Events are taking place across the U.S. today to mark the centennial of the nation’s entry into World War I. There’s plenty of interesting bits to read about the war in our archive, but there’s one story we haven’t delved into before: the rumor of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria’s vehicle being haunted.
If you’re up on basic facts about the global conflict, you know it began when Ferdinand was assassinated—on a day when he had already survived an attempted bombing of his motorcade. As the Smithsonian recounts the episode, Ferdinand decided to head to the hospital to visit the victims of the bombing attempt.
It was Franz Ferdinand’s impulsive decision, later in the day, to visit them there—a decision none of his assassins could have predicted—that took him directly past the spot where his assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was standing. It was chauffeur Leopold Lojka’s unfamiliarity with the new route that led him to take a wrong turn and, confused, pull to a halt just six feet from the gunman.
It was a coincidence (albeit, one whose exact origins are also contested) that led to Ferdinand’s death and the beginning of The Great War.
But an even stranger story is tied to the vehicle Ferdinand was in that fateful day, a luxurious 1910 Gräf and Stift double phaeton, powered by a 32-horsepower 4-cylinder engine.
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal (there’s nothing really to stand up the veracity of the death-car tale other than the folklore itself), as the story goes, the Gräf and Stift’s subsequent owners endured a similar fate as Ferdinand. The Smithsonian cited one version of the tale from 1981 in the Weekly World News that went like this:
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.
But there is quite an unbelievable coincidence about the vehicle that’s recounted in the Smithsonian story, and it’s worth reading until the end.
If you’re looking to kill some more time, and want more on the famed stalled vehicle that witnessed the beginning of World War I, here’s a History Channel segment with more about it.