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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)
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
It. Was. Murder!
That’s what this sign reads, and it’s the battle cry of the Guglmänner, a secret society in Bavaria. It is trying to prove King Ludwig II was murdered in 1886 and thinks America might hold the clues it needs.
Who are the Guglmänner?
Guglmänner translates to hooded men, but they should in no way be confused with the white-hooded men in America. The German group traces its history back to a medieval knighthood with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. That’s how mourning knights dressed following Kaiser Barbarossa’s death in 1190, the Guglmänner website explains. And during the time of the plague, the black-hooded knights became symbols of death and exhortation to the living; they were the ones that carried the victims to their graves. Guglmänner traditionally participate in the funerals of Bavarian monarchs by marching 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 are still organized according to a 1037 law, Constitutio de feudis, regulating the knighthood. And their main focus has shifted to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a royal death.
A Controversal Death
Bavaria’s best known king, Ludwig II – patron of Richard Wagner and builder of Bavaria’s fairytale castles – couldn’t have picked a more controversial way to die. You could call it Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery.
Bavarian ministers deposed Ludwig in 1886. They alleged his insanity, but the real reason may have had more to do the king’s overspending. They transferred Ludwig to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg for psychiatric supervision and evaluation. The following day, on June 13, 1886, Ludwig and his psychiatrist took a walk along the lakeshore but never returned. Searchers found them dead several hours later, floating in shallow water near the shore. A previous blog post covers the death in more detail.
Authorities ruled Ludwig’s death suicide by drowning, but there are plenty of people who don’t agree. Years later, witnesses said a gag order prevented them from talking. Everyone who helped recover the bodies was forced to swear on a crucifix and Bible never to say anything about that night, not even on his deathbed. One witness said Ludwig was shot while trying to escape to a boat.
Might there be Overlooked Evidence in America?
Some of those witnesses immigrated to America after Ludwig’s death. It’s possible that one of them left information behind because witnesses who moved to America might have not longer felt constrained by a Bavarian gag order. On their website, the Guglmänner request that anybody with an ancestor bearing one of the following last names check to see whether a forefather might have been a witness to the occurrences the night of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg. If so, they would like to hear from you. You can contact the Guglmänner by emailing info@guglmänner.de.
Grashey, Gudden, Gumbiller, Hack, Hartinger, v. Holnstein, Huber, Klier, Lauterbach, Lechl, Lidl, Liebmann, Mauder, Mayr, Müller, Rasch, Schneller, Schuster, Ritter, Rottenhöfer, v. Washington, Wimmer, Zanders.
This avenue of research ought to be pursued, because I don’t think it’s been tried before. Since the Guglmänner website is in German, it’s worth bringing their request to the English-speaking world. Who knows? Perhaps someone has some interesting history boxed away in their attic.
Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” His death has certainly become one. An international enigma.
Do you it still might be possible to resolve the controversy surrounding Ludwig’s death after all these years?
Literature on point:
Die Guglmänner SM. König Ludwig II. (Guglmänner website)
Die Guglmänner, Mitteldeutsche Zeitung Sept. 28, 2010
Germany’s Greatest Unsolved Mystery
We know him as the “Fairy Tale King” and the “Swan King.” Some also call the “mad king of Bavaria,” but psychiatrists today debate whether he really was insane. He was the patron of Richard Wagner and the builder of Neuschwanstein, the alpine castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. If that wasn’t enough to make him the stuff of legend, his death certainly was. It became Germany’s greatest unsolved mystery. Almost 130 years later, historians still can’t decide what happened.
Let’s take a closer look at that fateful day of June 13, 1886 on Lake Starnberg, southeast of Munich. But a bit of background is necessary to understand why some people wanted Ludwig II off the throne.
An Unconventional Reign
Ludwig II ruled Bavaria from 1864 to 1886. Always more interested in the arts than governing, he increasingly withdrew from Munich, the Bavarian capital, to live in his beloved alpine countryside. Ludwig avoided crowds and refused to host royal balls and banquets. His abhorrence for social gatherings was so great that he even avoided public theaters, preferring private performances put on for an audience of one.
His private money that he might have spent on royal functions went instead to fund magnificent castles and palaces in the foothills of the Alps: Neuschwanstein, Herrenchiemsee, and Linderhof are now considered architectural jewels of Bavaria and draw millions of tourists. But Ludwig ran out of money, and a 7.5 million mark bank loan likewise slipped through his fingers. By 1886, the king was 14 million marks in debt and creditors began to take legal action against him.
How Bavarian Ministers Deposed Ludwig II
Hoping to avoid a crisis for the government, Bavarian ministers hatched up a plan to oust Ludwig II and found a legal method in the Bavarian constitution: a king could be removed if found insane.
They collected witness statements about Ludwig’s eccentric behavior and presented it to a panel of psychiatrists. But there was a catch. The psychiatrists had to make a diagnosis without examining their patient: There was no way Ludwig would have consented to a psychiatric evaluation.
Based on the evidence they had, the physicians declared Ludwig insane. That was all the ministers needed. They proclaimed Ludwig’s uncle regent and had Ludwig taken into custody in Neuschwanstein. They transferred the deposed king to the castle Berg on Lake Starnberg on June 12, 1886 for psychiatric supervision and evaluation.
The Most Controversial Death in German History
The following day, Ludwig took an evening walk with his psychiatrist, Dr. von Gudden. The physician felt safe with the king and sent an orderly, who was to accompany them, back to the castle. The two were to return by 8:00 p.m.
When they didn’t, a search party began scouring the castle grounds. At 10:30 p.m., the party found Ludwig’s jacket, overcoat, hat, and umbrella on the lakeshore and in the shallows. Gudden’s hat and umbrella were also nearby. The search continued by boat. At 11:10 p.m., the party found both bodies floating lifeless, in the dead man’s float, 20-25 paces from shore in waist-deep water. Both were fully clothed and wearing shoes.
Footprints found the next day indicated a struggle. Then the king’s footprints led into deeper water.
A later autopsy concluded that Gudden died from drowning. The king’s autopsy was inconclusive about the cause of death, but claimed to have found organic brain changes indicative of insanity (doctors still dispute the significance of those findings today). The king appeared uninjured, but the doctor had a head injury and torn fingernail.
Summary of popular competing theories about the death of Ludwig II
- Struggle with Gudden over attempt to escape or commit suicide
- King killed Gudden in the struggle
- Heart attack due to water temperature and recent ingestion of alcohol
- Ludwig II had previously expressed suicidal thinking
- King fled into the water to drown himself
- Doctor attempted to stop him and died in the process (injury or exposure to cold water)
- King attempted to escape, struggled with Gudden
- Someone shot Ludwig II in the back as he waded to a waiting boat
The official government version was suicide by drowning. Some witness statements that came years later support the murder theory. Everyone who helped recover the bodies was forced to swear on a crucifix and Bible never to say anything about that night, not even on his deathbed. And that alone might indicate a cover-up. Some even say the autopsies were a cover-up.
I find it strange that that both bodies were found floating. Usually drowning victims sink fast, especially when water-logged clothing and shoes pull them down. There is such a phenomenon called dry drowning, in which a larynx spasm suffocates the victim. Gary Haupt, with the Missouri Water Patrol writes, “If a corpse does not sink, investigators should suspect another cause of death, such as heart attack. Or, perhaps, a dry drowning has occurred; in those cases, because the lungs do not contain water, the body will not descend.”
Might that indicate a murder? We will never know.
Ludwig II once expressed his hope that his life would be an “eternal enigma.” If he hadn’t achieved that within his lifetime, he certainly did with his death.
What do you think might have happened?
Read another post about why Americans might have the evidence needed to clear up Ludwig’s death.
Literature on point:
Alfons Schweiggert & Erich Adami, Ludwig II. Die letzten Tage des Königs von Bayern (Munich: MünchenVerlag 2014)
Christopher McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria, revised ed. (London: I.B. Tauris 2012)
Gary Haupt, Drowning Investigations, Missouri Water PatrolRead More