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A lesser-known attack on Martin Luther King, Jr. occurred at a book signing in Harlem on September 20th, 1958, almost a decade before his assassination. At Blumstein’s Department Store, located at 230 W. 125th Street, the 29-year old Dr. King was stabbed on the upper left of his chest with a letter opener that had a 7-inch blade. The woman who performed the deed who was not from the line waiting to have their book signed, and also had a .25 caliber automatic pistol hidden in her dress.

Dr. King was operated on successfully at Harlem Hospital, where surgeon Dr. Aubre de Lambert Maynard noted that the letter opener “had impinged on the aorta.” Dr. W.V. Cordice, another surgeon who worked on Dr. King that day, said in the above 2012 video, “If the [stabbing] had been an inch in either direction, it would have killed him straight away.” The attacker was deemed mentally unfit and taken to Bellevue Hospital.

Dr. King Leaving Harlem Hospital. Screenshot via Harlem Hospital video.

Dr. King spoke about this stabbing in his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech shortly before his death. He said:

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. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And 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, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that the last surviving surgeon who operated on Dr. King at Harlem Hospital had passed away on December 29, 2013. In a 2012 Harlem Hospital promotional video, Cordice said “I think if we had lost King that day, the whole civil rights era could have been different.”

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