Assassination of an Empress
Even before the death of her son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, in 1889, Empress Elisabeth of Austria had retreated into a life of sport, travel and poetry. But there was a morbidity in her thoughts too. In 1887, she wrote: I flee from the world and all its joys, and its people are strangers to me … I stand alone, as if on another star. The words seem almost to express a death wish. The suicide of Rudolf at Mayerling, if suicide it was – conspiracy theories abound – notwithstanding their distant relationship, drove Sisi into prolonged mourning. For the remainder of her life, she wore black. Already living a life separate from her husband the Emperor – though it is likely she never lost her fondness for him, and certainly not he of her, – she was rarely seen again at public functions. She retreated even more into herself and suffered serious bouts of depression. Evidence of the latter comes not only from letters written by some of her companions but from Sisi’s own poetry. It became more contemplative than before and darker in subject matter. See previous post)
In the spring and summer of 1898, Sisi spent several weeks holiday at Territet, near Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva. She had discovered the resort five years before when she visited there on the recommendation of her doctor. To preserve her privacy, she would register at the Hotel des Alpes using a false name, but few people were fooled. Notwithstanding the Empress’s precautions, groups of tourists would gather, nonchalant to all appearances but hoping none the less for a glimpse of the royal celebrity.
Sisi found the air of Montreux much to her liking and enjoyed long walks in the mountains at Rocher-de-Naye and around Caux, regardless of the weather, as well as trips on the lake. During one of her stays, on September 9th, her schedule included a visit to her friend, Baroness Julie Rothschild, who with her husband owned a chateau on the shores of Lake Geneva at Pregny. The baroness offered to put her private yacht at Sisi’s disposal but the Empress politely declined and arrived by public steamboat. Sisi seems to have enjoyed herself very much.
The Rothschilds’ chateau had beautiful views over the lake and of Mont Blanc to the south-east. The friends ate dinner to the accompaniment of music and toasted one another with champagne. Afterwards, they toured the Rothschild’s splendid greenhouses filled with rare and colourful plants, and the aviaries of exotic birds.
Later, the Empress drove to Geneva, where she planned to spend the night at the Hotel Beau-Rivage, accompanied only by her lady-in-waiting Irma Sztaray, the rest of her entourage having already left for Caux. In the evening, the two ladies walked through the city, ate ice cream and bought presents. The following morning, the tenth, Sisi did some more shopping before returning to the hotel to get ready for her own departure by steamer across the lake.
Also staying overnight in Geneva was a disturbed young Italian by the name of Luigi Luccheni. Accused by posterity of being an anarchist, Luccheni declared at his trial that he only wished to make his name by carrying out a daring and memorable assassination, and didn’t much care who his victim was. That he chose Empress Sisi was an accident of timing; his original target had been the Prince of Orleans, who had unexpectedly left Geneva early. His unlikely choice of weapon was a small triangular-bladed rasp, barely six inches long, with a wooden handle.
Shortly after one o’clock, the two ladies left their hotel. They were running late for the steamboat, which was due to leave at one-forty. Luccheni was waiting and he followed. The ship’s hooter sounded. The assassin leapt at Sisi, stabbed her in the chest with his makeshift dagger and fled.
Sisi fell to the ground but recovered quickly and stood up, thanking passers-by for their concern. She and Irma went on board, where Sisi collapsed. The lady-in-waiting tried to revive her with smelling salts. The Empress apparently sat up, asking what’s the matter with me, then relapsed into unconsciousness. On loosening her outer garment, Irma noticed a small brown flick on her blouse and on further investigation discovered the tiny wound. Luccheni’s file had pierced Elisabeth’s heart and she was slowly bleeding to death internally.
The departing steamer immediately returned to the quayside, a doctor called and the wounded Sisi carried back to her hotel. It was too late. Elisabeth von Wittelsbach, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, was pronounced dead at two-forty pm that afternoon. She was only sixty years old.
Luigi Luccheni was tried under Geneva law, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment; though much of Switzerland had the death penalty, the canton of Geneva did not. Long live the revolution, he is reported as saying when sentence was passed. He committed suicide in his cell in 1910. It is an irony of his senseless crime that his one and only victim, the reluctant empress, whilst deploring his methods, may have shared his anti-aristocratic politics. Austria wept, but its tears were more for Emperor Franz Josef than for his dead wife. The myth of Sisi had not yet been born.
(The above extract is part of a chapter from a work in progress entitled Snapshots of Inequality.)