If you’ve just tuned in, Mario Contasino is the man who, in 1931, accidentally ran over Winston Churchill while the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was in New York. In real life, Churchill was lucky to escape with just a few knocks and bruises. In the forthcoming Codemasters game, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, this incident resulted in Churchill’s death, triggering a counterfactual version of history in which the Axis powers occupy Europe and invade America. We’re trying to find Contasino’s descendants in order to honour a man who, had fate been crueller, might have made a much more significant mark on history.

Having found out a little more about the event itself (here), the next step is to identify potentially fruitful avenues of research. The obvious places to start looking for somebody from the past are any census records that might exist; any records of births or deaths (such as probate records, or funeral registers); marriage records; perhaps church records; military service records; voting registers; immigration records and so on. In fact, there’s a good introduction here and here. Most of these sources aren’t available online, or are only partially available online, but over the coming weeks I will be trying to locate as many as possible.

Other possible means of tracking down Mario Contasino and his relatives include contacting the New York Times (one of our best sources for the incident); contacting Churchill’s descendents (since some reports indicate that Churchill and Contasino subsequently became friends); contacting any archives or museums that might have any information (such as the Churchill Archives); and so on.

One place that I probably won’t be looking for Mario Contasino’s descendents is the current phone book: a search here suggests that there is nobody with the surname Contasino who owns a telephone in the United States. There are, however, records for many people with the surname Contadino, raising the intriguing possibility that Mario Contasino may not actually be Mario Contasino’s name: it may be the case that early accounts of the accident spelt the driver’s name incorrectly; or that they got his name entirely wrong; or that Mario Contasino later changed his name. Which is, of course, something that I’ll have to bear in mind while searching through those archival avenues listed above.

Another place that might seem an obvious place to start looking in our modern information age is Google. Unfortunately that, too, doesn’t appear to be very fruitful: type ‘Mario Contasino’ into Google and there are (currently) only four links. Typing ‘Contasino’ extends that to ten results.

It could be a bit of a challenge.

But it’ll all be worth it if we can find Mario’s family, so anyone with information as to their whereabouts, or suggestions about where to look for them should contact me on search@codemasters.com

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.

The Quest Begins

January 16, 2008

On December 13th, 1931, the 57-year-old Winston Churchill was hit by a car while crossing Fifth Avenue in New York.

The incident left him seriously injured. But in a characteristic display of resilience, the future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom bounced back, and within just a few weeks he was writing about his escapade in the British press.

Churchill would go on, of course, to become the wartime leader of Britain, inspiring the Allied forces to their famous victory against the Axis powers in the Second World War. But what would have happened had Churchill not recovered from his accident? How would the Allied forces have fared without such an inspirational leader?

It’s on such small turning points that history is balanced.

And it’s on this precise turning point that the new alternate World War II action game Turning Point: Fall of Liberty is based. The game supposes that the automobile accident in which Churchill was hit proved fatal – and that without his inspirational speeches to galvanise the Allies, the course of the Second World War changed, with the Axis Powers even invading America.

From a historical point of view, this alternate reality is of tremendous interest. Had the car been travelling slightly faster, or had Churchill been struck differently, the outcome of World War II could have been drastically skewed.

For such a potentially significant event, there’s very little documented. One wonders whether, as World War II loomed, the taxi driver – unemployed mechanic Mario Contasino – ever paused to think of the moment where he could have shaped destiny. We all know what happened to Churchill – but what happened to Mario Contasino? Did he have a family – and do his descendents know of his historical collision with fate?

Google Mario Contasino’s name and there are four results (five now, I suppose). Churchill had yet to truly make his mark. And as for Mario Contasino? He seems to have disappeared.

So some 75 years after the incident, I will be searching out the descendents of the driver of the car that struck Churchill – a driver who, through no fault of his own, nearly changed the course of modern history.

I will recount the fruits of my labours, here, and hopefully, with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, I will eventually be able to reveal the current whereabouts of Mario Contasino’s descendants – the descendents of a man who shaped twentieth history; the man who inspired Fall of Liberty.

We would like to officially recognise his descendents. We’d like to find out more about this incredible man, to thank his family for his compassion. Churchill and Contasino became firm friends.

Imagine if this had been a hit and run.

Anyone with information as to the whereabouts of Mario Contasino’s descendants, or suggestions about where to look for them can join the adventure by contacting me on search@codemasters.com .

In the meantime, stay tuned for further developments.