In 1898, despite warnings of possible assassination attempts, the sixty-year-old Elisabeth traveled incognito to Geneva, Switzerland, although someone from the Hôtel Beau-Rivage revealed that the Empress of Austria was their guest.
At 1:35 p.m. on Saturday 10 September 1898, Elisabeth and Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, her lady-in-waiting, left the hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch the steamship Genève for Montreux. Since the empress “did not like processions,” her servants had already been ordered to leave by train for neighboring Territet.
They were walking along the promenade when the 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached them, attempting to peer underneath the empress’s parasol. According to Sztáray, as the ship’s bell announced the departure, Lucheni seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand as if he wanted to maintain his balance. In reality, in an act of “propaganda of the deed”, he had stabbed Elisabeth with a sharpened needle file that was 4 inches (100 mm) long (used to file the eyes of industrial needles) that he had inserted into a wooden handle.
Lucheni originally planned to kill the Duke of Orléans; but the Pretender to France’s throne had left Geneva earlier for the Valais. Failing to find him, the assassin selected Elisabeth when a Geneva newspaper revealed that the elegant woman traveling under the pseudonym of “Countess of Hohenembs” was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
I am an anarchist by conviction…I came to Geneva to kill a sovereign, with object 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.
After Lucheni struck her, the empress collapsed. A coach driver helped her to her feet and alerted the Austrian concierge of the Beau-Rivage, a man named Planner, who had been watching the empress’s progress toward the Genève. The two women walked roughly 100 yards (91 m) to the gangway and boarded, at which point Sztáray relaxed her hold on Elisabeth’s arm. The empress then lost consciousness and collapsed next to her. Sztáray called for a doctor, but only a former nurse, a fellow passenger, was available. The boat’s captain, Captain Roux, was ignorant of Elisabeth’s identity and since it was very hot on deck, advised the countess to disembark and take her companion back to her hotel. Meanwhile, the boat was already sailing out of the harbor. Three men carried Elisabeth to the top deck and laid her on a bench. Sztáray opened her gown, cut Elisabeth’s corset laces so she could breathe. Elisabeth revived somewhat and Sztáray asked her if she was in pain, and she replied, “No”. She then asked, “What has happened?”and lost consciousness again.
Countess Sztáray noticed a small brown stain above the empress’s left breast. Alarmed that Elisabeth had not recovered consciousness, she informed the captain of her identity, and the boat turned back to Geneva. Elisabeth was carried back to the Hotel Beau-Rivage by six sailors on a stretcher improvised from a sail, cushions and two oars. Fanny Mayer, the wife of the hotel director, a visiting nurse, and the countess undressed Elisabeth and removed her shoes, when Sztáray noticed a few small drops of blood and a small wound. When they then removed her from the stretcher to the bed she was clearly dead; Frau Mayer believed the two audible breaths she heard the Empress take as she was brought into the room were her last. Two doctors, Dr. Golay and Dr. Mayer arrived, along with a priest, who was too late to grant her absolution. Mayer incised the artery of her left arm to ascertain death, and found no blood. She was pronounced dead at 2:10 p.m. Everyone knelt down and prayed for the repose of her soul, and Countess Sztáray closed Elisabeth’s eyes and joined her hands.No matter how reluctant or resentful she was of the title, Elisabeth had been the Empress of Austria for 44 years.
When Franz Joseph received the telegram informing him of Elisabeth’s death, his first fear was that she had committed suicide. It was only when a third message arrived, detailing the assassination, that he was relieved of that notion. The telegram asked permission to perform an autopsy, and answer was that whatever procedures were prescribed by Swiss Law should be adhered to.
The autopsy was performed the next day by Golay, who discovered that the weapon, which had not yet been found, had penetrated 3.33 inches (85 mm) into Elisabeth’s thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium, and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle. Because of the sharpness and thinness of the file the wound was very narrow and, due to pressure from Elisabeth’s extremely tight corseting, the hemorrhage of blood into the pericardial sac around the heart was slowed to mere drops. Until this sac filled, the beating of her heart was not impeded, which is why Elisabeth had been able to walk from the site of the assault and up the boat’s boarding ramp. Had the weapon not been removed, she would have lived a while longer, as it would have acted like a plug to stop the bleeding.
Golay photographed the wound, but turned the photograph over to the Swiss Procurator-General, who had it destroyed, on the orders of Franz Joseph, along with the autopsy instruments.
As Geneva shuttered itself in mourning, Elisabeth’s body was placed in a triple coffin: two inner ones of lead, the third exterior one in bronze, reposing on lion claws. On Tuesday, before the coffins were sealed, Franz Joseph’s official representatives arrived to identify the body. The coffin was fitted with two glass panels, covered with doors, which could be slid back to allow her face to be seen.
On Wednesday morning, Elisabeth’s body was carried back to Vienna aboard a funeral train. The inscription on her coffin read, “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”. The Hungarians were outraged and the words, “and Queen of Hungary” were hastily added. The entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep mourning; 82 sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral cortege on the morning of 17 September to the tomb in the Church of the Capuchins.