Death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Was It Murder?

The death of King Ludwig II has long been a mystery.

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

June 13, 2016 marks the 130th anniversary of Bavaria’s greatest unsolved mystery: the baffling death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. How did the fairy tale king – the builder of Neuschwanstein and the patron of Richard Wagner – die?

Many Bavarians say he was murdered. Their claim is controversial, but it doesn’t hurt to look at the evidence to see why people think that. I’ll present their claims and offer a few comments without taking sides. You can decide for yourself.

A death shrouded in mystery: how did it happen?

King Ludwig II fell victim to political intrigue. Back then, the only way to get rid of a king was to have him declared insane. Historians still debate whether he the king really did suffer from a psychiatric illness. Nevertheless, Bavarian ministers had the renowned psychiatry professor Bernhard von Gudden pronounce the king unfit to rule the country in a lengthy expert opinion dated June 8, 1886. They deposed Ludwig on June 10 and set up his uncle as regent. On June 12, a commission arrested him in Neuschwanstein and transferred him to the Berg castle on the nearby Lake Starnberg.

The Bavarian ministers had already transformed the castle into a one-person insane asylum – with locked doors and barred windows. Dr. Gudden became Ludwig’s treating psychiatrist and controlled his contact with the outside world.

In the evening of June 13, the king took a walk on the lakeshore in the accompaniment of Dr. Gudden. When they didn’t return as promised at 8 p.m., a search party scoured the lakeshore. Two searchers and the fisherman Jakob Lidl went out by boat and found the bodies of both the king and the doctor floating in shallow water around 11 pm. The doctor’s body, with a broken fingernail and scratches and bruises on his face, showed signs of a struggle. According to both a doctor’s report made that night and the king’s autopsy, Ludwig’s body had no visible injuries other than a scrape on the knee. The autopsy found no water in his lungs.

No autopsy was performed on the doctor, but because he was floating, we can presume his lungs weren’t filled with water. Drowning victims sink once that happens, especially when bogged down by waterlogged clothing and shoes. Here you can find a sketch of the bodies in the water.

That’s the official government’s version, at least. The death of King Ludwig II occurred when he rushed into the lake to commit suicide by drowning and Dr. Gudden tried to stop him. In the ensuing struggle, the king killed the doctor, waded out to drown in deeper water, drowned, and then floated back to shore.

Fairy Tale Castle of Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein by Ondrey Prosicky, Shutterstock, with permission.

Why do many Bavarians attribute the death of King Ludwig II to murder?

Here are eight reasons.

Witnesses sworn to secrecy

The fisherman Jakob Lidl and all the other people involved in the search party were sworn to secrecy. A Bavarian minister asked them to take oaths never to tell what happened that night, not even to a priest. That was an unusual step if there was nothing to cover up, many Bavarians feel. Some of the people found a way to circumvent the oath. They didn’t say anything about it, but they wrote something about it. And if what they wrote is true, we have to rewrite history.

Lidl’s secret diary

Jakob Lidl, from whose boat the bodies were found, committed to his diary his memories about the death of King Ludwig II. After his death, the diary passed on to his heirs. In 1960, one of those heirs, Martin Mertl, told the Ludwig researcher Albert Widemann what Lidl had told him privately years ago: The king wanted to flee on that fateful night and Lidl waited for him on the shore with his boat. But when the king climbed into Lidl’s boat, someone shot him in the back and killed him instantly. Fearing for his life, Lidl pushed the corpse out of the boat and paddled home.

Mertl gave Widemann a page from Lidl’s diary, and Widemann had a handwriting expert compare the handwriting to Lidl’s known handwriting. The expert, in a report dated May 27, 1961, concluded the diary was authentic. On Mertl’s death, Lidl’s diary disappeared, frustrating further research efforts. But Widemann had photographed the two sides of the diary page, and they have since been published, along with the handwriting analysis.

On that diary page, Lidl wrote that Ludwig and Gudden hadn’t been engaged in a physical struggle. The footprints in the muddy bottom of the lakeshore were faked the following morning. A fisherman, Lidl wrote, used a pole with wooden shoes to create the scene of a struggle on the lake bottom.

Ludwig II with Dr. von Gudden

A 1901 postcard showing King Ludwig II and Dr. von Gudden starting off on their fateful walk on June 13, 1886. Ludwig is on the left. Public domain.

Bullet wounds

Rudolf Magg, a local physician who examined the dead king before he was transferred to Munich for autopsy and burial, may have also left behind written material. Another physician, who treated Magg’s daughter Anna, contacted Widemann to say he had once seen a document written by Magg in Anna’s home.

Magg’s purported protocol said he wanted to clear his conscience in his old age. His report on his examination of the deceased  wasn’t true. The Bavarian ministry had ordered him to write that. In truth, Magg wrote, the king had bullet entry wounds in his back.

The physician who reported having read Magg’s protocol, however, wished to remain anonymous. Following Anna Magg’s death, it wasn’t found. The lack of physical evidence makes it difficult to assess not only the protocol’s veracity but its existence.

The cross marks the place of the death of King Ludwig II.

The cross in the water marks the point where Ludwig II was found dead.

Statements from the House of Wittelsbach

Nevertheless, other witnesses have claimed Ludwig was shot. The statement that gives me the most pause comes from a member of Ludwig’s family. Prince Joseph-Clemens von Wittelsbach, Ludwig II’s nephew, reportedly told the Bavarian tabloid Bild München he knew the king had been shot and his shirt sported two bullet holes. In addition, a third shot killed the doctor. The newspaper purportedly published the statement on either March or June 8, 1986.

I haven’t been able to find the article online, and question why other media never picked up the story if it were at all credible. If anyone knows something more about the nephew’s statement, please comment!

Widemann claims the existence of a partially sworn statement by another member of the House of Wittelsbach, Prince Konstantin. The prince said he was aware of bullet holes in the king’s coat, jacket, vest, and shirt.

What does “partially sworn” mean? Does that mean Konstantin swore to the truth of only parts of his statement? If so, why not all of it? Did he swear to the part about the bullet holes? Was this statement published anywhere? And where is the original? It’s difficult to assess that evidence.

Coat with bullet holes

Another member of the House of Wittelsbach, Countess Wrnba-Kaunitz, claimed to have possessed the coat Ludwig wore at the time of his death. Numerous witnesses state the countess showed them the coat, and more specifically, two bullet holes in the back. Two of them have even made sworn statements. Gertrud Untermöhle signed an oath that she visited the countess in 1952. When their conversation turned to the death of King Ludwig II, the countess sprung up and said she had something to show Gertrud. It was a gray coat. It had two bullet holes in the back with black edges. Also under oath, Detlev Untermöhle (Gertrud’s son?) claimed he and his mother visited the countess around 1957 when he was ten. The countess said she would show them the truth about the death of King Ludwig II. She pulled a gray coat out of a chest and showed them two bullet holes in the back.

The coat disappeared after the countess and her husband died in a house fire in 1973. Without physical evidence, it’s impossible to say whether the gray coat really belonged to the king. If he was really murdered, why didn’t the conspirators destroy the evidence? Had any of the witness seen blood on the coat? Those questions remain unanswered.

Site of King Ludwig's last walk.

The path King Ludwig II walked only minutes before his death.

The sketch of the blood

Did an artist also leave behind evidence? Professor Siegfried Wichmann, an art historian, world-renowned expert on 19th-century paintings, and chairman of the Bavarian State Museum, said in a 2009 article that art appraisals for private clients are part of his job. In 1967, someone brought him a sketch of three faces and asked him to assess its authenticity. On the right, it showed a man in shock looking at the face in the middle, apparently of a dead man. The man on the right is in tears and also looking at the dead man. Three names were written on the back of the painting, “S. von Löwenfeld” (Ludwig’s personal physician, who was also present at the king’s autopsy), “Ludwig II,” and “Hornig.”

Professor Wichmann concluded the middle face showed King Ludwig II in death and that the Bavarian painter Hermann Kaulbach had sketched it. What surprised Wichmann was the blood. Kaulbach’s sketch showed blood trickling out of the dead king’s mouth – indicative of a firearm injury to the chest, not drowning. Although Wichmann lost contact with the original owner, he had the sketch photographed according to appraisal protocol and archived the photograph. Wichmann believes King Ludwig II was murdered, and this sketch was Kaulbach’s method of leaving the evidence behind. You can see Wichmann’s photograph in this article.

Hermann Kaulbach

Artist Hermann Kaulbach, By C. Kolb (1889); public domain.

Physician’s statement

His curiosity piqued by the Kaulbach sketch, Wichmann began researching the death of King Ludwig II. When the estate of Dr. Schleiss von Löwenstein, the personal royal physician depicted in the sketch, went to auction in an estate sale, Professor Wichmann decided to buy it. Inside the cover of one of Dr. Schleiss’s books, Professor Wichmann found a handwritten statement about the circumstances of the death of King Ludwig II.

According to that statement, Dr. Schleiss was concerned about the king’s safety and traveled to the Castle Berg, where the king was imprisoned, on the day Ludwig died. He went in the accompaniment of the artist Hermann Kaulbach and two brothers named Hornig. Realizing, once they arrived, that something strange was afoot, they rushed down the lakeshore. But they arrived minutes too late. King Ludwig II was dead. He had been shot in the back, and Dr. Gudden was on the shore, changing the king’s clothes and trying to stop the blood flow from the fatal wounds. When discovered, Dr. Gudden rushed at them with a syringe. In the ensuing struggle, the Hornig brothers strangled the psychiatrist. Kaulbach, who had sketching material with him, began sketching the king’s face at the lakeshore and finished later that night after the corpses had been brought to a boathouse. Conspirators then invented the story about the king killing the doctor and the king’s suicide by drowning.

If this version is true, neither the king nor the doctor was found floating in the water. Dr. Gudden was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the king and cover it up. But to what extent can we trust the handwritten statement Professor Wichmann found? Did he have any handwriting analysis done to prove Dr. Schleiss wrote it?

King Ludwig II's coronation portrait

King Ludwig II’s coronation portrait. By Ferdinand von Piloty (1828-1895) [Public domain].

Crime scene analysis: double dry drowning

The crime scene account of finding the corpses floating in the water, if true, raises a question about the official explanation of the death of King Ludwig II. Drowning victims, once their lungs fill up with water, usually sink, especially when weighted down by wet clothes and shoes. But there’s an exception. In “dry drowning,” the victim’s larynx goes into spasm and shuts off the airway, suffocating the victim. A fresh, floating corpse can be the victim of dry drowning. But dry drowning accounts for only 10-15% of all drowning cases. It’s so rare, in fact, that marine police recommend that if a corpse doesn’t sink, law enforcement should consider another cause of death, like heart attack. Or murder.

This call for further investigation doubles in volume when we find two corpses floating next to each other. Statistically, double dry drowning is possible, but with an occurrence rate of only 1-2%, an investigator would be advised to rule out other causes of death first. Nothing in the official investigation into the death of King Ludwig II does that.

Weighing the evidence

With a disappearing diary, protocol, and coat, some of the evidence is like a paper Neuschwanstein. The castle collapses every time you poke it. On the other hand, the page from Jakob Lidl’s diary and the statement Professor Wichman found both have more probative value; we at least have some physical evidence. I’d like to see some further research, especially a handwriting analysis on Dr. Schleiss’s purported statement.

What do you think? You can vote below. And if you have anything to add to the discussion, please comment!

Literature on point:

Rosemarie Fruehof, A King’s Murder on Canvas: Artwork Provides Evidence of Ludwig II’s Murder, Epoch Times (September 10, 2009)

Peter Glowasz, Wurde Ludwig II. erschossen? (Berlin: Peter Glowasz Verlag, 1991)

Gary Haupt, Drowning Investigations, Missouri Water Patrol

Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (London: I.B. Tauris, 1982)

Alfons Schweiggert & Erich Adami, Ludwig II. Die letzten Tage des Königs von Bayern (Munich: MünchenVerlag 2014)

Conny Neumann, Fresh Doubt About Suicide Theory: Was “Mad” King Ludwig Murdered? Spiegel Online International (November 7, 2007).

Tony Paterson, Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig, Independent (November 10, 2007)

Albert Widemann, Hintergrund zum Tod von Ludwig II. (1994)

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Poe Toaster: Might a Bavarian Group be Responsible?

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses. These were probably left by an imitation toaster. By Midnightdreary (Own work) [GFDL  or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Mystery of the Poe Toaster

A man wearing a black coat, wide-brimmed hat, and scarf around his face stepped out of Baltimore’s midnight shadows. He passed into Westminster Cemetery, approached Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and set three red roses and a half-full bottle of cognac at the base, only to vanish into the shadows again. A Baltimore newspaper carried an article about the gifts at the grave, but no one knew who the man was.

That is how the tradition of the Poe Toaster started. Every year since 1949, the mysterious mourner appeared in the post-midnight hours of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday on January 19 to leave his tribute of cognac and roses. In the 1990s, he left a note to say he would pass the torch, and the following year, a younger man appeared. In 2010, the Poe Toaster stopped coming. There have been imitators, but the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum had worked out a signal with the real Poe Toaster, a signal that never came. By 2012, the curator declared the tradition dead.

Nevermore.

Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain.

But the riddle of the Poe Toaster’s identity remains. Some say it was a father and son team. Others suspected an author who died in 2010. One Poe historian claimed to be the toaster, but the curator found information contradicting his claim.

As far as I know, no one in America has looked to Bavaria for an answer, even though it has sounded a couple of hints as resonant as echoing alphorns. One group, the Guglmänner (hooded men), well known in Bavaria but less so in the United States, posted interesting comments on its Facebook page. One is in German and the other in English, but they are slightly different.

Der Poe Toaster ein Guglmann?Edgar Allen Poe prägte bekanntlich die Geisteswelt Ludwig II. Er sei “einer der größten…

Posted by Guglmänner on Wednesday, June 22, 2011

As the bavarian King Ludwig II. was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, the mysterious “Poe Toaster” seems to be similar to Ludwig…

Posted by Guglmänner on Sunday, June 26, 2011

 

The title of the German post asks if the Poe Toaster was a Guglmann. The post mentions King Ludwig’s admiration for Poe and points out two similarities: Both the Guglmänner and the Poe Toaster pay respects to the dead dressed in black. If the Poe Toaster wasn’t a Guglmann himself, the English post suggests, it might have been a Guglmann imitator.

Are the Guglmänner trying to give the Americans a hint?

Who are the Guglmänner?

The Guglmänner post at the place where Ludwig II died.

Members of the secret society of the Guglmänner pose at the place where King Ludwig II died in Lake Starnberg, near Berg, with torches in their hands and three shields, on which it states, “Es war Mord” (It was murder).
Photo: Sebastian Widmann; courtesy of ddp images.

And why would they care about the Poe Toaster? The answer lies in the group’s history and devotion to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the builder of fairytale castles and patron of Richard Wagner. It traces its history back to a medieval knighthood tasked with carrying Plague victims to their graves and with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. Guglmänner have participated in funerals of Bavarian monarchs since 1190. They march in front of the casket carrying two crossed torches and shields with the royal coat of arms. Their motto is: Media in vita in morte sumus. “In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.”

Today the Guglmänner have shifted their focus to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a King Ludwig’s death, which they believe was murder. They collect evidence about his death, fight for further investigation, and gather, shrouded in black, at his grave and the site of his death, to pay their respects. You can read more about Ludwig’s death here.

King Ludwig was a devoted admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. That hasn’t escaped the Bavarians’ notice. And it could be the key to the Poe Toaster’s motivation.

I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour….

Edgar Allan Poe and King Ludwig II

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

American author Lew Vanderpoole had an audience with King Ludwig around 1878, in which Ludwig spoke at length about Poe. “To me he was the greatest man ever born,” Vanderpoole reported the king saying. “You will better understand my enthusiasm when I tell you that I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour, if in that hour he would unbosom to me those rare and exquisite thoughts and feelings which so manifestly were the major part of his life.”

King Ludwig went on to explain there was “a distinct parallel between Poe’s nature and mine.” A large part of that had to do with their sensitivity and inability to fit in with society.

The Bavarian author Alfons Schweiggert published a book about Poe and King Ludwig in 2008, exploring how Ludwig might have found a kindred spirit in Edgar Allan Poe. Schweiggert lists a surprising number of similarities between the two men.

  • Both were devoted to the arts
  • Both lost their fathers at the age of 18, one to death and the other to rejection
  • Both were accused of being mad
  • Both are symbolized by birds; King Ludwig by the swan and Poe by the raven
  • Both died mysterious, unexplained deaths
  • Both died at age 40

King Ludwig’s reverence for Edgar Allan Poe has pulled Poe into the circle of Ludwig admiration. The Guglmänner have members in the USA. Is it possible that an American member, living too far away from Bavaria to participate in the group’s usual ceremony focused on King Ludwig, decided to focus on the American object of Ludwig’s admiration instead? Or that a King Ludwig fan in America decided to imitate the Guglmänner?

Perhaps the Americans who have puzzled over the Poe Toaster’s identity should take a harder look at Bavaria. In the meantime, the Toaster remains a mystery. And that’s something Edgar Allan Poe would have loved.

The raven symbolizes Poe just as the swan symbolizes King Ludwig.

The raven symbolizes Poe just as the swan symbolizes King Ludwig.

What do you think might have motivated the Poe Toaster?

Literature on point:

Alfons Schweigert, Edgar Allan Poe und König Ludwig II: Anatomie einer Geistesfreundschaft (St. Ottilien, Germany: EOS Verlag, 2008)

Lew Vanderpoole, “King Ludwig of Bavaria: A Personal Reminiscence,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1886) 38:536.

William Wan, “Never More Doubt,” Washington Post (August 18, 2007)

Guglmänner website

Rosemarie Frühauf, “Im Geheimdienst Seiner Majestät: 125. Todestag König Ludwigs II.,” Epoch Times (21 May 2011)

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