Who Was Justo Armas?

by John Lamperti

Moviegoers who saw "A Beautiful Mind," the Oscar winning film biography of mathematician John Nash, were undoubtedly moved by his struggle with schizophrenia, his eventual recovery and the award of the Nobel Prize in economics in 1994. It was obvious that the support Nash received over the years from his wife Alicia Lardé was vital for his survival. The film never revealed, however, that Alicia was Salvadoran. The book on which the film was based does mention that connection, and includes a few intriguing hints about some members of the Lardé family. Following these clues leads quickly to the intriguing and enigmatic figure of don Justo Armas.

Justo Armas was a real person; that is not in question. He was not born in El Salvador, but appeared in its capital sometime late in the 19th century, already in his middle years. Somehow he quickly gained access to many of the leading families in Salvadoran society--including the Lardés, who were wealthy and well connected, although not counted among "the fourteen." Don Justo had elegant European manners, spoke fluent and educated German plus several other languages, and seemed to possess extensive knowledge of upper class European society and court affairs, especially those of Austria and its neighbors. With these assets, he was able to establish a catering service which supplied food, drink, and serving personnel for many high-level social functions; his services included the use of first class tableware and silver utensils, of which he had a considerable store. In the early years of the 20th century, the participation of don Justo Armas was de rigueur at the major social events of San Salvador. In addition to catering, he gave classes in manners and etiquette to young ladies from the leading families. One other curious fact stands out. Don Justo always appeared in society impeccably dressed and groomed--and barefoot.

Who was this remarkable man? Where did he come from, and how did he acquire his unusual talents and position? Two astonishing theories have been seriously proposed; as we will see, one of them, but not the other, appears easy to disprove. Of course it is possible that neither is true. Here are those three alternatives.

1) Justo Armas was the crown prince Rudolf, the only son of Austro-Hungarian emperor Francis Joseph. This, naturally, is quite impossible, since Rudolf died at Mayerling near Vienna in 1889 together with his young lover Baroness Marie Vetsera. The two deaths were officially described as suicides (or perhaps murder and suicide), motivated by the frustrations and hopelessness of their illicit love. Suspicions that the crown prince was the target of a politically motivated assassination plot, however, arose immediately and have persisted. But whatever lay behind the events at Mayerling, if Rudolf did in fact die there he could hardly have become Justo Armas.

It is the Prince Rudolf hypothesis which connects Justo Armas with Alicia Lardé (Mrs. John Nash). One of her uncles, Enrique Lardé (1899-1993), has presented a two-part theory. First, he states that he himself is the natural son of don Justo Armas, and second, he asserts that Justo Armas was in reality Rudolf, who did not die at Mayerling after all. Dr. Lardé has written a short book about the matter, which was published soon after his death through the efforts of his son (also named Enrique). That book is the source--apparently the only source--for the following account.

According to this theory, Crown Prince Rudolf was not murdered at Mayerling but was given the chance to save his life by leaving Europe forever and adopting a different identity. (The Baroness Vetsera also did not die, but instead was confined for life in a Carmelite convent.) Rudolf sailed from Hamburg in a ship owned by his cousin, Archduke Johann Salvator. They arrived safely in La Plata, but the ship went down in a storm while trying to pass through the Straits of Magellan. Everyone was drowned--except Rudolf. While clinging to wreckage, the former crown prince made a vow to the Virgin Mary that he would never again wear shoes (would remain in contact with the earth?) if his life were spared. A small fishing boat picked him up soon afterwards. For nearly ten years Rudolf lived and worked among the fishermen and peasants of Argentina, then made his way to El Salvador where he arrived in 1898 under the alias Justo Armas. He lived in San Salvador until his death in 1936.

"In those days," writes Enrique Lardé, "when the Archduke came to El Salvador, the only hotel in the city was the Europa Hotel, whose proprietors were my parents, Don Jorge Lardé and Doña Amelie Arthés de Lardé. The Archduke, who no longer made use of his titles of nobility and now, known as 'Justo Armas,' fell in love with Doña Amelie Arthés de Lardé, and the first and only male child of the Archduke was born. I am that child."

Sr. Lardé goes on to support his claim with circumstantial evidence. He states that the "secret" of Justo Armas's true identity was widely known, or at least suspected. "The Austrian Consul," he says, "who had known [the Archduke Rudolf] amid ancestral opulence in his homeland, recognized him barefoot in El Salvador." He adds that this caused "quite a commotion" in the office! But although "all Salvadoran society of the time" knew the secret, Don Justo himself revealed his identity to only one person. That person was Enrique Lardé's mother, Doña Amelie. Shortly before her death in 1911 she in turn explained to her son that don Justo was his biological father. (Enrique had naturally thought of Jorge Lardé as his father, and so he was, by adoption.) She also told Enrique that don Justo Armas was the Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria--as don Justo had told her, many years before.

It is understandable that Enrique Lardé believed without reservation all of his mother's end-of-life confession, and there is no apparent reason to doubt that Justo Armas had been her lover and was the father of at least this one of her children. Don Justo may well also have told her, and she herself may have believed, that he was the former crown prince. That second part of the story, however, is a-priori far less credible than the first and requires a much higher standard of proof to be accepted as true.


2) Don Justo Armas was the Emperor Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary. Of course the world "knows" that this is equally impossible. Maximilian's brief rule in Mexico collapsed in 1867, shortly after Napoleon III withdrew the French troops that had established and maintained him on his throne. The emperor could have abdicated and returned to Europe with the French army, but he chose to stay out of a sense of duty and of obligation to his followers. Maximilian was soon captured by the forces of the Mexican Republic headed by Benito Juárez, and he was tried by court martial, sentenced to death, and executed on the Cerro de las Campanas near Querétaro in 1867. If that is so, the ex-emperor could hardly have reappeared in El Salvador as Justo Armas.

Manet's famous painting "The execution of Maximilian" is an imaginative creation. The artist did not witness the events.

A San Salvador architect, Sr. Rolando Déneke, has been intrigued for years by the mystery of Justo Armas and has devoted time and resources to investigating his origin. Déneke has reportedly built a strong case for the theory that Justo Armas was Maximilian. His work has not been published, although that is promised in the near future. However, a Spanish diplomat assigned for a time to El Salvador met Déneke and learned many details of his investigation. This man, Santiago Miralles Huete, has presented the theory in the form of an entertaining novel entitled La Tierra Ligera, recently published in Madrid.3 That novel is the main source for the following resume of Sr. Déneke's case. An even newer book,4 an account of Maximilian's imperial career, expounds Déneke's theory but apparently has little additional evidence to offer.

Naturally the first and probably most difficult point to be explained is Maximilian's apparent execution in 1867. The answer given by Déneke (and Miralles) involves the reported fact that Maximilian, Justo Armas, and Benito Júarez were all high-ranking members of the Masonic order. One important law of freemasonry forbids the killing of brother Masons. This law presented Júarez with a painful dilemma: while Maximilian's death appeared to be necessary for reasons of state,5 he must not kill a fellow Mason. The solution Júarez found6 was a fake execution, to be followed by the disappearance forever of Maximilian of Austria. To make this scheme workable, Maximilian solemnly swore to use always an assumed name and to never reveal that the former emperor was still alive. His new identity was that of Justo Armas, the strange figure who appeared in Central America a few months after the supposed death of Maximilian. Armas first surfaced in Costa Rica, but within three years made his way to San Salvador where he passed the rest of a long and prosperous life. By this account, Armas would have immigrated to El Salvador early in the 1870s.

Following the supposed execution of the former emperor by firing squad, the embalmed body of Maximilian was sent home to Austria. When the casket was opened, his mother is said to have exclaimed, "This is not my son!" As a lighter touch, it is also reported that after the execution Benito Júarez published an edict announcing that the Archduke Francis Maximilian of Austria had been "hecho justo por las armas," a euphemism for execution. This phrase, the suggestion goes, was the origin of the name "Justo Armas"!

According to the theory, his high standing in the Masonic order was also key to the immediate warm reception given the unknown Justo Armas by members of El Salvador's elite. The nation's vice president and chancellor, don Gregorio Arbizú, received him warmly and found for him a respectable government job. As well as being a Mason, Sr. Arbizú was known for his monarchist sympathies which may have further facilitated their friendship. Soon don Justo was installed in a home of his own where he surrounded himself with "dozens of objects of Maximilian of Hapsburg which an invisible hand had managed to convey from Mexico."

There is more. Briefly, Justo Armas was said to bear a striking resemblance to Maximilian, once differences of age and dress are taken into account. Reportedly, don Justo did declare his identity as the ex-emperor to at least one friend during his years in San Salvador; of course even if he did so that cannot be considered conclusive. A Mexican lady ("La Paloma") who reportedly had been the lover of the emperor during his years on the throne became a nun after his death. As "Sister Trinidad" she worked in a San Salvador hospital and was known to regularly visit don Justo Armas, something very unusual for a woman in her situation. Perhaps the most suggestive piece of evidence, verifiable in part, is the visit in 1914 or 1915 by two emissaries of the Austrian government. These men apparently avoided contacts with Salvadoran government officials and instead persistently sought an interview with a reluctant don Justo. When they finally met, the Austrians reportedly begged him to "return" with them to Austria and assume his "rightful position" there, an offer or request which Armas steadfastly refused. All this, if verified, adds up to a suggestive if not compelling circumstantial case that don Justo Armas was in fact the former Emperor Maximilian of Mexico.

Curiously, this theory is mentioned near the beginning of Dr. Lardé's book in a short section entitled "He was not Maximilian." (A reader new to these questions might well ask, "Whoever said he was?") However, that section offers no real evidence for its (negative) thesis, arguing circumstantially that "Even had he not been shot and had succeeded in escaping from Mexico, as those who invented this story claim, Maximilian would have returned to his own country. ... Also, when Don Justo arrived in El Salvador in 1898, he looked the forty years of age he indeed was, and not the sixty-six years of his uncle, the Emperor of Mexico." Dr. Lardé wonders why, if Justo Armas was really Maximilian, he would have spent thirty-one years "in hiding" between "leaving Mexico in 1867" and his "supposed arrival" in El Salvador in 1898. He does, however, mention that there was a "great likeness" between the two and states that "the kinship of Don Justo and Maximilian was widely known" (emphasis added). Lardé's conclusion is that "these stories ... are so absurd that they deserve no refutation"--a dangerous line to take when he himself is presenting a theory at least as improbable as the one he dismisses.

What more could be done to substantiate or disprove Justo Armas’s identity with the ex-emperor Maximilian? DNA testing is one obvious possibility. La Tierra Ligera and other sources report that such tests have been undertaken, and that the results support a family relationship between don Justo and the Habsburgs. Detailed reporting as to how the testing was done and just what it revealed must await the publication of Sr. Rolando Denéke's studies, by himself or another.

3) The third possibility, of course, is that don Justo Armas was neither Maximilian nor Rudolf but someone else. Logically, that covers it; one of the three must be true. However, this third case itself leads to interesting mysteries. Whoever he was, the sudden appearance of this cultivated, German-speaking, barefoot man in San Salvador and his rise to prominence in Salvadoran society is a remarkable phenomenon. Some connection with European nobility is plausible, and it even seems quite possible that don Justo had some relationship with the Hapsburg family. But that does not mean he was either Maximilian or Rudolf.

Favoring the "someone else" possibility is the fact that don Justo left a brief testament, in which he sketches his own background and states his age in a manner which totally contradicts both of the "imperial family" theories. Of course if that account is true, the story he reportedly told to his former lover Amelie Arthés cannot be, nor is his self identification as Maximilian to a San Salvador friend. Dr. Lardé reprints the testament in his book, and then tries to demonstrate that in it don Justo did not mean what he said but something quite different (pages 87-92). The explanation is not convincing--although, again, not impossible.

It seems more probable that don Justo did not tell the truth to Doña Amelie when they were intimate. This idea fits the Maximilian hypothesis, for under that theory don Justo would have vowed not to reveal himself but could have considered taking Rudolf's identity a permissable and suitably impressive substitute. Of course if he were "someone else" he might have simply lied. He would not have been the first man who invented for himself a romantic background to impress a lover.

Some of the circumstantial evidence fits equally well with either of the two Habsburg theories. Photographs showing a strong resemblance between Emperor Franz Josef, Maximilian, Rudolf, and Justo Armas support the idea of some family connection. The DNA evidence is said to have confirmed this much, even if it did not establish just what that relationship was. In addition, the visit of the Austrian ambassadors imploring don Justo to return supports the existence of a Habsburg connection but is equally consistent with either theory.

The question of timing, though, should be decisive in distinguishing between them. If it can be shown that don Justo Armas arrived in San Salvador earlier than 1889, the year of the crown prince’s presumed death, that would absolutely eliminate the possibility that he was Rudolf. I have been assured that this is the case, and that there is documentary evidence proving that Justo Armas appeared in 1871.7 Such a date fits well with the Maximilian hypothesis. On the other hand, that theory implies an unlikely (but not impossible) longevity for don Justo, who would then have had to be 104 years old when he died in 1936.

The San Salvador daily El Diario de Hoy published an obituary of don Justo on May 30, 1936. “Anyone who has participated in the social life of El Salvador during the last 60 years,” it says, “knows of don Justo Armas,” who was the caterer of highest prestige in the capital. “There was a dense mystery around the life of don Justo Armas,” the obituary continues, mentioning in particular that he never used shoes or other footwear. There were speculations that he was a bastard son of one of the kings of Europe, says El Diario, and the article concludes that “He has taken to the tomb the secret of his unshod feet and of his noble origin.” The obituary reiterates that don Justo lived “more than sixty years” in El Salvador, which of course supports his arrival early in the 1870s.

It is a truism that improbable assertions require high standards of proof. While there is sufficient reason to reject the Rudolf theory on the basis of timing, the same cannot be said for the hypothesis that don Justo was Maximilian. On the information publically available so far, including the books of Lardé and Miralles, the verdict must be that the problem remains open. However, obtaining further evidence in the matter would appear to be possible and indeed it may already exist, so perhaps in the near future this fascinating hypothesis will be definitively established. If don Justo Armas’ identity as the former emperor Maximilian can be proved, a great many books and history lessons will need to be rewritten.



1) Sylvia Nasar, A Beautiful Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998. The biography is dedicated to Alicia Lardé Nash.

2) Dr. Enrique Lardé, The Crown Prince Rudolf: His Mysterious Life After Mayerling. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 1994. The passage quoted is on page 3.

3 ) Santiago Miralles Huete, La Tierra Ligera. Madrid: Ediciones de la Discreta, 2000.

4) Johann Georg Lughofer, Des Kaisers neues Leben: Der Fall Maximilian von Mexico. Vienna: Ueberreuter, 2002.

5) The situation and the arguments for Maximilian's death are outlined by Jasper Ridley in his book Maximilian and Juarez [New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992], pages 275-276. Ridley expresses no doubt that the execution was carried out.

6) Proponents of this theory are not clear as to whether Juarez planned the sham execution himself or merely agreed to let Maximilian's escape be organized by others without interference.

7) Private communication from Salvadoran journalist and author Carlos Caña Dinarte, who says that prominent newcomers were recorded in the Official Gazette. Dr. Lardé, on the other hand, offers no evidence in support of the claimed 1898 arrival date for don Justo which his theory requires.


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Last Updated: Saturday, May 29, 2004