In 1958, Izola Ware Curry was branded as the “demented black woman” who nearly killed Martin Luther King, Jr. This past week, The Smoking Gun discovered that Curry, long thought dead, actually just passed away, on March 7, in a New York City nursing home.
Curry, who would have been 99 this June, was confirmed dead by the New York City medical examiner’s office.
Since the assassination attempt at one of King’s book signings, Curry moved from the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to a series of group homes in Queens. Most recently, Curry lived at Hillside Manor, a 300-bed facility in Queens.
Curry was long thought to have been deceased, but was interviewed last August by The Smoking Gun. Questions about the incident with King were met with a blank stare, and she referred to 1958 only as the year of her placement in a “hospital for the criminally insane.”
Curry, who was one of eight children in a family of Georgia sharecroppers, suffered from delusions, paranoia and illogical thinking, according to court records. In October 1958, a psychiatric report stated that Curry believed she was under constant surveillance and that her movements were known to both King and the NAACP.
After moving from Georgia to New York, Curry became convinced that King and NAACP leaders were conspiring to deny her employment. On Sept. 20, 1958, Curry approached King in Blumstein’s Department Store in Harlem, where he was signing copies of his first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.”
Curry asked, “Are you Dr. King?” When the reverend, then 29 years old, responded with “Yes,” Curry took out a seven-inch steel letter opener and stabbed him in the chest.
On that day, Curry also had a loaded pistol tucked into her bra, but this was not used in the assassination attempt.
While being interrogated, Curry’s explanation for the stabbing was, “Because after all if it wasn’t him it would have been me, he was going to kill me.”
Upon arrest, Curry was taken to Bellevue Hospital. She was found not competent to stand trial and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
King, meanwhile, was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where he found that the tip of the blade was on the edge of his aorta.
Thanks to the medical care King received, his life was saved (although it was to be tragically taken from him by James Earl Ray, in 1968). The blade had to be carefully extracted, so King wouldn’t become one of the estimated 44,000 to 98,000 Americans who die in hospitals each year due to preventable medical errors.
King liked to recall the event in his speeches as a way of showing the civil rights advances he would have missed out on had the assassination been successful. He referred to the event in his “Promised Land Speech,” the day before being assassinated by Ray.
“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,” King said. “Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman.”
But it was a lucky break, said King. “It came out in the New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died… I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.”
Of Curry, King said in a statement issued from Harlem Hospital as he recovered, “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.”