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)
An Interview with Ron Franscell, Coauthor of the New Book, “Morgue: A Life in Death”
Vincent van Gogh’s death is one of greatest mysteries of the art world.
Historians can tell you this much for sure: The Dutch artist was staying in Auvers, France in July, 1890, and at nightfall one Sunday, he returned from painting outdoors. He was clutching his stomach and his paints and easel were gone.
The landlord rushed to van Gogh’s aid and discovered a gunshot in the painter’s abdomen. Despite medical attention, the wound became infected, and van Gogh died two days later.
In 1956, the landlord’s daughter published her memories of Vincent van Gogh’s death. The artist, she recalled, admitted to having injured himself. In the minds of art historians, suicide became the official cause of death.
Two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers researching Vincent van Gogh’s death stumbled across archival contradictions, eventually concluding someone had shot the artist. They published that theory in a book, Vincent van Gogh: A Life, in 2011. Revisionist history always meets with resistance, and this was no exception. Art historians balked.
To bolster their claims, the two authors turned to a world-renowned expert on gunshot wounds, Dr. Vincent Di Maio. He examined the historical record with the eye of a pathologist, and his conclusions might surprise you.
Dr. Di Maio teamed up with national bestselling author Ron Franscell to publish a collection of those cases that made Dr. Di Maio famous: the exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald, the controversial shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unmasking of a serial baby killer, and the true cause of Vincent van Gogh’s death.
Morgue: A Life in Death was published on May 17, 2016, and promises to be a good read. Ron Franscell joins us for an interview to pull back the curtains on an old French case.
Ron, what are the strongest arguments that Vincent van Gogh was shot by another person?
Dr. Di Maio told van Gogh’s biographers the description and location of the wound are inconsistent with a self-inflicted gunshot in 1890.
As two attending doctors and other eyewitnesses described it, the clean, pea-sized wound showed no evidence of messy, obvious soot or powder stippling, which the black powder-filled civilian handgun cartridges of the time would have caused in any point-blank or close-up shot. Even his blouse and jacket would not have blocked all the super-hot particles and gases from the muzzle blast. Dr. Di Maio calculated that the pistol’s muzzle would have been AT LEAST 20 inches from van Gogh’s side when the shot was fired.
But equally important is the location: on or just below the bottom rib on the artist’s left side (about where your left elbow would touch your side if you stood with your arms straight-down by your side). Data showed that it is rare for a suicidal man to shoot himself in the torso, and even rarer for him to shoot himself in the low part of his side (not a direct shot to the heart). And the notion is far-fetched that a right-handed man would hold a gun at least 20 inches from his side with his left hand to fire a shot that he wished would kill him. (If you try to re-enact it, please be sure your gun is unloaded! But I think you’ll find that it is clumsy and damn near impossible.)
Supporting evidence also informs the scientific analysis. The gun was never found, even though many people searched for it. The artist’s painting equipment, left behind after his fatal wounding, was never found either. And it was known that while the troubled genius van Gogh sometimes mused about his own death in his letters, as a former clergyman he also believed suicide was an immoral act.
Dr. Di Maio’s conclusion: “It is my opinion that, in all medical probability, the wound incurred by van Gogh was not self-inflicted.”
Could we call Vincent van Gogh’s death a murder?
All murders are homicides, but not all homicides are murder. Certainly, Dr. Di Maio would call the manner of Vincent van Gogh’s death a “homicide.” There is, however, a distinct possibility it was an accidental shooting by someone else. There is not enough evidence—nor ever likely to be—to prove what really happened, but the forensic evidence suggests it was not an intentional shooting by van Gogh himself. Whether this homicide [the catch-all term for any killing of one human by another] was “murder” or “manslaughter”—both criminal forms of homicide that require intent or negligence—or merely an accident is unknown.
Why the myth of a suicide? And how did it hinder later investigation and research?
To be fair, van Gogh himself suggested that he alone was responsible, and he wasn’t exactly the celebrity that he is today. The investigation was cursory and, like today, the death of an addled, itinerant, penniless, and nearly homeless person wouldn’t mobilize the national police. As we sometimes still see in modern media, the real story gets lost as it is retold over time. Gossip becomes fact becomes history. In the village where it happened, a lot of people believed van Gogh had been shot by someone else, but over time, the story of a troubled genius saying goodbye to this cruel world became the superior narrative.
The resistance of many van Gogh curators to the homicide theory shows another reason why researchers and investigators would have had a difficult time pursuing it. They would have been pooh-poohed, ridiculed, and criticized—as the biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith were—by some of the keenest official sources on the artist’s life.
A major part of Dr. Di Maio’s argument rests on the assumption that the weapon was loaded with black powder, which burns dirty and is more likely to leave behind powder burns. Smokeless nitrocellulose powder was developed in 1884. Even if the gun had been loaded with the newer, cleaner powder, wouldn’t it also leave powder burns at a close range?
Yes. Even in 2016, point-blank and intermediate-range gunshots leave powder tattooing, burns, and other expulsive evidence. In 1890, it would have been dirtier and more pronounced, even in the unlikely event that this old, balky pistol had been loaded with the “high tech” ammo of the day.
Dr. Di Mao’s response: “The first form of smokeless powder was invented in 1884 in France. It was a military secret but by 1888 other countries were producing it. It was first used in military rifles.”
Dr. Di Maio’s opinion was based solely on the appearance of the wound, as described by the attending doctors. Where a close-up shot would have shown definite powder tattooing (even in modern times), van Gogh’s very definitely did not. Dr. Di Maio reasons that in 1890 it would have been even more pronounced, for the reasons we write.
Who was René Secrétan? How did his statements affect the research into Vincent van Gogh’s death?
Rene was a village boy who delighted in hectoring, teasing, harassing, and pranking van Gogh, who was a slightly crazy, odd-acting, funny-dressing loner. Rene might have been the subject of one van Gogh drawing, but mostly their relationship was bully and victim.
In the 1950s, Rene gave an interview to a French paper about van Gogh. Although he didn’t say anything directly about the wounding, he described that old pistol as having a mind of its own. He said specifically that it would sometimes go off without any help from a trigger finger. Was he describing what happened when van Gogh was wounded? Had he seen it? Nobody knows. The reporter didn’t follow up and Rene died fairly soon afterward.
At least one witness later described seeing van Gogh on the fateful day with some local boys in a barnyard that was in the opposite direction of the fields where he claimed he’d been painting. It might have been misremembered, or it might not have been what he saw at all, but it intrigues us to think that maybe van Gogh didn’t tell the whole (or genuine) story about what he was doing when he was shot.
Again, because the gun, his easel, brushes, paints and other equipment were never found, the story accrues more mystery.
Are there any indications Secrétan wasn’t completely forthcoming?
See above. But 60 years after the fact, why talk about a balky gun?
Secrétan claimed to have learned of Vincent van Gogh’s from a Paris newspaper. Why would a Paris newspaper report the death of an unknown, derelict artist out in the country?
Historians have never been able to find any such mention in any newspaper, probably for the reasons you state: Vincent van Gogh was not a known person and his death simply would not have been news.
Vincent van Gogh’s death came just two years after the French pathologist Alexandre Lacassagne invented the field of forensic ballistics. Did the French police use that technique to match the bullet in van Gogh’s abdomen to a weapon?
The bullet was never removed, and the gun never found, so ballistic analysis—even in its primitive form—was never done. The bullet lies buried in van Gogh’s remains, but the gun has never been found, so even today, ballistic expert would be stymied.
Did the painter suffer from a psychiatric illness? Did that play a role in Vincent van Gogh’s death? And could it have affected the veracity of his statements to the gendarmes before he died?
Yes. Vincent van Gogh had been institutionalized and even in his life was presumed to have mental illness. Today, we can inventory his symptoms and give them a better name, but at the time he was definitely considered “crazy” and “troubled.” Whether the gendarmes attributed his statements to being crazy or not, we cannot know. But we know he spoke to them, answered their questions fairly calmly, and they were satisfied that no further investigation was necessary.
One of the big surprises in your book is that there was more than one crime that affected Vincent van Gogh’s life. An argument with impressionist painter Paul Gauguin about a serial slasher precipitated the famous incident of van Gogh cutting off his ear. That was in 1888. Was the criminal they were arguing about the London Monster? He was active from 1888 to 1890.
No, it was reportedly the case of a prostitute killer named Luis Carlos Prado, who ultimately was beheaded for his crimes. The argument was apparently over an au courant artistic discussion about whether murder was simply a natural human instinct, or a primitive act. You can imagine where the former clergyman van Gogh came down on that.
Why does all this matter 125 years later?
One thread that ties MORGUE’s fascinating cases together was our tendency, as humans, to leap to conclusions. We often see events through the prism of our own biases and form everlasting conclusions, even before we have all the facts. It was true in the case of Trayvon Martin (the book’s first chapter), the West Memphis Three, and other stories we tell in this book, including van Gogh (the last chapter).
From the book: “By and large, some in the art world resist the notion of a homicide, whether accidental or premeditated, because it’s neither dramatic nor poetic enough. After all, painters, poets, and lonely lovers die so much more romantically if they drink from their own little poison vials, or cut their veins beneath a pale blue moon, or swim far out into the sea with no intention of swimming back. “
Many artists were so invested in the idea of a great (but overlooked-in-life) artist’s suicide that they didn’t want to hear a more plausible and less romantic alternative.
So one of the roles of forensic science is to deliver objective facts. It should tell us honestly and candidly what we must know as a society. Forensic evidence is the bedrock of justice. It doesn’t change its story or misremember what it saw. It doesn’t cower when a mob gathers on the courthouse steps. It doesn’t run away or go silent out of fear. It tells us honestly and candidly what we need to know as a society.
Nevertheless, even with history’s most powerful forensic tools, these stories show that popular opinion and scientific facts are frequently at odds, sometimes violently.
Thank you, Ron, and good luck with your new book!
Do you find Dr. Di Maio’s arguments on Vincent van Gogh’s death convincing? Why or why not?
Literature on point:
Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell, Morgue: A Life in Death (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)Read More
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A03p_egwaSg
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)