King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Murder, Accident, or Suicide?

Fairy Tale Castle of Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein by Ondrey Prosicky, Shuttersotck

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

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

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.

Ludwig II in Linderhof

The king in the blue grotto of the Linderhof palace. Sketch by Robert Aßmus, public domain

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.

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.

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 cross marks the spot where the body of Ludwig II was found

The cross in Lake Starnberg shows were the bodies were found. Bbb auf wikivoyage shared; GNU-Lizenz für freie Dokumentation

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 Patrol

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Robert E. Lee, Engineer and Hero of the Midwest

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846.

Robert E. Lee, ca. 1846. Library of Congress.

The Mississippi as the key to commerce

Even if the Civil War never happened, and even if Robert E. Lee never became president of Washington and Lee University, we would still probably know him today. He changed American history not only as a general and university administrator, but as an engineer. His most celebrated engineering feat? He made the Mississippi River navigable.
Let’s put that feat into perspective.

Robert E. Lee did his engineering work here.

The Mississippi and St. Louis today. Morguefile photos.

If you were a Midwest farmer in the 1830s, you’d need to find people to buy your harvest. Who would that be? Certainly not the folks from the next farm over. Before the era of the railroad, canals and inland waterways were the main types of transportation for transferring produce to the places where people needed them the most: the cities. As farmers moved further west, the Mississippi played an increasingly significant role. As Michael Korda wrote, “The great river that Indians called the ‘Father of the Waters’ was then America’s most important path of trade and communication, linking the grain of the Northwest and the cotton of the upper Mississippi with the thriving port of New Orleans…. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these problems in the age before decent roads or railways existed in what is now the Midwest – goods in bulk moved by river or did not move at all.”
St. Louis was the major harbor for the Midwest. But that suddenly changed in the 1830s. Changing currents began to deposit silt in the St. Louis harbor, choking it and blocking shipping.

Robert E. Lee tames the Mississippi

The army sent Lee to St. Louis in 1837 to solve the problems. Lee had been working with the Army Corps of Engineers since graduating second in his class at West Point in 1829.

Robert E. Lee constructed dykes here.

An 1853 map of St. Louis, showing Bloody Island. Public domain.

Lee’s genius was his ability to work with the river, not against it. Better than digging out a harbor is go to upstream and figure out how to lay new switches and alter the current. Lee figured out a way to let the water do the hard work. Directly upstream, he constructed two dykes off the points of the mile-long Bloody Island, blocking the current on the Illinois side and diverting it to St. Louis. By the end of the construction season, the channel to the harbor had already deepened by seven feet, allowing boats to enter again.
As Michael Korda notes, this engineering feat would have earned Robert E. Lee fame and the gratitude of the Midwest even if it weren’t for his military achievements. He opened the Mississippi to hundreds of steamboats and made the Midwest the granary of North America. That is a fitting tribute for today. January 19 is Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

What do you think the country’s greatest engineering feat was? I’ll vote for putting men on the moon.

Literature on point:

Douglas Southall Freeman, R. E. Lee (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons  1934)

Michael Korda, Clouds of Glory: The Life of Robert E. Lee (Harper 2014)

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Drawing Straws in the Lifeboat: Noble Sacrifice or Murder?

Drawing straws in the lifeboat

Lifeboat by Olivier Le Queinec; shutterstock

A whale sinks the Essex

Directly towards the ship the sperm whale came, its tail churning the water and its body casting off a wake. As its massive head struck the port side of the Essex, the 87-foot-long whaleship shuddered, oak timbers splintered, and sailors were knocked off their feet.

whale and whaleboats

Perilous Situation of Whalemen, 1861, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

The sailors thought it might have been revenge. Did the 85-foot-long bull figure out that the source of all those annoying harpoons was not so much the whaleboats, but the mother ship? Scientists today have another explanation. Bull sperm whales make a call that sounds like a pinging hammer, and because the first mate was on board, repairing a whaleboat with a hammer, the whale would have heard those pings through the water. Perhaps it mistook the mother ship for a rival.

At any rate, one frontal attack wasn’t enough for the giant bull. It swam about 500 yards away, turned, and bore down on the Essex’s port bow at full speed. This time when it struck, it was the end of the mother boat. It began flooding.

Inspiration for Moby Dick and a new movie

A sperm whale attacks the Essex.

Drawing of the whale attack by Thomas NIckerson, one of the survivors of the Essex. Public domain.

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex on November 20, 1820 inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Melville’s story ends with Moby Dick sinking the Pequod, but for the Essex crew, their story began with the sinking. Far out in the Pacific Ocean, 2000 nautical miles west of South America, the sailors had just enough time to pack some provisions and load everyone into three whaleboats. They tried to sail east, but it took 95 days before they were rescued. Of the twenty crew members, only eight survived. And in order to survive, they had to resort to cannibalism. They also drew straws to decide which sailor would sacrifice his life to feed the others.

Drawing straws or casting lots in a lifeboat in this situation was already a long-standing custom of the sea. Even the most naïve deckhand knew what to do in a lifeboat when all the inhabitants were starving, because the sea shanties and ballads memorialized the tradition.

Nathaniel Philbrick wrote an award-winning book about the Essex tragedy called In the Heart of the Sea. It was published in 2000. Warner Brothers will release a movie based on the book in December, 2015. Once the film comes out, the questions will be on everybody’s lips: Is cannibalism legal? And is killing someone who drew the short straw on a lifeboat murder? Or giving one’s life to feed others a noble sacrifice?

One commentator has called the law on cannibalism on the high seas “a perfect storm.” I’ll try to sketch the law in broad brushstrokes, but you better hold tight to the gunwale because there are rough seas ahead.


The Law


Who the heck has jurisdiction?

Is a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific even subject to any laws? International Law of the Sea regulates navigational issues, giving a Portuguese whaler on starboard tack the right of way over a French passenger ship on port tack, for instance. But international law doesn’t apply to actions on board.


Who has jurisdiction over that lifeboat?

What law applies to a ship’s crew? Some commentators insist a lifeboat on the open sea is a nation unto itself; their isolation from civilization gives the castaways the right to govern themselves. But it isn’t so simple. The framers of the U.S. Constitution thought about that problem and granted federal courts jurisdiction over admiralty and maritime matters in Article III. That includes crimes against U.S. citizens on the high seas.

In short, if a federal court wanted to hear a lifeboat case, it could. But what law should the court apply? Were the sailors’ actions even a crime?

Drawing straws in the lifeboat: the question of consent

Consumption of a human body that has died naturally has never been criminalized, especially in a survival situation. The cases that raise legal issues are those involving deliberately killing another person for food. We can divide those cases into homicides with and without the victim’s consent. In cases involving drawing straws or casting lots, the castaway drawing the short straw agrees to sacrifice his life to save the others.

A whaler

Whaler Charles Morgan drying its sails. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

The history books are rife with accounts of drawing straws in the lifeboat, but I’ve only found one case that resulted in criminal charges. The survivors of the Essex never faced charges. But English sailors adrift in the Caribbean resorted to the practice in 1641 and did have to answer in court. A proctor on the island of St. Christopher pardoned them. He found that the legal doctrine of necessity “washed away” the crime.

Necessity is a legal defense. You can use it to justify or exonerate yourself if committing a crime prevents a greater harm. This doctrine will allow you to run a red light to attract police attention if someone in the backseat is holding a gun to your head; you can trespass on an island or break into a mountain cabin to save yourself in a storm. In this case, one sailor voluntarily sacrificed his life for the survival of the others and the court recognized the killing as an act for the greater good.

But now we need to baton down as we sail into a whirlwind caused by the distinctions between civil and common law.

Common law versus civil law

Roughly speaking, English and American courts use the common law, or case law, in which judicial decisions have legal precedent. Continental Europe uses civil law, based on Roman legal principles, in which statutes are the primary source of law. But there are exceptions. English admiralty law of the early 19th century was based on civil, not common, law.

Civil law, in the case of survival cannibalism, is more lenient than common law. It recognizes necessity as a defense and to an extent, also recognizes customary law. The decision in 1641 was probably based on civil law (the original decision is lost, so scholars cannot say for sure).

Titanic lifeboat

Titanic survivors in their lifeboat. 1912. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain

But the question came up in the common law in the late 19th century. The English case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (1884) is the leading case in common law, and in that case, the English judges ruled that necessity can never be a defense to murder. The judges convicted Dudley and Stephens for killing another castaway for consumption. They sentenced the men to death, but Queen Victoria pardoned them and reduced the sentence.

Regina v. Dudley and Stephens also cited an older American case, U.S. v. Holmes (1842), as precedent. But both Holmes and Dudley and Stephens can be distinguished on the grounds of consent. The castaways never drew straws. Instead, they killed the weakest member without his consent (in the first case) and threw several people overboard without their consent to lighten the load (in the second case).

It may be that the issue of survival cannibalism with the victim’s consent has never been tested in the common law. Today, two changes would tip the scales in favor of the defense. Starving people probably have trouble thinking straight, and courts today are more likely to recognize diminished capacity as a defense. Second, some scholars have theorized that the Dudley and Stephens decision was a judicial reaction again the new theory of Darwinism. They didn’t want to admit that man can be reduced to survival of the fittest. If so, such a backlash is less likely today.

Want to know more?

Michael O’Donnell, in a project for the National University of Ireland School of Law in Galway, produced a video about the Regina v. Dudley and Stephens case. It includes fascinating interviews with a couple of professors.

I don’t claim to be an expert in admiralty law and invite anyone who can add to the discussion to post a comment!

How would you rule if you were a judge and the Essex case came before your court?

Literature on point:

Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea (Viking Adult 2000)

A.W. Brian Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law (University of Chicago Press 1984)






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Mark Twain: Why Germany is the Answer to Writer’s Block

Mark Twain

Mark Twain, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It can happen to anybody. Mark Twain had started several new books when it struck in 1878. His solution to writer’s block might surprise you. And the results probably surprised him.

Mark Twain had a similar view

Heidelberg from above. Papkoom Kamchuai, Shutterstock

Mark Twain in Heidelberg

Twain decided a change of scenery would help and booked a 16-month trip to Europe with his family. He had already become famous for Innocents Abroad and his goal was to get away to a quiet place, where people didn’t know him. “I had a couple of light minor purposes, also: to acquire the German language, and to perfect myself in Art,” he wrote.

Mark Twain's sketch

Twain’s sketch of a raft on the Neckar in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Heidelberg offered the perfect refuge. On the Königstuhl Mountain, perched high over the city, Twain found an inn where he rented a room as an office. Further downhill, he booked a $250 per month suite for his family in the Schloss Hotel. He lived there for several months. The view from his hotel distracted him from his writing, but later inspired him. In a May 26, 1878 letter to his friends, he wrote:

… divinely located. From this airy porch among the shining groves we look down upon Heidelberg Castle, and upon the swift Neckar, and the town, and out over the wide green level of the Rhine valley—a marvelous prospect. We are in a Cul-de-sac formed of hill-ranges and river; we are on the side of a steep mountain; the river at our feet is walled, on its other side, (yes, on both sides,) by a steep and wooded mountain-range which rises abruptly aloft from the water’s edge; portions of these mountains are densely wooded; the plain of the Rhine, seen through the mouth of this pocket, has many and peculiar charms for the eye.

Another Mark Twain sketch

Another one of Mark Twain’s raft sketches in Heilbronn, Germany. Public domain.

Neckar River as Distraction and Inspiration

Our bedroom has two great glass bird-cages (enclosed balconies) one looking toward the Rhine valley and sunset, the other looking up the Neckar cul-de-sac, and naturally we spend nearly all our time in these—when one is sunny the other is shady. We have tables and chairs in them; we do our reading, writing, studying, smoking and suppering in them.

The view from these bird-cages is my despair. The pictures change from one enchanting aspect to another in ceaseless procession, never keeping one form half an hour, and never taking on an unlovely one.

Rafts like these sparked Mark Twain's phantasy.  LOT 12687, no. 8 (H)

19th century log raft. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

At some point Twain looked beyond the beauty of the Neckar River to its commercial activity. Log rafts floated down regularly from the Black Forest. Twain sketched them and described them in A Tramp Abroad. In August, 1978, he took a trip upstream to Heilbronn and returned, in part, by boat, but his fantasy was working the entire trip. Twain concocted a story about a return trip in a raft.

Raft Trip on the Neckar River

While I was looking down upon the rafts that morning in Heilbronn, the dare-devil spirit of adventure came suddenly upon me, and I said to my comrades:

“I am going to Heidelberg on a raft. Will you venture with me?”

Twain claims to have chartered a raft for his return trip and describes a myriad of adventures on the return trip: boys swimming out to them, a naked beauty bathing under a willow tree, a storm, and a shipwreck.

Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.

Jim and Huck on the raft

E.W. Kemble; illustration from an 1884 edition of Huckleberry Finn. Public domain.

Inspiration for Huckleberry Finn

Back in Heidelberg, Twain got fresh inspiration for Huckleberry Finn. He had already been toying with the raft trip idea, but now his ideas crystallized. He wrote chapter 16, in which Jim and Huck take off on the raft but missed Cairo in the fog, in Heidelberg.

Twain’s biographer Justin Kaplan views the fictional raft trip on the Neckar as a crucial remedy to the writer’s block that stalled Huckleberry Finn. A German river might have inspired one of the greatest works of American fiction. It would be no surprise to the Germans, who consider the Neckar the most “literary” of all its rivers. Friedrich Schiller, author of the Ode to Joy and William Tell, was born on its banks. Goetz of Berlichingen, who inspired Goethe, had a castle on the Neckar.

Can’t write? Then come to Germany!

What places inspire your creativity?

Literature on point:

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

Werner Pieper (ed.), Mark Twain’s Guide to Heidelberg: His journey through German in 1878 (Lörbach: Medien Xperminente)

Jan Bürger, Der Neckar: Eine literarische Reise (Munich: C.H. Beck 2013)

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