was Frankie, her long hair and mermaid teal dress cascading around her. Face down in the shallow water, evea screamed bloody murder, but all Sam could do was watch. She had never felt more helpless. The police had looked into Francie's death briefly, but the case was open and shut. After all, a few teenage girls were hanging out where they didn't belong, getting high.
They had ignored the No Trespassing signs to play on a condemned structure. Sam and Eva were told they were lucky to be alive. They didn't mention Luke after that night. Sam and Eva didn't speak about him, even to each other. But they didn't see Luke after that night either. The following Monday, he didn't show up to their fifth period drawing class, they didn't see him in the halls or the cafeteria. He didn't have any friends that either Sam or Eva knew of to ask.
He was just gone. At first, it was a relief, Sam tried to forget him, but as much as she wanted to, she couldn't get rid of his matchbook. So she kept it in an old jewelry box and stashed it in the depths of her closet. But as long as it was there, she couldn't sleep. Luke kept showing up in her dreams. He was always grinning, dark eyes shining from the spark of a lit match.
That's when she started sleeping over at Evers'. It was the only place that felt safe anymore. Being next to Eva in her Technicolor bed with Bruce, the German shepherd dozing at their feet felt like home. But sometimes while she listen to the soft rhythm of evers' breathing, Sam still couldn't get it out of her head.
Three on a match. Frankie was one and only she and Eva were left. Sam was terrified she'd lose Eva two, so she tried her best to spend every moment with her. Frankie's death had made them closer. But things weren't the same. Witnessing the tragedy together made them understand each other so much more than they had before. But it had also drained them.
They didn't talk late into the night anymore. Instead, they spent hours holding each other in a desperate bid for comfort. Sam had dreamed of sleeping next to Eva four years, but not like this with Frankie Dad, what should have been the happiest moments of her life was tainted with grief. So when the three month anniversary of Frankie's death came around, Sam and Eva were determined to make it different. It would be like old times.
They dedicated the day to Frankie, they watched her favorite musicals and ate Oreos, dipped in peanut butter like she loved, they even did their best attempts at perfect cat eyeliner.
But that night, they both realized they couldn't truly honor Frankie without going to the water. Neither of them talked about walking to the old docks at the far side of the marina. Somehow they just did it. Sam stopped dead at the sites of the collapsed pier, taped off and barricaded. She didn't want to go further, but Eva, as always, was persuasive. She convinced her that they just go below the pier to the water's edge. Plus, she added with a grin, they had Bruce with them.
The German shepherd wagged his tail at the sound of his name.
Nobody was going to mess with them when he was there. They knelt on the rocks with a cluster of floating candles. The plan was to send them to sea to be with Frankie Evea lit the first and the second. But just as she lit the third, Sam was seized by a wave of panic. She blew out the candle. Eva turned to Sam, angry. What are you doing? It's fine. Then the candle reignited.
Eva and Sam scrambled to blow out all three candles, but none of the flame stayed dark for longer than a moment before reigniting finally Eva through the voters with all her strength into the sea and collapsed onto the rocks. Sam held her as Eva sobbed in her arms, repeating the same phrase like some desperate mantra. I don't want to die. I don't want to die. Sam promised her she wouldn't. As long as she was around. Nothing bad would happen to her.
Nothing. She loved her. Eva, when still Sam felt her throat swell. She had said it, oh, God, she said it. Ever slowly withdrew from Sam's arms and then she looked at her. Her face was swollen and red from sobbing, yet strangely calm. They stayed like that for what seemed like a lifetime to Sam, crouched on the rocks, just looking. Then, without a word, ever grabbed Sam's hand. They walked back from the docks like that.
Hand in hand, Sam tried to just enjoy the moment, the feeling of evers' warm palm in hers in the misty Seattle autumn. And somehow, despite everything, she felt a strange happiness rising inside her. Then Bruce stopped dead in his tracks.
He stood at the entrance to one of the alleys between the buildings, whimpering, ever tugged at his leash and called his name. But he refused to budge. The fur on his neck raised and he bared his teeth, growling at nothing. But Sam could see something move in the alley, then another growl emanated from the darkness, a shape emerged a massive black dog with piercing yellow eyes, or was it a dog? Its features were more like that of a wolf and its movements were erratic, almost twitching.
As it stepped from the shadows, it began to screech. That's when Sam saw it was drooling excessively. Either gasped. Its rabid. Then it lunged. The dog snapped at Bruce, barely missing his snout, but Bruce leaped back, then jumped forward. He bit the dog's leg, but that only gave it an opportunity to sink its teeth into his neck. Bruce yelped and Evea screamed. She ran forward and kicked the wolf, shrieking and sobbing, but it didn't let go.
Sam tried to hold her back, but soon the creature released its jaws from Bruce's neck and bit into Eva's ankle. Spooked and injured, Bruce ran off his leash, dragging behind him as soon as he did, the wolf backed off it, released evers' bloody ankle from his jaws and stared at them with the yellow eyes.
Then it disappeared into the shadows. The doctor said Eva's symptoms came on faster than any case of rabies he'd ever seen. Within hours, she was struck by an intense fever. She felt her body burn up in one instant and become impossibly cold in the next, but she also itched by the time she went to the hospital.
Her skin was nearly raw from scratching, but the delirium was worse. At first ever thought it was the sedatives they gave her to help her sleep at night, but then even in broad daylight, she saw things, they were small, fleeting in the periphery of her vision, the spark of a flame out of the corner of her eye, the melodic echo of Frankie's voice somewhere in the room. It terrified her. But whenever she whipped her head around to look, it was always gone.
It was in these moments that Evea began to doubt if Sam was really there with her at her bedside, but each time Eva reached out her hand, Samms squeezed hers reassuringly. Sam stayed by either side through it all, but Sam felt worthless or the same, she had broken her promise. Eva was in danger. And she would be next. She was out of options, so she pulled the jewelry box out of her closet and withdrew the things she tried so hard to forget Luke's matchbook.
It looked the same, yellowing and old, with an image of a black goat on the front and a single match inside, she pocketed it and drove straight to the hospital. But this time, things were different when Sam got there, Eva's room was dark and oxygen tubes were running from her nose. Sammy, she called groggily. Sam went to her side and held her hand. She had come back, she said, and she'd brought something to make things better again.
Sam took out the matchbook from her pocket. Listen to me. If we have to get rid of this, I think it's the only way to make you better and to make sure Sam trailed off, eyes scanning the room. Then her voice was quiet. The only way to make sure he doesn't find us, we have to destroy it with its own match. Sam pulled out the last match of the book, Will you burn it with me? Eva squinted past the match at Sam.
She was thankful for the dark, strong light of any kind, had left her in searing pain for days. But through her bleary vision, the person ever saw in the dim hospital room wasn't Sam at all. Her hair was shorter curlier, her cheekbones sharp and her forehead broad. And in the dim hospital room, her eyes were so dark they were almost black. Sam wasn't Sam. Sam was Luke. And struck a match outside in the hallway, the nurse heard struggling, he recognized his rabies patient's feral screams.
She'd been hallucinating all day now, but this time furniture was being thrown around. By the time he smelled the fire, it was too late. The oxygen had been pulled out from the tank in the struggle when he opened the door. Sam and Eva were already engulfed in flames. Sadly, neither made it. But what was strange was that when the fire was extinguished and the charred furniture all cleared, there was one thing that survived the inferno. It was a matchbook with a black goat on its cover and inside was a single match.
Three on a match is simply a modern twist on an ancient fear, we've harbored superstitious beliefs about the number three in all kinds of contexts for millennia. It seems the no holds potent supernatural power for everything, good or bad. Perhaps you've heard the saying all good things come in threes or know the popular theory that when one celebrity dies, two more are sure to follow. But the specific belief that using one flame to light three different objects was deeply unlucky comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the Catholic Church.
The number three is symbolic of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To ignite the number of the Holy Trinity in anything less than a religious ceremony was considered sacrilegious. And carrying out such a blasphemous act could have dire consequences for your immortal soul. As author and religious expert Dr. Rudolf Brash wrote, Man would invite disaster and put himself into the power of the evil one. Thus, a match trebly used would light the fires of hell for one's own soul.
In the Catholic sense of the superstition, three on a match makes us vulnerable to the devil himself, like soldiers lighting a cigarette in the trenches only we're not exposing ourselves to sniper fire, but eternal damnation. Regardless of your religious denomination. What is bad luck but an invitation to a dark, omnipresent force to wreak havoc on our life? And as abstract as that may sound, lighting three on a single match has led to tangible historical misfortune.
The most famous story is recorded from 1920. At the time the story goes, the young King Alexander of Greece was dining on a ship, and the same match was used to light not just the king's cigar but his aides and one belonging to the ship's captain.
The king had reportedly laughed off the taboo and joked to the other two men, Before the year is out, one of us three is doomed to die. Little did he know.
He just sealed his own fate. Just a few days later, the king was taking a walk in an estate garden when a macaque monkey attacked his German shepherd. The king attempted to break up the animals, but suffered a bite from the monkey in the process. He died 23 days later from a resulting infection. Whether you believe in the superstition of three on a match is up to you. But next time you light that candle or that cigarette, think long and hard before you ignite to more, because you never know if that prolonged spark will mark you for death.
Or you could just use a lighter, better safe than sorry.
Thanks again for listening to superstitions. We will be back Wednesday with a new episode, you can find more episodes of Superstitions and all other originals from podcast for free on Spotify until next time. Be wary of the things you cannot explain.
Superstitions as a Spotify original from podcasts. It is executive produced by Max Cutler, Sound Design by Kenny Hobbs with production assistance by Ron Shapiro, Carly Madden and Erin Larson.
This episode of Superstitions was written by Alex Garland with Writing Assistants by Andrew Keleher. I'm Alistair Madden.