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 Patrol