If trees could talk, what stories they could tell! This stately giant watches over the path that Bavaria’s King Ludwig II walked only minutes before he died in 1886. It might be just old enough to solve Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery, if only it could communicate with us.
Let me take you along the king’s last walk on the anniversary of his death.
It all happened during an attempt to depose Ludwig II in June, 1886. Bavarian officials arrested king and placed him under custody at the castle Berg on the shore of Lake Starnberg. You can read more about the king’s life, the arrest, and the circumstances of his death here.
A Stroll through the Beech Trees
Ludwig II wanted to take a stroll in the evening of June 13, 1886. Psychiatrist Dr. von Gudden chaperoned him. The two left the castle at shortly after 6:00 pm and followed this path through beech woods south along Lake Starnberg. They were last seen around 6:30 pm.
I took these pictures around 6:30 pm on the anniversary of the king’s death to give you an idea of the setting. Although it was cloudier on the day Ludwig II died, you can still see in these picture how the shadows had begun to lengthen. The birds had also begun their evening chorus. Perhaps the king and the doctor heard the same birdsongs I did: the dizzy, upward spirals of the wood warbler, the chaffinch’s rhythmic chatter, and the rich overtones of the European robin echoing through the trees.
Mysterious Death of Ludwig II
About 900 m south of the castle, Ludwig made a dash for the water. The lakeshore here is only 20-30m from the path. The big question is why the king entered the lake. Either he wanted to escape custody or he intended to commit suicide by drowning himself in the water.
A massive search began when the king and doctor didn’t return as planned at 8:00 pm. Their bodies were found floating in shallow water two hours later. This cross marks the spot where Ludwig’s body was found. His watch had stopped at 6:54 pm and von Gudden’s at 8:00 pm. Exactly what had happened to the king and the physician remain one of Germany’s greatest unsolved mysteries, and the theories range from murder to suicide to accident.
The King of Hearts?
Ludwig II, the patron of Richard Wagner and builder of fairy tale castles, remains Bavaria’s most popular king. Every year his devotees gather for a memorial service on the anniversary of his death. Here are a few photographic impressions.
One of the speakers at the festivities made an interesting assertion: “No other European king has found his way into the hearts of the folk as did Ludwig II.” Do you agree? And if not, which European king would you nominate as the king of hearts?
Literature on point:
Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1982)Read More
There’s only one thing more disconcerting that waking up and hearing strange noises in the night. Waking up and finding a stranger in your bed is worse. Even if it’s only a small child.
One of my favorite anecdotes of any Civil War general deals precisely with that situation. Like many other Civil War generals, this one got his first taste of battle in the Mexican-American War. That war, fought between 1846 and 1848, was like a training ground for many of the West Point graduates. For a brief period of time, they all fought side by side, only to fight against each other thirteen years later.
It was in August 1846 when it happened. He was on his way to the war, travelling aboard a steamer. The passengers consisted of 66 mules, quartered in the “Ladies Saloon,” a young soldier’s wife journeying to the front to find her husband, her little daughter, and my general, who at that point was a captain. He and the soldier’s wife had neighboring cabins in a section of the boat labeled, in gold letters, “Ladies Private Apartments.” The sole three human passengers reached their cabins by passing under a sign “Gentlemen Not Admitted.” That the future general was allowed to sleep there was probably an exception to give more room to the mules.
One night, the little girl apparently used the head and wandered back to the wrong cabin.
The future general wrote about it in a letter to his family the following day. “I was dreaming of you all last night & thought [our] daughter was in the bed with me & I was wondering how she should be so small when lo & behold when I awoke in the morning and found it was little Agnes. But I did not see that precious Mildred [one of his daughters].”
There’s no additional information about little Agnes and her mother; they remain unidentified and lost to history. But I’ve often wondered if Agnes, who was probably a teenager during the Civil War, ever remembered the incident and realized she had spent half a night in the arms of the now-famous general.
The general was Robert E. Lee, but it could have also been Ulysses S. Grant, Nathan Bedford Forrest, or George Gordon Meade for all it matters. The point is that none of those men were made of wax or marble; they were flesh and blood, like us. When they were at home, their children slept in their beds, and at least once, in the morning, one of them returned a lost, sleeping girl to her mother.
Literature on point
Emory M. Thomas, Robert E. Lee: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995) p. 113.
Robert E. Lee to Mary Custis Lee, August 13, 1846, Lee Family Papers, Mss1L51c50, Virginia Historical Society.Read More
Germany shocked the law enforcement world in 2010 with an ingenious idea: Why not use turkey vultures to search for dead bodies in murder investigations? Turkey vultures hunt with their sense of smell and scientists say they’re the best sniffers among the raptors. They’re naturally attracted to carrion. They can detect a dead mouse from a mile away and aren’t hindered by rough terrain. Could they be trained to distinguish human from animal bodies, be fitted with GPS devices, and help law enforcement solve cases?
As great as the idea was, it met its demise in the sharp talons of the vulture’s biology. Vultures aren’t sociable. They’re all beaks and claws. They use projectile vomiting to defend themselves, spewing the rancid, corrosive mess up to ten feet. The German researchers couldn’t get them to cooperate and the project was quickly abandoned.
Should Germany have looked at ravens instead?
It’s not that vultures can’t be useful on cadaver searches. Cadaver dog handler Cat Warren admits to keeping an eye on turkey vulture kettles during her searches. But other wild birds offer clues, too. Hanns Gross, the Austrian father of criminology, kept his eye on European vultures and kites, but also on a different carrion-eating genus: the corvids. Ravens and crows. Here’s an example from his 19th century handbook on criminology:
“The body of a murdered woman was once found in the following way: The teachers of the surrounding schools told the children to let them know if they noticed a flock of many crows, ravens, etc., anywhere; some of them made such a report, with the successful result that the murdered person was found.”
I say the Germans were experimenting with the wrong bird species. Shall we take a closer look at the raven?
Ravens are sociable and super smart
Scientists consider corvids the most intelligent birds. They’ve even documented corvids using tools. They’re trainable. A big plus is that they’re affable to humans.
It’s no accident that the raven plays such a prominent role in Norse and American Indian mythology. Ornithologist Bernd Heinrich devotes three chapters in his book, Mind of the Raven, to the raven’s cooperation with other hunters: wolves, polar bears, cats, and humans. There are anecdotes of ravens spotting prey and leading predators to it. Ravens probably learned that large prey, in combination with a hunter, translated into food. As a reward, the ravens got a chance at the leftovers.
In fact, man’s first best friend might not have been the dog. It could have been the raven.
A corvid, canine, and homo sapiens hunting triad?
It may not be an accident, either, that the Norse god Odin took two ravens and two wolves with him on the hunt.
In order to track down the bases for raven mythology, modern anecdotes of interspecies hunting cooperation, and rumors that Eskimo hunters “talk” to ravens, Bernd Heinrich traveled to Inuit villages on the Canadian tundra. He found ravens everywhere, often in close association with the Eskimo dogs.
The Inuit told stories of hunters’ ability to communicate with overflying ravens in bygone times. They used incantations and called out the raven’s name, “tulugaq!” Ravens, they said, indicated the direction of the prey by wing tipping. “And after [the hunters] killed the caribou or the polar bear,” said one elderly Inuit, “they always left the raven the choicest tidbits of meat as a reward.” It wasn’t always the faithful dog, then, that accompanied the ancient hunter. The raven may have been there too.
Where they don’t have humans to help them, ravens are just as happy to work with canines. Research from Yellowstone National Park indicates that ravens are dependent on wolves to kill and open carcasses for them. Heinrich says that points to a relationship with an ancient evolutionary history.
Given that ravens also eat carrion and can spot it from the air, could they be trained to search for human bodies and work in cooperation with cadaver dogs and their handlers? Humans and canines are, after all, two of the raven’s traditional partners.
It’s an idea worth exploring. And it’s a more pleasant one than working with vultures.
Literature on point:
Cat Warren, What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013)
Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds (New York, Harper Collins, 1999). The quote appears on p. 252 of the Harper Perennial paperback edition.
Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (3rd ed., Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s 1899) p.124.Read More