Merlene Davis: Would-be King assassin found in nursing home

Herald-Leader columnistAugust 6, 2014 

In September, 2007, I wrote what little I knew of Izola Ware Curry, the woman who stabbed and nearly killed Martin Luther King Jr., some 10 years before James Earl Ray succeeded in assassinating the civil rights leader.

Curry was 42 when she plunged a letter opener into King's upper chest as he was autographing copies of his first book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, in a New York department store.

He was rushed to Harlem Hospital, where doctors later would tell The New York Times that had King, 29, sneezed or coughed, his aorta would have been cut, causing him to bleed to death internally.

Later the chief surgeon, Dr. Aubre de Lambert Maynard, said having a patient of King's stature with such a severe injury put Harlem Hospital in the world's spotlight. "You see," Maynard said in 1996, "it was a city hospital and it was looked down upon. It was up to me to show the world that it could be done there."

Dignitaries and famous physicians observed the procedure which, obviously, was successful. King left the hospital less than two weeks later and continued his work.

Curry was interrogated, charged, and found to be incompetent to stand trial. She believed King and members of the NAACP were stalking her and trying to kill her.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, Curry was committed to Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in upstate New York on Oct. 20, 1958.

I was shocked at how little was known about Curry and about her whereabouts after that. She seemed to have faded away like smoke with the wave of a hand. Even a librarian I called at The King Center in Atlanta said the center had no record of Curry after she entered the asylum.

While recovering in the hospital, King, who refused to press charges against Curry, wrote a two-page statement, part of which said, "First let me say I feel no ill will toward Mrs. Izola Currey (sic) and know that thoughtful people will do all in their power to see that she gets the help that she apparently needs if she is to become a free and constructive member of society."

Until recently, not many people knew if she had received or been helped by medical treatment.

But a reporter at The Smoking Gun, a website that contains legal documents, arrest records and mug shots and other information about criminals and celebrities, found a voter registration for Curry that listed an address for a nursing home in Queens in 2012.

According to TSG, "During a 30-minute conversation, Curry spoke haltingly and, at times, mumbled answers that were hard to decipher. At one point, she directed her visitor to fetch a chair from her room so that he did not have to stand over her.

"While Curry described her daily routine — up at 5:30 a.m., bed around 10 p.m., and not much going on in-between — and how she ended up in the nursing home, she met questions about King and the stabbing with a furrowed brow and 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."

Through investigation, the website learned Curry had spent 14 years at Matteawan, another year at a facility in Manhattan and then the rest of her life, before the nursing home, in at least two certified residential care homes.

"On the eighth floor of a nursing home in Queens, N.Y.," the report said, "a 98-year-old woman sits slumped in a wheelchair in the hallway outside her room. She is sleeping, oblivious to the roar coming from the television of her next-door neighbor, who is watching The Price is Right at an ear-piercing volume.

"Though the corridor is uncomfortably toasty on this July morning, the woman has a knitted shawl over her shoulders. She is wearing green sweatpants, a green T-shirt, and black shoes with Velcro closures. The remaining wisps of her hair are gray and tangled.

"As she naps in the hallway, it is hard to imagine that frail Izola Curry was once a would-be assassin, a woman who nearly changed the course of U.S. history with a seven-inch steel letter opener."

Both King and the state of New York realized then what we seem to have forgotten now. Those with mental illness need to be treated differently even if they commit criminal acts.

The reporter in me wanted to know what happened to her. The human being in me is glad her illness was understood and she has been cared for.

If society back then could treat a very sick woman with compassion and medical expertise after what she did, surely we can find more humane ways to treat the mentally ill now.

Thesmokinggun.com has a lot more on Curry's history and the years leading up to her criminal act, including pages of police interrogation and her background. It is a good read about a piece of history that has almost been forgotten.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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