The Story Of Izola Ware Curry and The Stabbing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As we observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day we’ll recount a story many people are not familiar with.
It’s a forgotten story in which the Civil Rights movement narrowly escaped a crippling blow in 1958. It’s also the story of the woman who tried to be an assassin and failed and is now very old, free, and living a mostly anonymous life here in New York City.
Ten years before being cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came within a fraction of an inch of losing his life in an assassination attempt in New York City.
At 3:30 pm on September 20, 1958 Dr. King was in Harlem on the ground floor of Blumstein’s Department store at 230 West 125th Street signing copies of his new book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. With about 20 people on line, a 42 year-old woman, Izola Ware Curry burst through the line, asking Dr. King if he was in fact Martin Luther King. When King affirmed he was, Curry said either “Why do you annoy me” or “I’ve been after you for six years,” and opened her purse, took out a letter opener, closed her eyes and suddenly plunged the steel blade into his left chest.
The stunned Dr. King remained seated in his chair with the blade buried deep into his chest. Curry tried to leave the store but was seized quickly by those standing near Dr. King and held for the police. It was later discovered Curry also had an automatic handgun hidden in her bra.
At the book signing there was no police protection for Dr. King and the first police officers who responded to the scene, Al Howard and Phil Romano, were nearby in their police car when they received a report of a disturbance at Blumstein’s. They arrived to see King sitting in a chair with the steel letter opener protruding from his chest. Officer Howard told King, “Don’t sneeze, don’t even speak.”
Officer’s Howard and Romano escorted Dr. King, still in the chair, down to an ambulance and rushed him to Harlem Hospital. After waiting for the proper surgical team to arrive to perform the delicate operation, the Chief of Surgery Aubre Maynard attempted to pull out the letter opener, but cut his glove on the blade. At 6:30 pm Dr. King underwent a two and a quarter hour operation. A surgical clamp was finally used to pull out the blade.
After the surgery Dr. King was listed in critical condition. He contracted pneumonia while convalescing, but recovered completely and was released from the hospital two weeks after the attack.
In his posthumously published autobiography King wrote, “Days later,when I was well enough to talk with Dr. Aubre Maynard, the chief of the surgeons who performed the delicate, dangerous operation, I learned the reason for the long delay that preceded surgery. He told me that the razor tip of the instrument had been touching my aorta and that my whole chest had to be opened to extract it. ‘If you had sneezed during all those hours of waiting,’ Dr. Maynard said, ‘your aorta would have been punctured and you would have drowned in your own blood.'”
Ten years of world changing civil rights progress that Martin Luther King achieved might never have occurred had Izola Curry succeeded in her attempt.
Curry was arraigned the next day before Magistrate Vincent Rao who said “I understand this is the woman who is accused of stabbing the Reverend Dr. King with a knife.”
Curry shouted back at him, “No, it was a letter opener.”
Curry later interrupted the arraignment, shouting, “I’m charging him as well as he’s charging me.”
Magistrate Rao replied, “What have you got against him?”
“I’m charging him with being mixed up with the Communists. I’ve reported the case to the FBI and it’s being looked into.” Curry answered.
“This woman is ill,” said Rao and he ordered Curry committed to Bellevue.
A grand jury later indicted Curry for attempted first-degree murder.
Curry was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and two psychiatrists who examined her reported that she had an IQ of 70, “low average intelligence,” and was in a severe “state of insanity.” Curry was committed to the Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane. She expressed no remorse for trying to kill Dr. King.
After being committed Curry remained mostly forgotten.
That is until some excellent investigative reporting by The Smoking Gun web site which discovered in July 2014 that Curry is still alive and at age 98, living in a Queens nursing home.
According to the Smoking Gun:
Curry spent nearly 14 years at the upstate Matteawan State Hospital for the criminally insane before being transferred in March 1972 to the Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island in upper Manhattan. She spent about a year there before officials placed her in the Rosedale, Queens home of a woman certified through the state’s “Family Care” program to provide residential care for those diagnosed with mental illnesses.
An examination by a panel of Manhattan Psychiatric Center officials, Curry was judged to be “coherent, relevant, cooperative and no present danger to self or others.”
Curry remained in the “Family Care” program moving in with another family, until she fell and injured her left leg which prompted her admission to the long-term nursing home where she now lives.
Curry resides in the Hillside Manor nursing home in Jamaica, a no-frills facility with 300 beds on bustling Hillside Avenue. The 98-year-old lives in a small room with a twin bed that looks out onto a rear parking lot. Next to her bed is a walker and a side table that appears to hold the entirety of her possessions–a stack of books, a couple of framed photos, and a small pink stuffed animal.
When Curry was asked questions about Dr. King and the stabbing she furrowed her brow and gave a blank stare. While offering no recollections of the attack, Curry referred to “1958” and said that she was placed that year in a “hospital for the criminally insane.”
In 1958 Curry told investigators that her motive was self-preservation, “Because after all if it wasn’t him it would have been me, he was going to kill me.”
Dr. King’s impact on history is immense. Izola Ware Curry’s impact is that of a living footnote.
UPDATE: 3/23/15 – Izola Ware Curry died on March 7, 2015.