My First, Tentative Steps
January 19, 2008
On December 13th, 1931, Winston Churchill was run over by a car while crossing the street on a visit to New York. Today, the event is little more than one of history’s footnotes, and barely merits a mention in most biographies of Churchill. But while we all know that Churchill would go on to become one of the most influential leaders in history, we know next to nothing about the driver who hit him.
So what did happen to Mario Contasino, the unemployed mechanic who was driving the car in question? Over the coming weeks, that’s what we aim to find out, by tracking down his descendents.
Before we start though, it might be useful to find a little bit more about the incident, to see if it throws up any interesting leads about the man himself. It’s not especially well documented: a quick trip to the local library confirms that the incident wasn’t considered important enough for many of Churchill’s biographers. It was certainly serious enough for Churchill, however, who suffered a severe scalp wound and two cracked ribs, and who noted, after the event: “I do not understand why I was not broken like an eggshell or squashed like a gooseberry.” He even suffered an attack of pleurisy during his hospital recuperation.
The event is, however, mentioned in Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and America, where Mario Contasino is named as the driver who hit Churchill, and it is also recounted as part of an interactive display at the Churchill Museum in London.
The incident was described thus by the New York Times, in an article on Monday December 14, 1931:
Winston Churchill, British statesman, who arrived here last Friday for a lecture tour, was struck and painfully injured by an automobile last night while crossing Fifth Avenue between Seventy-sixth and Seventyseventh Streets.
The paper would go on to describe him leaving hospital, “With a large dressing patch covering his forehead and a smaller patch across the bridge of his nose”. Indeed, last year, the paper revisited the incident here.
“About 10:30 p.m., he set out to visit his friend Bernard M. Baruch, the financier, at 1055 Fifth Avenue.
Travelling north in a taxi (Fifth Avenue was two-way in those days), Churchill became confused about the building numbers. The taxi driver, who was new to Manhattan, turned around. Churchill got out on the Central Park side, walked a few paces north and then tried to cross the avenue against the light.
Used to traffic that keeps to the left, Churchill looked to his right, saw no one coming and kept walking. A car driven by an unemployed mechanic named Mario Contasino, moving about 30 miles an hour, dragged Churchill several yards and flung him into the street, bruising his right chest, spraining his right shoulder and cutting his forehead and nose.”
That isn’t our only evidence of the incident, however. Churchill himself provided a first-hand account in an article entitled My New York Misadventure, written for the Daily Mail on January 5, 1932 (I’ve emailed the Churchill Archives Centre to see if a transcript is available). He even sent a telegram to the physicist Frederick Lindemann asking him to calculate the impact that the car might have had on him. Lindemann’s reply was as follows:
“COLLISION EQUIVALENT FALLING THIRTY FEET ONTO PAVEMENT EQUAL SIXTHOUSAND FOOTPOUNDS ENERGY EQUIVALENT STOPPING TEN POUND BRICK DROPPED SIXHUNDRED FEET OR TWO CHARGES BUCKSHOT POINTBLANK RANGE STOP SHOCK PRESUMABLY PROPORTIONAL RATE ENERGY TRANSFERRED STOP RATE INVERSELY PROPORTIONAL THICKNESS CUSHION SURROUNDING SKELETON AND GIVE OF FRAME STOP IF ASSUME AVERAGE ONE INCH YOUR BODY TRANSFERRED DURING IMPACT AT RATE EIGHT THOUSAND HORSEPOWER STOP CONGRATULATIONS ON PREPARING SUITABLE CUSHION AND SKILL IN TAKING BUMP
Coming up next: the search for Mario’s descendents gets underway.