It’s hard to think of another event in the troubled twentieth century that had quite the shattering impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand [below] at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. The Archduke was heir to the throne of the tottering Austro-Hungarian empire; his killers – a motley band of amateurish students – were Serbian nationalists (or possibly Yugoslav nationalists; historians remain divided on the topic) who wanted to turn Austrian Bosnia into a part of a new Slav state. The guns and bombs they used to kill the Archduke, meanwhile, were supplied by the infamous Colonel Apis, head of Serbian military intelligence. All this was quite enough to provoke Austria-Hungary into declaring war on Serbia, after which, with the awful inevitability that AJP Taylor famously described as ‘war by timetable’, Europe slid inexorably into the horrors of the First World War as the rival Great Powers began to mobilise and counter-mobilise against each other.
To say that all this is well-known is a bit of an understatement. Seen from the Fortean perspective, however, the events of that day in Sarajevo have interesting aspects that often go unremarked. The appalling combination of implausible circumstance that resulted in assassination is one; Franz Ferdinand had survived an earlier attempt to kill him on the fateful day, emerging unscathed from the explosion of a bomb that bounced off the folded hood of the his convertible and exploded under a car following behind him in his motorcade. That bomb injured several members of the Imperial entourage, and these men were taken to hospital. It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit the wounded in hospital – a decision none of his assassins could possibly have predicted – that took him directly past the spot where Gavrilo Princip, the man who actually killed him, had decided pretty much at random to position himself. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turning and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from Princip himself. For the Archduke to be presented, as a stationary target, to the one man in a crowd of thousands still determined to kill him was a remarkable example of sheer bad luck, but, even then, the odds still favoured Franz Ferdinand’s survival. Princip (seen in the photo at the head of this entry being manhandled away just after the shooting) was so hemmed in by the crowd that he was unable to pull out and prime the bomb he was carrying. Instead, he was forced to resort to his pistol, but failed to actually aim it. According to his own later testimony, Princip confessed: “Where I aimed I do not know,” adding that he had raised his gun “against the automobile without aiming. I even turned my head as I shot.” Even allowing for the point-blank range, it is pretty striking, given these circumstances, that the killer fired just two bullets, and yet one struck Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie – who was sitting alongside him – while the other hit the heir to the throne. It is absolutely astonishing that both rounds proved almost immediately fatal. Sophie was hit in the stomach, and her husband in the neck, the bullet severing his jugular vein. There was nothing any doctor could have done to save either of them. [David James Smith, One Morning in Sarajevo: 28 June 1914 (London, 2008) pp.182-3, 187-90]
The assassination proved so momentous that it is not surprising that there were plenty of people ready to say, afterwards, that they had seen it coming. One of them, according to an imperial aide, was the fortune teller who had, with spooky prescience, apparently told the Archduke that “he would one day let loose a world war.” That story has an after-the-fact tang for me (who, before July 1914, spoke in terms of a “world war”? A European war, perhaps.) Yet it seems pretty well established that Franz Ferdinand himself had premonitions of an early end. In the account of one relative, he had told told some friends the month before his death that “I know I shall soon be murdered.” A third source has the doomed man “extremely depressed and full of forebodings” a few days before the assassination took place. [Smith, op.cit. pp.161-2]
According to yet another story, moreover, Franz Ferdinand had every reason to suppose that he was bound to die. This legend, not found in the history books but preserved as an oral tradition among Austria’s huntsmen, records that, in 1913, the heavily-armed Archduke had shot a rare white stag, and that it was widely believed of any hunter who killed such an animal “that he or a member of his family shall die within a year.” [The Times, 2 November 2006] There is nothing inherently implausible in this legend – or at least not in the idea that Franz Ferdinand might have mown down a rare animal without thinking twice about it. The Archduke was a committed and indiscriminate huntsman [seen with a day's bag at right], whose personal record, when in pursuit of small game, was 2,140 kills in a day [Roberta Feuerlicht, The Desperate Act: the Assassination at Sarajevo (New York, 1968) pp.36-7] and who, according to the records he meticulously compiled in his own game book, had been responsible for the deaths of a grand total of 272,439 animals during his lifetime, the majority of which had been loyally driven straight towards his overheating guns by a large assembly of beaters. [Smith, op.cit. pp.69-70]
Of all the tall tales that attached themselves to Franz Ferdinand after his death, however, the best-known and most widely circulated concerns the car in which he was driven to his death. This vehicle – a Gräf und Stift double phaeton, built by the Gräf brothers of Vienna (who had been bicycle manufacturers only a few year earlier) – had been made in 1910 and was owned not by the Austro-Hungarian state but by Count Franz von Harrach, “an officer of the Austrian army transport corps” who apparently loaned it to the Archduke for his day in Sarajevo. [Smith, op.cit. pp.169-70] According to this legend, Von Harrach’s vehicle was so cursed by either [a] its involvement in the awful events of June 1914 or [b] its gaudy blood-red paint job (see below) that pretty much every subsequent owner met a hideous, Final Destination sort of end.
The story of the cursed death car did not begin to do the rounds until decades after Franz Ferdinand’s blood-drenched death. It dates, so far as I have been able to establish, only to the 1950s, when it was popularised in Frank Edwards’s spooky potboiler Stranger Than Science (1959). This is not, as many Forteans will realise, a terribly encouraging discovery. Edwards, a regular contributor to Fate who wrote a series of books along very similar lines (sensational recountings of paranormal staples across one or two pages of purple prose) rarely offered his readers anything so persuasive as an actual source. He was a wholly unreliable author, prone to exaggeration and untroubled by outright invention, and in the course of his career he was responsible for putting even more vivid flights of fantasy into print than Peter Haining. To make matters worse, as pointed out by the rather more reliable snopes, Edwards wrote up the story of the jinxed Gräf und Stift at pretty much the same time that the rather similar tale of James Dean’s cursed Porsche Spyder had begun to do the rounds in the United States.
Not that Edwards can be held solely responsible for the popularity of the death car legend. In the decades since he wrote, the basic tale has accumulated additional detail, as urban legends tend to do, so that by the time it made its appearance in full flower in that beacon of sober news reporting the Weekly World News (28 April 1981), the Austrian limo was being blamed for quite a bit more than just one solitary death:
Haunted auto claimed the lives of 20 million people
By Rob Robbins
When visitors to the Vienna museum asked attendant Karl Brunner if they could climb into the infamous “haunted car” that was one of his prize exhibits, the old man always refused.
He said the huge vehicle had been involved in 20 million deaths and was looking for more victims.
Asked to explain, the old man proudly told the story:
The six-passenger open touring car had been custom-built for royalty. And originally it had been a vivid blood red.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand had wanted something that would impress the public when he and his wife, he lively Duchess of Hohenburg, toured the tiny Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.
There were reasons for putting on a brave show.
Europe seethed with political unrest, and the Archduke’s goodwill trip could be hazardous.
The royal couple entered Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and at once they found that the blood red car made a splendid target.
A young fanatic armed with a pistol had leaped onto the running board of the car. Laughing in the faces of the Archduke and Duchess, he fired shot after shot into their bodies. That double assassination was the spark that touched off the first World War, with its casualty list of 20 million – a war the red car had helped to start.
After the Armistice, the newly appointed Governor of Yugoslavia had the car restored to first-class condition.
But after four accidents and the loss of his right arm, he felt the vehicle should be destroyed. His friend Dr Srikis disagreed. Scoffing at the notion that a car could be cursed, he drove it happily for six months – till the overturned vehicle was found on the highway with the doctor’s crushed body beneath it.
Another doctor became the next owner, but when his superstitious patients began to desert him, he hastily sold it to a Swiss race driver.
In a road race in the Dolomites, the car threw him over a stone wall and he died of a broken neck.
A well-to-do farmer acquired the car, which stalled one day on the road to market.
While another farmer was towing it for repairs, the vehicle suddenly growled into full power and knocked the tow-car aside in a careening rush down the highway.
Both farmers were killed.
Tiber Hirschfield, the last private owner, decided that all the old car needed was a less sinister paint job. He had it repainted in a cheerful blue shade and invited five friends to accompany him to a wedding.
Hirschfield and four of his guests died in a gruesome head-on collision.
By this time the government had had enough. They shipped the rebuilt car to the museum.
But one afternoon Allied bombers reduced the museum to smoking rubble.
Nothing was found of Karl Brunner and the haunted vehicle. Nothing, that is, but a pair of dismembered hands clutching a fragment of steering wheel.
Well, it’s a nice story – and the wonderful suggestive detail in the last para, that Brunner had finally succumbed to the temptation to climb behind the wheel himself, and in doing so drawn a 1,000lb bomb onto his head, is a pretty neat touch. But it’s also certifiable rubbish. To begin with, many of the details are plain wrong. Princip did not leap onto the running board of the Gräf und Stift, and certainly didn’t pump “bullet after bullet” into his victims. Nor did Yugoslavia have a “governor” after 1918 – it became a kingdom.
OK, Franz Ferdinand’s touring car did make it to a Vienna musuem – the military museum there, as a matter of fact. But it wasn’t destroyed by bombing in the war, and it’s still on display today [left] – indeed it’s one of the museum’s main attractions. The car is not painted blood red, you’ll notice, nor “a cheerful blue shade”, and, rather more significantly, it displays no sign of any damage caused by a long series of ghastly road accidents and head-on collisions, but certainly does still bear the scars of the bombs and the bullets of 28 June [below right]. That seems pretty odd for a vehicle that must, at the very least, have undergone top-to-tail reconstruction work on three occasions for the death car legend to be true. There’s no evidence whatsoever, in short, that the vehicle ever suffered through the bloody experiences attributed to it by Frank Edwards and those who copied him – and though I can find no indication that anyone has ever done a full-fledged reinvestigation of Edwards’s original tale, it’s also certainly true that there’s no sign in any of the more reputable corners of my library, or on the internet, of any Tiber Hirschfield, nor of a “Simon Mantharides,” a bloodily-deceased diamond merchant who crops up in several versions of the tale, nor of a dead Vienna museum curator named Karl Brunner; all of these names can be found solely in recountings of the legend itself.
What looks like a much more solid bit of history crops up in a generally pretty well-informed discussion of the car on the Axis History Forum. This contends that the Gräf und Stift that Franz Ferdinand was driving in when he met his death never returned to private hands after that day at Sarajevo – a fact that we do know continues to irk the descendants of its original owner, Franz von Harrach, who still have the car’s registration documents, and who believe that the Austrian government has no right to display the vehicle (now valued at about £4 million) in its military museum. [The Guardian, 16 November 2002] Acording to the account pieced together on that Forum, the limo was sent straight to the museum in Vienna after the assassination, and it has been there ever since.
I’m pretty sure that Vienna’s Heeresgeschichtliches Museum could solve this little conundrum quickly enough just by consulting its accession records, but, in closing, I want to draw attention to an even more astounding coincidence concerning the Franz Ferdinand death limo – one that is considerably better evidenced than the cursed car nonsense. This tiny piece of history went completely unremarked on for the best part of a century, until a British visitor named Brian Presland called at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. It was Presland who seems to have first drawn the staff’s attention to the remarkable detail contained in the Gräf und Stift’s license plate, which reads – as can be seen in the old photo above and the current image below – AIII 118. That number, Presland pointed out, is capable of a quite astonishing interpretation [bottom]. It can be taken to read A (for Armistice) 11-11-18 – which means that the death car has always carried with it a prediction, not of the dreadful day of Sarajevo that in a real sense marked the beginning of the First World War, but of 11 November 1918: Armistice Day, the day that the war ended. [Southampton Echo, 12 November 2004]
This coincidence is so incredible that I initially suspected that it might be a hoax – that perhaps the Gräf und Stift had been fitted with the plate restrospectively. A couple of things suggest that this is not the case, however. First, the pregnant meaning of the intitial ‘A’ applies only in English – the German for ‘armistice’ is ‘Waffenstillstand,’ a satisfyingly Teutonic-sounding mouthful that literally translates as ‘arms standstill’. And Austria-Hungary did not surrender on the same day as its German allies anyway – it had been knocked out of the war a week earlier, on 4 November 1918. So the number plate is a little bit less spooky in its native country, and – so far as I can make it out – it also contains not five number ’1′s but three capital ‘I’s and two numbers. Perhaps, then, it’s not quite so perplexing that the museum director buttonholed by Brian Presland freely admitted that he had worked in the place for 20 years without spotting the plate’s significance.
More importantly, however, a contemporary photo of the fateful limousine, taken just as it turned into the road where Gavrilo Princip was waiting for it, some 30 seconds before Franz Ferdinand’s death, shows the car bearing what looks very much like the same number plate as it does today. You’re going to have to take my word for this, to an extent – the plate is visible, just about, in the good quality copy of the image that appears in the photo sections of Smith’s One Morning in Sarajevo, and I have been able to read it with a magnifying glass. But my attempts to scan this tiny detail in high definition have been mostly unsuccessful, as you can see from the equivocal result at left. I’m satisfied, though, and while I don’t pretend that this is anything but a quite incredible coincidence, it certainly is incredible, one of the most jaw-dropping I’ve ever come across.
And it resonates. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, what that bullet-headed old stag-murderer Franz Ferdinand might have made of it, had he had any imagination at all.