Hot evidence in a cold case
New evidence in a 130-year-old unexplained death? It’s unusual, but it can happen.
In the case of the mysterious death of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II, the new evidence takes the form of Dr. Gudden’s death mask. Munich’s Rosenheim Museum rediscovered it in its attic in 1999. The mask tells a story that casts new light on Ludwig’s death.
Bavaria’s greatest unsolved mystery
Just how did King Ludwig II die on 13 June 1886? No one knows for sure.
The Bavarian government had just deposed the 40-year-old king as unfit to rule and placed him under guard at Bavaria’s Castle Berg on the shores of Lake Starnberg. Following an evening walk on the lakeshore, Ludwig and Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, Bavaria’s best-known psychiatry professor and expert witness in the proceedings to depose the king, were found floating face-down in the waist-deep waters of the lake. No one witnessed their deaths; no one knew exactly what happened.
Autopsy results on the king found no cause of death. There was no water in his lungs and no visible mortal injury – just a scrape on his knee. Theories about the deaths have spiraled out to suicide, homicide, and various forms of an accident. You can read more about the mysterious case here, and for the reasons many Bavarians think it was murder, click here.
The Bavarian government’s official explanation
The Bavarian government’s official explanation for the deaths was homicide-suicide. King Ludwig II rushed into the lake to commit suicide. When Dr. Guddden tried to stop him, Ludwig killed him. Then he waded out into deeper waters to drown himself.
The problem with this theory is that two pieces of evidence – the men’s pocket watches and Dr. Gudden’s death mask – bear silent witness to the contrary.
The riddle of the pocket watches
King Ludwig’s pocket watch stopped at 6:54 pm. If the government’s theory were true, you’d expect Dr. Gudden’s watch to have stopped earlier because he would have been floating in the water longer than King Ludwig II.
The reverse, however, is true. Dr. Gudden’s watch stopped at 8:06 pm – 72 minutes after the king’s watch did. This discrepancy is one of the most hotly debated aspects of the case.
Once water enters a pocket watch’s machinery, it will stop very quickly. In a televised experiment for a German documentary, a watchmaker dropped a replica of a 19th-century pocket watch into a glass of water. It stopped after 20 seconds.
Various theories have been advanced to explain why the discrepancy might still be consistent with the government version. According to one, Dr. Gudden often forgot to wind his watch. Hence, it may have been running too fast or slow. Likewise, historians have argued the king habitually set his watch back a half hour or more.
The doctor was known to close his watch lid very tightly, and that might have affected how quickly water entered the watch’s gears. Furthermore, Ludwig wore less clothing – only a shirt and vest – when he entered Lake Starnberg. He had stripped off his jacket and greatcoat first, but Dr. Gudden kept on his. Thus, it would have taken the water longer to saturate Dr. Gudden’s outer clothing and reach the watch.
But would it really take 72 minutes?
It’s hard to know which version to believe. Fortunately, there was a third clock ticking, a biological one – one whose accuracy could not be influenced by human maintenance or clothing. That clock, visible on Dr. Gudden’s death mask, sets the pocket watch discrepancy in a new light.
Dr. Gudden’s death mask
For decades, Dr. Gudden’s death mask disappeared among stored and boxed items of the Rosenheim Museum in Munich. A worker rediscovered it in 1999 and it became the subject of an exhibition in 2014.
The mask shows injury to Dr. Gudden’s face. His right eye – the left one from the viewer’s perspective – is visibly swollen. The Rosenheim Museum could not provide me with an image I could use for this post, but you can view the swelling in this German talk show by forwarding to 2:13-17.
The eye injury on Dr. Gudden’s death mask is consistent with descriptions of Gudden’s face following his death. Dr. Heiß, the substitute district physician who assisted the investigating magistrate, noted blue coloring under the right eye and frontal eminence of the brow which appeared to be caused by a heavy blow from a fist. Two government officials described swelling above Dr. Gudden’s left eye (they probably meant left from their perspective). The psychiatry professor Dr. Grashey recorded a broad contusion on the right frontal eminence. Dr. Müller, Gudden’s assistant, noted “not insignificant” blue coloring, over the right eye, which he also thought might have been caused by a fist. Finally, a district commissioner made a similar observation. He found indications of a blow to Dr. Gudden’s right brow.
Antemortem, perimortem, or postmortem?
A pathologist today would try to categorize Dr. Gudden’s bruising according to when it happened – before, at the time of, or after his death. Generally speaking, injuries received before death show swelling. Once the circulatory system stops at death, injuries are less likely to swell. This means Dr. Gudden might have survived the blow to his eye for a period of time before he died. And that would underscore the pocket watch discrepancy.
But there are exceptions. Certain postmortem conditions can cause pseudo-bruising, lending an antemortem appearance to a postmortem injury. One such condition is the position of the body. Dr. Gudden floated face-down in the water for two to three hours before he was found, allowing blood to pool in his face. That pooling might have caused some swelling even after death. He was laid in a supine position after he was found, and that might have reserved the effects by the next day.
Whether Dr. Gudden’s death mask and the descriptions of his injury are enough to pinpoint the time of injury is an issue for a pathologist. Strangely, I’ve found nothing in the literature indicating that Ludwig or Gudden historians have ever approached a pathologist with this question. It’s an important one, because if Dr. Gudden survived his presumed fight with the king for any period of time, the government explanation starts to crumble and the watch discrepancy takes on a new significance.
A British television producer interviewed me about this case in October 2016. I suggested the team take this question to a pathologist. The episode will air in April or May with UKTV as part of a series called “Royal Murder Mysteries,” and with luck, it will also air on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. I’ll be looking forward to seeing if an expert addresses Dr. Gudden’s death mask.
Literature on point:
“Akte Mord – Historische Kriminalfälle,” Welt der Wunder Wissensthek (Schröder Media, 2008), DVD.
“Das Geheimnis der verschollenen Totenmaske,” OVB online (13 May 2014).
“König Ludwig II & Bernhard von Gudden – Stadtgespräch München,” München-TV (10 July 2015).
“Ludwigs letzte Sekunden: Bei der Bestimmung des Todeszeitpunktes hat Uhr des Königs geholfen. Rätsel bleiben ,” Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung (11 July 2011).
C. McIntosh, The Swan King: Ludwig II of Bavaria (I.B. Taurus, rev. ed. 2012).
J.P. Saxena, “Medico-Legal Significance of Bruise,” Legal Service India (2000-2015).
Alfrons Schweigert, Der Mann, der mit Ludwig II starb: Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, Gutachter des bayerischen Königs (Husum Druck- und Verlagsgesellschaft, 2014).
Vanezis, “Interpreting Bruises at Necropsy,” J. Clin. Pathol 54:348-355 (2001).
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)
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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)
Rosemarie Frühauf, “Im Geheimdienst Seiner Majestät: 125. Todestag König Ludwigs II.,” Epoch Times (21 May 2011)Read More