Princess Elisabeth of Austria- Sisi of the Sorrows

The Wittelsbachs had a history of crazy.  Both Ludwig I and Ludwig II had their foibles (See posts on both of them here: and here: ) However, Ludwig II’s cousin, Elisabeth or Sisi as she was known, had a life more tragic than crazy.  On the surface, Sisi had it all-  beauty, wealth, a good marriage- but it was all a sham.  The lady had a life full of sorrow.

Born Her Royal Highness Duchess Elisabeth Amalie Eugenie on Christmas Eve 1837, Sisi as she was called by the family was the fourth child of Duke Maximilian in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria.  As was customary with royal marriages, her parents were second cousins.  Not a great idea when you have a family like the Wittelsbachs, but they were obsessed with keeping the bloodline pure.  What they did was heighten the crazy, but I digress.  Her childhood was peaceful and free, and she and her siblings were raised at Possenhofen Castle.  There Sisi developed a love of horseback riding and nature.  They were happy far from the intrigues of court.  At the age of 16, she was broken out of this idyllic world.

Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria was looking for a wife, or more correctly his mother was looking for a wife for him.  The formidable Princess Sophie of Bavaria decided on Helene, Sisi’s elder sister.  Princess Sophie was not a person to be crossed and was described as “the only man in the Hofburg” for her authoritarian ways.  She orchestrated everything in her son’s life, including his first sexual experience.  When Franz Joseph was 18, she found a healthy peasant girl and promised her a good marriage to a court official if she would take the Prince’s virginity.  She even had it set up son Franz Joseph thought it was a natural relationship and she really liked him.  No one knows if he ever found out about what his mother did, but he did see the girl again at a court function and was not allowed to speak to her.  So this is the kind of woman we’re dealing with.

Again, this was a cousin’s marriage, which was asking for trouble, but no one seemed to mind.  Helene, Sisi and their mother traveled to Bad Ischl to formalize the betrothal.  Slight problem.  When Franz Joseph got there he barely looked at Helene, his bride to be.  Instead, he was smitten with the bride’s younger sister, Sisi.  This was no surprise as Sisi was stunning- tall and slim with beautiful long hair.  Franz Joseph stood up to his dominating mama and told her he’d marry Sisi or no one.  If there was going to be a betrothal, then she’d better get on board.  It was no big deal to Sisi’s family, they got an empress out of the deal no matter what.  No one asked the jilted Helene how she felt.  At any rate, five days later the betrothal of Sisi and Franz Joseph was announced.  

Eight months later the two were married, and no one had prepared the poor girl for court or married life.  Sisi hated crowds and had a panic attack at her wedding reception.  After the wedding night, poor Sisi locked herself in her room for three days.  One can only imagine what sex would be like for a sheltered sixteen year old.  After the freedom of her childhood at Possenhofen, Sisi could never adapt to the rigidity and formality of court life.  A series of maudlin bad poetry bewailed the fetters of her new cage.

Soon she fell ill, and it was discovered she was pregnant, but even this happy event turned to tragedy.  As soon as the little princess was born, Sophie took charge of her grandchild and cut Sisi completely out of the loop.  She even named the child… after herself.  Well, that’s modest.  The same thing happened when Franz Joseph and Sisi’s second daughter, Gisela, was born.  Sophie was angry that Sisi was only producing daughters instead of the needed male heir, and began to treat her daughter-in-law worse.  Sophie actually left a pamphlet on her daughter-in-law’s desk with the following underlined:

“…The natural destiny of a Queen is to give an heir to the throne. If the Queen is so fortunate as to provide the State with a Crown-Prince this should be the end of her ambition – she should by no means meddle with the government of an Empire, the care of which is not a task for women… If the Queen bears no sons, she is merely a foreigner in the State, and a very dangerous foreigner, too. For as she can never hope to be looked on kindly here, and must always expect to be sent back whence she came, so will she always seek to win the King by other than natural means; she will struggle for position and power by intrigue and the sowing of discord, to the mischief of the King, the nation, and the Empire..”

Well, isn’t that sweet.  

Sisi got a respite from the stress of court on a visit to Hungary, but that visit soon turned tragic as her two daughters contracted an illness.  Gisela recovered, but two year old Sophie died.  This sent Sisi into a terrible depression from which she never really recovered.  She was unable to care for Gisela, and as a result their relationship never recovered.  Sophie blamed Sisi for allowing her namesake to get sick and die.  Nice.  She gave birth to the longed for male heir, Rudolf, in 1788 and he was whisked away by Sophie.  It was not until the birth of her fourth child that Sisi was allowed to be a mother.  She was reported to have said to a lady in waiting,

“Only now do I understand what bliss a child means. Now I have finally had the courage to love the baby and keep it with me. My other children were taken away from me at once. I was permitted to see the children only when Archduchess Sophie gave permission. She was always present when I visited the children. Finally I gave up the struggle and went upstairs only rarely.”

The only thing she could control was her physical appearance and she had a ruthless beauty regimen.  In fact, she did not look a day over thirty her entire life.  She bathed in warm olive oil and distilled water.  One night a week, she reportedly slept in sheets lined with beefsteak to keep her skin taut.  She was also probably anorexic as she would not eat to be laced as tightly as possible.  She was famous for her wasp waist, which infuriated her mother-in-law as she expected Sisi to be perpetually pregnant.  Her waist remained at 19.5 inches for most of her life.  Almost a Scarlett O’Hara waist.  Whenever she traveled, she would bring her own cows and would live on a diet of meat juice, fresh milk and egg whites mixed with salt.  She was also the first woman to do gymnastics, lift weights and work at the barre like a ballerina as a regular exercise to help with her figure.  Someone once told her it would help her complexion to sleep without pillows, so pillows were banished from her bed.

Her most recognizable feature was her glorious chestnut hair, which reached all the way to her feet.  She was obsessive about how it was dressed, and her Greek tutor Konstantin Christomanos described the ritual, “Behind the Empress’s armchair stood the hairdresser…With her white hands she burrowed in the waves of hair, raised them and ran her fingertips over them as she might over velvet and silk, twisted them around her arms like rivers she wanted to capture because they did not want to run but to fly.”  Any hair that came out during the braiding was required to be put in a silver bowl for Sisi’s inspection.  It was so bad that the hairdresser put a piece of tape under her apron to hide the hair so she wouldn’t have to have it undergo inspection.  Her glorious hair was washed every three weeks and that was a nightmare in itself.  It was rinsed with raw eggs and brandy then air dried as Sisi paced her chamber in a waterproof dressing gown.  However, her hairdresser was well compensated being paid a yearly salary of 2,000 guldens, which corresponded to a university professor.

A rare picture with Sisi’s hair unbound

By this time, Sisi and Franz Joseph were living separate lives.  Franz Joseph was having affairs and after a brief reconciliation which resulted in their fourth child, the bloom was definitely off the rose.  Sisi for her part was coming into her own.  She had balls for young people and didn’t invite their stodgy mothers.  She had a companion from England and snuck off to Ireland for incognito hunting trips.  Things settled into a an amicable separation.  However, Sisi’s world plunged into to tragedy again in 1898 when her son was found dead.  He was found with his mistress Mary Vetsera at his hunting lodge in a suspected suicide pact.  (For more on this, please see this post: )  She and Rudolf were not close, but his death still devastated her.  She was convinced there was some madness in the Wittelsbachs and the Habsburgs that contributed to her son’s death.  She isn’t far off there.  Look at her family.   Sisi began drifting from spa to spa trying to find some meaning.

It was on one of these spa trips, she was killed.  Sisi had stayed at the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva, supposedly incognito.  However, someone must have found out as word leaked.  Sisi was hurrying to board the lake steamer “Genève”.  She had been advised against travelling as there were assassination attempts everywhere, but she didn’t pay them any mind.  As she rushed down the street to the pier without her entourage, Luigi Lucheni ran towards her and stabbed her in the heart with a makeshift weapon.   An Italian anarchist, Luigi Lucheni, had intended to kill the French Duke d’Orleans, but went to Geneva instead on a whim and found out Sisi was there.  Neither Sisi or Countess Irma Sztáray, her lady in waiting, realized what happened.  They thought it had been a robbery attempt, and went on to the ship.  It is suspected that Sisi was able to walk the hundred yards to the ship without noticing anything was amiss because of her tight corset.  A few minutes later, Sisi passed out and Countess Sztáray noticed blood on her dress.  Sisi was carried to back to the Hotel Beau-Rivage on an improvised stretcher and was pronounced dead shortly after.  So ends a tragic life.


The Mayerling Incident

Photographs of Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary Vetsera.

Crown Prince Rudolf was the heir to the Habsburg throne and the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and his beautiful wife Elisabeth, or Sisi.  He was in a notoriously bad marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of Leopold II.  At first, the prince seemed to be in love but Stéphanie suffered under her mother-in-laws scorn.  The elegant Sisi referred to Stéphanie as a “clumsy oaf”.  Rudolf and his mother were more alike in their ideals than his very conservative father, however, their relationship was not close.  Sisi suffered from depression and Rudolf’s care was primarily from Sisi’s formidable mother-in-law.  Not much a good example of family life to follow.  Rudolf and Stéphanie drifted apart after the birth of their daughter in 1883.  Rudolf took comfort in drink and women, and it was known about court he was having at least one affair probably more.  In 1887, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the village of Mayerling.  It was the perfect get away from the formality of court life to drink and carouse.  

On January 29, 1889, Rudolf attended a family dinner with his parents before they were to leave for Hungary.  Rudolf excused himself headed for Mayerling for a day of shooting with his current mistress, the 17 year old Baroness Mary Vetsera.  What happened after that is anyone’s guess.  What we do know is on January 31, Rudolf’s valet, Loschek, went to his rooms at Mayerling to call him and there was no answer.  Rudolf’s shooting partner, Count Joseph Hoyos, joined in and still got no response.  Hoyos became concerned and got an axe and broke down the door.  What he found was terrifying.  Rudolf was seated at the side of the bed, motionless and with a trickle of blood running from his mouth.  Mary was lying on the bed, ice cold and rigid.  The heir to the throne was dead with his mistress.

Hoyos sprang into action and took a special train back to Vienna to get help.  Hoyos and the Emperor’s Adjutant General told the Empress’ favorite lady in waiting, who informed the Empress.  She was the only one with the authority to tell her husband of their son’s death.  In this strict court, even in the face of this tragedy proper protocol had to be followed.  The Empress was distraught, but pulled it together enough to tell her husband.  He left the room a broken man.  In the meantime, there had to be a cover story.  No one knew exactly what happened, but Hoyos suspected poison as strychnine caused bleeding when taken.  It was later found Rudolf and Mary both died of gunshot wounds.  However, the Crown Prince could not have been known to have committed suicide.    The Minister of Police was dispatched to secure the hunting lodge and the body.  A story was released that the Crown Prince had died “due to a rupture of an aneurysm of the heart”.  Rudolf’s body was taken to be buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.  Mary’s body was smuggled out in the middle of the night and put in a hastily dug grave in the cemetery of the Holy Cross Abbey in Heiligenkreuz.  And that was to be that.  But what really happened?  There are several theories.

The obvious answer is suicide.  Several historians suspect Rudolf had syphilis.  His health deteriorated markedly while relatively young.  Pictures show that he aged prematurely and suffered early tooth loss.  Brigitte Hamann suggests in her biography of Rudolf that he had infected his wife Stéphanie with syphilis and felt guilty.  She goes on to tell the tale of Mizzi Kaspar, who was a prominent courtesan in the Habsburg court.  She and Rudolf were lovers and she claims Rudolf proposed a “love murder-suicide” to her.  She refused.  The thought is that Rudolf then pitched the same idea to the love struck 17 year old Mary.  Rudolf even admitted he wasn’t in love with her, but was taken by her devotion to him.  According to this theory, that devotion ran deep enough for her to accept her death at his hands.  It has also been hypothesized that the two fought and Rudolf killed Mary in a crime of passion.  Franz Joseph did not approve of their relationship, and some sources say he brought Mary to Mayerling to break it off.  Perhaps she did not take it well?  Gerd Holler writes in his book a bit of a different story.  He believes that Mary was pregnant, and Rudolf had taken her to Mayerling for an abortion.  When she died in the process, Rudolf committed suicide.

Then there are those who say it was not suicide at all.  Clemens M. Gruber claims in his account “The Fateful Days of Mayerling” that Rudolf died in a brawl.  He tells the story that Mary’s relatives fought their way into the hunting lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver.  In the midst of the fight, the gun went off killing Mary.  Rudolf was then taken out by her enraged relatives.  Empress Zita, the widow of the last Austrian emperor, claimed before she died in 1989 that Rudolf and Mary had been murdered as part of a political conspiracy.  She claimed that a pro-French faction in the court approached Rudolf about deposing his father, and then run the country with a more pro-French slant.  He refused, and supposedly they killed him.

After all this time, no one has the permission to exhume Rudolf’s remains.  However, much later a report came to light that his body showed signs of violent struggle.  In 1992 Mary’s remains were stolen from the Heiligenkreuz cemetery.  They were tracked down by Viennese police and examined by the Viennese Medical Institute.  The identity of the remains were confirmed as Mary Vetsera, and they reported there was no bullet hole in the skull.  However, there was evidence she was killed by several violent blows to the head.  A contemporary report did state that all six bullets were fired from the gun at the scene, but it did not belong to Rudolf and there was no report of where those bullets went.

We will never know the truth about what happened that night at Mayerling.  In his grief, Franz Joseph had the hunting lodge turned into a convent.  Masses were said for the soul of his dead son.  No one really said much about his companion, and Mary went unremembered.


The Battle of Karansebes

bataille-karansebesThey say that ultimately someone can be their own worst enemy.  This is definitely the case for the Austrians in this battle.

It was 1788 and Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire.  At stake was control of the Danube River.  At the same time, the Ottoman Empire was fighting the Russians the same time.  All these people that hated the Ottoman Empire got together and became allies.  Great, right?  Well, no.  It was kind of Tower of Babel situation as the allied army had Austrians, Czechs, Germans, French, Serbs, Croats and Polish soldiers and commanders.  It was a communications nightmare and a disaster waiting to happen.  This even makes reports of the battles suspect as they were not set down until 1831, 50 years later and translated and retranslated.

So what happened?  We’re not exactly sure, but it goes something like this.  The Austrians were on a night patrol around the town of Kanransebes in present day Romania.  On their rounds, the found a camp of Romani across the river.  The beckoned the weary soldiers over and offered them some delicious Schnapps.  Well, it would have been rude to say no….   So the Romani and the soldiers are boozing it up, and another contingent of soldiers, this time infantrymen, found the party.  Because it was the 1700s, class was very much a thing and the cavalry was not about to share their alcohol with some infantrymen.  So they kicked them out, starting a fist fight.

Amidst all the drinking and punching, someone yelled “The Turks are here”.  A shot was fired from across the river at the big fight, and everyone high tailed it back to their side of the river.  In the confusion, the German speaking officers began shouting “Halt! Halt!”.  The non-German speaking soldiers thought it was “Allah” and the Turks had definitely infiltrated.  They turned their guns on the Germans, the Germans shot back.  Then there was a full on free for all in the ranks of the Austrian army.  They were even shooting at shadows, convinced it was spies coming across the river from the enemy.  Things got very serious when an Austrian corps commander ordered artillery fire….on his own men.  The Turkish Army supposedly arrived two days later and found the enter town without defenses and it was taken over easily.  When the smoke cleared, there were 10,000 Austrian soldiers dead and wounded.

But is it true?  As I said above, the first accounts of the battle were not put down until fifty years later.  Some arguments are made that because this was so ridiculous is why it wasn’t written down.  Others say there isn’t enough evidence to support the claim and this goes down into legend.


The Loves of John Smith

mtiwnja4njmzotc0mtk1nzi0As we discussed in our previous post on Pocahontas (, explorer John Smith had his life saved by the Native American princess.  Some historians have cast doubt on this story as the only source we have is a letter Smith wrote to Queen Anne describing the event in 1616 when Pocahontas journeyed to England.  Smith’s only journals from that time make no mention of the event and describe the Powhatan people as nothing but friendly.  What is known is Smith had a thing for princesses as another one made a significant impact on his life.

Before his journeys to the New World, John Smith was a bonafide pirate.  As a boy, Sir Francis Drake had been his hero, and in 1596 went to the Continent to join a company of English mercenaries.  He fought in France and in the Netherlands, picking up practical military skills and education.  He learned riding and Italian from Theodore Palaeologus, the riding master to the Earl of Lincoln.  Theodore was also an interesting character and was the last of the Byzantines.  (For more information on Theodore, please see this post:  Along with his knowledge, Theodore also passed on to John a hatred of the Turks.  With a burning desire to strike a blow against the infidel, John found himself back on the Continent in 1600 looking for “brave adventures”.  En route to Hungary to join the Austrian army against Turks, his ship sank.  John made it to an island off Cannes, and was eventually picked up by a Captain La Roche, who made his living plundering ships in the Mediterranean.  This adventure in piracy  made John Smith a wealthy man and allowed him to finally make it to Graz and join the Austrian campaign against the Turks.

With the Austrians, John made a name for himself as a creative and resourceful soldier.  At the battle of Limbach, he was able to use an innovative system of signals to communicate with the besieged garrison in the town.  Then fooled the Turks into thinking the Austrians were attacking to the west by using string, cloth and powder to create the illusion of an army of flintlock muskets.  Then the real army attacked from the east after the Turks repositioned their troops.  At the siege of Alba Regals, he created “fiery dragons”, which were pots filled with gunpowder, covered with pitch, brimstone and turpentine.  Then these were coated with musket bullets.  These were then set on fire and flung into the Turkish lines.  To top this, he defeated three Turkish champions in single combat and won the right to put “three Turkish heads” on his shield.

This is all well and good, I hear you saying, but where is the princess?  Be patient.  I’m getting there.  After the siege of Alba Regals, he was wounded in a minor skirmish with the Tartars and left for dead.  From there, he was captured and taken to the slave market and in John’s words, “we all sold for slaves, like beasts in a market-place; where every merchant, viewing their limbs and wounds, caused other slaves to struggle with them to try their strength.”  He was bought by a Turkish nobleman, who gifted him to his Greek mistress in Constantinople, one Princess Charatza Tragabigzanda.  Charatza became smitten with her new English slave and even made plans to marry him.  She sent him to her brother to “to learne the language, and what it was to be a Turke, till time made her Master of her selfe.”  However, Charatza’s brother had other plans.  Instead of training him as a bureaucrat as he promised, he made John the slave to the Christian slaves, which was the lowest position in the household.  John was abused and mistreated terribly, and began to look for ways to escape.  One day, he was out threshing wheat and the brother came out to inspect his work and began beating him.  John snapped, and beat the brother with the threshing bat killing him.  He then stole his former master’s clothes and horse and got the heck out of Dodge leaving Charatza behind.

After he escaped, John Smith got bit by the colonization bug and headed to Virginia.  Perhaps he thought it was good a place as any to escape any slave hunters.  There he met Pocahontas and then returned home after a spark from a friend’s tobacco pipe ignited Smith’s gunpowder bag as he slept in Jamestown.  The explosion wounded him severely and blew off his genitals.  He barely survived the two month journey home.  He did return to the New World in 1615, and tried to start the first permanent colony in New England.  Unfortunately, his ships were ravaged by pirates and storms and it didn’t stick.  He did try to name a spot near the Isles of Shoals in New Hampshire Tragabigzanda, after Charatza, but that didn’t stick either.  It’s nice to know he didn’t forget her though.


“You better watch out, You better not cry,
You better not pout, I’m telling you why: He’s making a list, And checking it twice,
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
He sees you when you’re sleeping,
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness sake!”

Krampus does not come to reward, but to punish.

The word “Krampus” is derived from the Old High German word krampen, meaning “claw.” According to Norse mythology, Krampus is the son of Hel, the goddess ruler of the underworld. There are also a few physical similarities between Krampus and Greek mythical creatures like the horns and hoofs of satyrs and fauns.

According to the centuries-old legends, if a child misbehaved, Saint Nicholas would know and send his associate, Krampus. Legends of him can be found in the Alpine regions, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. Described as “half-goat, half-demon”, during the Christmas season, punished children who have misbehaved, in direct contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the good with gifts. Most tales describe his appearance as hairy, usually brown or black, cloven hooves, horns of a goat, fangs, and a long pointed tongue that lolls out. He carried chains, thought to symbolize the binding of the Devil by the Christian Church. The chains are sometimes accompanied with bells of various sizes. Other tales describe that he carried bundles of birch branches that he would swat children with. Some tales had him carry a sack or a basket strapped to his back. This is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell. Some of the older versions make mention of misbehaved children being put in the bag and taken to hell for a year.15284840_377279669280788_2544437809102977355_n

On Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, the eve of December 5, German children took care to not attract the attention of the intimidating beast. If they did not, St. Nicholas would bring presents on Nikolaustag, December 6 .

Families traditionally exchanged colorful greeting cards, called Krampuskarten. Since the 1800s these featured the sometimes silly, sometimes sinister Krampus. In the early 20th century Krampus was prohibited by the Austrian Fascist government, but the tradition was revived with the fall of the government after World War II. In traditional parades and in such events as the Krampuslauf, young men dressed as Krampus participate; such events occur annually in most Alpine towns.