Sisi and the Stupid One

It was a calm Saturday morning, and her duties were thankfully limited. Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie was relieved of that. For as long as she could remember in the majority of her sixty one years she had always abhorred ceremonial duties. Today she had to travel, which was one of the things that Elisabeth (commonly called Sisi by some members of the press) enjoyed in her advancing years; and had been denied her for much of her life. Far from the first flush of youth, Sisi still maintained a vigorous and exacting beauty regimen that saw her having to peel a leather mask from her face in her bedroom of the suite of the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. Throughout the night in had held in place the crushed strawberries she used to soften her skin. Following her morning wash, Sisi as was typical would spend the next several hours with her hairdresser, styling her floor length hair. She would not eat this morning, preferring instead to endure her fast that had seen her so famed for the nineteen inch waist of her youth. Although she had stopped sitting for the steady procession of portrait artists when she was thirty, and rarely appeared at public formal occasions, Sisi still possessed a streak of vanity that regularly saw her suffering for her looks.

Although a famed beauty when younger, Elisabeth had a life touched by tragedy. Born on December 25, 1837, Sisis was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian Joseph of Bavaria. Regarded as eccentric in his own lifetime, her father would go on to sire ten children including Sisi, popularise Bavarian folk music, and in a trip to Egypt and Palestine a year following the birth of Elisabeth purchase and liberate slave children in a Cairo market. For his daughter however, he was an aloof figure, and also responsible for many of the problems of her later life. Aged twenty, Elisabeth had entered an arranged marriage with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. Although this marriage made her both the Empress of Austria and the Queen of Hungary, it was far from happy. Franz Joseph was a rigid, unimaginative, and sober man, who although he indulged his new wifes’ retreat from court duties and obligations, and her introverted hyperactivity was far from her ideal (indeed it has been suggested by some historians that his youthful philandering may have resulted in her contracting syphilis). Far from a regular sleeper in her youth, the emotional distance of the couple grew as Sisi barely slept. As Franz Joseph slept, Sisi would sit up through the night, reading, writing, and most shockingly of all for the age, smoking liberally. All of her nocturnal activities resulted at her attempts at poetry. Although not particularly gifted, Sisi writing under the alias of Titania (the fairy queen from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) expressed her longing for both travel and the adventurous life that her rank had denied her.

Portrait of Elisabeth as a young woman in 1864, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Not publicly displayed in her lifetime it was purportedly a favourite of Emperor Franz Joseph

As befitting and expected of her rank, Sisi soon gave birth to four children. Two of her daughters, Sophie and Gisela were all but abducted by Sisis’ mother in law, Princess Sophie of Bavaria, with their mother refused access to even wet nurse the infants. This was not to be the last of the problems Elisabeth was to have with her children. Following the death of the younger Sophie of typhus in 1857, Sisi was denounced for not producing a male heir, with her domineering mother in law composing and printing an anonymous pamphlet. In 1858, Sisi was to give birth to Crown Prince Rudolf who was later to further add to her woes. In 1889, the Mayerling incident was to occur which was to have a momentous impact on nineteenth European history, but on a personal scale, was to devastate Elisabeth.

By 1889, Rudolf was a married man to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. By all available accounts this marriage like the one of his mother before him was an arranged and largely loveless affair. Although an unhappy marriage, the couple became parents to Archduchess Elisabeth Marie of Austria (known as Erzsi) in 1883. The birth of a child failed to repair the relationship however, and by 1889 it was common knowledge amongst the court, to his wife, and his mother Elisabeth that Rudolf had been engaged in a number of affairs, most recently with the seventeen year old, Baroness Mary Vetsera whom he had met several months earlier in November 1888.  On the evening of 29 January 1888, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph held a formal family dinner at which Rudolf was present. At some point during the dinner he left citing ill health and travelled to the Imperial hunting lodge in Mayerling, Austria some fifteen miles from the capital. Here he was due to go shooting with Count Joseph Hoyos on the morning of 30 January.

When the morning came there was no answer from the room of the Crown Prince. After repeated attempts from the royal valet, Loschek he called on Hoyos, and together they broke down the thick and immobile bedroom door with an axe. The scene that greeted them was far from pleasant. Laid on top of Rudolfs’ bed was the motionless, rigid, and lifeless body of Mary. Next to her was the slumped body of the Crown Prince, who was bleeding profusely from his mouth. The first thought of the valet and the Count is that Rudolf had murdered his young mistress and then poisoned himself by drinking strychnine. Royal protocol dictated that the death of the heir be reported first to Sisi, before she informed the Emperor of their loss. This was followed, and it by all available accounts impacted on her heavily. As so did the later reporting and very brief police investigation, of the incidents in Mayerling. The story that soon took hold is that Rudolf had been involved in a murder and suicide pact with his mistress. In the initial conjecture it was surmised that the Crown Prince had suffered a fatal heart attack and Mary overwhelmed by grief had committed suicide. This quickly changed to Rudolf having murdered his vivacious young mistress and then committing suicide himself following protracted arguments with his father about the affair. On 31 July 2015, the National Library of Austria finally solved the mystery of the Mayerling incident when it revealed a series of letters that Mary had sent to her mother and had been stored in an Austrian bank safe deposit box since 1926. Given the reaction of Franz Joseph to their affair, the couple had decided upon a suicide pact, and had ended their lives by mutual agreement. Thought by many to be a murder suicide, the evidence from the letters shows instead that it was merely a tragic suicide caused by the demands of family, position, and adherence to immobile nineteenth century morality. The death of Rudolf was to fracture the line of succession for Austro-Hungarian Empire which ultimately led to the son of the emperor’s brother, Karl Ludwig, Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 was a precipitating factor into plunging the world into a bloody and fruitless conflict that led to the death of millions.

Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and Baroness Mary Vetsera (Baroness Marie Alexandrine von Vetsera)

Following the death of her son, Elisabeth began to wear the long black gowns associated with mourning. These were to remain the sole staple of her wardrobe for the rest of her life. A marriage that had been strained before the death a child, all but fractured following it. Elisabeth found refuge in a constant cycle of travel including to such locations as Morocco, Algeria, Malta, Turkey, and Egypt, and was an infrequent visitor at best at court in Vienna. Although Sisi and the Emperor frequently corresponded, they led separate lives with the Emperor residing in Austria, and his wife residing in a succession on international hotels, often incognito so as to avoid the pomp and ceremony she had come to despise. It was in such a manner that she found herself staying in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage in Geneva Switzerland during September 1898.

After her morning beauty routine, the Empress and her travelling companion, the Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály left the hotel at 1:35pm on 10 September 1898. Although they were travelling incognito as was Elisabeths’ standard of the period, earlier a thief had attempted to rob their suite following information leaking out about the identity of the slim elderly female guest who always dressed in mourning clothes and finding its way into the pages of the Tribune de Genève a few days prior. As such the Empress had been warned by the local police about public appearances, but as had become typical, such warnings went unheeded. She and the Countess had a ship to catch, namely the steamship Genève bound for Montreux. Foregoing a procession with her entourage, the Empress and the Countess decided to walk the short distance to the ship along the fashionable Genevan promenade. As the ship bell announced its imminent departure and the empress hurried towards the gangway, a moustachioed young man appeared to stumble into the Empress. In reality he was driving a four inch sharpened needle file into her left breast that would ultimately result in her death only moments later. The twenty five year old responsible for the death of the black clad Empress was Luigi Lucheni.

The life of Elisabeth had been tinged with the loss of children, however in her assassin she found someone who had lost parents, a factor that was later to play a part in her death. Luigia Lucchini was a young woman from the town of Albareto situated in the Montana Valley of Taro and Ceno, Italy. Employed as a laborer by a local land owning family, at a young age she began a clandestine relationship with the son of the landowner, Luigia Lacchini di Tombeto. Falling pregnant, she was forced to travel to France to give birth to the child on 22 April 1873 in Paris. Following the birth, Luigia abandoned the child at the Hospice des enfants assistés, a Parisian hospice for abandoned children before eventually emigrating to the United States, possibly ending up in San Francisco where she worked as a bartender, never to be seen again. Thanks to a clerical error when the child was registered, Luigi Lucchini was to become forever known as Luigi Lucheni. Following his arrival at the Parisian hospice and the rapid departure of his young mother, Luigi was transferred to the Hôpital des Enfants-Trouvé for foundlings, abandoned children, and orphans. Although accidentally French by birth Luigi soon found himself, in an unsolved mystery of history, back in his mothers’ native Albareto. It may have been that his mother left details of relatives in Italy, and typically authorities were always keen to find relatives however distant as it furnished them with one less mouth to feed. Whilst still an infant Luigi found himself being returned to Italy, to the mercies of distant relatives. Rural life in Italy during the nineteenth century was bleak in all but scenery. Employment was precipitous and for the most part subject to effectively feudal whim. Hunger and privation and death were common. For a bastard such as Luigi in a staunchly Catholic environment, life may have been even bleaker. According to all available records (of which there are few), Luigi was regularly shuffled around the Albareto area from one distant relative to orphanages and back again. With no parental support, Luigi experienced some of the worst of rural life of the period. He regularly experienced bouts of hunger resulting malnutrition, and was forced to work from a young age for what scant provisions he received. Although evidence suggests much of the work he was forced to engage in there in also some that suggests that he may have been forced to act as a child beggar appealing to the charity on behalf of a temporarily adopted family. After spending his formative years in penury and privation, quite in opposition to the dazzling opulence of the childhood of his later victim, Luigi left Albareto aged fourteen in search of employment, and a chance at a life that had thus far been denied him.

Portrait of an angry young man: Luigi Luchenis’ Swiss mug shot

As with his younger years, Luigi found gaining meaningful employment difficult, and for a period drifted through Italy in a succession of manual jobs which included brief stints as a chimney sweep and labourer in the Parma-La Spezia railway yard. These were precarious at best, and there must have been spells of loneliness and the hunger that was common for many of the time. Eventually after a period of drifting from job to job and town to town, Luigi was conscripted into the Italian army whilst in Naples. Perhaps surprisingly given his background, Luigi found himself still barely out of his teens as a mounted cavalry soldier in the Horseback Regiment of Monferrato. Although he was to serve in Eastern Africa during the first Italo-Ethiopian war of 1895-96 which was an imperialist attempt distract from the problems back in Risorgimento Italy and indeed was awarded an African Campaign Medal much of his employment in the army was as a valet to the squadron commander Prince Raniero de Vera d’Aragona. Following the conclusion of the Italians rampaging around Ethopia, Luigi found himself back on Italian soil, jobless again. He continued to drift, and seek employment unfortunately he was less successful in the second of these activities. Remembering his days with de Vera d’Aragona, he managed to track down his ex-commander in Naples and found employment briefly as his man servant and valet. Indirectly, Luigi was exposed to the environs and excesses of Bourbon society which contrasted bitterly with his earlier privations. Seeing the glittering society of his current employer, and remembering the grime of much of his past, Luigi requested a raise on his small salary. The Prince refused, and Luigi soon found himself again jobless. According to some accounts, Luigi was briefly considered for the role of a prison director probably due to his new connections, but this was refused. Either as a result of this refusal, or annoyance at the economic constrictions of serving in the Princes’ household, Luigi for whatever reason found himself unemployed and wandering again. His earlier experiences of finding employment repeated themselves and as noted by Luigi in his later memoirs, “most of the time I suffered hunger and cold”.

As well as suffering from the cold, it was during this period that Luigi first came into contact with anarchists in Milan, most probably Pozzi and Borbotti (however he somewhat unsurprisingly is not referenced in Living Like Nomads: The Milanese Anarchist Movement Before Fascism by Fausto Butta). Through his associations with Milanese internationalists, Luigi was able to make contact with comrades in Switzerland such as Gualducci and Silva when he moved to Lausanne in his continuing search for a steady income after briefly considering following the path of his mother to the United States, and being unable to afford his passage. Luigi was able to briefly find employment in the construction of the new town post office. Like with all his previous jobs; it was not to last.

Luigi was at best a peripheral figure in the Italian and Swiss Anarchist movements. For much of his youth he had been forced to constantly wander in search of employment. After being abandoned by his mother, he endured a childhood wherein meaningful education was denied him (accounts highlight that Luigi may have been expelled from education at an early age, ironically because he threw a hat, that inadvertently caused a portrait of the then King to fall and shatter) and abuse and hunger became the norm. Involved in a bloody foreign conflict, he was briefly exposed to a world of wealth and indolence he had never known. All too briefly, he found himself unemployed however this world being snatched back from him. Many people in nineteenth century Europe had endured similar backgrounds and experiences as Luigi. Many workers were forced to endure conditions that were brutal, and wages that were both pitiful and scarce. The disparity between the rich and the poor was a vast gulf, and for many, including the Anarchists, Socialists, and Internationalists one that desperately needed to be addressed (the same sadly holds true in our own age). With these like minds, Luigi may have found a community and connections he had not known since his army days, but he was never embedded as an overt political figure, organizer, writer, or even particularly vocal supporter regardless of what has been conventionally claimed. Indeed, some writers (amongst them Brigitte Hamann) have posited Luigi barely understood much at all about Anarchism, and that many of his peers referred to him as “the stupid one”. At some point however, Luigi seized on the idea of the propaganda of the deed. By action, however criminal, he could potentially enact change, and better yet, exact revenge. It was probably during his time in Switzerland, that Luigi, whom Cesare Lombroso was later to classify in 1902 as hysterically depressed, formulated the idea of committing an assassination.

Initially considered for assassination was King Umberto of Italy and Prince Philippe of Orléans, Count of Paris. The former was to prove too distant a target for Luigi, and the latter was known to be visiting Switzerland, specifically Geneva. By the time Luigi had arrived however, the Duke of Orleans had returned to Paris. Regardless of his departure, Geneva of the period was a favourite of European monarchies, and Luigi knew it would only be a matter of time before he could enact his homicidal plan against someone of import. According to accounts that were to emerge later, he did not have long to wait. After a few weeks spent wandering the streets of Geneva, Luigi made contact with Giuseppe Abis della Clara. This individual was from an Italian noble family, and was in Geneva in charge of horses for a transport company. Possibly through Abis della Clara or one of the many chauffeurs that he knew, Luigi found out that Empress Elisabeth was staying at the Hôtel Beau Rivage before the local papers published this news. An Empress seemed as good a target to Luigi as anyone else on his mental list.

Before he could murder anyone however, Luigi first needed to acquire a weapon. His initial plan was to purchase a stiletto blade for his purposes, but he lacked the twelve francs that its purchase required. He was able to fabricate a cheap implement of death by sharpening a file to a point and attaching it to a piece of firewood. Although crude in its construction, it was to prove devastating in its use.

The triangular sharpened file used by Luigi Lucheni from the Schloss Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H collection

Luigi watched closely on the afternoon of 10 September 1898 as the Empress and her solitary female escort left the Hôtel Beau Rivage and hurriedly made their way across the promenade to the waiting paddle steamer, Genève. As the elderly women neared the ship, it sounded out a horn of departure, and the women increased their pace, so as to make it on board in time for their trip to Montreux across the expanse of Lake Geneva. Luigi saw his chance, and lurched forward towards the Empress, plunging the sharpened file into her breast, and in the process breaking off its tip. Initially, Sisi thought a mere accident had occurred, and owing to the tightness of her corsets which she always wore to retain her youthful slimness, hurried up the gangway before collapsing on board as the ship as it steamed across the lake. Uncertain if his efforts at assassination had met with any success, Luigi quickly fled the scene of his attempt. His route took him down the along the fashionable promenade and along the Rue des Alpes, where he discarded his home made weapon in the doorway of number 3. Meanwhile, Sisi had collapsed into unconsciousness and after having her corset removed by a doctor on board ship, the Genève had returned to port, and her body had been carried by stretcher back to the Hôtel Beau Rivage. Doctors were immediately summoned to try and revive the stricken Empress, however their efforts were to prove fruitless and Sisi was declared dead at 2:10pm. A commotion had been caused owing to Luigis’ attack and as the screams of Hungarian Countess Irma Sztáray punctuated the Swiss afternoon, Luigi was pursued by some nearby cab drivers. The chase was eventually joined by a gendarme and a passing sailor, and eventually the group caught up with Luigi who had already discarded the blade and his was unceremoniously detained.

Following the death of the Empress, the local police had the murderer in custody, but as yet no motive, and no weapon. The latter of these was soon to be addressed when a concierge recovered the home made blade when cleaning number 3 Rue des Alpes the following morning. Initially he assumed that the file potentially belonged to a labourer who had recently moved from the premises, however reading the news of the assassination and the missing murder weapon deposited it with the police two days after the attack. As to the motivation of Luigi, initially it was assumed that he was an Anarchist (and indeed this remains the popular conception) something he was later to confirm by his own purported statements during police interview in which he allegedly stated that he had committed the attack “because I’m anarchist. Because I’m poor. Because I love the workers and I want the death of the rich”.

The trial of Luigi began days following the assassination of Sisi, and was like many of the period a quick affair. Testimony indicated that he had attempted to purchase both a revolver and a knife from someone by the name of Pozzo (presumably the supplier of the overpriced stiletto blade). Throughout the trial Luigi also frequently made appeals for the death penalty so as to achieve the martyrdom he wished for. He also used to it as an opportunity to expound on his reasons for the attack, namely that those who did not work did not deserve to live, and the victim far from being a frail and neurotic elderly woman, was symbolic only of a crown. Despite his protestations to be tried in Lucerne which still retained the death penalty, Luigi was tried in Geneva which did not. Unsurprisingly he was to receive the longest available sentence for his actions, life imprisonment, with the first six months of it to be spent in solitary confinement.

Lucheni in Prison (Image from

The actions of Luigi Lucheni were one of a long line of supposedly Anarchist outrages that rocked Europe during the nineteenth century (as discussed in my forthcoming book). Facing growing pressure from the media concerning the wave of politically inspired attacks (that were often resultant of egregious state actions themselves) various nations used the pointless death of Sisi to commence the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defense Against Anarchists in November 1898. The Conference gathered representatives from the governments of twenty one countries and resulted in a swathe of measures in an attempt to combat the supposed insurrectionary threat posed by Anarchists. From it was also born an agreed definition of Anarchism as being “any act that used violent means to destroy the organization of society”. As well as providing an incorrect definition, the conference also resulted in measures such as blanket surveillance of supposed or alleged Anarchists, and making illegal membership of Anarchist organisations, and possession of Anarchist literature. Various states rapidly adopted identification of Anarchists across borders, and sought to share information between national police forces. The wave of repression that followed the Rome Conference did little to address the simmering resentment of many of the urban poor, and thousands soon found themselves convicted and imprisoned often on the flimsiest of evidence, which further exacerbated social conflicts. Far from being a success in countering terrorist threat, the Conference resulted in continued attacks in response to increasingly aggressive and belligerent nation states.

As for the fate of Luigi Lucheni, whilst in prison, he taught himself to read French and began working on his memoirs, ‘Mémoires de l’assassin de Sissi’. According to some accounts, in October 1910 after twelve years in prison, this manuscript was confiscated by the prison authorities, and on 19 October 1910 was found hanging dead in his cell, having committed suicide by attaching his belt to the bars. As remains standard in our own time, upon being incarcerated all belts were confiscated from prisoners upon internment, which does prompt the questions as to where Luigi obtained the belt upon which he ended his days. Murder or suicide, the result was the same, and his end was inglorious. Following a forensic examination, his head was removed from his body, the former being preserved in a jar of formaldehyde which was stored in the Institute of Forensic Science of the University of Geneva until 1985. It was only in 2000 that this grisly artifact was finally buried in Vienna.

When discussing Anarchist propaganda of the deed, the assassination of Sisi is often cited as one of the most egregious examples. Although the monarchy were utterly divorced from the grinding poverty that blighted much of nineteenth century Europe, and responsible for all manner of outrages often against their own unarmed civilians, the elderly Empress arguably did not fall into this latter camp. As such her assassination was particularly damaging for the positive social change desired by the Anarchists. Many rapidly turned against the actions of the assassin, particularly Emma Goldman who was appalled that the victim regardless of social status was a woman. Thanks to the missing memoirs which were recovered in 1938 by Santo Cappon following years of historical detective work, the motivations of Luigi seem to be less inspired by Anarchist thought, but more about making a name for himself. Seeking to redress the injustice he felt following the abandonment of his mother, and a life of almost constant poverty and insecurity, Luigi Lucheni sought to strike out at the established social order of his time. By doing so, he was perhaps seeking to bring attention to social conditions but also to make himself a martyr. Additionally, as posited by Cappon, he was by driving a knife into the heart of an Empress seeking to punish the mother than had abandoned him to his largely joyless and isolated fate. As with many supposed Anarchist proponents of propaganda of the deed, an examination of Luigi Lucheni obscures more than it reveals in terms of certainty. Whether his motives were political or pathological will perhaps never be known. What can be established is that they resulted in the death of an elderly woman whose own life had been touched with tragedy and the establishment of a wave of repressive measures that resulted in the imprisonment and deaths of thousands. Ultimately his actions were as futile and brutish and as much of his life. For a would-be martyr; there can be no worse epitaph.

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