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Murder Among the Gustavians

   Welcome to the Wannaskan Almanac for Friday.

   On this day in 1792, King Gustav III of Sweden died after being shot in the back by an assassin 13 days earlier. Gustav was part of a circle of European  courts in which Sweden was a major power. These were the days of the High Enlightenment and French was the universal language, as English is today. Of course Gustav in his earliest days learned Swedish from his nursemaid (his mother was a Prussian), but once his tutors took over at age five, it was all French.
   I've always wondered if people who use a second language all day long also think in that language. Or do they think in their native tongue then translate it into the other language? Well for Gustav, the answer is, he thought in French. The proof is that when he was shot in the back at a midnight masked ball, he cried out, Ah, je suis blessé, tirez-moi d'ici et arrêtes-le! Which is French for "Ay, Chihuahua! Get that son-of-a-biscuit!"
   Gustav was born into a world of court intrigue. Sixty years earlier, Parliament had taken most of the real power from the king. This "Age of Liberty" did provide some civil rights for the people, but it was mainly for the benefit of the nobles who dominated Parliament. At the age of five, Gustav was betrothed to Princess Sophia of Denmark, who was five as well. It was a common practice to marry one's children around the royal houses. Gustav's uncle was Frederick the Great of Prussia, his first cousin was Catherine the Great of Russia.
   Growing up, Gustav's ambitious mother encouraged him to be great too. In 1772, just months after his coronation, he exploited a division in Parliament to carry out a coup d'état which established him as an enlightened despot. Parliament was forced to accept the change, then Parliament was dismissed for seven years.
   Back in 1766, at age twenty, Gustav had married Princess Sophia. She was beautiful, but shy which people at court took for arrogance. Gustav was disappointed that she didn't enjoy his high-spirited court life. Sophia's main job was to provide an heir to the throne. But Gustav did not consummate the marriage till nine years after the wedding. You read that right, nine years! And when he decided to get down to business, he asked a friend, a Finnish count, to provide he and Sophia with a how-to-do-it course.
   When word of this got out (you can't pay people enough to keep their mouths shut) it was rumored that the king was un homosexuel, and that the Finnish count was the actual father of little Gustav IV. This was the origin of the Swedish proverb, "Never take a Finn on your honeymoon."
   Gustav had a fairly successful reign. His big war with Russia went well, he encouraged the arts and sciences in Sweden, he sent troops to fight with the French in the American Revolution. For this assistance, France gave Sweden the Caribbean island of St. Bart's. Gustav used this island to make lots of money in the transatlantic slave trade. He wasn't as enlightened as he might have been.
   As the years went by, Gustav kept doing things to irritate the nobles, who decided to assassinate him. There was a masked ball at the Royal Opera House. Gustav had been warned by a famous medium that his life was in danger. She told him that back in 1786 and the ball was in 1792, so Gustav had understandably grown overconfident. Just before the ball, Gustav received an anonymous note stating  that his life was really, really in danger. He said, "Whatever," in French.
   Everyone at the ball wore masks. The men all wore black capes, but Gustav was easy to spot because he wore a big star shaped medal that only the King of Sweden was allowed to wear. The conspirators surrounded Gustav and complimented him on his mask while their leader shot him in the lower left side of the back, which doesn't seem like a particularly fatal spot.
   Indeed, within a few days Gustav was back at work at the castle. But infection set in. No antibiotics back then. He grew weak. On his last day he lay down and said in Swedish, "I feel sleepy, a few moments' rest would do me good." It is best to say your last words in your mother tongue.

Lose the medal Gustav



  1. Thanks for the Swedish history!

    Reviewing the choices for March 29, I probably would have gone for Jørgen Jørgensen.

    1. I'm always to favor the Swedes over the Danes what with my wife and all.

  2. Now I know what I'd look like wearing a black cape, frilly hat, aluminum foil mask, and luxurious flamboyant sash--not to mention that cool medal. Why if the top and bottom of his costume ain't the spittin' image of my merino-wool longjohns, I'll be horn-swaggled from here to breakfast.

    1. You're all set for Halloween. Just stay away from the ball at the opera house.


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