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The cigarette tragedy that killed an 18-year-old Austrian Archduchess

Archduchess Mathilde of Austria was born in 1849 as the daughter of Archduke Albert, Duke of Teschen and his wife, Princess Hildegard of Bavaria. She grew up in a wealthy and charming home with a kind family. During the summer, the family spent their time at the Weilburg Palace in Baden bei Wien. The winters were spent in the royal residence in downtown Vienna. The family was very close to the imperial family, especially Empress Elisabeth.

Mathilde lost her mother when she was 15-years-old, and she then established a very close friendship with her father. The Archduchess was due to become Queen of Italy as the wife of Umberto of Savoy in order to improve the already tense relations between Austria-Hungary and Italy. However, due to Mathilde’s early death, this marriage did not materialise.

Archduchess Mathilde of Austria and Teschen. Photo: WBy Atelier Adèle – Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Bildarchiv Austria #11353593, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On 22 May 1867, a tragedy struck at Schloss Hetzendorf, the home of Empress Elisabeth. Eighteen-year-old Archduchess Mathilde put on a gauze dress to go to the theatre, but before leaving, she wanted to smoke a cigarette. The young royal was standing at a window in the palace talking with her young cousin Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen. Shortly thereafter her father, who had forbidden smoking, approached her, and she hid the cigarette behind her dress, immediately setting light to its very flammable material.

She suddenly felt a burning heat and screamed out. Her attendants hastened toward her and realised that her dress was in flames. Her clothes had taken fire, and her back, arm, neck, and her lower extremities were severely burned before the fire could be extinguished. The incident left the 18-year-old with second and third-degree burns. Her entire family witnessed the incident.

Archduchess Mathilde of Austria and Teschen on her deathbed. Photo: By Unknown author – (direct link), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Her family was in shock. The incident had happened in a room without open flames, and the older members of the family could not understand how the girl had suddenly caught on fire. After a short time, Archduke Friedrich revealed that his relative had smoked and that must have been the cause of the fire.

The Archduchess was treated for her burns for several weeks, but the injuries were too extensive. On 6 June, the young Archduchess died. Archduchess Mathilde was buried in the imperial vault in the Imperial Crypt beside her mother and her brother, Karl Albrecht in Vienna, Austria.

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About author

Senior Europe Correspondent Oskar Aanmoen has a master in military and political history of the Nordic countries. He has written six books on historical subjects and more than 1.500 articles for Royal Central. He has also interview both Serbian and Norwegian royals. Aanmoen is based in Oslo, Norway.