The Death of Mad King Ludwig
What we do and do not know about the mysterious death of Bavaria's Mad King who built castles like Neuschwanstein.
by Brian Dunning
March 25, 2014
Although he's best known to most of us as the mad king who bankrupted his country building his extravagant castles, King Ludwig II of Bavaria probably deserved a better demise than to be found floating face down in a lake. In fact he never bankrupted his country at all; he spent only his own fortune and borrowed money on his ostentatious construction projects, and the evidence suggesting he was mentally ill is controversial at best. He was his country's greatest patron of the arts, and when his own ministers turned against him to depose him from the throne, he died quite suddenly in a lake. To this day the mystery remains: Was King Ludwig murdered, or did he commit suicide to avoid the shame of deposition?
Bavaria, now a state in Germany, was a monarchy from 1806 through the end of World War I. Upon the death of his father Maximilian II, young Ludwig assumed the throne in 1864 when he was only 18 years old. Ludwig had never had any interest in matters of state and had never been particularly close with his father. His loves were art, history, architecture, and music. He was introverted and avoided public functions. His baptism into politics was one of fire; Bavaria had an uneasy alliance with Prussia during the Franco-Prussian war, and the first years of his reign were dominated by the war with Napoleon III. He had almost no involvement at all, preferring instead to build theaters and tour the countryside while war raged elsewhere. Thus, his reign began with a sharp division between himself and his ministers. He was a king who needed adult supervision. The ministers ran the country, and the boy king built more theaters, patronized artists and musicians, and studied classic architecture.
Ludwig's projects included the famous clifftop Neuschwanstein castle; the fabulous Linderhof palace with its underground artificial lake and grotto; Herrenchiemsee, a replica of the Palace of Versailles; plus a number of smaller castles and additions to the royal Residenz Palace in Munich. The Bavarian people loved their king who lavished them so well and built so many wonderful things. He was given nicknames such as the Dream King, the Swan King, and the Fairy Tale King.
Ludwig obtained loans for his construction projects, and demanded more and more loans, until the Finance Minister finally had to refuse. Compounded by his disdain for the duties of his office, Ludwig's hunger for more construction finally brought his house down. The Prime Minister, Baron Johann Lutz, decided to act. He planned to constitutionally remove Ludwig from office, before Ludwig could start his grandest projects yet: a Chinese Palace in Austria, and a Byzantine Palace that would have been the largest building in the world, built of marble and gold, and based on the Grail Temple from Wagner's opera Parsifal.
If Lutz could prove that Ludwig was insane, he could be legally removed from power on that basis. Lutz obtained the cooperation of Prince Luitpold, the king's uncle, who agreed to take over only if Lutz could prove beyond any doubt that the king truly was incapacitated by insanity. Lutz and the other ministers empaneled four eminent German psychiatrists, led by Dr. Bernhard von Gudden. Count von Holnstein, a leading attendant to the king, turned against him and went to great lengths to obtain anecdotes and reports from the staff that depicted Ludwig in a negative light. The commission spent two months assembling their report, which found him afflicted with "chronic and incurable madness". Its specifics were largely based on the reports wrung out of people by von Holstein — not one of the psychiatrists ever actually examined Ludwig, who was by now 40 years old. Prince Luitpold was convinced but remained reluctant, and it was three more months before he finally gave Lutz his blessing to proceed.
For two days in June, Luitpold's men laid siege to Neuschwanstein wherein Ludwig brooded. He spoke often to his closest servants about suicide and drowning himself, and kept asking for the key to the castle's highest tower from where he might cast himself to the death he believed his soul would survive. Then, on June 12, 1886, Dr. von Gudden, having been informed of Ludwig's plan, tricked Ludwig into a trap by giving word that the key had been found, and Ludwig was captured and arrested halfway up the tower on his way to jump. As they took him to the coach to be taken away, he famously shouted at von Gudden:
How can you declare me insane? You have never examined me.
The conspirators had converted Berg Castle, eight hours away on the shore of Lake Starnberg, into an asylum to receive Ludwig. (At different times, Ludwig and his father had both renovated Berg Castle.) His stay this time was not a long one. On his first morning, Ludwig and von Gudden took a walk, accompanied by two wardens. Upon their return von Gudden wrote that the treatment was going well and the patient already seemed quite normal — an almost unbelieveable comment from a doctor who had removed him from power, due to insanity, less than 24 hours earlier.
They took another walk just after 6:00pm, intending to return in time for an 8:00 dinner. This time no guards accompanied them, but no clear record exists as to why von Gudden would have allowed this. They disappeared from the castle's sight at half past six, and were never again seen alive. By 9:00 it was raining heavily and a search was underway. An hour later, in the wind and rain, the bodies were seen floating face-down in the lake in waist-deep water. Von Gudden's forehead was deeply injured but the king bore no marks, and desperate attempts to resuscitate him failed. Thus passed the Fairy Tale King.
So the question that has attended this misfortune has been asked ever since: was Ludwig murdered, or did he commit suicide? Did Ludwig kill the doctor then drown himself, or were both men killed by conspirators to end and silence the whole affair? The only evidence that survives is anecdotal. Everyone present who gave any report was a partisan of one side or the other; either those few still loyal to the king, or the many who were part of the successful coup. The anecdotal claims include the following:
- The wet grass on the shore, near a bench where von Gudden's umbrella sat, was chewed up as if men had grappled.
- Two fisherman on another part of the lake reported gunshots.
- Some said Ludwig's lungs were full of water as if he'd drowned. Others said they weren't, therefore he couldn't have drowned.
- Some said Ludwig's overcoat had a bullet hole in the back. Others said it didn't.
- Most commonly, Ludwig is said to have been uninjured and drowned; von Gudden is said to have borne signs of being beaten and then drowned.
The official autopsy report was no help at all; it was clearly a partisan document intended to prove Ludwig was insane and did not even pretend to identify a cause of death. The bizarre document didn't even consider the condition of the body or any possible injuries; instead it focused on the measurements of his skull and brain:
The arachnoid on both convexities of the cerebrum was thickened and milky-looking. At one place, about the junction of the left first frontal and the ascending frontal, the piz and arachnoid membranes had become thickened and raised by fibrous proliferation...
...and so on, and so on; finally concluding:
The account thus given apparently does reveal degenerative changes. Taken in connection with the personal and family history they place the insanity of the King beyond all reasonable doubt, and make it quite unnecessary to suppose that there was any dark conspiracy in connection with this tragic end.
The testimony of those closest to Ludwig, who spent the final days at his side at Neuschwanstein, make it seem definite that Ludwig was clearly suicidal and even wanted to drown. This is really about the only point that is agreed upon by Ludwig's friends and the deposing government. But outside of Ludwig's personal circle, his supporters primarily search for signs he was murdered. Even as recently as 2007, a Munich businessman revealed that 50 years ago, when he was 10, his mother had taken him to a tea party where a countess with connections to Ludwig's family had shown everyone an old coat with two holes in the back, claiming it was the one Ludwig had worn the night he was shot. The press trumpeted it as "new evidence" even though it was merely an anecdote, a highly suspect and improbable one at that. Really? As part of their master conspiracy to cover up the murder, the government gave the bullet ridden coat to Ludwig's family, and allowed them to freely exhibit it?
The unfortunate fact about Ludwig's death is that no evidence was ever properly collected that would allow the case to be solved. Whatever evidence did exist was either ignored or deliberately not reported, possibly even covered up. The body was only ever under control of the deposing government, so they had every opportunity; but many people were involved in the autopsy and the handling and preparation of the body. And among many witnesses, it's much easier to keep a secret that bears no outward signs, like water in the lungs, than a secret that would shake the government to its core, like bullet wounds.
Author Peter Glowasz has been one of the most vocal proponents of the murder theory. He has put together bits of stories and proposed a scenario in which a pair of assassins, employed by the new government, hid in a boathouse and then shot both Ludwig and von Gudden to cover up the whole affair. Glowazs wants to exhume Ludwig, hoping to find evidence that he was murdered, in order to clear him of the smears of being insane, killing von Gudden, and killing himself. He writes:
Why would anyone be opposed to solving his death? Are we not all in awe and fascinated when stepping into these world famous Bavarian castles? Ludwig's grand works of art, namely his castles, have developed into one of the most genial investments a statesman ever made for his land.
But generally, few Bavarians want to disturb Ludwig's remains and re-open the case. As the creator of Bavaria's most beautiful national treasures, he is much beloved. Even Prince Luitpold, who respectfully declined the crown and reigned only as Prince Regent, is a figure cloaked in nostalgia; among his first acts was to open Ludwig's most impressive castles to the Bavarian public. These gifts to the arts that began as threats to national finance have transformed into sources of great income, having paid for themselves many times over as tourist attractions. It's unlikely that we'll ever know what caused the Fairy Tale King to pass, but we will always know the value and beauty of his legacy.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Death of Mad King Ludwig." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
25 Mar 2014. Web.
17 Feb 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4407>
References & Further Reading
Editors. "The Mysterious Death of the King." King Ludwig II. Tourist Information Schwangau, 23 Sep. 2003. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://schwangau.de/646.0.html>
Glowasz, P. "The Sarcophagus." König Ludwig II von Bayern. koenig-ludwig-der-2te.de, 18 May 2011. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://www.koenig-ludwig.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=163:the-sarcophagus&catid=49:articles&Itemid=67>
Häfner, H., Sommer, F. "The Bavarian royal drama of 1886 and the misuse of psychiatry: new results." History of Psychiatry. 1 Sep. 2013, Volume 24, Number 3: 274-291.
Kapfhammer, H. "The King and the Psychiatrist." Nervenarzt. 1 May 2011, Volume 82, Number 5: 597-598.
Lidberg, L. "The king of Bavaria, creator of the fabulous castle, killed his psychiatrist." Lakartidningen. 10 Jun. 1998, Volume 95, Number 24: 2853.
Neumann, C. "Fresh Doubt About Suicide Theory: Was Mad King Ludwig Murdered?" Spiegel Online. SPIEGELnet GmbH, 7 Nov. 2007. Web. 19 Mar. 2014. <http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/fresh-doubt-about-suicide-theory-was-mad-king-ludwig-murdered-a-515924.html>
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