That Fatal Shot

A very short story about the murder of King Gustav III.

The Fateful Night (1920/1950) by unknownThe Royal Armoury, Sweden

“The purpose of the scrap in the shot was to make it more lethal”, Anckarström said. He had already confessed to the fact that he had shot King Gustav III in the back.

A Murderer's Masque (1792) by HartinThe Royal Armoury, Sweden

Dressed to Kill

On 16th of March 1792 King Gustav held a public masque-ball at the opera house. The King liked balls and amusements and tried to keep them public. But the King was an autocrat, as well, and had shown it through a coup-d'etat and subsequent laws. A group of discontented noblemen therefore plotted to assassinate the King and to “restore order” in the country. The discharged Captain Johan Jacob Anckarström volunteered to be the murderer. In preparation he hired a black cape and bought a white masque with black “beard” of silk.

An Assassin's Pistol, Anders Wåhlberg, Anders David Kauffmann, 1775, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
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In the afternoon on the 16th Anckarström went to his chambers and loaded two pistols, calibre 11 mm. The first pistol he charged with two eight mm bullets, six bent tacks and five or six grapeshot.

The Undischarged Pistol, Anders Wåhlberg, Anders David Kauffmann, 1775, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
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He loaded the second pistol in the same manner.

An Assassin's Knife, Eskilstuna & Tunafors Jernmanufaktur, 1791/1792, From the collection of: The Royal Armoury, Sweden
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And he whetted a large knife and filed a notch at the end for good measure. Then, he went to the ball with one pistol in his left inner pocket, one in his right back pocket and the knife in his left hand.

Cloaked and Masqued (1791/1792) by Anders LindbladThe Royal Armoury, Sweden

A Kingdom for a Stage

At the opera house several caped and masqued men thronged at the stage. The King tried to pass the crowd with his escort, Master of the Stables, Count Hans Henric von Essen. Anckarström later said: The King “went to the left of me and I came up behind the King’s back. I took the pistol from my chest pocket, placed it against the King’s back and pulled the trigger. The King said “ai, ai” and turned towards the masque that followed him. When the shot was fired, I was surprised that he did not fall. I then dropped the pistol slowly along my thigh down on the floor and the knife as well. I stepped in front of the King and shouted “fire!”

His Majesty's Jacket (1791/1792) by Anders LindbladThe Royal Armoury, Sweden

That Fateful Shot

The shot penetrated six garments: a cape, a jacket, a vest, a girdle, a waistband and a shirt. The shot went into the body about an inch left of the spine, slightly above the hip, approximately at the third lumbar vertebrae. The direction of the shot was downwards to the left. It shattered the protrusion of the third lumbar vertebrae, grazed the left kidney and lodged itself in the muscles in the hip. King Gustav eventually died of gangrene, blood poisoning and pneumonia. 

The Murderous Shot (1792) by Johan Jacob AnckarströmThe Royal Armoury, Sweden

The two bullets, three grapeshot and one tack were taken out of the body at the autopsy. It had taken the King thirteen days to die. Anckarström did not suffer as long, but he suffered.

Credits: Story

Text and editing: G. Sandell, Statens Historiska Museer.


Protocols from the High Court 1792 printed by Anders Zetterberg. (Only in Swedish.)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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