A third message from Geneva to Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria gives the precision that Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) had been assassinated. It is almost a relief, Franz-Josef had feared suicide. This text asks if the doctors can proceed with an autopsy. The Emperor, numb with pain, answers that whatever is prescribed by Swiss Law should be done, adding as an afterthought:
“The children must be told.”
The autopsy, practised the next day, reveals that the weapon – it is not yet known what it was exactly – had penetrated eighty-five millimetres, breaking a rib, traversing the left lung and the left ventricle. However, the wound is very slim and the haemorrhage had been retarded. The blood had dripped drop by drop into the pericardium. Sissi’s astonishing energy had allowed her to walk the hundred feet between the place of her aggression and the boat’s boarding ramp.
In Vienna, the news spreads from six o’clock at night. The crowd gathers in groups, firstly incredulous, then angry. The words are repeated with horror:
“Assassinated! Our Empress has been assassinated! By an Italian!”
Incidents erupt inside the cafes frequented by Italians. Some Austrians explode with indignation.
“The Italians take our bread from us and assassinate our Empress!”
Fights, patriotic songs, tears: the Police has to restore order.
He is twenty-five. He is called Luigi Lucheni. Born in Paris of an Italian mother, he has never known his father. Mason, labourer, he had been chambervalet to a prince. He is Elisabeth’s assassin. At the beginning of the afternoon, he is interrogated by Judge Lechet, who does not yet know that Sissi is dead. The answers are proud, cynical. He says that he had been looking to kill the Duke of Orleans who was staying in Geneva. But the Pretender to France’s throne had left for the Valais.
“I had sworn to kill any high-ranking person. Prince, King or President of the Republic, they are all the same!”
His weapon had been found by a concierge of the Rue des Alpes. The assassin had thrown it away while he was running. He had made it himself, inserting a ten-centimetre, very slim lime into a wooden handle.
When Judge Lechet is informed, by telephone, of Sissi’s decease, he says to Lucheni:
“The Empress of Austria has just succumbed from her wound.”
A light shines in the assassin’s green eyes:
“Long live anarchy!”
Despite the presence of many political refugees in Switzerland, despite terrorist attacks – such as the one which, in France, cost the life of President Sadi Carnot – it will never be possible to establish that Lucheni was taking part in a plot. He most likely acted alone. He is as proud of that as of the crime itself.
A polemic erupts over the Empress’ absence of protection. For the Swiss Police, her presence was well-known. A telegramme dated 29 August, addressed by the Federal Department of Justice and the Police, at Berne, to the competent services at Lausanne, ends like this:
“Pray take all measures considered necessary against possible problems.”
Police Chief Virieux of the Canton of Vaud, had organized the Empress’ protection, but she, as usual, had judged this surveillance to be disagreeable. On Friday 9 September, the day before the assassination, Chief Virieux withdrew his officers… Sissi had also sent away her suite. It is very possible that an entourage larger than one lady-in-waiting would have dissuaded the assassin from acting openly.
A polemic, more discrete and briefer, poses the question of the treatment given to the Empress. Today, an operation to repair the heart could be done, but in 1898 this was not possible.
Elisabeth’s body was placed in a triple coffin; two in lead, the third, exterior one in bronze, reposing on lion claws. Geneva’s great bell, the Clemence, tolls. The city is dead too, the shops are closed, not a boat moves on the lake.
Tuesday morning, a special Austrian train brings the Emperor’s official representatives. Before the sealing of the coffin, they can assure themselves of the body’s identity through two glazed openings which allow the face to be seen.
Wednesday morning, at half-past eight, the body is moved. From Hotel Beau-Rivage to Cornavin Station, the coffin is drawn by four caparisonned horses. Over the fifteen-minute route, the crowd, immense, silent, uncovers its heads. The Clemence tolls unanimous mourning. At the station, the Federal Council and the State Council render a last homage to the Empress. At nine o’clock, in great silence, troubled only by the noise of steam, the funeral train leaves for Vienna. Sissi is going on a last voyage.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire is in deep mourning. At Budapest, the sadness is particularly felt. Franz-Josef says:
“Yes, they can cry. They don’t know what a friend they have lost in their Queen.”
Telegrammes from around the world pile up in the Chancellory, those of Queen Victoria, of the French President Felix Faure, who had declared:
“The Empress is sublime. You’d think that she was French!”;
those of Emperor Wilhelm II, of the American President McKinley, of Tsar Nicolas II, of the Pope, who judges the assassination “contemptible”. Eighty-two sovereigns and high-ranking people follow the cortege which, on the morning of Saturday 16 September, takes Elisabeth to the tomb of the Capucins.
Alive, she fled protocol. Dead, she cannot escape it. The little crypt door is closed. The First Chamberlain knocks. A voice rises from the tomb:
“Who is there?”
“Empress and Queen Elisabeth asks to enter.”
A regrettable polemic mounts concerning the inscription on the coffin. It is written: “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”. The Hungarians protest. She was their Queen; hastily, the words: “and Queen of Hungary” are added.
The protocol, in vigour since the XVIIth Century, is respected: if the body of the sixteenth empress of the Habsburg dynasty reposes in the crypt of the Capucins, her heart is conserved at the Church of the Augustins, where she was married, and her internal organs are placed in the crypt of the Saint-Etienne Cathedral.
Very proud of himself – particularly very proud to be in the newspapers – Lucheni manifests no regret and hopes to be condemned to death. He thinks that he is a hero, he wants to be a martyr too. When he is asked why he had killed Elisabeth, who had never done anything to him, his only answer is:
“It is a fight against the greats and the rich. A Lucheni kills an Empress, never a washerwoman.”
To be continued.