This Week In History: Sept. 10 – Sept. 16

Portrait of Emperor Franz-Joseph of Austro Hungary shown in an undated photo. Photo by AP Photo.

Hello and welcome to This Week in History! September is a month surprisingly rich in history. It almost seems that as seasons begin to change, so does the course of history. This week I’ll be exploring two major events that stand out in the pages of history books, let’s dive right in! 

The shores of Lake Geneva are perhaps the most stunning in all of Europe. The gentle blue waves touch the feet of the Alpine mountain range in the south, and the forested hills of Haut-Jura cast reflections upon the water in the north. It was serene places like this that Austrian Empress Elizabeth enjoyed to travel, and for good reason. 

In her own words of poetry — as translated by Brigitte Hamann in “The Reluctant Empress:”  

“I have awakened in a dungeon / With chains on my hands. / And my longing ever stronger- 

And freedom! You, turned from me!” 

Elizabeth felt trapped, and indeed she was. Her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854 turned sour even before the honeymoon. The two were simply incompatible: Joseph was engulfed in political affairs and courtliness, while Elizabeth was an independent soul at heart. Likewise, court life in Vienna was brutal. There was no privacy and little to no freedom for the young Empress. She was even prevented from raising her own children, which cast her into a spell of depression and doubt. 

Some historians consider the marriage to have devolved into mere friendship by the 1860s as Elizabeth traveled to escape imperial life and Joseph increased his focus on state affairs. Elizabeth turned her back on the courts and grew determined to find her own way, even if that required leaving behind her husband and family. 

But her search for independence was stifled when her only son, Rudolph, and his mistress, Mary Vetsera, were found dead in early 1889 in a hunting lodge in Mayerling, just south of Vienna. There are still debates on whether this was a murder or suicide-pact; needless to say, the story is bone-chilling. Not only did this shake up the dynastic strength of the Habsburg family—who just lost their only direct heir—but it shook up Elizabeth, who now had to contend with the loss of her second child—she already had lost the young Sophie who died before turning two. 

Perhaps if she reached that boat heading to Montreux, the Empress could’ve cleared her mind of all the chaos of her imperial life. Even if only able to escape responsibilities for a short time, the risk would have felt incredible. 

Yet, as she walked out of the door from her hotel and onto the steps out front, a slight pain enetered her chest as a young man next to her tripped and stuck his hand out to balance himself. 

A thin needle had pierced through the Empress’s tightly laced dresses and cut into her thorax. Elizabeth was able to somewhat walk herself to board the ship but soon collapsed. 

On Sept. 10, 1898, Empress Elizabeth, while seeking to escape from imperial life, was assassinated. 

The culprit was one Italian anarchist named Luigi Lucheni, who had been out to kill an important noble and had been following Elizabeth since her arrival in Geneva. The sad reality of this situation is that Lucheni wanted to kill an imperial ruler, someone who ruled unjustly or had perhaps been able to long abuse authority. However, he instead slaughtered a grieving mother, timid Empress and compassionate adventurer. He could not have picked a worse victim.  

The exiled Habsburg family pose at Steenockerzeel Castle in Belgium on July 14, 1936. From left to right: Archduchess Charlotte, Archduke Karl Ludwig, Archduke Felix and Archduke Rudolph. Sitting: Ex-empress Zita, Archduchess Elizabeth, Archduchess Adelheid, Archduke Robert, Archduke Otto von Habsburg. Photo by AP Photo.

He spent the later years of his life in prison until his eventual suicide. While his memoirs were unfinished and unpublished, I wonder if he held any regrets. The Austrian royal family and Franz Joseph entered a long period of grieving; there is no doubt that her death contributed to the instability the Empire faced leading into the 20th century. 

Now, while Empress Elizabeth was in a prison of her own, convicts in Attica Correctional Facility were in a literal prison. 

“You had to be scared of the people in the yard [and] you’ve got to be scared of law enforcement…” is how one inmate put the series of events that took place over the course of September.  

On Sept. 9, 1971, the Attica Prison Riot, or Attica Prison Massacre, began in Attica, New York. 

Originating as an unorganized, seemingly spontaneous protest against the horrid living conditions of the facility, inmates were desperate for change. To just get a glimpse of their situation,  inmates were allotted one shower per week, crammed into overpopulated cells and allowed a meager one roll of toilet paper per month. These conditions were unlivable. Years of inmates’ lives went by with no plans for improving these poor conditions. No words can convey the horror of it all. 

The revolt began early in the morning on Sept. 9, as prisoners broke into various areas of the facility and even killed a guard, named William Quinn. The bloody battle of the prison began. 

Over the next two days the inmates were forced out of most of the prison by armed guards who had no restraint; they shot guns and used tear gas indiscriminately. The police had an intense anger that they had lost their facility and their retribution was direct: There would be no peaceful conclusion. 

By the end of the day the prisoners were confined to “D Yard,” an outdoor walled area of the main prison complex. There, the prisons had over 40 guards and civilians held hostage. They were their bargaining chips — the inmates’ only way to cease the bloodshed.  

Soon prisoners made demands to the National Guard and police forces. Prisoners demanded that news and media teams be brought in to film the standoff—footage that was later used to make the 2021 documentary, “Attica.” Discussion began between prisoners and outside lawyers, with many demands being negotiated successfully; or so it seemed. 

As discussions went on and little ground was made between the guards and inmates, tensions finally escalated. 

On Sept. 13, the police forces chose violence. They opened fire on D Yard. Blood poured onto the grass as 39 rioters were slain. The government employees and civilians bound as hostages were not spared in the onslaught. 

Unbelievably, the blood spilt at Attica was long covered up. For some time, it was even believed that the hostages were not shot but slain by their inmate-captives. This myth was later disproved by autopsies. New York shut down any attempts to investigate the situation and no focus was placed on the police forces who killed so many. 

The pages of history are bloody. There is simply no denying that fact. But one important aspect of history is an accurate remembering of the events which have transpired. The Massacre at Attica has been wiped from public view, and even well into the 21st century, families of victims had yet to even receive proper recognition by the government.  

Only slowly has legislation and court rulings sided with the inmates; too little, too late. 

The survivors of the massacre were forced to crawl on broken glass and make their way through long lines of guards waiting to beat them. The pages of history are bloody.  

Ending on a somber note, that wraps up This Week in History. I encourage anyone interested in Attica or Elizabeth to check out more information about both. The Zinn Education Project has excellent resources online to learn about Attica and its roots. Likewise, The Swiss Museum has a brilliant article on Luigi Lucheni, which can be found on their website. 

See you next week! 

Leave a Reply