In 1898, despite warnings of possible assassination attempts, the sixty-year-old Elisabeth traveled incognito to Geneva, Switzerland. She stayed at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage, where she had been a guest the year before.
At 1:35 p.m. on Saturday, September 10, 1898, Elisabeth and Countess Irma Sztáray de Sztára et Nagymihály, her lady in waiting, left the hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva on foot to catch the steamship Genève for Montreux. Since the Empress did "not like processions," her servants had already been ordered to leave by train for neighboring Territet.
They were walking along the promenade when the 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni approached them, attempting to peer underneath the Empress's parasol. According to Sztaray, as the ship's bell announced the departure, Lucheni seemed to stumble and made a movement with his hand as if he wanted to maintain his balance. In reality, in an act of "propaganda of the deed", he had stabbed Elisabeth with a 4 inches (100 mm) long sharpened needle file (used to file the eyes of industrial needles) that he had inserted into a wooden handle.
After Lucheni struck her, the Empress collapsed. A coach driver helped her to her feet and alerted the Austrian concierge of the Beau-Rivage, a man named Planner, who had been watching the Empress' progress towards the Geneve. The two women walked roughly 100 yards (91 m) to the gangway and boarded, at which point Sztaray relaxed her hold on Elisabeth's arm. The Empress then lost consciousness and collapsed next to her. Sztaray called for a doctor, but only a former nurse, a fellow passenger, was available. The boat’s captain, Captain Roux, was ignorant of Elisabeth's identity and since it was very hot on deck, advised the Countess to disembark and take her companion back to her hotel. Meanwhile, the boat was already sailing out of the harbor. Three men carried Elisabeth to the top deck and laid her on a bench. Sztaray opened her gown, cut Elisabeth's corset laces so she could breathe. Elisabeth revived somewhat and Sztaray asked her if she was in pain, and she replied, "No". She then asked, "What has happened?" and lost consciousness again.
Countess Sztaray noticed a small brown stain beneath the Empress' left breast. Alarmed that Elisabeth had not recovered consciousness, she informed the captain of her identity, and the boat turned back to Geneva. Elisabeth was carried back to the Hotel Beau-Rivage by six sailors on a stretcher improvised from a sail, cushions and two oars. Fanny Mayer, the wife of the hotel director, a visiting nurse, and the Countess undressed Elisabeth and removed her shoes, when Sztaray noticed a few small drops of blood and a small wound. When they then removed her from the stretcher to the bed she was clearly dead; Frau Mayer believed the two audible breaths she heard the Empress take as she was brought into the room were her last. Two doctors, Dr. Golay and Dr. Mayer arrived, along with a priest, who was too late to grant her absolution. Mayer incised the artery of her left arm to ascertain death, and found no blood. She was pronounced dead at 2:10 p.m. Everyone knelt down and prayed for the repose of her soul, and Countess Sztaray closed Elisabeth's eyes and joined her hands. No matter how reluctant or resentful she was of the title, Elisabeth had been the Empress of Austria for 44 years.
When Franz Joseph received the telegram informing him of Elisabeth's death, his first fear was that she had committed suicide. It was only when a third message arrived, detailing the assassination, that he was relieved of that notion. The telegram asked permission to perform an autopsy, and answer was that whatever procedures were prescribed by Swiss Law should be adhered to.
The autopsy was performed the next day by Golay, who discovered that the weapon, which had not yet been found, had penetrated 3.33 inches (85 mm) into Elisabeth's thorax, fractured the fourth rib, pierced the lung and pericardium, and penetrated the heart from the top before coming out the base of the left ventricle. Because of the sharpness and thinness of the file the wound was very narrow and, due to pressure from Elisabeth's extremely tight corseting, the hemorrhage of blood into the pericardial sac around the heart was slowed to mere drops. Until this sac filled, the beating of her heart was not impeded, which is why Elisabeth had been able to walk from the site of the assault and up the boat’s boarding ramp. Had the weapon not been removed, she would have lived a while longer, as it would have acted like a plug to stop the bleeding.
Golay photographed the wound, but turned the photograph over to the Swiss Procurator-General, who had it destroyed, on the orders of Franz Joseph, along with the autopsy instruments.
As Geneva shuttered itself in mourning, Elisabeth’s body was placed in a triple coffin: two inner ones of lead, the third exterior one in bronze, reposing on lion claws. On Tuesday, before the coffins were sealed, Franz Joseph's official representatives arrived to identify the body. The coffin was fitted with two glass panels, covered with doors, which could be slid back to allow her face to be seen.
On Wednesday morning, Elisabeth's body was carried back to Vienna aboard a funeral train. The inscription on her coffin read: “Elisabeth, Empress of Austria”. The Hungarians were outraged and the words: “and Queen of Hungary” were hastily added. The entire Austro-Hungarian Empire was in deep mourning; 82 sovereigns and high-ranking nobles followed her funeral cortege on the morning of September 17 to the tomb in the Church of the Capuchins. Elisabeth, who fled protocol all her life, was unable to escape it in death. Like all 15 Hapsburg Empresses before her, her body was buried in the crypt, but her heart was sent to the Augustinian Church, where she was married, and her internal organs were placed in the crypt of the Metropolitan Church of Saint Stephen
A former mason, railway laborer and former valet to the Prince of Aragon, Lucheni originally planned to kill the Duc d'Orleans, but the Pretender to France’s throne had left Geneva earlier for the Valais. Failing to find him, the assassin selected Elisabeth when a Geneva newspaper revealed that the elegant woman traveling under the pseudonym of "Countess of Hohenembs" was the Empress Elisabeth of Austria.
"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.
After the attack, Lucheni fled down the Rue des Alpes, where he threw the file into the entrance to No. 3. He was caught by two cabdrivers and a sailor, then secured by a gendarme. The weapon was found the next day by the concierge during his morning cleaning; he thought it belonged to a laborer who had moved the day before and did not notify the police of his discovery until the following day. There was no blood on the file and the tip was broken off, which occurred when Lucheni threw it away. The file was so dull in appearance it was speculated that it had been deliberately selected because it would be less noticeable than a shiny knife, which would have given Lucheni away as he approached. In reality, Lucheni had planned to purchase a stiletto, but lacking the price of 12 francs he had simply sharpened an old file into a homemade dagger and cut down a piece of firewood into a handle.
Although Lucheni boasted that he acted alone, because many political refugees found a haven in Switzerland the possibility that he was part of a plot, and that the life of the Emperor was also in danger, was considered. Once it was discovered an Italian was responsible for Elisabeth's murder, unrest swept Vienna and reprisals were threatened against Italians. The intensity of shock, mourning and outrage far exceeded that which occurred at the news of Rudolf's death. An outcry also immediately erupted over the Empress’ lack of protection. The Swiss police were well aware of her presence, and telegrams to the appropriate authorities advising them to take all precautions had been dispatched. Police Chief Virieux of the Canton of Vaud had organized Elisabeth's protection, but she had detected his officers outside the hotel the day before the assassination and protested that the surveillance was disagreeable, so Virieux had no choice but to withdraw them. It is also possible that if Elisabeth had not dismissed her other attendants that day, an entourage larger than one lady-in-waiting could have discouraged Lucheni, who had been following the Empress for several days, awaiting an opportunity.
Lucheni was brought before the Geneva Court in October. Furious that the death sentence had been abolished in Geneva, he demanded that he be tried according to the laws of the Canton of Lucerne, which still had the death penalty, signing the letter: “Luigi Lucheni, anarchist, and one of the most dangerous."
Since Elisabeth was famous for preferring the common man to courtiers, known for her charitable works, and considered such a blameless target, Lucheni's sanity was initially questioned. Elisabeth's will stipulated that a large part of her jewel collection should be sold and the proceeds, then estimated at over £600,000, were to be applied to various religious and charitable organizations. Franz Joseph remarked to Prince Leichtenstein, who was the couple's devoted equerry, "That a man could be found to attack such a woman, whose whole life was spent in doing good and who never injured any person, is to me incomprehensible". Everything outside of the crown jewels and state property that Elisabeth had the power to bequeath was left to her granddaughter, the Archduchess Elisabeth, Rudolf's child.
Lucheni was declared to be sane, but was tried as a common murderer, not a political criminal. Incarcerated for life, and denied the opportunity to make a political statement by his action, he attempted to kill himself with the sharpened key from a tin of sardines on February 20, 1900. Ten years later, he hanged himself with his belt in his cell on the evening of October 16, 1910, after a guard confiscated and destroyed his uncompleted memoirs.