10 Men in History They Almost Couldn't Kill
10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill

D.G. Hewitt - June 2, 2018

Death comes to every man eventually. However, throughout the course of history, there have been certain individuals who have dared to look death in the face – and get away with it. Whether through dumb luck, tremendous bravery or, in many cases, a healthy mixture of both, some men have been able to defy the odds and live to tell the tale. In some instances, their perseverance has led them to gain near-mythological status, and sometimes it’s the legend that gets remembered rather than the true story.

The ability to survive certain death is not limited to one single social class. As the following stories from history show, both kings and common criminals have laughed in the face of their own mortality. Sometimes they took great resolve from their close shaves, with the near-death experiences driving them onto even greater things. At other times, however, they simply carry on leading a quiet life. Or, well, sometimes the miracle is just a brief respite from the inevitable.

So, here are ten men from history who proved hard – if not impossible – to kill:

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
The ‘Mad Monk’ survived poison and bullets as assassins tried to kill him off. Wikipedia.

Grigori Rasputin

No list of “unkillable men” would be complete without a shout out to Grigori Rasputin. Though he did indeed die, he did not go quietly or quickly into that good night. Instead, he really made his assassins work for it. And his struggle to the very end has only served to enhance the legend of Rasputin, the self-proclaimed mystic who charmed his way into the inner circle of the Russian royal family – and arguably hastened its downfall.

He has gone down in history as the “mad monk” of Russia. But that moniker only tells half the story. Rasputin was born in a small village close to the Ural Mountains in 1869. His early years were nothing out of the ordinary: he got in trouble with the law as a youth but then married a local woman, had kids and settled down to work on the family farm. Then, in 1892, he joined a local monastery. While he never took his Holy Orders (and so wasn’t, in fact, a monk), he became increasingly religious.

Around the turn of the century, he moved to St Petersburg. His unique and undeniable charisma soon earned the attention of the nobility. And so, from around 1905 onwards, he had enjoyed rapid ascension through the upper echelons of Russian society. Before long, he had been introduced to Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra. Soon he was acting as a spiritual advisor to both. Rasputin would even advise the Tsar on policy matters and court appointments. But he really earned their trust and admiration by treating their son, a haemophiliac, nursing him back to health (quite how he managed this is the source of much debate).

Unsurprisingly, the elite of Russian society were not happy at Rasputin’s growing influence in the Imperial court. Nor were they happy with his drunkenness and serial philandering – which included affairs with many wives, as well as common prostitutes. When they felt Rasputin’s ways were damaging Russia’s reputation and the people’s morale during the First World War, Felix Yussaprov brought together a group of men ready and willing to act. Killing Rasputin would, they believed, help save the Tsar’s reputation and stave off the threat of revolution.

The assassins struck on 30 December 1930. According to Yussaprov’s own account, the men invited Rasputin for dinner. There, they served him a feast laced with cyanide. To the assassins’ surprise, the poison had little effect on Rasputin. Desperate, Yussaprov took his revolver and shot Rasputin several times. Still, he refused to die. Rasputin tried to get away, but finally the men caught him, held his head underwater and succeeded in drowning him.

Over the decades, the lines between fact and myth have become blurred. Some historians believe the accounts of Rasputin’s death to be exaggerated, only adding to the myth of the man himself. However he died, the murder was almost certainly in vain. Even with Rasputin gone, the people still rose up to overthrow the Tsar and his wife, with the royal family also brutally murdered just a short time later.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Not many people slip the hangman’s noose not once but three times. Pinterest.

Joseph Samuels

Have you heard the one about the convicted robber who was hung three times but escaped with only a broken ankle? It may seem incredible, but everything about the story of Joseph Samuel is. Indeed, while he never earned sufficient infamy through his crimes to join the long list of legendary Australian outlaws like Ned Kelly, his lucky escape at the gallows have certainly gone down in history. Even to this day, the botched execution is regarded by many as a sign of divine intervention. Others, however, just put it down to pure, dumb luck.

While he made history in Australia, Samuel was actually born and raised in England, in 1780. By the time he was in his teens, he was already a criminal and in 1795, he was convicted of robbery. Rather than being sent to prison in England, like many of his kind, he was instead sentenced to transportation to Australia. So it was that in 1801, he and 296 fellow criminals set off on three ships to England’s penal colonies outside of Sydney.

At the time, the prisons were hardly super-max facilities. In fact, they were hardly guarded at all. They didn’t need to be. The facility Samuel was sent to was many miles from civilization. Anyone who got over the fence would have to deal with mile upon mile of inhospitable Outback. Many escaped prisoners simply died of thirst or hunger. But still, Samuel tried his luck. And he did get out. Before long, he was back to his thieving ways. With several other crooks, Samuel attempted to steal from the home of a wealthy lady. In the process, however, they ended up killing a policeman. When he was caught, Samuel admitted to trying to rob the old lady – but he swore he didn’t kill the policeman.

Despite his protestations, Samuel was named by the rich lady as the murderer. To his dismay, the rest of his gang were released without charge. Samuel was sentenced to be executed. When the day came, a huge crowd gathered to see him hang. With the noose around his neck, he once again protested his innocence – even after he had received a blessing from a priest. The horse pulling the carriage upon which he was standing slowly moved away, the platform went from under him and – snap! The rope snapped and Samuel fell to the ground, breaking his ankle. The hangman fixed another noose and tried again. But this time, it unraveled and was too long for the job.

By this point, the crowd were getting restless. Could this be a sign from above that Samuel was indeed innocent? If there was any doubt, it soon vanished. The hangman tried a third time. Again, the rope snapped. Now, the crowd was really mad. A policeman ordered that the execution be postponed. He fetched the Governor, who examined the ropes. There was no sign of any foul play. Perhaps, he reasoned, Samuel wasn’t supposed to die on that day. Maybe he was innocent after all. Or at least of murder. As such, he was brought back to court, convicted of robbery and sentenced to life behind bars, imprisoned but still alive.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Willie Francis made headlines after being the first man to survive the electric chair. Wikipedia.

Willie Francis

Willie Francis is not unique in American criminal history. Tragically, many convicted criminals have had to endure botched executions, often experiencing unspeakable pain before finally dying. However, Francis’ case has nevertheless gone down in history and continues to be the subject of much research and speculation. Moreover, for decades it has been used as an argument against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments and the role of capital punishment in American society.

Francis was born in the State of Louisiana in January 1929. Not much is known about his childhood, which is hardly surprising for a poor, boy of color living in the South at the time. What is known is that, in 1945, he was detained by police in Texas after being found close to the scene of a crime. Upon searching him, the police claim they found a wallet belonging to Andrew Thomas, a pharmacist from St. Martinville, Louisiana, who had been shot and killed nine months previously.

At first, Francis denied having any knowledge of the murder. Then, he named several other people as the perpetrators. Finally, after much interrogation, he confessed to the crime. Mysteriously, he noted “It was a secret about me and him”, with reference to Thomas. At no point did Francis have an attorney present with him. What’s more, not only did he retract his confession, new evidence pointed to a local policeman as being the culprit. All of this was ignored.

Francis was brought to court, where he pleaded not guilty. Without any defense to call upon, an all-white jury convicted him of murder. Even though he was under 15 at the time of the crime, Francis was sentenced to death. The execution was scheduled for May 3, 1946 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Francis was strapped to the electric chair and the switch was flicked. A surge of electricity ran through his body. But, instead of dying, Francis was screaming out loud. It turned out that a drunken prison guard had failed to set the chair up properly.

Citing the agony that the botched attempt had caused Francis, a young, white lawyer – who had even been friends with the murder victim – took up his case. He argued that the electric chair constituted “cruel and unusual punishment”. After deliberating, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Francis was taken back to the execution almost exactly a year to the day of the first attempt. This time, it was successful. While he may have been spared the horror of a failed electrocution for a second time, some people still maintain that Francis was innocent all along. Or that, even if he did kill Thomas, it was because the pharmacist had been abusing him as a boy. As that confession note mysteriously said, the crime was “a secret about me and him”.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Castro lived to a very old age, despite the best efforts of the CIA. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Fidel Castro

When Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in February of 1959, the American government was not happy. Not happy at all. So annoyed were US Presidents and spy chiefs to have a Communist revolutionary in control of an island just a short distance off the coast of Florida that they worked to get rid of him – by any means necessary. Attempts on Castro’s life have become the stuff of legend. Each one was more ingenious than the last. But they all had one thing in common – they all failed.

According to Fabian Escalante, the former head of the Cuban Secret Service, during his five decades in office, Castro survived more than 600 attempts on his life. Indeed, it’s claimed that the Reagan administration alone sanctioned 197 hits on the Cuban leader, while the Clinton presidency was responsible for 21, even though by this point the Cold War was well and truly over.

Some of the attempted assassinations were the stuff of a James Bond movie. The records show that the CIA tried to kill Castro with an exploding cigar, or simply with a cigar laced with poison. As well as cigars – which the dictator was never without – the CIA knew that Castro had several other loves that could be used against him, including diving and beautiful women. As such, there were plans to give him a diving suit laced on the inside with poison or even to plant a bomb in a seashell at a spot where Castro loved to dive. And, of course, the CIA regularly tried to get Castro’s many mistresses to take out their leader. One, Martina Lorenz, allegedly came closest but was unable to feed the poisoned capsules America’s spies had given her to the man himself. According to the legend, Castro rumbled the plot and offered his lover his gun to finish the job. Lorenz simply couldn’t kill him in cold blood.

In 1963, it’s believed the CIA came as close as they were ever likely to in their mission. They got a man inside the Havana Hilton hotel, armed with a capsule of poison. However, when it came to serving Castro an ice-cold (and deadly) milkshake, the capsule had become frozen to the side of the freezer and could not be used. The dictator lived to rule another day. In the end, Castro died of natural causes in 2016, at the age of 90, without giving the CIA the satisfaction of bumping him off.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
King Zog saw assassination attempts as just part of the job. Pinterest.

King Zog

Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli’s decision to establish a monarchy in Albania – and to install himself as King Zog I – was not a universally popular one. After serving as his country’s prime minister between 1925 and 1928, the ruler set his sights higher. As well as wanting to transform Albania into a true, modern European country, Zog was keen to enjoy all the trappings of monarchy, and he was happy to work with the Italians to gain and hold onto power.

Albania became a monarchy on 1 September 1928, with King Zog as its undisputed leader. From the very start of his reign, there were many people and different groups gunning for the life of their king. Not that Zog was phased by this. After all, as a politician, he had been threated on many occasions. Famously, on one occasion, he took two bullets from close range while he was entering the national Assembly Hall. Despite bleeding profusely from the wounds, he still went into the hall and made his intended speech. Zog was a tough man to kill.

In all, it’s estimated that more than 50 serious attempts were made on his on his life. On most occasions, they were random pot shots, missing by some distance. But sometimes his closest advisors worked together to plot against their leader. In response, Zog regularly launched bloody purges, killing any would-be conspirators. He also became increasingly reclusive during the latter years of his reign, fully realising the fate that had fallen several other European monarchs.

Away from Albania, Zog still faced threats to his life. On his only official trip abroad as monarch, Zog visited Vienna in 1931. Here, he was ambushed as he was coming out of the city’s famous opera house. His would-be-assassin fired several times at the ruler, killing his bodyguard. Zog, unflinching, unleashed a weapon of his own, forcing the attacker to retreat. For good measure, Zog gave chase for a short while before getting into his official car and resuming his evening.

By 1939, Zog’s good luck was running out. He was forced from the throne and into exile. Along with other members of the ‘royal family’, he moved into the Ritz Hotel in London and then, in 1946, they moved again, this time to Egypt. Finally, Zog moved to France in 1955 and lived here until his death in 1961. Though he died relatively young – aged just 65 – he passed away from natural causes rather than by an assassin’s bullet.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Charles de Gaulle survived the best efforts of his countrymen to kill him. South China Morning Post.

Charles de Gaulle

The bestselling spy novel The Day of the Jackal and the hit movie it spawned tell the story of an attempt on the life of Charles de Gaulle. While almost purely a work of fiction, it’s far from outlandish. After all, the French leader was the subject of many assassination attempts – more than 30, in fact. But, despite being on the hit list of various groups, including Nazis, North African freedom fighters and even his own side, he survived them all.

Born in 1890, de Gaulle was an old-school career army officer who rose steadily through the ranks. By the time World War II broke out, he was a General and it was he who led the French Resistance to the Nazis while also heading up the country’s government-in-exile. Even though peace returned to his native country, de Gaulle could not stay out of the limelight for too long. He was appointed Prime Minister in 1958 and stayed in office until his retirement in 1969.

It was between 1958 and 1962 when de Gaulle’s life was really threatened. The right-wing OAS, made up of former and serving soldiers as well as other elite members of French society, were opposed to their government’s policies regarding Algeria. To try and derail the political process, they resorted to assassinations, bombings and other acts of violence. And de Gaulle was top of their hitlist. The most famous attempt on his life occurred in August 1962. Riding in a convoy with his wife, de Gaulle was ambushed by terrorists armed with machine guns. The legend goes that de Gaulle kept his cool and ordered his driver to accelerate rather than reverse, getting them through the ambush. “They shoot like pigs,” he is alleged to have said of his would-be killers.

The OAS tried to get de Gaulle several times after that, planting bombs and trying with long-range snipers. However, he dodged every bullet that came his way. In the end, de Gaulle died a peaceful death, passing away in 1970 at the age of 79 at home in front of the TV.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Was John Lee the man England shouldn’t have tried to hang? StrangeHistory.net.

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee

For centuries, executions in England were carried out by professionals. These skilled executioners were paid handsomely to ensure that condemned men – and women – were dispatched quickly and effectively. By the nineteenth century, hanging had become firmly established as the preferred method of executing murderers and other notorious criminals in English prisons. As well as being bloodless – and certainly less traumatic to prison staff than death by firing squad – it was also hugely reliable. Hardly anybody survived a hanging. But to survive three attempts? It sounds impossible. But a man by the name of John Lee allegedly did just that.

Lee was convicted of the murder of Miss Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse. Emma Keyse (as she was more commonly known) lived alone in the small village of Babbacombe, in the county of Devon. However, she shared her house with four servants. Lee, the half-brother of the house’s cook, was one of the servants. Indeed, he first got the job when he left school in 1879. He soon left, however, to travel the world in the Navy. But the sea-faring life was not for Lee and, after being dismissed, he got a job as a footman in the town of Torquay. It was here in Torquay that he first fell foul of the law. After being caught stealing from his employer, he was sent to prison. Lee was released in 1884 and immediately returned to Babbacombe.

Since Lee was the only male in the house, as well as the only person with a criminal record, when Emma Keyse’s body was found on a November morning in 1884, he was the prime suspect. The spinster had been brutally killed: as well as her head being bashed in, her throat had been slit. What’s more, the culprit had attempted to burn the body. When questioning Lee, the police noticed that he had cuts on his arm. He could not account for the injuries. These cuts, as well as his past record, were enough to see him convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang in Exeter Prison on the morning of 23 February 1885.

By all accounts, the Exeter Prison executioner, a man by the name of James Berry, was thorough in his work. Indeed, he tested the gallows trapdoor several times before Lee was brought out and a noose put around his neck. However, upon pulling the lever, the trapdoor failed to open. Berry tried again. No luck. And a third time. Still it wouldn’t open. The execution was postponed and Lee’s lawyers appealed. Upon hearing of the case, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, commuted the death penalty. He said: “It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”

That’s not to say Lee went unpunished. He was still given a life sentence and was released only after 22 years. Throughout his imprisonment, Lee maintained his innocence. And, indeed, in the English media, he became known not as the man they couldn’t hang but, due to his lack of guilt, the man they shouldn’t hang. What happened to Lee after his release, nobody knows for sure. Some say he stayed in the South-West of England. Others report he emigrated to America for a new life. His guilt – or innocence – has never been comprehensively proved, though he will always retain a place in English history as the man who escaped the hangman’s noose.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
The Korean War saw countless acts of bravery, and several acts of literal death defiance. Daily Mirror.

Gord Manktelow

The Korean War didn’t just involve U.S. troops. In all, some 26,000 Canadians were involved in the battle for the Korean peninsular that raged between 1950 and 1953. Some were unlucky and died in the war, and many returned home seriously injured. Others were far luckier. None, however, was probably as lucky as Gord Manktelow, who became known as “the man the Chinese couldn’t kill”.

Manktelow was just 20 years old when he found himself in Korea as part of the First Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. In March of 1952, Manktelow, who held the rank of Lance Corporal, along with five other men, was tasked with pressing forward and scouting out a section of no-man’s land that was commonly known as Hill 163. Before long, the forward observation team came under Chinese mortar fire and were ordered to withdraw.

Unable to retreat, Manktelow instead tried to play dead as Chinese ground forces approached. They found him lying face down and decided to see if he really was deceased. At first, they pummelled every part of his body with the butts of their rifles. Not satisfied by this, they then proceeded to bayonet him. Manktelow remained still and silent throughout, even though the pain must have been incredible. Then, to make extra sure, the Chinese soldiers took one of Manktelow’s own grenades, pulled the pin and left it by his side.

The enemy soldiers all ran away. Manktelow simply lay there waiting for the explosion to come. When it did, it tossed the Canadian in the air, bringing him back down to earth. There, lying face up, he was kicked again by the returned Chinese soldiers. Satisfied he was dead, Manktelow was at last left in peace. Miraculously, he lay there through a long night, with mortars landing all around him. Finally, a Canadian comrade found him and got him to a field hospital. Though he had lost a lot of blood, he pulled through.

Before long, the media got hold of the story and the legend of the ‘man the Chinese couldn’t kill’ was born. Manktelow returned to Canada and, for more than 20 years, tried to forget all about the Korean War. After some time, he decided to join a veterans’ association and remains proud of his role in the largely-forgotten conflict.

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Jacklyn Lucas defied death and won the Medal of Honor aged just 17. Wikipedia.

Jacklyn Lucas

When most boys his age were busy studying for their high school exams or worrying about making the football team, Jacklyn Lucas was busy fighting in the bloodiest war his country had ever seen. What’s more, as if volunteering as a teen wasn’t enough, he was displaying feats of bravery that would win him the admiration of his comrades-in-arms and ultimately earn him a place in the history book. That he lived to collect his Medal of Honor is nothing short of miraculous – the Japanese Imperials forces simply couldn’t kill him.

Lucas was born in Plymouth, North Carolina in February 1928. When his father died, he was sent, at the age of 10, to the Edwards Military Institute where, by all accounts, he excelled, especially on the sports field. Though he was just 14, he succeeded in enlisting in the Marine Corps – his height and muscular build convinced the recruiting officer that he was 17. By November 1943, he was shipping out of the continental United States. But, far from being sent to the theatre of combat, he was assigned to a base on Hawaii. Unhappy with this, Lucas walked out of his camp and stowed away on a transport ship.

Just one day before he would have been listed as a deserter, Lucas turned himself in. Officers accepted his request to join a combat unit and, with the 5th Marine Division, he was off to Iwo Jima. It was there, just a few days after his 17th birthday, he had his finest moment. On 20 February, Lucas and his comrades were crawling towards a Japanese trench. The enemy spotted them and opened fire. They also tossed two grenades towards the American troops. Without hesitation, Lucas ran past a fellow Marine, threw his body on top of one grenade and pushed the other deep into the soil. The first exploded, sending him flying. The second did not, remaining in his hand.

Marines from another unit found Lucas and evacuated him to a hospital ship. He should have been killed, and nobody can say how he survived. But, after more than 21 surgeries, he was discharged from the Marine Corp. Lucas was awarded the Medal of Honor in October of 1945. After that, he remained active in the armed forces up until the 1960s. He died in 2008.

 

10 Men in History They Almost Couldn’t Kill
Attempts to kill Iron Mike made headlines across New York and America. Smithsonian Magazine.

Michael Malloy AKA ‘The Irish Rasputin’

In the nineteenth century, if a friend or family member suggested that you take out a life insurance policy, then you would have had good reason to think twice. This was time when a number of murders were carried out in order that the culprit cash in on an insurance policy. And, all too often, it was a victim’s friend or relation who got them to set up the policy, only to kill them and make it look like natural causes. Sometimes, they got away with it, or sometimes they got caught. Or, as was the case with the so-called Irish Rasputin, Michael Molloy, the would-be murderers couldn’t finish the job and cash in.

Molloy was born in County Donegal in Ireland in 1873. Like many of his countrymen, he emigrated to America, ending up in New York City. Here, he worked as a firefighter and even as a professional boxer before falling upon hard times. By 1933, he was a homeless alcoholic, regularly seen on the streets of the Bronx. His ill health and known troubles convinced five men – all known to Molloy – that he would be the perfect victim for their scam. They would get him to sign a life insurance policy, naming them as beneficiaries, and then get him to drink himself to death. Simple, right?

Sure enough, with the help of a corrupt insurance broker, the men, led by Tony Marino, got Malloy to take out a policy. Under the terms of the document, the five plotters would share $3,500 (around $66,000 in today’s money) in the event of his demise. Marino then invited Malloy to drink for free at the speakeasy he owned. He assumed the drunk would just overindulge and keel over. No such luck. Then they tried spiking his drink with antifreeze. Malloy just drank it, went to bed and woke up the next morning ready to go again. Finally, they tried horse medicine and then rat poison. Still, Iron Mike kept going.

Frustrated, Marino heeded the advice of one of his co-conspirators and fed Malloy raw oysters soaked in alcohol. And then they tried feeing him rotting sardines laced with rat poison, again to no avail. Then, one night, they took a drunk, sleeping Malloy out into the freezing night and left him in the cold, hoping the elements would finish the job. But, sure enough, the following morning, Malloy was back in the bar asking for a drink. Even when they hit him with a taxi at 45 miles per hour, all they could do was break a few bones.

Finally, the five would-be killers decided enough was enough. One night in February 1933, they took a drunk, passed-out Malloy into an upstairs room and connected a gas jet to his mouth with a rubber hose. This did the job. And, indeed, the coroner ruled that Malloy had died of pneumonia. However, by the time the men went to cash in the life insurance policy, the legend of Malloy, ‘the man they couldn’t kill’ were doing the rounds of New York’s bars. The police learned of the scam, had the body exhumed and then arrested Marino and his co-conspirators. Four of them were given the electric chair, while the other went to prison for many years.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“How was Russian mystic Rasputin murdered?” Artem Krechetnikov, BBC, December 2016.

“The Man They Couldn’t Hang”. City of Parramatta Council, October 2013.

“Cruel and Unusual History”. The New York Times, April 2008.

“King Zog I of Albania”. Richard Cavendish, History Today, September 2008.

“Citroen helps De Gaulle survive assassination attempt”. History.com.

“The Weird Story of the ‘Man They Couldn’t Hang'”. Kat Eschner Smithsonian Magazine, February 2017.

“Iron Mike Malloy: The Donegal man they tried nine times to kill”. The Journal, December 2015.

“The Man the Chinese Couldn’t Kill”. Christopher Grosskurth, CBC Radio News, July 2003.

“Jack Lucas Dies at 80; Earned Medal of Honor at 17”. The New York Times, June 2008.

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