Austrian Empire, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Elisabeth of Austria, Emperor Franz Joseph, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Geneva Switzerland, Kingdom of Hungary, Luigi Lucheni
Elisabeth of Bavaria (December 24, 1837 – September 10, 1898) was Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary by marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria.
Born Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie in Munich, Bavaria, she was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria, the half-sister of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Nicknamed Sisi, she enjoyed an informal upbringing before marrying Emperor Franz Joseph I at the age of sixteen. The marriage thrust her into the much more formal Habsburg court life, for which she was unprepared and which she found uncongenial. She came to develop a deep kinship with Hungary, and helped to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria–Hungary in 1867.
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria
The death of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria, and his mistress Mary Vetsera, in a murder–suicide at his hunting lodge at Mayerling in 1889 was a blow from which Elisabeth never recovered. She withdrew from court duties and travelled widely, unaccompanied by her family. In 1890, she had a palace built on the Greek Island of Corfu that she visited often. The palace Achilleion, featuring an elaborate mythological motif, served as a refuge. She was obsessively concerned with maintaining her youthful figure and beauty, which were already legendary during her life. At 172 cm (5 feet 8 inches), Elisabeth was unusually tall. Even after four pregnancies she maintained her weight at approximately 50 kg (110 pounds, 7 st 12 lbs) for the rest of her life. She achieved this through fasting and exercise, such as gymnastics and riding.
Elisabeth spent little time in Vienna with her husband. Their correspondence increased during their last years, however, and their relationship became a warm friendship. On her imperial steamer, Miramar, Empress Elisabeth travelled through the Mediterranean. Her favourite places were Cape Martin on the French Riviera, and also Sanremo on the Ligurian Riviera, where tourism had started only in the second half of the nineteenth century; Lake Geneva in Switzerland; Bad Ischl in Austria, where the imperial couple would spend the summer; and Corfu Greece.
In 1898, despite warnings of possible assassination attempts, the 60-year-old Elisabeth traveled incognito to Geneva, Switzerland. However, someone from the Hôtel Beau-Ravage revealed that the Empress of Austria was their guest.
At 1:35 p.m. on Saturday September 10, 1898, Elisabeth and Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, her lady-in-waiting, left the hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch the steamship Genève for Montreux. Since the empress despised processions, she insisted that they walk without the other members of her entourage, including her bodyguards.
They were walking along the promenade when the 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached them, attempting to peer underneath the empress’s parasol. According to Sztáray, as the ship’s bell announced the departure, Lucheni seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand as if he wanted to maintain his balance. In reality, in an act of “propaganda of the deed”, he had stabbed Elisabeth with a sharpened needle file that was 4 inches (100 mm) long (used to file the eyes of industrial needles) that he had inserted into a wooden handle.
Lucheni originally planned to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans (1869–1926); but the Pretender to throne of France had left Geneva earlier for the Valais. Failing to find him, the assassin selected Elisabeth when a Geneva newspaper revealed that the elegant woman traveling under the pseudonym of “Countess of Hohenembs” was in fact the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
After Lucheni struck her, the empress collapsed. A coach driver helped her to her feet and alerted the Austrian concierge of the Beau-Rivage, a man named Planner, who had been watching the empress’s progress toward the Genève. The two women walked roughly 100 yards (91 m) to the gangway and boarded, at which point Sztáray relaxed her hold on Elisabeth’s arm. The empress then lost consciousness and collapsed next to her.
Sztáray called for a doctor, but only a former nurse, a fellow passenger, was available. The boat’s captain, Captain Roux, was ignorant of Elisabeth’s identity and since it was very hot on deck, advised the countess to disembark and take her companion back to her hotel. Meanwhile, the boat was already sailing out of the harbor. Three men carried Elisabeth to the top deck and laid her on a bench. Sztáray opened her dress, cut Elisabeth’s corset laces so she could breathe. Elisabeth revived somewhat and Sztáray asked her if she was in pain, and she replied, “No”. She then asked, “What has happened?”and lost consciousness again.
Countess Sztáray noticed a small brown stain above the empress’s left breast. Alarmed that Elisabeth had not recovered consciousness, she informed the captain of her identity, and the boat turned back to Geneva. Elisabeth was carried back to the Hotel Beau-Rivage by six sailors on a stretcher improvised from a sail, cushions and two oars.
Fanny Mayer, the wife of the hotel director, a visiting nurse, and the countess undressed Elisabeth and removed her shoes, when Sztáray noticed a few small drops of blood and a small wound. When they then removed her from the stretcher to the bed she was clearly dead; Frau Mayer believed the two audible breaths she heard the Empress take as she was brought into the room were her last. Two doctors, Dr. Golay and Dr. Mayer arrived, along with a priest, who was too late to grant her absolution. Mayer incised the artery of her left arm to ascertain death, and found no blood. She was pronounced dead at 2:10 p.m. Everyone knelt down and prayed for the repose of her soul, and Countess Sztáray closed Elisabeth’s eyes and joined her hands.
No matter how reluctant or resentful she was of the title, Elisabeth had been the Empress of Austria for 44 years.
When Franz Joseph received the telegram informing him of Elisabeth’s death, his first fear was that she had committed suicide. It was only when a later message arrived, detailing the assassination, that he was relieved of that notion. The telegram asked permission to perform an autopsy, and the answer was that whatever procedures were prescribed by Swiss Law should be adhered to.
The autopsy was performed the next day by Golay, who discovered that the weapon, which had not yet been found, had penetrated 3.33 inches (85 mm) into Elisabeth’s thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium, and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle.
On Wednesday morning, Elisabeth’s body was carried back to Vienna aboard a funeral train. The inscription on her coffin read, “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”. The Hungarians were outraged and the words, “and Queen of Hungary” were hastily added. The entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep mourning; 82 sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral cortege on the morning of September 17, to the tomb in the Capuchin Church.
Lucheni was apprehended upon fleeing the scene and his file was found the next day. He told the authorities that he was an anarchist who came to Geneva with the intention of killing any sovereign as an example for others. Lucheni used the file because he didn’t have enough money for a stiletto.
His trial began the next month, in October. He was furious to find that capital punishment had been abolished in Geneva, and wrote a letter demanding that he be tried in another canton, such that he could be martyred. He received the sentence of life imprisonment.
Lucheni wrote his childhood memoirs while in Geneva’s Évêché prison. He was harassed in prison and his notebooks were stolen. He was found hanged in his cell on October 19, 1910. His head was preserved in formaldehyde and transferred to Vienna in 1986.