5 Near Deaths That Would Have Changed the Face of History

#2. George Frideric Handel Survived a Sword Duel Thanks to a Lucky Button

Thomas Hudson

If you're not familiar with George Frideric Handel, you've certainly heard his work:

Handel went down as one of the greatest composers in history, influencing music and opera in ways on par with Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. But, thanks to a sword duel early in his career, Handel may have never influenced millions with his music if he hadn't been blessed with an amount of luck that can only be described as "cartoonish."

Though German-born, Handel moved to London and became friends with Johann Matheson, a composer who, as Handel would later find out, had a severe case of the unable-to-calm-the-fuck-downs. You see, Matheson had written a little opera called Cleopatra, in which he himself was to perform the dual roles of Marcus Antonius and conductor of the orchestra (which wasn't a role, per se, but you catch our drift). Handel, being somewhat of a purist, didn't think it was proper for Antonius to reappear as the conductor after the character had been killed off (spoiler alert!), so he took the conductor's seat at the harpsichord and started shredding it like Eddie Van Halen in silk stockings. This is the sort of thing that makes a composer want to kill a motherfucker.

Johann Jacob Haid
"You're about to get your ass Handeld to you."

Sure enough, when he found Handel's ass warming his seat, Matheson was pissed. The two launched into a full-on rock star fistfight, right there in front of the audience ... but apparently they fist-fought about as well as you'd expect two classical composers to, and the battle soon resorted to pulling each other's powdered wigs and dropping bombs about whose momma could hit the highest C. The audience, however, was thirsty for blood by that point and ushered the two outside for a friendly game of Stab Each Other in the Heart. If you're wondering where the swords came from all of a sudden, this was the 18th century -- the swords had always been there.

Madly swinging one of those little conductor batons is seemingly good practice for sword fighting, and Matheson soon showed Handel that he had fucked with the wrong dude's harpsichord. Matheson didn't toy with his opponent for long, though -- he quickly made a furious lunge to shish kabob Handel's heart meat ... and instead hit a brass button on Handel's coat, deflecting his death blow and snapping off the point of his sword. Having just witnessed an irrefutable miracle, the two then embraced each other and cried, just like good classical composers should.

Scott Gries/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Kind of makes Nas and Jay-Z look like pussies in hindsight.

Handel went on to create his most influential works after that day in 1704 -- all thanks to his fabulous fashion sense.

#1. Karl Marx Survived Getting Shot in the Freaking Head

Wiki Commons

Ask your local sci-fi geek or armchair alternate history aficionado the first thing he'd do if time travel were invented, and "kill Hitler" comes in second only to "that green alien chick from Star Trek." But Hitler is low-hanging fruit -- to get to the really interesting stuff, you've got to dig deeper: What would the world have been like if there had never been a Karl Marx? Now that's a question for alternate historians to ponder -- especially since it's a scenario that came very close to happening.

Back in 1836, 18-year-old Karl Marx was just another student at the University of Bonn. And like any other freshman student, Marx had to deal with his fair share of being picked on -- only worse, because in his particular case, the pickers were none other than Borussia Korps bullies (just imagine the frat guys from Revenge of the Nerds, only angrier and German), who presumably shoved him around and used his spectacular coiffure to achieve history's most epic swirlies.

Don't even tell us the swirlie hadn't been invented yet; let us dream.

As a result, Marx bought a pistol for self-defense, and it wasn't long before he found himself forced to use it. After a particularly nasty run-in with these self-appointed Prussian badasses, one of them challenged Marx to a duel -- which he accepted, because what else was he going to do, look like a giant pussy? The problem was, life-or-death battles don't get much more lopsided than this one: "The outcome of this contest between a short-sighted swot and a trained soldier was all too predictable, and [Marx] was lucky to get away with nothing worse than a small wound above his left eye."

In other words, Karl Marx, the man who literally wrote the book on communism, got shot in the fucking face while he was still a kid. What if the bullet hadn't glanced off of his abnormally thick forehead? That would have meant no Marxism, no Marxist-Leninism, and from there ... who knows? No Russian Revolution? No Lenin? No Stalin?

No Drago?

In short, the reason that much of the 20th century unfolded the way it did was because some college kid in a far-off country happened to be "a beneficiary of the limited accuracy of early underpowered pistols ... As dueling pistols became more powerful, reliable, and accurate, many other duelists were not so lucky." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you can thank the shittiness of early pistol designs for most of modern history, including a cold war that nearly annihilated all of humanity.

Please follow Jacopo on Twitter and preorder his upcoming novel, THE GREAT ABRAHAM LINCOLN POCKET WATCH CONSPIRACY. Matt Moffitt has a Twitter here and a blog here.

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Related Reading: Yes, life is fragile. Think of how different music would be if those Jamaican authorities had shot down Bono's plane. Weirder still are the musicians who predicted their own deaths in song: like Jackie Wilson and Proof. If last year's overlooked deaths are more your fancy, we can help with that too.

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