Sisi and Luigi Lucheni are inextricably linked. Illustration by Marco Heer.
Sisi and Luigi Lucheni are inextricably linked. Illustration by Marco Heer.

Sisi’s assassin

On 10 September 1898, Luigi Lucheni murdered the Austrian Empress Sisi in Geneva. After his arrest, he asked to be beheaded. The Swiss judiciary refused his request. In the end, though, the anarchist did lose his head…

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

Luigi Lucheni was an odd man. On 10 September 1898, he was in fact planning to assassinate Prince Henri Philippe of Orléans in Geneva. But he lost track of the Prince’s movements, and read in the newspaper that Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was also in Geneva. Because he considered all members of royal families to be odious parasites, he changed his plan and decided to kill the Empress. As Empress Elisabeth, better known as ‘Sisi’, was walking from the Hotel Beau Rivage towards the landing stage at 1:30 that afternoon, Lucheni rushed up to her and stabbed a pointed, dirty file into her chest, quickly yanking it out again and then fleeing. The Empress fell to the ground, but picked herself up and complained of a pain in her chest. As a result of constant dieting, constricting corsets and getting a tattoo, she was quite accustomed to physical pain; the Empress gritted her teeth and made it on board the steamer that was to take her to Montreux. But a short time after the ship departed the landing stage, the monarch collapsed unconscious on the upper deck. Her lady-in-waiting noticed blood dripping from a tiny stab wound above her left breast. Two hours later, the Empress died of her injuries.
The assassination of Sisi, depicted in a drawing.
The assassination of Sisi, depicted in a drawing. Wikimedia
The Geneva police searched for the assassin, who was described by eyewitnesses as a short, slightly thickset man wearing shabby clothes and a battered hat. The officers found him thanks to the assistance of passers-by who detained the perpetrator, and arrested him that same afternoon. Interestingly, the civilian helpers didn’t know that it had been an assassination attempt, or that the victim was the Empress of Austria. This is clear from the telegram that the Swiss diplomat Alfred de Claparède sent to Federal President Eugene Ruffy: ‘Luchini was stopped by passers-by, not as a murderer, but as a person who had carried out a violent assault on an unknown woman.’ It was only later that the passers-by discovered they had collared the assassin of the world-renowned Sisi.
Luigi Lucheni appeared ‘happy’ upon his arrest.
Luigi Lucheni appeared ‘happy’ upon his arrest. Wikimedia
Telegram to Federal President Eugène Ruffy, 10 September 1898.
Telegram to Federal President Eugène Ruffy, 10 September 1898. Swiss Federal Archives
Luigi Lucheni was an Italian citizen and had worked in Chiasso, Airolo, Uetikon am See, Martigny, Salvan, Lausanne and finally in Geneva. He was an anarchist and a communist; the attack on the Austrian empress was the sad ‘high point’ of his miserable life. Lucheni was born out of wedlock and abandoned by his mother. The boy grew up with foster parents and in various homes. As soon as he was able, he eked out a living as a day labourer, but always lived in great poverty. After his arrest, he was in a remarkably good mood: ‘I got her good; she must be dead.’ In his interrogation, he gave his motive as: ‘Because I am an anarchist, because I am poor, because I love the workers and I desire to see the death of the rich.’ He hadn’t had enough money for a revolver or a dagger, so he had made do with the file, which was sharpened on three sides.
Luigi Lucheni assassinated the Austrian Empress with this file.
Luigi Lucheni assassinated the Austrian Empress with this file. Wikimedia
Cover sheet of Luigi Lucheni’s police file.
Cover sheet of Luigi Lucheni’s police file. Swiss Federal Archives
Luigi Lucheni was proud of his deed, and called himself a ‘benefactor of humanity’. He even received fan mail: ‘This woman was a criminal by her mere birth. She never worked! She never wanted to work! She always wanted to rule. She is a disgrace.’ The assassin asked for a transfer from the St Antoine prison in Geneva to Lucerne, because he was hoping to be beheaded, which would bring him even more publicity. The Canton of Geneva had abolished the death penalty, unlike the Canton of Lucerne, under the laws of which he therefore wished to be sentenced. However, his application was rejected by the Federal Council on 16 September.
Excerpt from the minutes of the Federal Council meeting of 16 September 1898.
Excerpt from the minutes of the Federal Council meeting of 16 September 1898. Swiss Federal Archives
The verdict on Lucheni was announced on 10 November: he was sentenced to life in prison. He hung on for 12 years. Then, on 19 October 1910, he used a belt to hang himself in his cell. To this day it is not entirely clear whether the Italian really acted alone, or was supported by other people or even an anarchist network. Alfred de Claparède’s telegram, which was based on information provided by the police, mentioned two other people: ‘The murderer was seen with two other persons.’ Examining magistrate Charles Léchat also believed this to be the case, but others declined to share his view. Perhaps also because Switzerland was under fire for its liberal attitude towards political activists and was keen to close the case as soon as possible.
Probably the last photo of Sisi (on the left). On 10 September 1898, the Empress strolls through Geneva with Countess Irma Sztáray.
Probably the last photo of Sisi (on the left). On 10 September 1898, the Empress strolls through Geneva with Countess Irma Sztáray. notrehistoire.ch / Bibliothèque de Genève

Head sawn open, brain examined

Now comes the unsavoury part of the story. The beheading for which the assassin had pleaded in 1898 was now granted after all. Just not on the scaffold, but on the operating table. The Geneva Professor Louis Mégevand was a fan of phrenology, which attempts to deduce human attributes by examining brains. This professor was keenly interested in the inner workings of the assassin Lucheni, so he separated the deceased’s head from his body and sawed open Lucheni’s cranium to search for abnormal convolutions of the brain. To his disappointment, he found nothing remarkable. While the body of the murderer was buried on the prison premises in Geneva, his head, carefully stitched back together, joined the collection of the Forensic Institute in Geneva. The assassin’s head sat there for decades as a specimen preserved in formaldehyde. In 1985 the glass jar was moved to Vienna, but with the stipulation that the creepy relic was not to be publicly displayed. Finally, in February 2000 the bizarre toing and froing came to an end: Lucheni’s skull was quietly interred in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof – precisely eight kilometres from the imperial crypt, wherein lies the sarcophagus of Empress Elisabeth.
TV feature about the murder of Sisi (German with english subtitles). YouTube

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