Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Memorable Assassination

Note.--The assassination of the Empress of Austria at
Geneva, September 10, 1898, occurred during Mark Twain's Austrian
residence. The news came to him at Kaltenleutgeben, a summer
resort a little way out of Vienna. To his friend, the Rev. Jos.
H. Twichell, he wrote:

"That good and unoffending lady, the Empress, is killed by a
madman, and I am living in the midst of world-history again. The
Queen's Jubilee last year, the invasion of the Reichsrath by the
police, and now this murder, which will still be talked of and
described and painted a thousand a thousand years from now. To
have a personal friend of the wearer of two crowns burst in at
the gate in the deep dusk of the evening and say, in a voice
broken with tears, 'My God! the Empress is murdered,' and fly
toward her home before we can utter a question--why, it brings
the giant event home to you, makes you a part of it and
personally interested; it is as if your neighbor, Antony, should
come flying and say, 'Caesar is butchered--the head of the world
is fallen!'

"Of course there is no talk but of this. The mourning is
universal and genuine, the consternation is stupefying. The
Austrian Empire is being draped with black. Vienna will be a
spectacle to see by next Saturday, when the funeral cort`ege

He was strongly moved by the tragedy, impelled to write
concerning it. He prepared the article which follows, but did
not offer it for publication, perhaps feeling that his own close
association with the court circles at the moment prohibited this
personal utterance. There appears no such reason for withholding
its publication now.

A. B. P.

The more one thinks of the assassination, the more imposing
and tremendous the event becomes. The destruction of a city is a
large event, but it is one which repeats itself several times in
a thousand years; the destruction of a third part of a nation by
plague and famine is a large event, but it has happened several
times in history; the murder of a king is a large event, but it
has been frequent.

The murder of an empress is the largest of all events. One
must go back about two thousand years to find an instance to put
with this one. The oldest family of unchallenged descent in
Christendom lives in Rome and traces its line back seventeen
hundred years, but no member of it has been present in the earth
when an empress was murdered, until now. Many a time during
these seventeen centuries members of that family have been
startled with the news of extraordinary events--the destruction
of cities, the fall of thrones, the murder of kings, the wreck of
dynasties, the extinction of religions, the birth of new systems
of government; and their descendants have been by to hear of it
and talk about it when all these things were repeated once,
twice, or a dozen times--but to even that family has come news at
last which is not staled by use, has no duplicates in the long
reach of its memory.

It is an event which confers a curious distinction upon
every individual now living in the world: he has stood alive and
breathing in the presence of an event such as has not fallen
within the experience of any traceable or untraceable ancestor of
his for twenty centuries, and it is not likely to fall within the
experience of any descendant of his for twenty more.

Time has made some great changes since the Roman days. The
murder of an empress then--even the assassination of Caesar
himself--could not electrify the world as this murder has
electrified it. For one reason, there was then not much of a
world to electrify; it was a small world, as to known bulk, and
it had rather a thin population, besides; and for another reason,
the news traveled so slowly that its tremendous initial thrill
wasted away, week by week and month by month, on the journey, and
by the time it reached the remoter regions there was but little
of it left. It was no longer a fresh event, it was a thing of
the far past; it was not properly news, it was history. But the
world is enormous now, and prodigiously populated--that is one
change; and another is the lightning swiftness of the flight of
tidings, good and bad. "The Empress is murdered!" When those
amazing words struck upon my ear in this Austrian village last
Saturday, three hours after the disaster, I knew that it was
already old news in London, Paris, Berlin, New York, San
Francisco, Japan, China, Melbourne, Cape Town, Bombay, Madras,
Calcutta, and that the entire globe with a single voice, was
cursing the perpetrator of it. Since the telegraph first began
to stretch itself wider and wider about the earth, larger and
increasingly larger areas of the world have, as time went on,
received simultaneously the shock of a great calamity; but this
is the first time in history that the entire surface of the globe
has been swept in a single instant with the thrill of so gigantic
an event.

And who is the miracle-worker who has furnished to the world
this spectacle? All the ironies are compacted in the answer. He
is at the bottom of the human ladder, as the accepted estimates
of degree and value go: a soiled and patched young loafer,
without gifts, without talents, without education, without
morals, without character, without any born charm or any acquired
one that wins or beguiles or attracts; without a single grace of
mind or heart or hand that any tramp or prostitute could envy
him; an unfaithful private in the ranks, an incompetent stone-
cutter, an inefficient lackey; in a word, a mangy, offensive,
empty, unwashed, vulgar, gross, mephitic, timid, sneaking, human
polecat. And it was within the privileges and powers of this
sarcasm upon the human race to reach up--up--up--and strike from
its far summit in the social skies the world's accepted ideal of
Glory and Might and Splendor and Sacredness! It realizes to us
what sorry shows and shadows we are. Without our clothes and our
pedestals we are poor things and much of a size; our dignities
are not real, our pomps are shams. At our best and stateliest we
are not suns, as we pretended, and teach, and believe, but only
candles; and any bummer can blow us out.

And now we get realized to us once more another thing which
we often forget--or try to: that no man has a wholly undiseased
mind; that in one way or another all men are mad. Many are mad
for money. When this madness is in a mild form it is harmless
and the man passes for sane; but when it develops powerfully and
takes possession of the man, it can make him cheat, rob, and
kill; and when he has got his fortune and lost it again it can
land him in the asylum or the suicide's coffin. Love is a
madness; if thwarted it develops fast; it can grow to a frenzy of
despair and make an otherwise sane and highly gifted prince, like
Rudolph, throw away the crown of an empire and snuff out his own
life. All the whole list of desires, predilections, aversions,
ambitions, passions, cares, griefs, regrets, remorses, are
incipient madness, and ready to grow, spread, and consume, when
the occasion comes. There are no healthy minds, and nothing
saves any man but accident--the accident of not having his malady
put to the supreme test.

One of the commonest forms of madness is the desire to be
noticed, the pleasure derived from being noticed. Perhaps it is
not merely common, but universal. In its mildest form it
doubtless is universal. Every child is pleased at being noticed;
many intolerable children put in their whole time in distressing
and idiotic effort to attract the attention of visitors; boys are
always "showing off"; apparently all men and women are glad and
grateful when they find that they have done a thing which has
lifted them for a moment out of obscurity and caused wondering
talk. This common madness can develop, by nurture, into a hunger
for notoriety in one, for fame in another. It is this madness
for being noticed and talked about which has invented kingship
and the thousand other dignities, and tricked them out with
pretty and showy fineries; it has made kings pick one another's
pockets, scramble for one another's crowns and estates, slaughter
one another's subjects; it has raised up prize-fighters, and
poets, and villages mayors, and little and big politicians, and
big and little charity-founders, and bicycle champions, and
banditti chiefs, and frontier desperadoes, and Napoleons.
Anything to get notoriety; anything to set the village, or the
township, or the city, or the State, or the nation, or the planet
shouting, "Look--there he goes--that is the man!" And in five
minutes' time, at no cost of brain, or labor, or genius this
mangy Italian tramp has beaten them all, transcended them all,
outstripped them all, for in time their names will perish; but by
the friendly help of the insane newspapers and courts and kings
and historians, his is safe and live and thunder in the world all
down the ages as long as human speech shall endure! Oh, if it
were not so tragic how ludicrous it would be!

She was so blameless, the Empress; and so beautiful, in mind
and heart, in person and spirit; and whether with a crown upon
her head or without it and nameless, a grace to the human race,
and almost a justification of its creation; WOULD be, indeed, but
that the animal that struck her down re-establishes the doubt.

In her character was every quality that in woman invites and
engages respect, esteem, affection, and homage. Her tastes, her
instincts, and her aspirations were all high and fine and all her
life her heart and brain were busy with activities of a noble
sort. She had had bitter griefs, but they did not sour her
spirit, and she had had the highest honors in the world's gift,
but she went her simple way unspoiled. She knew all ranks, and
won them all, and made them her friends. An English fisherman's
wife said, "When a body was in trouble she didn't send her help,
she brought it herself." Crowns have adorned others, but she
adorned her crowns.

It was a swift celebrity the assassin achieved. And it is
marked by some curious contrasts. At noon last, Saturday there
was no one in the world who would have considered
acquaintanceship with him a thing worth claiming or mentioning;
no one would have been vain of such an acquaintanceship; the
humblest honest boot-black would not have valued the fact that he
had met him or seen him at some time or other; he was sunk in
abysmal obscurity, he was away beneath the notice of the bottom
grades of officialdom. Three hours later he was the one subject
of conversation in the world, the gilded generals and admirals
and governors were discussing him, all the kings and queens and
emperors had put aside their other interests to talk about him.
And wherever there was a man, at the summit of the world or the
bottom of it, who by chance had at some time or other come across
that creature, he remembered it with a secret satisfaction, and
MENTIONED it--for it was a distinction, now! It brings human
dignity pretty low, and for a moment the thing is not quite
realizable--but it is perfectly true. If there is a king who can
remember, now, that he once saw that creature in a time past, he
has let that fact out, in a more or less studiedly casual and
indifferent way, some dozens of times during the past week. For
a king is merely human; the inside of him is exactly like the
inside of any other person; and it is human to find satisfaction
in being in a kind of personal way connected with amazing events.
We are all privately vain of such a thing; we are all alike; a
king is a king by accident; the reason the rest of us are not
kings is merely due to another accident; we are all made out of
the same clay, and it is a sufficient poor quality.

Below the kings, these remarks are in the air these days; I
know it well as if I were hearing them:

THE COMMANDER: "He was in my army."

THE GENERAL: "He was in my corps."

THE COLONEL: "He was in my regiment. A brute. I remember
him well."

THE CAPTAIN: "He was in my company. A troublesome
scoundrel. I remember him well."

THE SERGEANT: "Did I know him? As well as I know you.
Why, every morning I used to--" etc., etc.; a glad, long story,
told to devouring ears.

THE LANDLADY: "Many's the time he boarded with me. I can
show you his very room, and the very bed he slept in. And the
charcoal mark there on the wall--he made that. My little Johnny
saw him do it with his own eyes. Didn't you, Johnny?"

It is easy to see, by the papers, that the magistrate and
the constables and the jailer treasure up the assassin's daily
remarks and doings as precious things, and as wallowing this week
in seas of blissful distinction. The interviewer, too; he tried
to let on that he is not vain of his privilege of contact with
this man whom few others are allowed to gaze upon, but he is
human, like the rest, and can no more keep his vanity corked in
than could you or I.

Some think that this murder is a frenzied revolt against the
criminal militarism which is impoverishing Europe and driving the
starving poor mad. That has many crimes to answer for, but not
this one, I think. One may not attribute to this man a generous
indignation against the wrongs done the poor; one may not dignify
him with a generous impulse of any kind. When he saw his
photograph and said, "I shall be celebrated," he laid bare the
impulse that prompted him. It was a mere hunger for notoriety.
There is another confessed case of the kind which is as old as
history--the burning of the temple of Ephesus.

Among the inadequate attempts to account for the
assassination we must concede high rank to the many which have
described it as a "peculiarly brutal crime" and then added that
it was "ordained from above." I think this verdict will not be
popular "above." If the deed was ordained from above, there is
no rational way of making this prisoner even partially
responsible for it, and the Genevan court cannot condemn him
without manifestly committing a crime. Logic is logic, and by
disregarding its laws even the most pious and showy theologian
may be beguiled into preferring charges which should not be
ventured upon except in the shelter of plenty of lightning-rods.

I witnessed the funeral procession, in company with friends,
from the windows of the Krantz, Vienna's sumptuous new hotel. We
came into town in the middle of the forenoon, and I went on foot
from the station. Black flags hung down from all the houses; the
aspects were Sunday-like; the crowds on the sidewalks were quiet
and moved slowly; very few people were smoking; many ladies wore
deep mourning, gentlemen were in black as a rule; carriages were
speeding in all directions, with footmen and coachmen in black
clothes and wearing black cocked hats; the shops were closed; in
many windows were pictures of the Empress: as a beautiful young
bride of seventeen; as a serene and majestic lady with added
years; and finally in deep black and without ornaments--the
costume she always wore after the tragic death of her son nine
years ago, for her heart broke then, and life lost almost all its
value for her. The people stood grouped before these pictures,
and now and then one saw women and girls turn away wiping the
tears from their eyes.

In front of the Krantz is an open square; over the way was
the church where the funeral services would be held. It is small
and old and severely plain, plastered outside and whitewashed or
painted, and with no ornament but a statue of a monk in a niche
over the door, and above that a small black flag. But in its
crypt lie several of the great dead of the House of Habsburg,
among them Maria Theresa and Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt.
Hereabouts was a Roman camp, once, and in it the Emperor Marcus
Aurelius died a thousand years before the first Habsburg ruled
in Vienna, which was six hundred years ago and more.

The little church is packed in among great modern stores and
houses, and the windows of them were full of people. Behind the
vast plate-glass windows of the upper floors of the house on the
corner one glimpsed terraced masses of fine-clothed men and
women, dim and shimmery, like people under water. Under us the
square was noiseless, but it was full of citizens; officials in
fine uniforms were flitting about on errands, and in a doorstep
sat a figure in the uttermost raggedness of poverty, the feet
bare, the head bent humbly down; a youth of eighteen or twenty,
he was, and through the field-glass one could see that he was
tearing apart and munching riffraff that he had gathered
somewhere. Blazing uniforms flashed by him, making a sparkling
contrast with his drooping ruin of moldy rags, but he took not
notice; he was not there to grieve for a nation's disaster; he
had his own cares, and deeper. From two directions two long
files of infantry came plowing through the pack and press in
silence; there was a low, crisp order and the crowd vanished, the
square save the sidewalks was empty, the private mourner was
gone. Another order, the soldiers fell apart and enclosed the
square in a double-ranked human fence. It was all so swift,
noiseless, exact--like a beautifully ordered machine.

It was noon, now. Two hours of stillness and waiting
followed. Then carriages began to flow past and deliver the two
and three hundred court personages and high nobilities privileged
to enter the church. Then the square filled up; not with
civilians, but with army and navy officers in showy and beautiful
uniforms. They filled it compactly, leaving only a narrow
carriage path in front of the church, but there was no civilian
among them. And it was better so; dull clothes would have marred
the radiant spectacle. In the jam in front of the church, on its
steps, and on the sidewalk was a bunch of uniforms which made a
blazing splotch of color--intense red, gold, and white--which
dimmed the brilliancies around them; and opposite them on the
other side of the path was a bunch of cascaded bright-green
plumes above pale-blue shoulders which made another splotch of
splendor emphatic and conspicuous in its glowing surroundings.
It was a sea of flashing color all about, but these two groups
were the high notes. The green plumes were worn by forty or
fifty Austrian generals, the group opposite them were chiefly
Knights of Malta and knights of a German order. The mass of
heads in the square were covered by gilt helmets and by military
caps roofed with a mirror-like gaze, and the movements of the
wearers caused these things to catch the sun-rays, and the effect
was fine to see--the square was like a garden of richly colored
flowers with a multitude of blinding and flashing little suns
distributed over it.

Think of it--it was by command of that Italian loafer yonder
on his imperial throne in the Geneva prison that this splendid
multitude was assembled there; and the kings and emperors that
were entering the church from a side street were there by his will.
It is so strange, so unrealizable.

At three o'clock the carriages were still streaming by in
single file. At three-five a cardinal arrives with his
attendants; later some bishops; then a number of archdeacons--all
in striking colors that add to the show. At three-ten a
procession of priests passed along, with crucifix. Another one,
presently; after an interval, two more; at three-fifty another
one--very long, with many crosses, gold-embroidered robes, and
much white lace; also great pictured banners, at intervals,
receding into the distance.

A hum of tolling bells makes itself heard, but not sharply.
At three-fifty-eight a waiting interval. Presently a long
procession of gentlemen in evening dress comes in sight and
approaches until it is near to the square, then falls back
against the wall of soldiers at the sidewalk, and the white
shirt-fronts show like snowflakes and are very conspicuous where
so much warm color is all about.

A waiting pause. At four-twelve the head of the funeral
procession comes into view at last. First, a body of cavalry,
four abreast, to widen the path. Next, a great body of lancers,
in blue, with gilt helmets. Next, three six-horse mourning-
coaches; outriders and coachmen in black, with cocked hats and
white wigs. Next, troops in splendid uniforms, red, gold, and
white, exceedingly showy.

Now the multitude uncover. The soldiers present arms; there
is a low rumble of drums; the sumptuous great hearse approaches,
drawn at a walk by eight black horses plumed with black bunches
of nodding ostrich feathers; the coffin is borne into the church,
the doors are closed.

The multitude cover their heads, and the rest of the
procession moves by; first the Hungarian Guard in their
indescribably brilliant and picturesque and beautiful uniform,
inherited from the ages of barbaric splendor, and after them
other mounted forces, a long and showy array.

Then the shining crown in the square crumbled apart, a
wrecked rainbow, and melted away in radiant streams, and in the
turn of a wrist the three dirtiest and raggedest and cheerfulest
little slum-girls in Austria were capering about in the spacious
vacancy. It was a day of contrasts.

Twice the Empress entered Vienna in state. The first time
was in 1854, when she was a bride of seventeen, and then she rode
in measureless pomp and with blare of music through a fluttering
world of gay flags and decorations, down streets walled on both
hands with a press of shouting and welcoming subjects; and the
second time was last Wednesday, when she entered the city in her
coffin and moved down the same streets in the dead of the night
under swaying black flags, between packed human walls again; but
everywhere was a deep stillness, now--a stillness emphasized,
rather than broken, by the muffled hoofbeats of the long
cavalcade over pavements cushioned with sand, and the low sobbing
of gray-headed women who had witnessed the first entry forty-four
years before, when she and they were young--and unaware!

A character in Baron von Berger's recent fairy drama
"Habsburg" tells about the first coming of the girlish Empress-
Queen, and in his history draws a fine picture: I cannot make a
close translation of it, but will try to convey the spirit of the

I saw the stately pageant pass:
In her high place I saw the Empress-Queen:
I could not take my eyes away
From that fair vision, spirit-like and pure,
That rose serene, sublime, and figured to my sense
A noble Alp far lighted in the blue,
That in the flood of morning rends its veil of cloud
And stands a dream of glory to the gaze
Of them that in the Valley toil and plod.

Mark Twain