3. Sam Patch was America’s first daredevil entertainer
Sam Patch began his career as a daredevil performing jumps from ever increasing heights as a child laborer in Rhode Island. Later, as a young man in Paterson, New Jersey, Patch supplemented his income by making jumps from bridges, the tall masts of anchored ships, the tallest buildings he could find in those pre-skyscraper days, and finally over waterfalls into the cascades beneath them. In 1827 he jumped from above Passaic Falls, a drop of over 70 feet, to such acclaim that he repeated the feat twice more, attracting large crowds and collecting substantial receipts. In 1829 America’s most famous falls, at Niagara, beckoned and Sam successfully jumped from a platform erected above them. It was so successful that he repeated the leap in October.
Just three weeks later Sam attempted to jump the even higher falls of the Genesee River near Rochester, which though successful drew a smaller than desired crowd. Sam decided to repeat the performance from a higher platform, creating a leap of 125 feet, on November 13, 1829, a Friday. His landing in the water beneath the falls was awkward; not his usual feet-first entry, and led to speculation that he slipped, departing on the drop prematurely. His frozen body was extracted from the Genesee the following spring. Such was his fame that President Andrew Jackson named one of his jumping horses Sam Patch in his honor. In the late 20th century a Rochester brewery released a porter named in honor of Sam Patch.
4. Howard Hughes survived two severe airplane crashes
Howard Hughes was a daredevil in the public mind, and an innovator within the aviation industry, who became famous for his experimental and often controversial ideas concerning airplane design and performance. In May, 1943, Hughes was practicing water landings in a Sikorsky amphibious aircraft as preparation for performing similar landings in his own H-4 Hercules, today famous as the Spruce Goose. Despite near-perfect conditions, the Sikorsky crashed heavily in Lake Mead, killing two of the passengers aboard with Hughes suffering severe injuries. The accident did not deter Howard Hughes from continuing his career as an aviator, despite his owing his life to another passenger aboard, who survived the crash.
Three years later, while flying the experimental XF-111, a prototype reconnaissance airplane, Hughes crashed again, near the Los Angeles Country Club, destroying three houses before exploding into flames. The flames spread to yet another house as Hughes managed to drag himself free of the airplane, despite suffering a crushed chest which relocated his heart to the right side, as well as numerous broken bones and severe burns. His doctors considered his physical recovery, which took several months, to have been a miracle; Hughes attributed his restoration to health to the consumption of freshly-squeezed orange juice. A long-term legacy of the accident was Hughes’ mustache, which he grew to cover an unsightly scar along his upper lip.
5. Douglas Bader escaped from several German PoW camps despite having lost his legs
Douglas Bader was a somewhat reckless Royal Air Force pilot between the World Wars, known for undertaking aerobatic maneuvers which were both dangerous and forbidden. In 1931, during one such maneuver, Bader crashed, and the injuries he sustained were severe enough to cause the surgeons to remove both of his legs, one above the knee and one below. After he recovered, Bader lobbied to be returned to flying status, arguing that his near-death experience gave him insights which would be invaluable to younger pilots. He was denied until the outbreak of World War II created a new demand for pilots. Accepted, he became an ace flying over France, during which time he destroyed one airplane due to pilot error when attempting a take-off. Despite suffering a head wound he continued to fly.
Bader fought in the Battle of Britain, rose to the rank of Wing Commander, and became one of the RAF’s most successful pilots before being shot down and captured by the Germans. Despite the handicap of two artificial legs, his numerous escape attempts (including using a rope of sheets through a hospital window) so annoyed the Germans that he was sent to the allegedly escape proof Colditz Castle. After the war and his liberation by the American Army he returned to the RAF until retirement, considered politics, and eventually worked as an executive in the British aircraft industry. It took a heart attack to eventually kill the improbably intrepid Bader in 1982.
6. Blackbeard the pirate proved a difficult man to kill
The tales of Edward Teach, sometimes named Thatch, were many in his lifetime and remain many today, with fact and fiction often intertwined. That he was greatly feared during his career is indisputable, given credence by the fact that he held an entire city (Charleston, South Carolina) hostage for a period of time, using the threat of his own fearsome reputation to cow the community leaders into submission. He was ferocious in battle, offering no quarter to those who opposed him, and added to his frightening image by wearing slow-burning fuses around his beard, which wreathed his face in glowing sparks and black smoke. A powerfully built man, who carried six pistols and a heavy cutlass, he projected an intimidating image to any who dared to stand in his way.
In his final battle, against Lieutenant Robert Maynard and his hand-picked crews, Blackbeard was separated from his own men and surrounded by adversaries. Although his heavier cutlass easily broke Maynard’s lighter rapier, the pirate sustained wounds inflicted by gunfire and bladed weapons. Blackbeard fell to the bloodied deck of the ship several times, only to rise again and continue to fight. When he finally lay still long enough to be approached he was beheaded. An examination of the pirate’s body revealed twenty wounds from blades and that the pirate had sustained no fewer than five bullet wounds, as well as bludgeoning injuries. The corpse was unceremoniously thrown overboard and Blackbeard’s head was suspended from the bowsprit to provide proof that Maynard’s men had in truth killed the pirate, and were thus entitled to a reward.
7. Lachhiman Gurung fought one handed after losing an arm to a grenade
Lachhiman Gurung was a Gurkha who joined the British India Army in 1940, despite the disadvantage of standing only 4’11” tall, below the height standards enforced before World War II. A rifleman, Gurung was positioned with his unit in Burma in 1945. His small force was the focus of a heavy Japanese attack on May 12, 1945, which carried into the following day. More than 200 Japanese infantry, supported with heavy machine guns, attacked Gurung and his comrades, who were dug into defensive positions. Three hand grenades landed in succession on Gurung’s position, and in the best Hollywood tradition he picked up the first two and returned them to the enemy. The third exploded in his right hand, blowing off his fingers and shattering the rest of his arm, as well as wounding him severely in the body. Two men sharing the trench with him were also severely wounded.
Though right-handed, Gurung continued to load and fire his rifle with his left hand, repelling repeated Japanese attacks through the night and into the following day. Thirty-one Japanese soldiers fell to his rifle over the course of the attack. When relieved the following day, Gurung complained to the soldiers who found him of the flies which were infesting his shattered arm. He subsequently lost the use of his right hand and his right eye, though he remained in the army until 1947. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions of May, 1945, and lived for another 65 years, succumbing to pneumonia in 2010 at the age of 92.
8. Aleksei Maresyev crawled 18 miles only to lose both of his legs
Aleksei Maresyev began his combat career as a fighter pilot with the Soviet Air Army in August, 1941, as the Germans were driving deep into Russia. He achieved four credited air-to-air kills before being shot down himself in April 1942, deep behind the German lines. Both his legs were severely injured, and though the Germans spotted his aircraft as it plunged to the earth, the young Russian managed to elude the Wehrmacht. The Russian woods were still deep in snow and the nighttime temperatures well below freezing as the young pilot slowly crawled back towards his own lines, despite moving on two broken legs, with little food. It took the Russian 18 days of brutal torture to reach safety.
He was rewarded by having both of his legs removed at the knee. His status as a double-amputee did not impair his desire to return to flying, after first learning to walk again. It took many months before the pilot was able to manage his prosthetic legs, and after doing so, and qualifying to return to the air, he was again deployed with a combat unit in June, 1943. By then the Soviets were clearly gaining an edge over the German invaders. In August of that year, Maresyev shot down three German frontline fighters in a single air-to-air action. By the end of the war Maresyev had a total of 11 kills to his record. He received the highest combat award of the Soviet Union, and remains a hero in Russia in the 21st century. He died at the age of 84 in 2001.
9. Leon Trotsky survived multiple attempts on his life before succumbing
Leon Trotsky was a Marxist who made the unfortunate mistake of falling out with Josef Stalin, forcing him to flee the Soviet Union in self-imposed exile. However, his communist beliefs and his attempts to spread their ideas to other nations alienated him from host nations, including at one point the United States. In 1936 a show trial was held in the Soviet Union, instigated by Stalin, during which several witnesses “confessed” to conspiring with Trotsky to have Stalin assassinated. Stalin directed the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – to eliminate Trotsky, who was by then living in Mexico, in deteriorating health. Stalin ordered an attempt on Trotsky’s life in early 1939, which failed, and another was planned by NKVD agents using three different teams, one of which was led by Ramon Mercader.
On May 24, 1940, another assassination was attempted, which Trotsky survived unharmed when his bodyguards repulsed the attackers. Trotsky’s grandson was injured and one of his guards was carried off by the attackers and later murdered. In August, 1940, Mercader attacked Trotsky in his home. His weapon of choice was an ice axe, with which he struck a blow which failed to kill the Russian. Trotsky, it was later reported, responded by spitting on his assailant and grappling with him. Mercader’s hand was broken in the altercation. Trotsky died just over 24 hours later, of loss of blood following a botched surgery. The total number of assassination attempts he survived before the fatal attack is disputed by historians of the Soviet Union, but at least a dozen were ordered by Stalin alone.
10. Josip Broz Tito survived numerous wounds, illnesses, and assassination attempts over his lifetime
The man who rose to rule Yugoslavia first encountered death in his face during World War One, when he was wounded in the back by a Russian cavalrymen’s lance and taken as a prisoner of war. While recuperating from his wound he was stricken with typhus, then pneumonia, and then after recovering suffered from the beatings administered by Russian guards. During the Second World War Tito fought with partisans against the Germans and those of the Balkans politically opposed to his own party. By the end of the Second World War Tito was the de facto leader of Yugoslavia, acknowledged by the Allies as the Prime Minister of the country and endorsed by its king, Peter II. Near the end of the war Tito ordered Russian and other Allied forces out of Yugoslavia.
After the war Stalin and Tito openly broke with each other, and Stalin banished Yugoslavia from the organization of states forming which eventually became the Eastern bloc. Unable to endure Tito’s defiance, Stalin ordered his secret police to find the means of eliminating the Yugoslavian leader. Stalin sent several teams of assassins to kill Tito, all of which were detected and thwarted by Yugoslav security. The sheer number of attempts led Tito to openly admonishing Stalin in a letter, in which he wrote, “Stop sending people to kill me”. Tito went on to warn the Soviet leader that further attempts would lead to a reprisal, and warned that a second attempt on the part of the Yugoslavs would not be necessary. Tito died in 1980.
11 George Washington was seemingly bulletproof during his military career
George Washington survived a bout with smallpox in his youth, a disease which was as often as not fatal to those stricken. As a surveyor he survived an incident during which he nearly drowned, though he was saved by his companion, Christopher Gist. Gist was also present when Washington’s small force was attacked at Fort Necessity, and it was his reconnaissance which warned Washington of the size of the French and Indian forces approaching him. Gist was also with Washington on the dark day along the Monongahela, when Braddock’s force of British regulars and colonial militia were routed in an ambush. Washington, who was suffering from dysentery, had two horses shot out from under him as he attempted to rally the troops after Braddock fell. After the battle he discovered four separate bullet holes in his coat. He was uninjured.
During the Revolutionary War Washington was frequently exposed to enemy fire, though each time he escaped unscathed, a fact noted in the diaries and letters of officers of both sides. On Manhattan he was directly exposed to a volley of British fire before his aides managed to lead him out of harm’s way. The same occurred at Princeton, leading one of his aides to cover his eyes to avoid seeing his commander shot down by British troops. A big man on a white horse made a conspicuous target, but Washington was again uninjured. It took inept doctoring by his physicians to kill Washington, as they bled him to the point that he was too weak to fight the throat infection for which his death was blamed.
Michael Malloy was a patron of a speakeasy in the Bronx during Prohibition who became the victim of a murder plot perpetrated by the bar’s owner, Tony Marino, and confederates. They decided to take out a life insurance policy on their customer, with one of them posing as the beneficiary, and then kill Malloy for the money. They ended up purchasing more than one policy, from different companies. Since Malloy was a dedicated consumer of liquor, the conspirators decided to help the old man drink himself to death, to which end he was given an unlimited tab at the bar, where he was served whiskey liberally laced with wood alcohol. Unfortunately for the conspirators, Malloy demonstrated a capacity for alcohol which was inconvenient to their plans. Day after day he drank himself to unconsciousness on free booze, only to return for another bout on the morrow.
Frustrated, Marino decided to serve Malloy pure wood alcohol, which during Prohibition killed over 50,000 consumers before 1929. Yet Malloy seemed to be immune. The conspirators were both frustrated and astonished as their victim consumed all the wood alcohol placed before him, with little seeming effect other than that which could be expected from consuming legitimate bonded whiskey with untoward exuberance. According to the New York Post, which covered the story in its aftermath, “…what he didn’t know apparently didn’t hurt him”. As the nights went on, dispatching Malloy became as much a matter of personal pride as a plot for illicit financial gain. The old man simply kept drinking, after which he somehow stumbled home, only to return the next day, none the worse for wear.
Finally one night, after Marino started Malloy off with cheap whiskey soon replaced with pure wood alcohol – his regular pattern – Malloy suddenly collapsed to the floor, unconscious, though still breathing. Marino and his cronies decided to allow him to remain on the floor where he lay, certain that death was imminent. A few hours later Malloy awoke, stretched, and got to his feet, ordering another drink as he did so. The astonished and somewhat flabbergasted conspirators decided the time had come to increase their efforts. After ruling out simply hitting the old man over the head as too dangerous they decided to serve him oysters, poisoned by soaking them with denatured alcohol, as he enjoyed his nightly drinking.
When Malloy enjoyed the oysters, which were served him gratis, the conspirators decided food poisoning via sardines left out to go bad would work. For good measure, they included metal shavings and carpet tacks among the sardines, served in a sandwich. Malloy ate them. He enjoyed them so much that he asked for another sandwich. The understandably bewildered conspirators decided after the sardines too failed that the entire project was becoming too expensive, with their intended victim consuming liquor, wood alcohol, oysters, denatured alcohol, and sardines without either paying for them or succumbing to their effects. Another approach was necessary in order to cash in on the insurance, for which they had also borne the cost, and for which another premium was soon due.
It was decided to use nature to finish off Michael Malloy, it being in the dead of winter. After allowing the old man his usual amount of alcohol one night, a drunken Malloy was escorted to a bench in a nearby park in the Bronx, liberally dowsed with water, and left in his wet clothes to spend the night exposed to the elements, in the belief that pneumonia would kill him if exposure did not. When Marino arrived at the speakeasy the following night he found Malloy waiting for him, having awakened and returned to the bar, where an employee who slept in the basement had let him in. Malloy reported that he had suffered a bit of a chill, which a couple of shots would ward off.
The next attempt to dispatch Malloy consisted of getting him drunk and then dragging him with a car, to create a scenario of a drunken man stumbling into traffic and becoming a victim of a hit and run. After executing the plan one night to the conspirator’s satisfaction – they were certain that Malloy was killed – the conspirators began contacting morgues to verify he was dead. Five days passed before Malloy came into the bar, with only a limited memory of what had transpired, other than waking in a hospital desirous of a drink. He enjoyed several as he regaled Marino and the other utterly befuddled conspirators with his tale, which consisted of few details other than awakening at Fordham Hospital.
After seven months of plying Michael Malloy with alcohol, serving him poisoned food, and attempting to kill him via an automobile, the old man was found dead in a flat near the bar, his face thoroughly wrapped in a towel from which ran a rubber tube to a nearby gas fixture. When the conspirators attempted to collect the insurance money the companies balked at payment, and an investigation into the death of Michael Malloy was initiated. As part of the investigation the conspiracy began to unravel, as each of the four main participants failed to keep their story’s straight. Gradually the truth of what occurred was exposed to light. Each of the conspirators tried to turn state’s evidence in order to receive a lighter sentence.
As they had in their attempts to kill Malloy, at least for the seven months in which they plied him with alcohol, the conspirators failed. The finger pointing and expressions of innocence fell on deaf ears, and the jury was not amused at the tale. Four conspirators were found guilty of several crimes, including first degree murder, and all four were sent to the electric chair at the New York State Prison at Ossining, known to posterity as Sing Sing. They were dispatched with considerably more celerity than the late Michael Malloy, who had proven himself exceptionally hard to kill.
16. Larcena Pennington Page was left for dead by Apache raiders
Larcena Pennington Page (for whom Tucson’s Pennington Street is named) was a working as a tutor when she was stricken with malaria while at Canoa Ranch, in the Arizona Territory. In order to help her recover, her husband moved her to an area of higher elevation. While traveling, Larcena and the child she tutored were alone in their camp when it was attacked by a band of Apaches. Both were taken prisoner. When the Apaches decided to increase the speed of their escape march, wary of the pursuit by Larcena’s husband and others, Larcena was unable to keep up the pace the Indians wanted. Weakened by her malaria, she simply could not go on. The Apaches left her behind, after stabbing her with lances numerous times and forcing her off a more than fifteen foot rocky embankment.
For good measure, the Apaches had taken nearly all of Larcena’s clothing, including her boots, when they left her behind for dead. She had been stabbed multiple times, beaten with rocks, and suffered injuries from her fall. She awoke some hours later and with no alternative, stumbled and crawled fifteen miles to her camp, narrowly missing its departing occupants. The next day she managed to crawl to a nearby saw mill, where she was recognized only after she identified herself by name. Her wounds and the effects of exposure had rendered her otherwise unrecognizable. Larcena’s harrowing escape from death occurred in 1860; she lived another 53 years, dying in Arizona in 1913, one year after the territory became the nation’s 48th state.
17. Andrew Jackson carried a bullet in his lung for most of his adult life
Andrew Jackson survived a sword wound administered by an annoyed British officer during the Revolutionary War after the young Jackson refused to polish his boots. With his brother he was taken prisoner by the British, contracted smallpox, and somehow survived. His brother did not. He was later wounded in a duel, the bullet lodging in his left lung, too near the heart for surgeons to consider its removal. After being hit, Jackson stood his ground and shot and killed his opponent, Charles Dickinson. It was not Jackson’s first foray onto the dueling ground, nor would it be his last. He was also not above entering into a fray on the street, absent the less formal arrangements of the so-called field of honor.
Jackson survived an assassination attempt as President of the United States, believed to be the first attempt on the life of an American president. The assassin, Richard Lawrence, approached Jackson as he was walking with a party of notables leaving the funeral of South Carolina congressman Warren Davis in the Capitol. When Lawrence’s pistols misfired, one after the other, Jackson approached the would-be assassin with his walking stick, striking at either the pistol or Lawrence’s arm to disarm him. He was quickly aided by others attending the service, one of whom was Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee. When Andrew Jackson died in 1845 it was attributed to congestive heart failure, aggravated in part by the bullet which he carried in his lung for so many years.
18. James Bowie cheated death several times before it caught up to him at the Alamo
Famous today for his invention of the Bowie knife (its true provenance is disputed, though Bowie gave it fame), James Bowie survived several duels and outright melees over the course of his lifetime. At the fight which became infamous as the Sandbar Fight Bowie was shot at least twice, hit over the head with a pistol with enough force to break the weapon, and stabbed with a sword cane. When the owner of the sword cane attempted to withdraw the weapon by placing his foot on Bowie’s chest to wrest it out of his body, Bowie used his famous knife to disembowel his attacker. Bowie struggled to his feet with the cane still stuck in his chest, only to be stabbed again by another attacker and shot once more.
Bowie had several other battles across the Louisiana and Texas frontiers, gaining him legendary status as a knife fighter. Such was his fame that Bowie knives were manufactured in England during his lifetime, many of them superior to those made in the United States due to the use of Sheffield steel. He later survived a battle with Comanche Indians in which he and his party were outnumbered by more than 14 to 1. Consumption (tuberculosis) took its toll on his health in his later days, though his heavy consumption of alcohol, exacerbated by the death of his wife from cholera, also contributed to his relative weakness during the siege of the Alamo. Legend has James Bowie dying in his cot fighting the Mexicans with pistols and his famous knife, though the exact circumstances of his death, as with most of the Alamo defenders, is unknown.
19. Ned Kelly wore armor for his final confrontation with the police
To some Australian bushranger Ned Kelly is a folk hero, a sort of latter-day Robin Hood of the outback. To others he is a vile murderer and outlaw. According to some sources no other Australian has been the subject of more biographies, and he has been played in films by Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger, among others, usually presented as a heroic figure of resistance by the working class. Much of the legend surrounding Kelly as a freedom fighter rather than a mere criminal is based on a letter he wrote in which he laid out the path which led him to criminal behavior, a document of self-justification which placed the blame for his crimes on the abuse of power which his family suffered under the government and police.
Kelly and his gang faced the police in his final gun battle clad in armor of their own devise, made from the steel of plows which they had stolen. The armor, which proved effective against police bullets, did not protect the outlaw’s legs and arms and during the shootout Kelly was hit multiple times, wounded in his extremities four times, and with an additional two bullet wounds in his groin. Despite severe shock from pain and loss of blood, Kelly survived his wounds. He was tried for multiple crimes, including several murders and bank robberies, for which he was convicted and hanged, finally accepting death which he had often eluded during the reign of criminal behavior which is still known in Australia as the Kelly Outbreak.
20. William Bligh and the crewmen from His Majesty’s Armed Vessel Bounty
When William Bligh and 18 crewmen from Bounty were cast adrift following the famous mutiny aboard the ship in April of 1789, they took with them barely enough food and beverages to sustain life. Following a brief stop on the island of Tofua, where hostile natives killed one of the party, the remainder determined, under Bligh’s leadership, to make for the Dutch settlement at Timor, 4,000 miles to the west. One ounce of bread and a quarter of a pint of water was the agreed daily ration for the men, occasionally supplemented with salt pork or portable (dehydrated) soup, as Bligh determined necessary. They also had a small supply of wine and rum, which Bligh dispensed medicinally as needed.
The voyage, which eventually saw them land on deserted islands to add to their meager stocks and regain their strength, took 44 days. They suffered from continuous exposure to win and waves, mountainous seas, and rain so intense that they were forced to bail fresh water – badly needed – over the side to remain afloat. It was an astounding achievement in defiance of what should have been certain death. Though several of the men died after arriving in the Dutch settlements, victims of the harsh climate and disease, none were lost on the voyage of the 23 foot launch. Bligh’s determination to remain alive extended to the men under his command, and he saw them all through, proving themselves to be exceedingly hard to kill.
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