Sunday Pages: "The Memorable Assassination"
An essay by Mark Twain
On September 10, 1898, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, on an incognito holiday in Geneva, Switzerland, was stabbed to death by Luigi Lucheni, a 26-year-old orphan-turned-anarchist of Italian descent. Of his motive in targeting the mild-mannered, unpretentious, kindly Elisabeth, Lucheni said: “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.”
Mark Twain, the great American writer, happened to be in Austria that fateful day and the days that followed. He watched the funeral procession outside the window of his swanky new Vienna hotel. And he wrote an essay about the experience—which I happened upon this week, and which is excerpted below—in which he processes both his grief and his disbelief that such a rotten thing had occurred.
The title is “The Memorable Assassination,” and it is ironic how un-memorable the regicide (reginicide?) wound up being. There were many political assassinations in the second half of the 19th century. I had never heard of this one.
One of the many interesting things about Twain’s take is how his description of both the character and the motive of the assassin are similar, in my view, of the January 6 besiegers (although Lucheni, who was an orphan, and an outcast, and dirt poor, and a lifelong victim of prejudice, and mentally ill besides, deserves more pity than the insurrectionists, most of whom were none of those things). There are also meditations on the velocity of the dissemination of news—how the telegraph allowed people around the world to hear about the assassination almost immediately—and on how the yearning for fame can drive us mad.
Reading the piece, one wonders what Twain—who enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861, quit after two weeks, sat out the Civil War in the Nevada Territory, and later became good friends with Ulysses Grant—might have thought, and written, about the insurrection. Not to mention how singularly awesome he would have been on Twitter.
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 large 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. . . .
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 village 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 to 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. . . .
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 sufficiently poor quality.
Below the kings, these remarks are in the air these days; I know it as 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 tries 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.
Photo credit: The 1898 funeral procession in Vienna.