Today in World History: September 10th

Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the Austrian Empire’s most beloved empresses, was assassinated on this day in 1898. Born to Bavarian royalty on December 24th, 1837, she spent much of her childhood free, as she was not high up in the line of succession and therefore did not have much formal training, instead roaming the countryside around her family home. When she was sixteen years old, she was married into the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria, becoming the wife of Franz Joseph, future emperor. Although Franz Joseph was originally betrothed to Elisabeth’s older sister Helene, during the trip to meet the prince he fell in love with Elisabeth, declaring to his mother and Elisabeth’s aunt who arranged the marriage that he would only marry Elisabeth, or not marry at all. They married eight months later, Elisabeth moving to the imperial capital Vienna to live with Franz Joseph.

Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1851.
Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1851.

Elisabeth, having been brought up so informally, did not fit in very well, and her new mother-in-law did not do much to improve the situation. Displeased at the marriage, Princess Sophie of Bavaria’s dislike of Elisabeth only grew when Archduchess Sophie of Austria, the first daughter and child of Elisabeth born only ten months after their marriage, died at the age of two in 1857, going so far as to take Sophie and her younger sister, Gisela, born in 1856, away from their mother, and naming Sophie after herself without consulting Elisabeth. Elisabeth was not allowed to care for her own daughter, and Sophie died in 1957 of what is suspected to be typhus. Elisabeth fell into deep depression following Sophie’s death, and later discovered she was pregnant for the third time. After pressure from her mother-in-law and the rest of the Austrian populace, a son was born, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. A third daughter, Marie Valerie, was born in 1838.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria
Empress Elisabeth of Austria

Elisabeth, due to pressure from Princess Sophie and in depression following her daughter’s death, begun obsessing over her beauty, exercising excessively, and wearing a corset so tight that she reduced her waist by the time of her death to about forty centimeters in diameter, or sixteen inches. She began withdrawing from her daily routines, exercising almost the entire day to maintain her figure. She became distanced from her family, despite her husband’s deep love for her, and only after her son’s birth did she become involved in politics. Due to her childhood spent partially in Hungary, she was very attached and felt emotionally connected to the country, so that when issues began appearing between Austria and Hungary she defended the Hungarian’s helping lead the negotiations leading to the Austrian-Hungarian compromise of 1867, which raised Hungary to the same level as Austria, instituting the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In thanks for their help in reaching the deal, Elisabeth’s friend and rumored lover, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Andrassi, ensured their crowning as King and Queen of Hungary. Elisabeth’s mother-in-law, Sophie, died in 1872, and elisabeth enjoyed a short period of less depression.

During the time before the final deals, Elisabeth suffered from tuberculosis and stress-related diseases, leading her to travel more frequently, leaving Vienna for more than two years, spending time in Corfu and with her family in Bavaria. She almost left her husband, only returning shortly before her husband’s birthday, suffering another bout of symptoms that helped to confirm her doctors’ diagnoses. In 1889, Elisabeth, already in a poor mental state and with several eating disorders, suffered a breakdown following the discovery of her son’s murder-suicide in a secluded cabin. Unhappy in his marriage and resenting his father for his disapproval of a divorce from the Princess of Belgium, went to a secluded cabin where he met his lover, and having agreed to a suicide pact with her, killed the two. Following her son’s death, Elisabeth spiraled into a gloom, worsened by the death of her father in 1888, her sister in 1889, and her mother in 1892. She traveled more and more, and was rumored to have only worn black following her son’s death.

The last picture taken of Empress Elisabeth, seen with her lady in waiting.
The last picture taken of Empress Elisabeth, seen with her lady in waiting.

In 1898, at the age of sixty, Elisabeth traveled to Geneva, where despite several threats of an assassination attempt, she dismissed much of her security forced assigned by the Swiss government. Traveling incognito with her lady in waiting, she left her hotel at around 1 P.M. to board a ferry. Her servants had been sent ahead, and so Elisabeth was vulnerable to an attack. On her way to the ferry, an Italian anarchist by the name of Luigi Lucheni faked a fall, and landing on the Empress. She collapsed briefly, before returning to consciousness and resuming her trip to the ferry. She collapsed less than 100 meters later, and was carried to the boat, her identity unknown. Her lady in waiting opened her dress and cut the laces on her corset, allowing her to breathe, when she briefly regained consciousness, only to faint again. Spotting a stain on her left breast, Elizabeth’s lady in waiting alerted the driver of the boat, and they returned to land, where Elizabeth died, after ruling Austria for more than forty-four years. Her body was returned to Austria, where her husband mourned her death deeply. It was discovered during an autopsy that Lucheni had stabbed Elisabeth in the heart with a very sharp blade, making her heart bleed slowly and killing her.

Following her death, Lucheni was imprisoned, and hanged himself in 1910, after been handed a life sentence. The citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were outraged by her assassination, having been the monarchy’s mascot for the populace. Since Crown Prince Rudolf had died in 1889, there remained no heir for Franz Joseph, and only his nephew was eligible to inherit the empire. The nephew, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in 1914, sparking the beginning of World War One. Franz Joseph died in 1916, the longest reigning emperor of Austria. The end of World War One also saw the end of the Hapsburg dynasty, one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe’s history.

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