Izola Ware Curry, "Demented Black Woman" Who Nearly Killed Martin Luther King, Jr., Dies At 98

Izola Ware Curry, the “demented black woman” who nearly killed Martin Luther King, Jr. by plunging a steel letter opener into his chest, died Saturday at a New York City nursing home, The Smoking Gun has learned.

The death of the 98-year-old Curry was confirmed by the New York City medical examiner’s office.

After attacking King at a 1958 book signing--a decade before the civil rights leader would be assassinated by James Earl Ray--Curry lived for decades in virtual anonymity, first at the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and then, upon her release from state custody, a series of group homes in Queens.

Several years ago, Curry moved into the Hillside Manor nursing home in Jamaica, a no-frills 300-bed facility. Curry, who would have turned 99 in June, died at the home, where she lived in a small room that looked out onto a rear parking lot.

Curry is pictured at right in a photo taken following her arrest.

Last August, TSG published a story about the whereabouts of Curry, who was long thought to have been deceased. During a 30-minute visit with a reporter, Curry spoke haltingly and mumbled answers to questions. While she described her daily routine at the facility, Curry met inquiries about the King stabbing with a blank stare. At one point, she referred to 1958 as the year she was placed in a “hospital for the criminally insane.”  

One of eight children born to sharecroppers in Georgia, Curry moved to New York City following the demise of her six-month marriage. According to court, police, and psychiatric records, Curry suffered from delusions, paranoia, and illogical thinking in the years leading up to her attempt to murder King. An October 1958 psychiatric report noted that Curry “believes she has been under constant surveillance and all her movements are known to the NAACP and Dr. King.”

Convinced that King and NAACP leaders were monitoring her movements and conspiring to deny her employment, Curry approached the civil rights leader as he sat in a Harlem department store signing copies of his first book.

Though she had a loaded pistol concealed in her bra, Curry instead reached into her purse and removed a seven-inch letter opener, which she plunged deep into the 29-year-old reverend’s chest. A New York Daily News photo shows King sitting with the letter opener in his upper chest while waiting for medical help.

In a post-arrest interrogation, Curry explained to investigators, “Because after all if it wasn’t him it would have been me, he was going to kill me.”

In a statement issued from Harlem Hospital, where King was recuperating, he said, “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.”

In the decade between King’s stabbing and his assassination, the civil rights leader would often recall Curry’s attack, noting how close he came to dying that Saturday afternoon in Blumstein’s department store. During his “Promised Land” speech, delivered the day before he died, King referred to Curry.

“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 recalled. “Before I knew it, I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. That blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, you drowned in your own blood, that's the end of you." King added, "It came out in The New York Times the next morning that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died."

King then closed the final address of his life by saying that had he sneezed after being stabbed by Curry, he would have missed a decade’s worth of milestone events, including passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Selma marches, the Freedom Riders protests, and the March on Washington. Reflecting on what might not ever have been, King said, “I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.”