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

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

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

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

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

A death shrouded in mystery: how did it happen?

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale Castle of Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein by Ondrey Prosicky, Shutterstock, with permission.

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

Here are eight reasons.

Witnesses sworn to secrecy

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

Lidl’s secret diary

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

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

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

Ludwig II with Dr. von Gudden

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

Bullet wounds

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

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

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

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

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

Statements from the House of Wittelsbach

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

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

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

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

Coat with bullet holes

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

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

Site of King Ludwig's last walk.

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

The sketch of the blood

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

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

Hermann Kaulbach

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

Physician’s statement

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

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

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

King Ludwig II's coronation portrait

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

Crime scene analysis: double dry drowning

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

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

Weighing the evidence

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

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

Literature on point:

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

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

Gary Haupt, Drowning Investigations, Missouri Water Patrol

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

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

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

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

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

Merken

Merken

23 Comments

  1. Catherine Epps
    Jun 8, 2016

    Very Interesting! Thanks, Ann Marie! I remember being fascinated by Crazy King Ludwig and reading all about him when we were in Germany, touring all of his castles. I remember one tour guide telling us that it was ludicrous that Ludwig had drown, as he was apparently an expert swimmer. She said he was murdered because he was thought to be bankrupting the country with his building mania. But, she said, the country now could wish that he’d built even more castles, as they make so much money from them!

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 9, 2016

      It’s true — Ludwig’s castles have come to define Bavaria, especially for tourism. If you ask any American what comes to mind when they think of Germany, most will most likely get a picture of Neuschwanstein in their minds.

      Yes, bankruptcy, or the threat of it, is the most common reason given for the coup. On the other hand, the king paid for his castles out of his private funds, and I’m not sure to what extent the public coffers were really in danger. It’s a question for historians.

  2. Undine
    Jun 8, 2016

    Thank you! I’m fascinated by Ludwig’s weird death, but I’ve had a surprisingly hard time finding English-language material on the subject that seems reliable. It’s a pity so much of the known evidence pointing to murder is so…ephemeral.

    This may be a bit of a stupid question, but do we know whether or not Ludwig could swim?

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 9, 2016

      Thanks, Undine, I’m glad you liked it. Although there are biographies available in English, the only books I’m aware of that focus on his death and the various theories are in German.

      As to your question: Yes, he was a strong swimmer. In fact, he liked to swim in the same lake when he was young.

    • Hans
      Jun 13, 2016

      Yes – he was an expert swimmer

      • Ann Marie
        Jun 13, 2016

        That’s what I’ve read too. Thanks for commenting, Hans!

  3. manu-b
    Jun 9, 2016

    Thanks for the interesting article.
    With the information about the missing diaries, my mind puts together another scenario:
    The King tried to flee with the help of the fisherman.
    The doctor maybe thought the King attempt suizide or tried to hold him prisoner and therefore used the syringe with a strong med. drug. The King defended himself, the Dr. drowned, but got some of the drug into the King. When the King now swam to the boat, the strong drug worked way faster and he had a heart attack, which looked for the fisherman like the King was shot. The other persons only saw everything from a distance and thought also the King was shot. Since neither the treatment with a potential deadly drug not an actual murder could be announced, because both would have thrown a bad light on the people involved in the Deposition of the King, it became a simple suizide.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 9, 2016

      That’s an interesting theory; thanks for commenting!

      Some people have speculated Dr. Gudden used chloroform on the king when he tried to flee. Dr. Schleiss claims Dr. Gudden attacked their party with a syringe. If the king had been drugged, via chloroform or syringe, perhaps that contributed to a heart attack. Legally at least, that might still count as murder because the administration of the drugs would have been a causal factor in the king’s death.

      I’ve read — but unfortunately don’t have any sources — that several fisherman on the lake heard shots. If that’s true, it would support both Lidl’s and Dr. Schleiss’s version of the events.

  4. Susan Appleyard
    Jun 10, 2016

    I am in the early stages of research about Ludwig for a novel, but so far I am inclined to believe that it was suicide. I can see good reason why he would want to kill himself rather than live the life planned for him by the conspirators, and I can see no reason why the conspirators, having deposed him, would want to kill him. I’m not impressed by evidence that has since disappeared. The only thing that gives me pause is the autopsy report. Does it still exist in any form? If not, how do we know about it?
    Thank you for such an interesting post. I’ll visit your blog again.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 10, 2016

      Thanks, Susan, for your comment, and you can drop me an Email when your novel comes out, because I’d be interested in taking a look at it.

      Here is part of the autopsy report, but it’s censored. This documentary also shows the autopsy report, both orginal and a transcription. I found the full autopsy report in cited in Wilhelm Wöbking’s book, Der Tod König Ludwigs II. von Bayern. I’m not sure where the original is archived.

      Possible motives might have included avoidance of a civil war. Or it could be that the king wanted to flee and a gendarme shot at him as a gut reaction.

      I’m a former prosecutor, and like you, I have a distaste for ephemeral evidence. But I think there’s more to this case than meets the eye. If he drowned, why was he found floating? At any rate, it’s no longer a case for lawyers, but for historians.

  5. Tabatha Morrow
    Jun 14, 2016

    What a juicy story! History provides so much great drama, and lingering mysteries are fantastic to ponder.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 15, 2016

      Thanks, Tabitha! Sometimes a mystery provides a good gateway to history; that’s true!

  6. Sarah Waldock
    Jun 17, 2016

    Fascinating, and so much coincidence of hidden testimony seems to corroborate the murder theory. I write murder mysteries and I read a LOT about forensics for that end, and I wouldn’t let even the dimmest of Town Reeves or Bow Street Runners declare it an accident or suicide. It wouldn’t be credible to the knowledgeable reader that this was anything but murder if written up as a fiction. And if you wouldn’t believe it in a fiction, then it’s not credible in real life either. Poor old Ludwig.

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 19, 2016

      There is a lot of evidence on both sides of the theory, and here I’ve only presented the reasons why so many people think it was murder. But that’s what makes this case so fascinating! Your Bow Street Runners would have looked at all angles of the case, I’m sure. Thanks for commenting, Sarah!

  7. Geoff Hellman
    Jun 18, 2016

    Has anyone tried to exhume the body as I think it highly likely that a couple of bullet wounds would leave traces on the skeleton?

    • Ann Marie
      Jun 19, 2016

      Several people have asked to have the body exhumed, with the exact same argument you made, Geoff. If Ludwig had been shot, not only might there be damage to the bones, but the bullet might still be there too. But until now, the House of Wittelsbach hasn’t allowed it. One person even appealed to the Bavarian justice department, but it said that because so much time has lapsed since the event, there is no hope of prosecuting a living person, and hence, only Ludwig’s family — the House of Wittelsbach — can authorize an exhumation.

      • Geoff Hellman
        Jun 22, 2016

        Thanks, Ann Marie. It looks as though they don’t want to learn the truth.

  8. Rita Secrease
    Apr 20, 2017

    Now The Truth Is Finally Out! I Always Knew That The Last True King Of Bavaria Was Murdered….by His Ministers….And Was All Planned Out,Too! I Used To Have Dreams About What Really did Happened….! THANK YOU!

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 20, 2017

      I’m glad you liked the post! I still try to keep an open mind about the case but agree that King Ludwig’s death was suspicious.

  9. Rita Secrease
    Apr 20, 2017

    You Really Don’t Need To Exhume The King’s Body! But,One Way or Another,The Absolute Truth Will Come Out….Of The Closest! Dead Man Do Tell Tales! Do You Believe In Reincarnation?

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 20, 2017

      An exhumation might still tell us something, especially if they find evidence that King Ludwig had been shot. But even that wouldn’t answer the questions of who or why. No, I don’t believe in reincarnation. I’m curious why you would ask.

  10. Sharon
    Apr 25, 2017

    I have been obsessed with Konig Ludwig sine I first learned about him in German class in Middle School. I have never bought the suicide story. Too much doesn’t fit- particularly that he was known to be a very good swimmer. What exactly happened, we may never know.
    This is a great article, glad I found it!

    • Ann Marie
      Apr 26, 2017

      Thank you very much, Sharon. One of the things that makes this case so fascinating is how the evidence doesn’t quite fit any of the theories. I wish I could interview the trees along Lake Starnberg, who are probably the last surviving “witnesses.” They saw what happened.

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