Death comes for everyone, even the rich and famous, but sometimes it shows up a bit sooner than expected. On more than one occasion famous figures have found themselves face to face with the Grim Reaper. The ten people on this list outwitted Death and went on to alter the course of history… for a while, anyway.
10. Charles Dickens Almost Died In A Train Wreck
While he’s one of the most beloved authors of all time, Charles Dickens was kind of a jerk. After his wife gave birth to ten kids, suffered multiple bouts of post-partum depression and gained a lot of weight, the writer ditched her for a much younger actress named Ellen Ternan. The couple spent a lot of time hanging out in France, and it was on one of their trips that Dickens almost met an early end.
After a vacation in Boulogne, Dickens and his lady fair caught a boat and then boarded a train for London. Miss Ternan’s mother was tagging along, and the trio boarded the 2:38 train on June 9, 1865. Disaster was waiting to strike — a team of construction workers had removed the tracks from a viaduct crossing the River Beult. They’d gotten their schedule screwed up and didn’t know the train was on its way. Despite the engineer’s best efforts to stop, the train plummeted off the bridge. Every one of the first class carriages crashed into the swamps below, except for the one carrying Dickens.
Thanks to a strong coupling on a second-class car, Dickens was spared a horrible fate. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet — his car was dangling off the side of the bridge. Thinking fast, Dickens climbed out and rescued his traveling companions. Then he went back inside, grabbed his top hat and brandy, and ran down to the marshes below. Over the next few hours, Dickens rescued passengers and gave the wounded sips from his flask. He even filled his hat full of water for the injured to drink. And just before heading home Dickens realized that his unfinished copy of Our Mutual Friend was still in the dangling car, so he crawled back inside and pulled it out.
Ten people died that horrible day in Staplehurst, and over forty were injured. But while Dickens might’ve escaped physically, he was emotionally scarred for the rest of his life. Dickens inexplicably lost his voice for two weeks, and then he started experiencing trembling, panic attacks and an overwhelming fear of trains. Strangely enough, Dickens passed away on the fifth anniversary of the day that ruined his life.
9. Mel Blanc Almost Died In A Car Crash
In addition to voicing all of the Looney Tunes, Mel Blanc also gave life to characters like Woody Woodpecker and Dino the Dinosaur. Of course, he’ll always be remembered as the man behind Bugs Bunny, that wisecracking, carrot-chomping rabbit that, uh, saved Mel’s life.
It was 1961, and Blanc was heading to San Francisco when tragedy struck. Driving down a dangerous turn known as Dead Man’s Curve, Mel was hit by an out of control Oldsmobile. The oncoming vehicle totally crushed the actor’s Aston Martin, and paramedics had to haul out the jaws of life and whisk him off to the UCLA Medical Center.
When Mel showed up in the ER, doctors were skeptical about his chances. He was suffering from a broken pelvis and broken legs, and had fallen into a deep coma. Physicians tried their best to bring him back, but for two long weeks the comedian was completely unconscious. And that’s when neurosurgeon Louis Conway got a wild idea. The doctor walked up to his bed and asked, “Bugs Bunny, how are you today?” Mel responded in his trademark New York accent, “Eh? What’s up, Doc?”
Over the next several minutes, Dr. Conway talked to several other characters like Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. Each time Mel responded in character, complete with stutters and lisps. And then, suddenly, he snapped out of his coma. The real Mel was back. As for Dead Man’s Curve, the city of Los Angeles decided to reshape the road, preventing any future accidents.
8. George Washington Was Almost Shot On Multiple Occasions
Everybody knows George Washington was for the first President of the United States, but did you know that this iconic American almost never made it to the White House? In 1754, Washington was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the British army, right in time for the French and Indian War. He played a crucial role in a battle outside Fort Duquesne — it was July 9, 1755, and the British were marching on the French fort when they were caught in a clearing by the French’s Indian allies.
Perhaps due to his outdated views on warfare, the British general, Edward Braddock, refused to let Washington send men into the woods to fight the natives. As a result, Braddock took a bullet to the chest. Washington rallied the troops and lead an effective retreat, but not before multiple marksmen tried to take him out. By the time the Brits had escaped, snipers had shot two of Washington’s horses, knocked off his hat, and put four musket balls through his coat. Miraculously, Washington escaped unharmed.
This wasn’t the last time the man would cheat death. In 1777, Washington found himself facing the very nation he’d once served. It was September 11, and he desperately needed to stop the 12,500 British soldiers heading towards Philadelphia. So the morning before the showdown at Brandywine Creek, General Washington rode out to inspect the battlefield. Little did he know that a band of sharpshooters was hiding in a nearby clump of trees.
These weren’t ordinary snipers. They were led by Captain Patrick Ferguson, a Scotsman who was the best shot in the British Empire. The man even invented his own rifle. And here he was, ordering three of his men to fire on this unknown officer. However, before they could take him out, Ferguson canceled the order. Something about ambushing the man felt wrong.
Ferguson, ever the gentleman, shouted out to let the officer know he was there. When Washington spotted the marksman, he began to ride away. Now it was all fair, and Ferguson could’ve “lodged half a dozen balls” in his target, but he let the American ride away. Hours later, after the British won the battle, an injured Ferguson learned the identity of the man he’d let slip away. Imagine how different the world would be today if he had pulled that trigger.
7. Vladimir Lenin Was Almost Assassinated
Under the rule of Vladimir Lenin at least 10,000 Russians were murdered in September and October 1918 alone. The event that kicked off all those killings was the very same incident that put Lenin on our list.
The story starts in 1890, with the birth of Fanya “Fanny” Kaplan. Born to a Jewish Ukrainian family, Kaplan grew up a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party with an emphasis on the “revolutionary.” When she was just sixteen she tried to blow up one of the Tsar’s lackies, which got her thrown into a Siberian prison camp for eleven years.
Kaplan was released thanks to the February Revolution of 1917, but she didn’t stay a fan of Lenin for long. In just a matter of months, the Bolsheviks had gotten rid of the Constituent Assembly and tightened their hold on the government. Ticked off at Lenin’s power play, Kaplan decided to revisit her assassinating ways.
On September 3, 1918, Lenin was giving a speech at a Moscow factory, and when he left the plant he ran into several bullets courtesy of Comrade Kaplan. She put one bullet in his shoulder and another in his jaw, but unfortunately for Kaplan Lenin was a pretty tough dude and survived the assassination attempt. Five days later, Kaplan was executed. She was only twenty-eight-years-old.
To make things even worse, on the same day one Leonid Kannegisser killed Moisei Uritsky, a member of the Russian secret police. Paranoia running understandably high, Lenin decided to wipe out anyone he considered an enemy. Tragically, Kaplan’s assassination attempt led to the four-year crackdown known as Red Terror, one of the bloodiest massacres in the history of the Soviet Union.
6. Hunter S. Thompson Almost Killed Bill Murray
Hunter S. Thompson was, without a doubt, one of the wildest writers in history. This was the guy who hung out with the Hell’s Angels, ran for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado while pledging to legalize drugs, and used cocaine like there was no tomorrow.
Thompson had quite a few celebrity friends, several of whom he almost killed. He nearly gave Jack Nicholson a heart attack by sneaking up on his house in the middle of the night, shining a spotlight through the windows, playing a recording of a dying animal, and firing several gunshots into the air. And while Johnny Depp was living in Thompson’s basement, the future Captain Jack Sparrow noticed that the table Thompson had provided as a night stand (which supported an ashtray) was actually a crate of dynamite.
However, the closest he came to actually murdering a star was the time Thompson almost offed Bill Murray. In 1980, the comedian played a version of Thompson in the movie Where the Buffalo Roam. In order to get the feel of the character Murray spent a lot of time with the journalist, essentially morphing into another version of Thompson complete with all his eccentricities. The two were so tight that Thompson once called Murray up at 3:33 in the morning to discuss his idea for “Shotgun Golf,” the craziest sport ever invented.
Their friendship took a bizarre turn at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado. The spot was one of Thompson’s favorite hangouts, and he could often be found lounging in the bar. One night, Thompson and Murray were standing near the swimming pool and discussing who was the better escape artist. Wanting to prove Murray was the lesser magician, Thompson duct taped him to a lawn chair and tossed him into the pool. As you might expect, Murray wasn’t able to free himself, and Thompson waited till the actor was nearly dead before hauling him onto dry land. Hunter S. Thompson might’ve been a colorful character, but he certainly was a dangerous friend.
5. Gordon Ramsay Was Almost Murdered By Smugglers
Like any chef, Gordon Ramsay has probably had his share of kitchen accidents, but in the real world he’s a walking disaster zone. In 2008, while filming an episode of The F Word, Ramsay was making his way down a 280-foot incline when he lost his footing. The chef slid all the way down and plunged into the freezing cold water below. Making matters worse, Ramsay was weighed down by all his climbing gear. He struggled under the water for forty-five seconds before he was dragged to shore by his crew.
But that’s nothing compared to what happened in Costa Rica. In 2011, Ramsay was filming a documentary on the highly controversial and widely illegal practice of shark finning. It’s a grisly method of fishing that involves catching a shark, slicing off its fin, and chucking the animal back into the ocean to die. The practice kills 100 million sharks annually and has reduced certain populations by 95%. Unfortunately, shark fin soup is a status symbol in countries like China, where it’s slurped up by the rich and powerful.
So if the problem is China, why was Ramsay in Central America? Well, that’s where the smugglers work. According to Ramsay, these crews work in facilities surrounded by “barbed-wire perimeters and gun towers.” They aren’t people you want to mess with, but Ramsay wasn’t intimidated. The Hell’s Kitchen star made his way into one of their compounds, where he found thousands of shark fins. The gangsters didn’t take kindly to his presence — as Ramsay tried to leave, they poured a barrel of gasoline on his head and tried to light him on fire. As this was happening, a group cars swarmed into the parking lot to try to prevent the chef’s escape.
Fortunately, Ramsay and his crew were able to drive away… only to later run into another bunch of angry, armed smugglers who held Ramsay at gunpoint until local cops showed up. They weren’t exactly heroes — the officers sided with the gangsters and ordered Ramsay to leave or face deportation. But at least he wasn’t set on fire.
4. Mark Twain Was Almost Killed In A Duel
Before he gave life to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain worked as a miner, printer and, most famously, a riverboat pilot. Twain was also an accomplished reporter, but it was his journalistic ways that almost sent him to an early grave.
In 1864, Twain was appointed editor-in-chief of the Virginia City Daily Enterprise, but his new position only lasted about a week. The curly-headed writer started a 19th century flame war with James Laird, editor of the rival Daily Union. After a vicious back and forth that involved a lot of name calling, Twain decided to humiliate his enemy in the most embarrassing way possible — he’d challenge Laird to a duel.
Twain assumed Laird would turn down the duel, and then everyone would think the Union editor was a coward. At first Twain’s plan seemed to work, because Laird said no. But Twain took his act a little too far — feigning righteous indignation, Twain challenged Laird not once, but two more times… and Laird said yes.
Now Twain was in a bit of a tight spot, as he was a lousy shot. In the days leading up to the match, Twain drove a rail into the ground, set a squash on top of it, armed himself with a Navy six-shooter, took the customary fifteen paces back and tried hitting his imaginary opponent. Twain missed every single time. Things were looking rather grim for our hero, but that’s when he heard gunfire coming from a nearby ravine.
James Laird was practicing as well, and Twain was afraid that his enemy would send spies to watch Twain practice. Thinking fast, Twain’s second—a man named Stave Gillis—blew the head off of a little songbird nearly thirty paces away. When Laird’s buddies showed up, Gillis claimed that Twain was the man who’d pulled the trigger.
Shaken, Laird’s pals hustled back to their boss, and on that very same day Twain received a letter from his rival calling off the duel. That was good news, as Laird was a competent shot who hit his practice target 13 out of 18 times.
3. Uma Thurman Was Almost Crushed By A Van
Acting is a dangerous profession. Working on location, performing stunts, handling dangerous weapons… someone could end up seriously hurt. Actors like Brandon Lee and Vic Morrow died on set, and in 2009 Uma Thurman almost found herself a member of that unenviable club.
The actress was relaxing at the bottom of a hill while on break from shooting Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lighting Thief when a van started rolling straight towards her. The transportation crew had forgot to set the parking brake, and in just a few moments Thurman was going to end up road kill.
And that’s when James Bond showed up. Pierce Brosnan was working on the same film and saw the van lurching forward. He shouted for Uma to move, but she couldn’t hear her co-star’s cries. Going into 007 mode, the actor rushed down the hill, jumped inside the van, and slammed on the brakes. While the van smashed into the curb and took out a few garbage cans, Uma Thurman got out of the way.
Believe it or not, this wasn’t the first time Brosnan saved a leading lady. While filming a love scene with Halle Berry on Die Another Day, the actress decided to do a little improv. She grabbed a knife, cut a fig and took a bite, only to start choking. Fortunately, Brosnan kept his cool and gave Halle the Heimlich, saving her from death by fig.
2. Benedict Cumberbatch Was Kidnapped And Almost Murdered
While he hasn’t solved any real-life crimes, Benedict Cumberbatch has had his fair share of adventures. On a trip to Nepal, the Sherlock actor found himself lost in the mountains and had to follow a trail of yak droppings back to civilization. But that pales in comparison to what went down in 2005 when Cumberbatch was filming the BBC miniseries To the End of the Earth.
Cumberbatch was on location in South Africa, and one evening the actor was driving outside of Durban with two of his friends. Unfortunately, one of their tires went flat, and as the trio tried to repair it six armed thugs pulled up alongside them. Things went south fast.
After they were searched for valuables, Benedict and his friends were tied up and thrown into a car. The robbery had become a kidnapping. Cumberbatch was afraid he’d end up murdered, but he was also concerned about the ropes around his arms. They were a little tight, but when he complained the gangsters tossed him into the trunk.
Cumberbatch was terrified, but for some mysterious reason the kidnappers eventually pulled over, dumped the trio on the side of the road, and drove off. A little later, when a stranger chanced by and freed them from their bonds, Benedict broke down crying with gratitude. The incident had an understandably profound impact on the Englishman, giving him a new appreciation for life.
1. George Orwell Was Shot By A Sniper
As the author of Animal Farm and 1984, most people assume that George Orwell was rabidly anti-communist. But Orwell was a dedicated socialist who hated Joseph Stalin — while he felt the dictator had corrupted Lenin’s ideals, he was still very much in favor of Karl Marx’s ideology. He was such a diehard believer that, in 1936, he went to Spain to help the Republicans fight the fascists during the Civil War. It was a decision that almost ended his life.
In 1937, Orwell was hunkered down in a trench outside Barcelona. Unfortunately, he was taller than most of his Spanish comrades, and his head stuck up out of the ditch. A sniper caught a glimpse of the Englishman and put a bullet into his throat, right between his trachea and carotid artery. Later, in his book called Homage to Catalonia, Orwell would describe being shot as being struck by lightning.
“Roughly speaking,” Orwell wrote, “it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion.” While he didn’t feel any pain, he did feel an electrical buzz. His knees gave out and he crumpled to the ground, blood oozing all over his clothes. Fortunately a doctor saved Orwell’s life, but for some odd reason decided to keep his bloodstained neckerchiefs and scarf. Those items eventually ended up in the hands of a man named Donald Bateman, and after his passing in 2013 his family sold them at an auction for the tidy sum of £4,500.
If you’d like to keep up to date with Nolan’s writing, you can friend/follow him on Facebook.