This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

King Alexander’s assassination was foretold by a medium from Bradford

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Superstition on Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about King Alexander of Sweden originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 763 published on 28th August 1976.

The Strand, image, illustration, picture

A contemporary photograph of the Strand around the time of Mrs Burchill’s seance

The first occurred in a vision revealed to a spiritualist medium. But the second was the real thing

The seance held by Mrs. Burchell, a celebrated spiritualist from Bradford, in a restaurant in London’s Strand must go down in history as one of the most terrifying insights into the future ever known.

Sixteen people were at the seance in Gatti’s Restaurant. One of them was a distinguished newspaper editor; another was a Serbian – a native of what is now Yugoslavia – who was a complete stranger to Mrs. Burchell. The proceedings began when the Serbian handed Mrs. Burchell a sealed envelope containing a slip of paper on which he had written “The King”. The words were in the Cyrillic script, which Mrs. Burchell did not understand.

Almost at once, the spiritualist went into a trance and began to sway. “Royalty,” she croaked, in the sudden stillness of the room. “An important person – a king. He is dark. He is standing in a room in his palace with his queen . . .” Then, with increasing anxiety, she began to describe how soldiers were entering the palace at night, running up the stairs, discovering the king and queen in a state of undress, shooting them down and hacking them with swords and afterwards tipping their corpses out of the window of the palace bedroom.

When an hour later the seance broke up, all those present were clearly horrified. Unable to put the event out of his mind even the next day, the Serbian reported the event to his ambassador in London.

The ambassador, too, was deeply impressed, and next day sent a registered letter to his ruler, King Alexander, in Belgrade, in which he set down everything that had happened at Gatti’s Restaurant.

The dark-haired king, reading the letter, smiled thinly and showed it to his wife, Queen Draga.

The queen tossed back her brunette hair scornfully. “Another assassination threat,” she scoffed. “They come every week these days. Always plenty of words, and none of the cowards ever dares show his face.” Five minutes later the letter was forgotten. The king did not even bother to answer it.

He was 27. His reign had begun when he was 13. On his father’s abdication in his favour, he had put himself among the chief contenders for the title of Europe’s most unpopular monarch. For the first four years of his reign, Alexander had accepted the rule of regents; then in 1893, when he was 17, he invited these guardians of the realm to a private dinner in the Old Palace at Belgrade.

Over the coffee, the young king stood up and suddenly produced a revolver. Pointing it at his guests he declared, “I have now decided to rule my kingdom myself.”

For the rest of the nineteenth century, Alexander blundered from one bad political decision to another, gradually setting himself up as a dictator in order to introduce harsher laws to deal with the growing unrest among his Serbian people.

The event that eventually was to seal Alexander’s fate happened one day in 1897, when he went on a visit to his mother in Biarritz. Peering through his pince-nez, the short-sighted king noticed that his mother had a new lady-in-waiting. She was Draga Maschin, the widow of an engineer who had committed suicide a year earlier. She had a striking face and a captivating personality and in a very short time Alexander was deeply in love with her.

In the Balkan States, where Alexander was an important ruler, the arrival of Draga – “the mechanic’s widow”, they dubbed her – was received in shocked silence. The Serbian government resigned, but, since Balkan governments came and went with the monotonous regularity of railway trains, that was of no lasting importance. Nothing could impede the royal wedding, and in 1900 Alexander and Draga were married in Belgrade Cathedral.

Marriage acted as no brake upon the king in his despotic rule, as Serbia continued to lurch from crisis to crisis. Corruption was rife and a military cabinet was appointed to support the dictator-monarch. When the national exchequer became so disorganised that the wages of the soldiers and the civil servants fell into arrears, riots broke out and many people began to think it was time that they changed their king.

There was also concern about the matter of the succession. After three years of marriage. Draga had produced no children and it was considered that it was unlikely that she would ever do so. What would happen then if Alexander were to die? Would Serbia fall into the hands of even worse tyrants? To stifle these fears the king was asked to name his successor in the event of his having no children.

His choice, perhaps the worst he could have made, indicated his total insensitivity to the wishes of his people. He named Draga’s brother, Nikodiye, a commoner, as his heir.

The military cabinet, which had drawn up a short list of candidates, in which Nikodiye’s name had not even been mentioned, was aghast at the king’s decision. They hurried off to demand an audience of Alexander.

When they arrived in the royal receiving room at the Old Palace, the king had Draga with him. “We would rather speak to you alone, your Majesty,” said the Prime Minister, General Tzintzar-Markovich.

“You may speak freely in front of the queen,” replied Alexander, while Draga did not as much as move a muscle.

“The Skupshtina (parliament) have a right to say who shall succeed to the throne,” the general declared. “The people will not accept a commoner.”

“The king is over everyone,” Draga broke in, and then, to indicate beyond doubt that there was nothing else to be said, she got up and swept out of the room. Alexander hesitated for a moment, then, glancing at her back as she went through the door, got up and followed her.

It was, perhaps, bitterly ironic that that meeting, which was fatal to the king’s cause, occurred at almost the same time as Mrs. Burchell’s seance in Gatti’s Restaurant in the Strand.

For years, Alexander’s family had been at odds with the noble family of Karageorgevich, whose titular head and pretender to the Serbian throne was Peter Karageorgevich, then in exile in Geneva. A few days after the meeting with the king over the succession, a group of army officers met to discuss ways in which Peter could supplant Alexander on the throne. One of them was Colonel Mashin, who was to play an important part in the plot. He was the brother of Queen Draga’s first husband, who had committed suicide. Mashin had developed an obsessional hatred of the queen.

The plan was to storm the Old Palace at night and kill the king and queen in their rooms. The night was chosen with special significance – it was 10th June, 1903, the anniversary of the assassination of another Serbian monarch, King Michael, in 1868.

On the morning of that day. Alexander dealt with state papers. He had lunch with Draga, then played croquet with General Lazar Petrovich, his aide. More state work occupied the rest of the afternoon, followed by audiences with cabinet ministers. Just before dinner, at 8 p.m., the Prime Minister, General Tzintzar-Markovich, arrived, and tendered his resignation.

Markovich was not in the assassination plot. Indeed, he was shot, together with other politicians, later that night by the conspirators. It must be assumed that his resignation was a coincidence and that, like the resignation of a Balkan government, the resignation of a Balkan Prime Minister was a fairly commonplace event.

But, on that hot June night, the news must have overshadowed the royal dinner table, heightening the already tense atmosphere in the capital – an atmosphere which had undoubtedly permeated the palace.

In bars and clubs all over Belgrade, the conspirators had been gathering all evening. In the Old Palace, the guard commander was already unconscious from the effects of drugged wine given him by a subordinate. Lieutenant Zivkovich, who was in the plot. It was Zivkovich who, just before 12.30 a.m. opened the main gate to let in the conspirators.

No report of what happened in the next 90 minutes could be accepted as wholly accurate, for no two accounts of the events agree. What is certain is that for most of the rest of the night, confusion, death and terror reigned in the Old Palace.

At least one member of the guard was shot as the conspirators rushed in. The palace door was locked against them, but they had come prepared with dynamite. At exactly 12.30 a.m., they blew open the main door with an explosion that was heard all over Belgrade. It must certainly have terrified the king and queen, who were in bed, and prompted them to get up and hide.

Two more people were then shot and the police, alerted by the explosion, opened fire on the conspirators. But the attackers had the advantage of numbers, and the police were quickly silenced.

The explosion had put out of action the palace lighting system, and there was a delay while candles were sent for. The conspirators by now had captured General Petrovich, the king’s aide, and shot him in the arm. He seems to have been reluctant to guide them to the royal rooms (although another version says that he did so on condition the king’s life was spared). In any event, he, too, was shot dead within the next hour.

It seems evident that the conspirators rampaged from room to room, causing as much destruction as they could, until they reached the locked door of the royal apartments. This, too, was dynamited.

In the queen’s bedroom, the bed-covers had been thrown back hastily and a French novel still lay opened on the bed. There was considerable lingering in this bedroom with its bright pink walls until someone pointed out (perhaps it was General Petrovich, still hoping for sanity to prevail) that there was a walk-in closet – a sort of dressing room – let into one of the walls, and that its door was papered in the same shade as the room and therefore not easily detectable.

Alexander and Draga were in fact hiding in this closet. There was a window in it overlooking the palace yard. Draga opened the window and called to an officer below, “Captain, help us.” For answer, he sent a bullet past her ear, which may have attracted the attention of those in her bedroom.

The closet door was opened and the king and queen appeared, half-dressed.

Alexander said, “What of the oath of allegiance you have taken to me?”

A lieutenant replied, “Here is our oath of allegiance,” and shot the king in the chest, causing him to collapse into Draga’s arms.

A volley of shots followed, killing Draga at once, although there are stories that Alexander’s life lingered on. Some of the officers then slashed at the royal couple with their swords, before the bodies were pitched out of the window.

They fell into the courtyard below where, an hour later, they were hosed down and taken to a ground floor room for a “post mortem”. The call had already gone out to Peter Karageorgevich in Geneva. Already he was being proclaimed in the bars and the clubs as King Peter of Serbia.

In all the drama and the excitement of that strange Balkan night it was not until long afterwards that someone pointed out how very much alike it was to the scene described at Mrs. Burchell’s seance.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.