The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts

Khalid Elhassan - June 16, 2024

The survival of Alexander Selkirk for years as a castaway on an uninhabited island in the eighteenth century was one of the era’s most gripping real life adventures. It attracted significant attention, and became a key inspiration behind the fictional Robinson Crusoe. Below are some fascinating facts about that and other skin-of-the-teeth survival stories from history.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Statue of Alexander Selkirk in Fife, Scotland. Fife Contemporary

From Delinquent Youth to Marooned Man

Alexander Selkirk (1676 – 1721), also spelled Selcraig or Selchraig – consistent spelling was not a big deal back then – was a bad boy from early on. An unruly youth and teenage delinquent, Selkirk was born and raised in Fife, Scotland. He first appears in the historic record in 1693, when he was summoned by the church elders of the Kirk Session for “indecent conduct at church“. Just what the indecent conduct was is lost to history. Selkirk did not show up: Kirk records note that he: “did not [appear] being gone away to [the] sea“. He was back in Fife by 1701, when he got into trouble and was summoned by the Kirk Session once again. This time for assaulting his brothers, father, and a brother’s wife after he was pranked with a cup of salt water. He appeared before the congregation, apologized and promised to mend his ways.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
The marooning of Alexander Selkirk. Look and Learn

Selkirk returned to the sea as a privateer, or legalized pirate. A competent seaman, he rose to become Sailing Master, or navigator. He remained quarrelsome, however, and it eventually caught up with him. In 1704, he served on the ship Cinque Ports under a Captain Thomas Stradling, with whom he beefed nonstop. When the ship stopped at the uninhabited Juan Fernandez Archipelago, about 420 miles off the coast of Chile, Selkirk complained that the vessel was unseaworthy, and demanded extensive repairs. The captain refused, so Selkirk stated that he would rather stay behind on an uninhabited island, rather than sail on in such a dangerous ship. To Selkirk’s dismay, Captain Stradling called his bluff, and left him on an island with a knife, hatchet, musket, cooking pot, some food, and a Bible. It was the start of a years-long ordeal.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
A marooned Selkirk frolicks with goats. National Geographic

The Real Robinson Crusoe

When Captain Stradling called Selkirk’s bluff and landed him in the uninhabited Mas a Tiera, now Robinson Crusoe, Island, Selkirk repented and begged to be taken back aboard ship. A gloating Captain Stradling refused, and sailed on, leaving Selkirk behind. As things turned out, Selkirk had been right. The Cinque Ports was unseaworthy, and foundered off the coast of what is now Colombia. Most aboard drowned, and the few survivors were taken prisoner by the Spanish, then at war with Britain, and endured years of privation and torture. Unaware of his (relatively) good fortune, a despondent Selkirk set about to survive as a castaway. At first he stayed along the shoreline, barely surviving on lobsters and scanning the horizon in hopes of rescue by a passing ship. No rescue came, and eventually, thousands of sea lions congregating for mating season on the shoreline forced him into the island’s interior.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Alexander Selkir brought aboard a rescue ship. Pinterest

Food was more plentiful inland: turnips, spices, and most importantly, feral goats. When he ran out of gunpowder for his musket, Selkirk chased the goats on foot and wrestled them to the ground. They provided him with meat, milk, and skins for clothing when his clothes were reduced to rags. Rats pestered and gnawed at him as he slept, until he tamed some feral cats that kept the rodents at bay. To keep his mind engaged, he constantly read his Bible, and sang hymns. Two ships stopped by the island, but both were Spanish enemies, and Selkirk had to hide when their crew came ashore. He was finally rescued by a British ship in 1709, by which time he barely remembered how to speak. The story of his survival made Selkirk a celebrity, and eventually inspired Daniel Defoe to pen The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Tsutomu Yamaguchi. K-Pics

This Man Had a Terrible Week

On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries employee Tsutomu Yamaguchi was going about his work while on an out of town business trip. Unfortunately, the business trip was to Hiroshima, so he was there when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on that city. The blast blinded him temporarily, ruptured his eardrums, and inflicted serious burns on his upper body. Nonetheless, Yamaguchi survived. He spent the night in an air raid shelter, then left the devastated Hiroshima the following day and returned home. Unfortunately, home happened to be Nagasaki.

Heavily bandaged, Yamaguchi reported for work on the morning of August 9th. He was in the midst of describing the Hiroshima atomic blast to a supervisor, when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. This time around, Yamaguchi was about two miles from ground zero, so he was not as badly hurt as he had been in Hiroshima. However, between the shock and possible radiation sickness, he ended up vomiting for a week while suffering a high fever. Yamaguchi might have been one of history’s unluckiest individuals, considering that he had an atomic bomb dropped on him – twice. He might also have been one of history’s luckiest individuals, seeing as how he survived having an atomic bomb dropped on him, twice. Either way, Tsutomu Yamaguchi recovered fully and lived until 2010, when he died at the ripe old age of 93.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived not one, but two atomic bombs. K-Pics

The People Who Survived Both The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Atomic Bombings

The fact that Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived two atomic bombings was quite extraordinary. As things turned out, however, while what had happened to him was rare, it was not unique. Incredibly, there were hundreds of people who were atomically bombed in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although up to 200,000 people perished in the nuclear explosions and in their aftermaths, at least 200 survivors of the Hiroshima explosion had sought refuge in Nagasaki, only to face the same fate again, just a few days later.

A documentary called Twice Survived: The Doubly Atomic Bombed of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was screened at the United Nations in 2006. Producers had tracked down 165 individuals who had been in Hiroshima when that city had been nuked, then ended up in Nagasaki when that city experienced the same fate three days later. The Japanese, who coined the term hibakusha (“atomic bombed”) to describe to the survivors of the atomic bombings, refer to double survivors as the nijyuu hibakusha (“double atomic bombed”).

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
A parachute is the preferred method to get from an airplane to the ground. K-Pics

People Who Survived Falls From Airplanes Without Parachute

To jump out of an airplane with a parachute is dangerous enough. To jump out of an airplane without a parachute? During World War II, many airmen were forced by dire necessity to jump, or fell, out of airplanes thousands of feet up in the air, without parachutes. Most died upon impact, but a lucky few miraculously survived. Most were bomber crewmen. For the Western Allies’ fighting men in Europe, few jobs were more dangerous than service in a bomber. Especially in the days before Allied fighters secured aerial supremacy over Europe’s skies, when bomber losses were horrific.

For example, in 1943 some American Eighth Air Force bomber groups recorded a 400 percent turnover in personnel in just three months. At the time, bomber crews were tasked with a 25-mission tour of duty. Most never made it past their fifth mission. Things were even more horrendous for British bomber crews. Out of a total of 125,000 men who flew for RAF Bomber Command, over 55,000 were killed – a 44.4% death rate. A further 8400 were wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 were taken prisoner, for a total loss rate of 58%. Amidst the carnage, there were some amazing survival stories – such as those of airmen who somehow survived falls without parachutes from miles up in the air.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Nicholas Alkemade’s fall. Meister Drucke

The RAF Crewman Who Survived an 18,000 Foot Fall Without a Parachute

It’s not the fall from high up that kills you: it’s the sudden stop. That is a good rule of thumb, but it has some exceptions. One such was RAF Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade (1922 – 1987), who on the night of March 24th, 1944, was serving as a rear gunner in an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber. Part of No. 115 Squadron RAF, Alkemade’s Lancaster was returning from a raid that had plastered Berlin, when it was attacked by an enemy Ju 88 configured as a night fighter. The attack set Alkemade’s plane aflame, and it began to spiral out of control. Alkemade’s parachute was burned in the fire. With the flames licking towards him, he jumped out of bomber, preferring to die by impact rather than get burned to death. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground, yet survived.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Nicholas Alkemade. Find a Grave

Alkemade fell into a stand of pine trees, then onto soft snow covering the ground. The trees and snow broke and cushioned his fall. Alkemade discovered that he was alive, that he could move his limbs, that nothing was broken, and that the only injury he suffered was a strained leg. He was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, who disbelieved his claims until they found and investigated his bomber’s wreckage. Alkemade spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, where his survival story made him a celebrity. After the war, he made a living in the chemical industry, and was featured on Just Amazing, a British TV series about people who pulled off extraordinary feats of daring or survived against incredible odds.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Among many harrowing escapes from death, Frano Selak survived a train that derailed into a river. K-Pics

The World’s Unluckiest Lucky Man?

Frano Selak of Croatia has often been labeled the world’s luckiest unlucky man. Unlucky because he faced more than his fair share of horrific mishaps and accidents. Lucky because he survived those mishaps and accidents, some of which were of a type that nobody has any business surviving. His record of mishaps includes being in a train that derailed and plunged into a river. He was in a bus that skidded off a road and fell into a river. He was blown out of an airplane. His car erupted into flames while he was driving – twice. He was hit by a bus. His car hit a guardrail and plunged 300 feet off a cliff.

Selak’s decades of ducking death began in 1962, when a train in which he was riding skidded off the rails, and plunged down a canyon into an icy river. Seventeen passengers drowned, but Selak escaped with only a broken arm, plus hypothermia from immersion in the cold water. In 1963, on his first and only plane ride, in shades of twenty first century Boeing mishapas, Selak was blown out of malfunctioning door, and landed on a haystack. The plane crashed, killing nineteen people. Three years later, he was on a bus whose driver lost control, plunging it into a river. Four passengers drowned, but Selak survived with just some cuts and bruises. Selak’s unlucky lucky streak was not over.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Frano Selak survived many close brushes with the Grim Reaper – then won a lottery. Notinerd

Saved From a Car Accident by Not Wearing a Seatbelt

The 1970s were no less hazardous for Frano Selak than the 1960s had been. The decade began with his car erupting into flames while he was driving. He managed to jump out just before the fuel tank exploded. In 1973, a bad pump sprayed his new car’s engine with hot oil while he was driving. It caught fire, and shot flames into the passenger compartment. Selak escaped with no worse than singed hair. The 1980s were uneventful, but then in 1995, he was hit by a bus. He escaped with only minor injuries.

The following year, Selak barely avoided a head on collision with a truck on a mountain road – but only by swerving into and through a guardrail. His car fell 300 feet down a gorge. Luckily for Selak, he was not wearing a seatbelt. He was flung out the door, and in cartoon fashion, managed to hang on to a tree branch, while his car was totaled and incinerated below. Then in 2003, fate finally decided to do Selak a solid with no strings attached: he won €800,000 in the lottery – equivalent to U$1.1 million.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Crew of the Snap! Crackle! Pop! Imgur

The American Airman Who Survived a 22,000 Foot Fall Without a Parachute

Alan Eugene Magee (1919 – 2003) joined the United States Army Air Force immediately after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. After completing aerial gunnery training, he became a B-17 ball turret gunner, and was sent to join the Eighth Air Force in Britain. He joined the crew of a Flying Fortress nicknamed Snap! Crackle! Pop! that was part of the 360th Bomb Squadron of the 303rd Bomb Group. Magee’s seventh mission, on January 3rd, 1943, was a daylight raid against Saint-Nazaire in France. It ended with him falling over 22,000 feet from his B-17, without a parachute. While bombing U-boat pens in Saint-Nazaire, Alan Magee’s ball turret took a flak hit that rendered it inoperative. Exiting, he discovered that his parachute had been shredded. Before he had time to contemplate the implications, another flak hit destroyed the B-17’s right wing, started an uncontrollable fire, and sent the bomber spinning towards earth.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Saint Nazaire’s railway station, through whose rough Alan Eugene Magee crashed. Historic Wings

Magee blacked from lack of oxygen as he crawled to the plane’s front. Unconscious, he fell out of the dying B-17. He plummeted for four miles, crashed through Saint-Nazaire railroad station’s glass roof, which shattered and observed some of the impact, then slammed into the station’s floor. He was injured, but alive. The fall left Magee a bloody mess. In addition to 28 shrapnel wounds he took in the B-17, he sustained damage to his nose, an eye, lung, kidney, had several broken bones, plus a nearly severed right arm. Nonetheless, he had miraculously survived. Magee spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, until he was liberated in 1945. In 1993, on the 50th anniversary of his fall, Saint-Nazaire erected a monument in honor of Magee and the crew of Snap! Crackle! Pop!

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Louis Edward Curdes in his P-51. Pinterest

The American Fighter Pilot Who Shot Down an American Airplane – Deliberately

Pictured above is American ace Louis Edward Curdes in his P-51 Mustang. On the fuselage below the cockpit is a painted display of his victories, each marked with a flag or emblem that denotes the downed plane’s nationality. There are swastikas for shot down German airplanes, a fascist roundel for a victory over an Italian aircraft, and a Rising Sun for a downed Japanese airplane. However, there is an oddity that stands out: an American flag, denoting that one of Curdes’ victories was over an American airplane. There was a fascinating tale behind that.

Curdes was born in Indiana in 1919. When America joined WWII, he was a third year engineering student at Purdue. He dropped out to join the US Army Air Forces, and was sent to the Mediterranean Theater in March, 1943. There, he was assigned to the Twelfth Air Force’s 95th Fighter Squadron, 82nd Fighter Group. Curfdes flew a P-38 Lightning, and on his first combat mission on April 29th, 1943, he shot down three German Messerschmitt Bf 109s in Tunisia. Three weeks later, he became an ace when he shot down two more enemy airplanes over Sardinia. That June, he added an Italian fighter. He downed two more German 109s, but immediately after his eighth kill, he was himself shot down near Rome. Curdes was captured and thrown into an Italian POW camp. As seen below, he did not stay there for long.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
The wedding of Svetlana Valeria to Louis Edward Curdes, the beau who literally shot her down. The News Sentinel, Fort Wayne

The Woman Who Survived Getting Literally Shot Down by Her Beau – Then Married Him

On September 8th, 1943, Italy surrendered, and Curdes’ Italian guards fled. Angered by their ally’s betrayal, the Germans invaded Italy, and Curdes had to evade recapture for eight months, before he finally made it to friendly lines in May, 1944. He was sent back to Indiana on home leave to recuperate, but Curdes sought another combat tour. So he was sent to the Pacific Theater, where he joined the 4th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Air Commando, a P-51 Mustang outfit. On February 7th, 1945, he shot down a Japanese reconnaissance airplane near Taiwan. That made Curdes one of only three Americans to have shot down German, Italian, and Japanese planes. Three days later, Curdes led four P-51s in strafing some Japanese airfields in the Philippines. In the course of that operation, he noticed that an American Douglas C-47 transport was on a landing approach to a Japanese airfield.

Curdes tried to radio a warning to the C-47, but was unsuccessful. He flew in front of it and maneuvered wildly, but its pilot did not understand, and continued on. Curdes figured that the transport’s occupants would be better off if he shot it down, than if they landed and were captured by the brutal Japanese. So he shot out both of its engines. That forced the pilot to abandon the ground landing, and ditch his airplane in the sea nearby. Luckily, nobody was killed, and the C-47’s occupants evacuated in a lifeboat. The next day, Curdes was surprised to learn that the C-47’s passengers included a nurse, Svetlana Valeria, whom he had recently gone out with. He was officially credited with the downed American C-47, which brought his WWII victory total to ten. A year later, in 1946, he married Svetlana. They stayed together until his death in 1995.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Ivan Chisov in WWII. Imgur

The Soviet Pilot Who Survived a 23,000 Foot Fall Without a Parachute

British airman Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall without a parachute from 18,000 feet, and American airman Alan Magee survived one from 22,000. Soviet airman Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov (1916 – 1986) did them one better, and survived a fall without a parachute from 23,000 feet. It happened in January, 1942, while Lieutenant Colonel Chisov was serving as a navigator in an Ilyushin Il-4 bomber that was jumped by German fighters. The bomber was wrecked and spun out of control, so Chisov exited at a height of 23,000 feet. He had a parachute, but fearing that the nearby German fighters would shoot him, he decided to refrain from opening it until he got close to the ground. Unfortunately, he blacked out due to lack of oxygen in the thin air so high up. Unconscious, he continued all the way down without deploying his parachute.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Ivan Chisov in later years. Sputnik

Ivan Chisov plummeted 23,000 feet from his stricken Il-4, and hit the ground at about 120 to 150 miles per hour. Luckily, he landed on the edge of a snowy ravine, whose snow absorbed and dissipated enough impact energy to keep the Soviet airman alive. Chisov bounced from the ravine’s edge and slid, rolled, and ploughed his way to the bottom. He was seriously hurt, including spinal injuries and a broken pelvis. However, he was alive. He underwent surgery, and spent a month hospitalized in critical care. He was a tough Russian, though. Three months after his dramatic fall, Chisov was back in the air, flying more bombing missions against the Nazis.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
The world might have ended in a nuclear holocaust if not for Stanislav Petrov. Interesting Engineering

The World Survived 1983 Without a Nuclear Holocaust Thanks to a Little-Known Soviet Officer

Few know of Stanislav Petrov, despite the fact that he saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. If not for him, most of us would not be alive today. Early in the morning of September 26th, 1983, Soviet early warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the US. Computer readouts confirmed the warning, and advised that several American missiles had been launched. Soviet protocol for such a scenario called for an immediate response by launching their own nukes in retaliation. Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer in charge, and his job was to immediately alert Soviet leaders to launch their own missiles. As he put it in an interview decades later: “I had all the data [to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack]. If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it“.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Stanislav Petrov. Wikimedia

At the time, Cold War tensions were particularly high. Soviet leaders feared American president Ronald Reagan. They also suspected that a massive NATO training exercise known as Able Archer, that was taking place at the time, might be a ruse, to conceal preparations for a surprise attack against the Warsaw Pact. In short, it was a bad time for nuclear attack warnings to go off in the USSR. By nuclear warfare logic, the protocols of immediately launching your missiles upon receipt of a warning that the enemy had launched their nukes made sense on “use it or lose it” grounds. Given the short window – under half an hour – between missile launch detection and impact, the side that failed to immediately launch its own missiles risked having them destroyed in their silos.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Stanislav Petrov. The History Project

The World Survived Because a Fluke of Fate Placed the Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time

The warning made it to the Soviet watch officer, whose job was to sound the alarm up the chain. Had that happened, it would almost certainly would have led to a decision to launch Soviet missiles. Luckily, by sheer accident of fate, the Soviet watch commander that night was Stanislav Petrov. A signal processing engineer, Petrov was not the typical watch officer, and was not supposed to be at that post at that time. He had subbed in that night for a sick colleague. Unlike the typical watch officer, Petrov had unique knowledge of the Soviet nuclear attack warning’s system’s quirks. An accidental watch officer, he was, literally, the right man at the right place at the right time to save the world from nuclear annihilation. When he received an alarm that the US had launched nukes, Petrov declined to alert his superiors.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Stanislav Petrov in later years. The Telegraph

As he described it years later: “The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it … A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’“. Petrov trusted his instincts – and the advise of radar operators who told him they registered no missiles – and dismissed the alert as a false alarm. Instead, he called the duty officer at Red Army headquarters, and reported a system malfunction. If he was wrong, mushroom clouds would have erupted all around the USSR within minutes. They did not. A few days later, Petrov received an official reprimand – not for what he did that night, but for mistakes in the logbook.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
The flight of Bockscar on August 9th, 1945. Wikimedia

A City that Survived Because of Bad Weather

Sometimes survival depends on little more than the vagaries of fate. There are few better examples of that than the fate of the Japanese city of Kokura on August 9th, 1945. At 3:49AM that morning, Bockscar, a B-29 piloted by US Air Force Major Charles W. Sweeney, took off from Tinian Island in the Pacific, headed for Kokura. In the bomb bay was Fat Man, a plutonium atomic bomb, more powerful than the uranium core weapon that had devastated Hiroshima three days earlier. As late night turned to dawn and then morning, Kokura stirred and came to life, its inhabitants blissfully unaware that death was headed their way. Weather observation planes reported clear skies over Kokura, and Bockscar proceeded to a rendezvous point where it was supposed to link up with Big Stink, a B-29 tasked with filming the strike. Then fate intervened, and spared Kokura.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
A model of Kokura made for targeting purposes in 1945. Nuclear Secrecy

When Bockscar reached Kokura, Big Stink, with which it was scheduled to rendezvous, was nowhere to be seen. So Bockscar circled around, waiting for the film plane to show up. After 40 minutes of flying around, Major Sweeney gave up on Big Stink, and proceeded to Kokura. By then, however, clouds, plus smoke from a conventional bombing raid on a nearby city, had combined to obscure Kokura. For fifty minutes, Bockscar crisscrossed the skies above Kokura, hoping for enough of a break in the cloud and smoke to drop its bomb. Below, the Kokurans went about their daily lives, innocently oblivious to the death circling above. After three failed bombing runs, Sweeney finally gave up, and flew at a new heading for his alternate target in case he was unable to bomb Kokura: Nagasaki. One city’s salvation proved to be another city’s doom.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Teddy Roosevelt on the campaign trail in 1912. Hoosier State Chronicles

When Teddy Roosevelt Survived an Assassination Attempt

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt had come to regret his decision to leave the White House in 1908. So he returned to the campaign trail, and ran for president as candidate of the Bull Moose Party. On October 14th, 1908, he made his way to a podium at the Milwaukee Auditorium, and opened with the unremarkable statement “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible“. Next, however, he delivered one of the most remarkable lines ever uttered from the presidential stump: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have been shot“. As the audience gasped, TR unbuttoned his vest, to reveal a bloodstained shirt beneath and demonstrate his lucky escape from death. The former president then topped his previous statement with an even more memorable one: “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose!

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, pierced by a bullet. History Network

Roosevelt pulled out a fifty-page speech from his coat pocket, pierced through with a bullet, and continued: “Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best“. Just about any other candidate – except maybe Andrew Jackson – would have keeled over in shock. That, or at least bid the audience goodbye, before he rushed to seek medical care. Not Teddy Roosevelt. He assured his audience “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap“, then proceeded to deliver a ninety minute fiery speech.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
X-ray of Teddy Roosevelt’s chest after he was shot. Business Insider

The Speech That Saved T.R.

Teddy Roosevelt’s assassination had been attempted at 8 PM, as he got into an open air car outside his hotel and waved his hat at the crowd. Just then, the darkness was lit up by a flash from a .38 Colt revolver: TR had been shot. An aide grappled with the would-be assassin and prevented him from firing another shot, before the crowd joined in. The culprit, a deranged Bavarian immigrant named John Flammang Schrank, would have been lynched on the spot if Roosevelt had not intervened to save his life: “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him. Roosevelt then asked Schrank “What did you do it for?” When Schrank stayed mum, TR told the crowd to turn him over to the police. Roosevelt reached inside his shirt and felt around, until he encountered a dime-sized hole, and told an aide “He pinked me “.

The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Other Fascinating Historic Survival Accounts
Teddy Roosevelt’s blood-stained shirt. Project Gutenberg

Roosevelt coughed into his hand a few times, saw no blood, and determined that his lung had not been pierced. He then directed that he be driven to the Milwaukee Auditorium, to address the waiting audience. Whether or not the pen is actually mightier than the sword, in this case, words were literally mightier than a bullet. TR owed his escape from death to his hefty speech. Squeezed into his jacket pocket, the speech had combined with a glass case and a dense overcoat to slow the bullet. It was later recovered lodged against his fourth rib, on a trajectory to his heart. As to the shooter, Schrank acted because of a dream. In it, the assassinated President William McKinley had urged him to avenge him by killing his vice president and successor, Roosevelt. Schrank was found legally insane, and institutionalized until his death in 1943.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading


Albuquerque Journal, February 3rd, 2004 – Man Survived 22,000 Foot Fall Out of Bomber

All That is Interesting – The Seven Unbelievable Survival Stories of Frane Selak

BBC, September 26th, 2013 – Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World

Biography – Tsutomu Yamaguchi: The Man Who Miraculously Survived Both Atomic Bombings

Guardian, The, March 25th, 2009 – A Little Deaf in One Ear: Meet the Japanese Man Who Survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Historic Wings – The Miracle of Saint Nazaire

History Collection – Some of the Most Adventurous People Who Ever Existed

Independent, The, August 9th, 1995 – City Remembers Day it Escaped the Bomb

La Brujala Verde – The World War II Airmen Who Survived Falls from Thousands of Feet High

Museum of Flight – Digital Collections: Louis E. Curdes Oral Interview

New York Times, August 7th, 1995 – Kokura, Japan, Bypassed by A-Bomb

Royal Air Force Museum – The Indestructible Alkemade

Smithsonian Magazine, July 2005 – The Real Robinson Crusoe

Smithsonian Magazine, November 2012 – The Speech That Saved Teddy Roosevelt’s Life

Telegraph, The, May 14th, 2010 – Frano Selak, ‘World’s Unluckiest Man’, Gives Away His Lottery Fortune

Vox – 40 Years Today, One Man Saved Us From World-Ending Nuclear War

War History Online – The American WWII Ace Who Shot Down 7 German, 1 Italian, 1 Japanese, and 1 American Plane

Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Summer, 1970) – The Attempted Assassination of Teddy Roosevelt

World History Encyclopedia – Alexander Selkirk