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1866-1906: The Persistent Pistol

In 1938, well-known diplomat and author Sir Harold George Nicolson [1886-1968] published a strange story told to him by a friend. This story was included in an essay about the topic of coincidences; and Nicolson gave just the name 'Leopold' for the friend who told him the story.

Otto von Bismarck
Otto von Bismarck grapples with his assailant
[Picture source here]

        As Nicholson tells the story, the statesman Prince Otto von Bismarck of Prussia [1815-1898], was attacked by a lone gunman named Ferdinand Cohen-Blind on May 7, 1866, and famously fought the assassin to a standstill even as the gunman was still trying to shoot him. In all, four shots had been fired... two missed, one hit Bismarck's shoulder, and one had penetrated his lung; despite this, the "Iron Chancellor" was up walking and working again just six days later. According to Nicolson's friend Leopold, the revolver used in the assassination attempt had been given to Bismarck afterwards as an odd sort of souvenir of the adventure.

        Twenty years later, in 1886, Leopold's father was staying with Bismarck [Nicolson says they were related by marriage] as were a number of other guests. They had just had luncheon, and Bismarck and the men had retired to the smoking-room to relax while the ladies were being given a tour of the rooms and historic objects in the house by the Princess Bismarck. As this tour reached Bismarck's study, the men could hear the Princess as she announced: "and this is the pistol which Blind used in 1866." A moment later, the gun went off. Luckily no one was hurt; but Bismarck's fury was not to be ignored, as he expressed his outrage that anyone would touch the revolver... and no must be allowed to touch it ever again! And yet, the weapon was not disposed of; it remained on display in Bismarck's study, protected from idle hands by the threat of his possible anger -- and quite effectively too!

        It was in 1906 that Nicolson's friend Leopold himself was staying at Bismarck's home with some cousins. The day was rainy, and some young people had come over for luncheon, after which they also toured the house. Leopold showed them various things throughout the house, and then came to Bismarck's study where he showed them the revolver. Leopold told the visitors the story of how the revolver had been accidentally triggered twenty years after the 1866 assassination attempt while his father was visiting, showing them how it had been handled... when the gun once again fired, lodging the sixth bullet from Blind's gun in Leopold's bicep.

A Coincidence?

        It's a good story; however, there are two problems to note about the account. First, the earliest publication of the story that I can find in any form is Nicolson's 1938 essay in his book Small Talk, which is 32 years after the gun theoretically fired the third time: so there's a lack of timeliness in the reporting. Second... the initial story is historically inaccurate.

        On May 7, 1866, Blind shot at Bismarck five times, not four. The first two shots missed Bismarck, but alerted him to the threat; the third was fired and missed as Bismarck ran at Blind and grabbed him by the neck and right hand; and the last two were fired point-blank after Blind swapped the gun to his free left hand, one bullet grazing Bismarck's shoulder, and the other ricocheting off of one of Bismarck's ribs! Bismarck later liked to say it ricocheted because of his natural toughness and strength... but more likely the bullet was slowed by the various items Bismarck was wearing at the time, and so couldn't penetrate deeper into his body.

        Sometime after the assassination and Blind's death (he committed suicide the same night as the assassination attempt), his confiscated possessions were auctioned off by the police. A friend of Bismarck's named Delbrück bought the gun at the auction, and then presented it to the Prince as a gift. As a matter of fact, Bismarck eventually owned two such guns, as there were two separate assassination attempts on him; he bought the second gun from the government for a pittence after the second attempt on his life. Bismarck apparently kept both guns on a side-table in his study... and also apparently never really examined them too closely.

        One evening, eight years or so after Blind had attempted to shoot Bismarck, Blind's firearm fired again. Bismarack had members of the parliament visiting that evening, and a deputy named Herr von Unrun-Bomst had picked up Blind's gun to look at it... and the last bullet in the gun fired somehow, grazing the stomach of Jordan-Deidesheim (who was described as being exceptionally large and, therefore, a likely target). I must say, I'm astounded by the lack of gun safety in the Bismarck household!

        So by 1874, all six of Blind's bullets had already been fired and were accounted for. So, clearly, Nicolson's story of a twenty year repeat cycle of gunfire is just an invention based on the actual fact that one bullet fired off years later... though it's likely impossible at this point to guess if the story was created by Nicolson himself or an actual friend of his named Leopold.