Izola Ware Curry, the “demented black woman” who attempted to kill Dr. Martin Luther King in 1958, has passed away, according to the New York City medical examiner’s office and a report from The Smoking Gun. Curry died on March 7 at Hillside Manor, a nursing home in Jamaica, Queens.
The incident took place on Sept. 20, 1958, when King was sitting at Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem signing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.”
Curry approached him and asked, “Are you Dr. King?”
When King responded with “Yes,” Curry pulled out a seven-inch steel letter opener and plunged it into King’s chest.
Curry also had a loaded pistol with her, but did not use it.
After her arrest, Curry was taken to Bellevue Hospital and later declared incompetent to stand trial. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was moved to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
In the following years, she bounced around a series of group homes in Queens, living in relative anonymity. She was long thought to be deceased until The Smoking Gun interviewed her in August 2014.
Born to sharecropper parents in Georgia as one of eight children, Curry moved to New York City after a failed marriage.
Court records and an October 1958 psychiatric report found that she suffered from delusions, paranoia and illogical thinking, and she was convinced that she was under constant surveillance by King and the NAACP. She also believed that they were conspiring to keep her unemployed.
When asked by investigators why she stabbed Dr. King, Curry explained, “Because after all if it wasn’t him it would have been me, he was going to kill me.”
For King, the day was dark but a lucky break. He was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade rested on the edge of his aorta.
The blade had to be removed carefully to avoid further damage, as one wrong move could have killed King instantly. Anywhere from 44,000 to 98,000 people die in U.S. hospitals each year on account of preventable medical errors, and King could have been one of them, had the surgery not been a success.
As he recovered, King issued a statement saying, “I feel no ill will toward Mrs. Izola Curry and know that thoughtful people will do all in their power to see that she gets the help she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society.”
Later, King often referred to the incident in his speeches to show just how many civil rights advances he would have missed had the assassination been a successful one. He also mentioned the event in his “Promised Land Speech,” which he made the day before he was assassinated by James Earl Ray in 1968.
“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up,” he said. “Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman.”
An iconic photograph published in the New York Daily News shows King sitting calmly with the blade still in his chest while awaiting medical attention.
King later found out that, had he moved the wrong way or even sneezed, he could have died if the blade shifted. “I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze,” he said.