In 1888, the Madigan Circus visited the small Swedish town of Kristianstad. There, the young tightrope walker Elvira Madigan, the step-daughter of the circus’ owner, met and fell in love with the considerably older Lieutenant Count Sixten Sparre.
Since he was already married and had two children, it was inappropriate to say the least, and during the exchange of passionate letters that followed the meeting, Elvira’s mother and step-father did their best to dissuade her.
Love, however, isn’t just blind, but infinitely stupid as well, and so, in 1889, when Sixten asked her to, she ran away and joined him. They travelled together to Elvira’s home-country Denmark (her real name was Hedvig Olsen) where they lived together until they ran out of money.
The situation was by then desperate; Sixten’s family refused to help him and he was wanted for deserting his regiment. Faced with financial ruin, disgrace and without any recourse from friends or family, their future was beyond bleak.
On 20 July, 1889, the couple packed a picnic bag and declared they were going on an outing to Norreskøv. There, they had a final meal, after which Sixten shot Elvira, and then killed himself with his service revolver.
The story naturally caused a scandal when it became public knowledge. A penny-sheet ballad which is till sung today was written about the affair, and I think most Swedes know at least the first verse of it – it was one of those horribly moving songs that made me cry as a child (I loved those). The story has also been filmed at several occasions. The most famous is the heart-breakingly beautiful film by Bo Widerberg from 1967. It rather famously used Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 as a theme song – the piece is sometimes referred to as “Elvira Madigan” today though I’m sure many people have no idea why.
If you haven’t seen it, I heartily recommend it – it’s available on Amazon among other places.