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How Dangerous Can a Sneeze Be?

During a book signing event in Harlem in 1958, the first assassination attempt on Dr. Martin Luther King's life came at the hands of Izola Ware Curry, who was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. King almost died that day at Blumstein’s department store. When two responding police officers arrived, they found King sitting in a chair with an ivory-handled letter opener stuck in his chest.

The police carried the chair and King to a waiting ambulance, telling him, "Don't sneeze; don't even speak." The surgeon at New York's Harlem Hospital embarked upon a delicate, time-consuming rescue operation -- the sharp tip of the letter opener was touching King's aorta, and his chest had to be opened up to get it out. "If you had sneezed during all those hours of waiting," Dr. Aubrey Maynard later told King, "your aorta would have been punctured and you would have drowned in your own blood."

More about the 1958 attack against Dr. King:

  • Izola Curry suffered from incapacitating paranoid delusions. For example, she believed that the NAACP was persecuting her, following her, and making it impossible for her to find steady work. That's what motivated her to attack King.
  • King was autographing copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, in Blumstein’s when Curry entered the store armed with a loaded pistol in her bra and the letter opener in her purse. She was charged with attempted murder.
  • Tragically, King would be murdered by James Earl Ray in Memphis in April 1968.
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