How 10 of history’s most famous figures almost died before their time

How 10 of history’s most famous figures almost died before their time

A source of inspiration for the ‘what-ifs’ of alternate historians is making early brushes with death (e.g. when a young Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates on the Aegean Sea) go wrong.

Here are 10 famous lives that turned on a dime:


1.  Alexander the Great

Alexander’s untimely demise at the age of 16 almost came on that most dangerous of battlefields, the drunken family wedding.

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

His father King Philip II of Macedon had fallen in love with and married Cleopatra Eurydice, the niece of his general Attalus.  Aside from the fact that Alexander’s own mother was still living, the marriage made Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir less secure, since any son of Cleopatra Eurydice would be a fully Macedonian heir, while Alexander was only half-Macedonian.

During the wedding banquet, Attalus boozily prayed aloud to the gods that the union would produce a ‘legitimate heir’.  This was like a red rag to the young Alexander, who threw a cup at Attalus’ head and shouted, “You villain! What am I then, a bastard?”

Philip, who sided with Attalus, rose from his seat in a drunken rage and made to run his son through with his sword.  Fortunately for Alexander, his father slipped and fell in a heap on the floor.  Alexander stood over him and said: “See there, the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another.”

Wisely, Alexander fled Macedon with his mother.  However, he returned six months later, thanks to a family friend who mediated between father and son.

When Alexander later inherited Philip’s throne, he had Attalus killed.


2.  Napoleon Bonaparte

The 24 year-old Napoleon’s brush with the grim reaper came in the form of British bayonet during the Siege of Toulon in late 1793.  He was serving as a republican artillery commander against the royalist occupiers of the city, whose forces were bolstered by their British and Spanish allies.

Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon
Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon

The young Colonel Bonaparte launched an assault during the night of 16 December and in the fierce fighting his horse was killed from under him and he was bayoneted in his left inner thigh by a British sergeant, causing serious injury.

Napoleon went on to live a charmed life on the battlefield over the next 22 years, having a further 18 horses killed beneath him.  At the Siege of Acre in 1799 when a shell fell beside him two soldiers jumped on him and covered him with their bodies; all 3 survived the explosion and Napoleon promoted his saviours on the spot.  At the Battle of Marengo in 1800 a musket ball ripped through the leather of his riding boot and removed some of the skin beneath.  At the Battle of Ratisbon in 1809 he received a serious injury to his Achilles tendon, and at the Battle of Wagram later that year his leg was grazed by a cannon ball.  And at the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube in 1814, another howitzer shell thudded into the ground beside him, its fuse smouldering.  Napoleon calmly rode his horse over the top of it.  The poor horse was  disemboweled in the explosion, but the Emperor emerged from the dust and smoke without a scratch.

Napoleon was the very definition of a fatalist when it came to his own mortality.


3.  Winston Churchill

Churchill was no stranger to the whizzing bullets and exploding shells of the battlefield either, coming under direct fire around 50 times during his life.  However, probably the closest he came to shuffling off this mortal coil was on a New York City street in 1931.

Winston Churchill after traffic accident 1931
Winston Churchill after traffic accident 1931

On the evening of 13 December Churchill was riding in a taxicab and looking for the home of financier Bernard Baruch, but he did not remember Baruch’s address.  Churchill asked the cab driver to stop in the middle of Fifth Avenue, between 76th Street and 77th Street, so that he could get out and walk in the hope of recognising the building.  He instinctively looked to his left and saw the way was clear, but forgot that traffic in the United States keeps to the right.  As he stepped out he was hit by a car driven by Edward Cantasano, an unemployed mechanic from Yonkers.  Churchill suffered a serious scalp wound as well as two cracked ribs and was rushed to Lenox Hill Hospital.

Although Churchill told police that the accident was entirely his own fault, the distraught Cantasano felt he was to blame and repeatedly called the hospital to see how Churchill was doing.  Concerned that the incident would affect Cantasano’s chances of finding work, Churchill arranged to meet him at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel when he was discharged from hospital, where he served him tea and gave him an autographed copy of his book ‘The Unknown War’.


4.  Joseph Stalin

Young Joseph Stalin
Young Joseph Stalin

Like Churchill, Joseph Stalin almost bit the dust because of oncoming traffic – of the horse-drawn variety.  Around 1889, at the age of 10, he was struck by a horse-drawn carriage on his way to school; the accident permanently damaged his left arm and the injury later exempted him from military service in World War 1.  At the age of 12, he was again run over by a horse-drawn carriage, but this time was injured much more severely. Both his legs were badly damaged and he spent months recovering in hospital.

His injuries left him with deep insecurities about his body, which would have been exacerbated by the macho culture of his native Georgian town of Gori, where boxing and wrestling in the street were the main pastimes.  The young Stalin compensated with his prowess with a catapult, and led a band of thugs around the streets terrorizing farmers and their cows.


5.  Adolf Hitler

Death was a daily occurence for anyone who fought in World War 1 and Adolf Hitler almost met his maker at least twice during his service with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment 1914-18.  During the Battle of the Somme in October 1916, he was wounded in the left thigh when a shell exploded in his dugout, leaving him hospitalised for almost two months.  And two years later, on 15 October 1918, he was temporarily blinded and lost his voice after a mustard gas attack; he was still in hospital when he learned of Germany’s defeat.

Adolf Hitler in WW1
Adolf Hitler in WW1

One curious tale, if it is to be believed, also had Hitler staring down the barrel of a British soldier’s rifle on 28 September 1918 – and the soldier decided not to shoot.

That soldier was Private Henry Tandey.  His platoon had spent several days holding up a large German contingent at Marcoing, just south of Cambrai in France.  Hopelessly outnumbered, Tandey led a bayonet charge under a hail of machine gun fire; the 9 survivors caused the Germans to flee, and they took about 37 prisoners.

Private Tandey was awarded the Victoria Cross for this action, but in 1940 he recalled: “Those fleeing Jerries were led by a corporal and I was going to pick him off, but he was wounded and I didn’t like to shoot a wounded man.  If I had known who he turned out to be I’m damned if he had gotten off.”  According to Henry Tandey, that corporal was Adolf Hitler.

It was an amazing story, but, more astonishingly, Hitler apparently confirmed it.

During the 1938 Munich crisis, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met Hitler at Berchtesgaden.  Chamberlain noticed that Hitler kept a copy of a painting of a Green Howards unit at Menin Crossroads in October 1914.  Hitler’s unit had also been at the Menin Road in October 1914 and as a gesture of goodwill the Green Howards had sent Hitler a copy of the painting in 1937.  In the foreground, the painting depicted Henry Tandey carrying a wounded comrade.  Hitler had recognised him from a newspaper report about his 1918 VC award, and had kept the clipping.  Hitler remarked to Chamberlain: “That man came so close to killing me in 1918 that I thought I should never see Germany again.”


6.  Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln almost kicked the bucket when, at the age of 9, he was kicked in the head by a horse.

Abraham Lincoln as a boy
Abraham Lincoln as a boy

One day in 1818, young Abraham took a horse and some corn over to a gristmill about two miles from the Lincolns’ log cabin near Little Pigeon Creek in southern Indiana.  He hitched the old horse to the gristmill’s arm and coaxed it to start moving with a whiplash.  He shouted: “Git up, you old hussy; git up, you old hussy, git up…”, when the horse suddenly kicked backwards, caught him in the head and knocked him out cold.

Neighbours ran to Abraham’s aid and fetched his father, Thomas Lincoln, who lifted the unconscious boy into a wagon and took him home to bed.  He lay unconscious all night.

The following morning, fearing that the boy was dead, or nearly dead, neighbours flocked to the Lincolns’ cabin.  They were amazed when Abraham suddenly jerked all over and blurted out the words “You old hussy!” (thus finishing what he was saying to the horse).

Lincoln wrote about the incident in a short biography in 1860, when he described how he was “apparantly [sic] killed for a time.”


7.  George Washington

George Washington was lucky not to cash in his chips at the tender age of 23.  In 1755 he found himself as the senior American aide to British General Edward Braddock, on his ill-fated expedition to expel the French from the Ohio Country.

Young George Washington
Young George Washington

The French and their Indian allies ambushed Braddock’s column on a forest road.  The Indians caused chaos amongst the British troops by sniping at them from the trees, while the French pushed them back down the road.  The British attempt to stand firm but sustained devastating casualties, and when Braddock was shot and mortally wounded after 3 hours of intense combat effective resistance collapsed.  When the Indian warriors set upon them with hatchets and scalping knives they began to break ranks and run, believing they were about to be massacred.

Amidst the chaos and carnage, the young Colonel Washington rode back and forth, rallying the remnants of the British forces to an organized retreat.  Every officer on horseback was killed or wounded; all except Washington, who later wrote to his mother in Virginia: “I luckily escap’ed with’t a wound, tho’ I had four Bullets through my Coat, and two Horses shot under me”.


8.  Elizabeth I

Before she became Queen of England in 1558, Elizabeth I’s life was in considerable danger.  On 18th March 1554, the 20 year-old Princess Elizabeth must have feared she was about to join her ancestors when she was taken to the Tower of London, the place where her mother had been imprisoned and executed.

Young Elizabeth I
Young Elizabeth I

Elizabeth’s half-sister Queen Mary suspected that that she was involved in Wyatt’s Rebellion against her and had ordered that she be taken to the Tower and interrogated.  Thomas Wyatt himself had refused to implicate Elizabeth in his plot, so Mary’s advisors were hoping that she would break and provide them with the evidence they needed to get rid of her.  Under intense questioning, however, Elizabeth kept her wits about her and gave them nothing.

Elizabeth remained in the Tower for 2 months before Mary ordered that she be removed and placed under house arrest.  On the 19th May, the anniversary of her mother’s execution, Elizabeth was escorted from the Tower to Richmond, where she would spend a night before travelling on to Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

Rather than feeling relief at escaping the Tower, her night spent at Richmond was one of the most disturbed nights of her life.  Elizabeth was convinced that she would be assassinated, telling her gentleman usher, “For this night, I think to die.”

A staged scenario away from the Tower would indeed have been Mary’s perfect opportunity to be rid of Elizabeth, whose popularity made her a threat.  It was probably that same popularity, and the trouble that Elizabeth’s execution would have stirred up, that made Mary think better of it.


9.  Queen Victoria

Another Queen of England who almost crossed the Great Divide was Queen Victoria.  There were no less than 8 attempts to assassinate her during her long life.  The first came just 3 years into her reign in 1840 when she was aged 21.  If it had succeeded, it would not only have dispatched her but also her unborn child (Princess Victoria, the future mother of Kaiser Wilhelm II).

Her would-be assassin was 18 year-old Edward Oxford, an unemployed waiter.  Having planned the attack for several weeks (his motives were never really known), he took up a position with two pistols on a footpath at Constitution Hill, near Buckingham Palace, on the late afternoon of 10 June 1840.  The Queen enjoyed riding out in an open horse-drawn carriage with her husband Prince Albert in the light early evenings, and took no other escort than two outriders.

After waiting for a couple of hours, Oxford saw the royal couple approach in their carriage.  When they drew level, he fired both pistols in succession.  Both shots missed.

Attempted assassination of Queen Victoria 1840
Attempted assassination of Queen Victoria 1840

Oxford was immediately seized by onlookers and disarmed.  He was arrested and later tried for treason at the Old Bailey, where the jury declared him to be “not guilty by reason of insanity.”  He was detained ‘at Her Majesty’s pleasure’ in the Bethlem Lunatic Asylum for the next 24 years, then spent a further 3 years in Broadmoor Hospital.  He was a model patient throughout this time.  He was eventually released on the condition that he leave for one of the Empire’s overseas colonies, and if he returned to the United Kingdom he would be incarcerated for life.  Oxford lived out the rest of his life under an alias in Melbourne, Australia, until his death in 1900.

Had Queen Victoria (and her unborn child) been assassinated in 1840, her successor would have been King Ernest Augustus I of Hanover.


10.  William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror may well have been dispatched to the Happy Hunting Grounds at any time in his childhood from the age of around 7.  This was the age at which he became Duke of Normandy, inheriting the title from his father Robert I who had died suddenly on his return from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1035.

Young William the Conqueror
Young William the Conqueror

As well as his extreme youth, William had the added problem of his illegitimate birth to encourage rival claimants to the duchy and when his great-uncle and chief protector, the powerful Archbishop Robert II of Rouen, died in 1037 Normandy descended into anarchy for ten years.  Either the control of, or the disposal of, the young William was the priority of all those contending for power.

Alan of Brittany first had custody of the duke, but died around 1040.  Gilbert of Brionne then took charge of William, but was killed within months.  His next guardian, Turchetil, was also killed shortly afterwards.  Yet another guardian, Osbern, was murdered in the early 1040s in William’s bedchamber while the young duke slept.  Conditions became so murderous it was said that Walter, William’s maternal uncle, was occasionally forced to hide the boy in the houses of peasants until danger had passed.

Had the young William been snuffed out, British history after 1066 would have been very different, as would world history.

Sources: Plutarch’s Lives: Alexander the Great, the International Napoleonic Society, the Freelance History Writer


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