If, in the early autumn of 1898, you had visited the Hotel Beau-Rivage, on the shores of Lake Geneva, you might have seen a pale, hauntingly beautiful woman, dressed in a long black dress and carrying a white parasol. Her name was Elisabeth, and as Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, she was an icon of European royalty and celebrity before the term had even been invented. Ever since the suicide of her only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, nine years earlier, she had been a recluse, sunk in melancholy. And while her husband, Franz Joseph, rose every morning before dawn to study his piles of paperwork, Elisabeth drifted around the spas and resorts patronised by the continent’s aristocratic elite, a ghostly figure, hiding her face with her parasols and her fans.
Shortly after lunch on Saturday 10 September, Elisabeth and her lady-in-waiting, the Hungarian countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, left their hotel for the short walk to catch the steamer to Montreux. They were only yards away when a young man approached and made as if to look underneath the empress’s parasol. He seemed to stumble, and reached out to steady himself; then, suddenly, Elisabeth cried out and fell, and the man turned and ran.
Onlookers rushed to her side, and the hotel concierge, who had been watching from the steps, helped her to the waiting steamer. “It’s nothing,” Elisabeth told them; but as the boat began to pull away, she fainted again. It was an intensely hot day, so Countess Sztáray opened her black dress and loosened her corset. “What has happened?” the empress murmured, and then lost consciousness.
Now increasingly frightened, Countess Sztáray asked the boat’s captain to turn back to the shore. A group of sailors improvised a stretcher and carried the empress up the hill towards the hotel, where the manager’s wife and the countess undressed her. It was only now that Irma Sztáray noticed a couple of tiny drops of blood. And then, as they lifted Elisabeth from the stretcher to the bed, they saw that she was quite dead. Barely half an hour had elapsed since they had first left the hotel.
Elisabeth had been stabbed through the heart with a sharpened needle file. Her killer was a 25-year-old Italian called Luigi Lucheni, a former railway worker who had become an anarchist and had travelled to Switzerland to find and kill a monarch.
Lucheni’s original target had actually been Phillipe d’Orléans, the pretender to the French throne. Only after missing him had Lucheni changed his plans. “I am an anarchist by conviction,” he explained later. “I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with the aim of giving an example to those who suffer and those who do nothing to improve their social position; it did not matter to me who the sovereign was whom I should kill… It was not a woman I struck, but an empress; it was a crown that I had in view.”
Anarchist terrorism haunted Europe in the last years of the 19th century. Never, though, had it claimed a more famous victim. Elisabeth was more than just another royal dignitary; across much of Europe, she commanded a level of fame and affection that perhaps only Britain’s Princess Diana would ever match.
When the news reached Vienna, the imperial city was swept by anti-Italian demonstrations. Lucheni himself was quickly arrested by the Swiss police and tried as a common criminal. To his fury, the Genevans had recently abolished the death penalty, denying him the martyrdom he craved. Instead he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Twelve years later, after a guard had confiscated his half-written memoirs, he hanged himself with his belt.
Elisabeth’s funeral was one of the great royal set pieces of fin-de-siècle Europe, with more than 80 representatives of Europe’s royal and aristocratic families accompanying the casket to the Habsburg family crypt. Yet she made an oddly inappropriate figurehead for the old order that Lucheni hated so much. Never comfortable in Vienna’s stuffy court, she had been renowned for her philanthropic work, while her ostentatious concern for the empire’s lower orders set her apart from most European royals. Even her will dictated that her jewels be sold and the proceeds given to charity.
It was “incomprehensible”, Elisabeth’s husband later remarked, that Lucheni had chosen to attack “a woman who never injured anybody, and whose whole life was spent in doing good”.
Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review