Mayerling Incident

Mayerling Incident
Photograph of Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling, 1889 (The caption reads: "Mayerling, the old hunting castle of Crown Prince Rudolph before 1889")

The Mayerling Incident refers to the series of events leading to the apparent murder-suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth, and heir to the throne of the combined Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Rudolf's mistress was the daughter of the late Baron Albin Vetsera, a diplomat at the Austrian court. The bodies of the 30 year old Archduke and the seventeen year old Baroness were discovered in the Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in the Vienna Woods, fifteen miles southwest of the capital, on the morning of January 30, 1889.[1]

The death of the Crown Prince had momentous consequences for the course of history in the nineteenth century. It had a devastating effect on the already compromised marriage of the Imperial couple and interrupted the security inherent in the immediate line of Habsburg dynastic succession. As Rudolf had no son, the succession would pass to Franz Joseph's brother, Karl Ludwig and his issue, Archchduke Franz Ferdinand.[1] This destabilization endangered the growing reconciliation between the Austrian and the Hungarian factions of the Empire, which became a catalyst in the inexorable developments that led to the assassination of the Archduke and his wife Sophie by Gavrillo Princip, a Serbian nationalist at Sarajevo in June 1914 and the subsequent drift into the First World War.


The incident

Photographs of Crown Prince Rudolph and Baroness Mary Vetsera

By 1889, many people at the Court, including Rudolf's parents and his wife Stephanie, knew that Rudolf and Mary were having an affair. His marriage to Stephanie was not a particularly happy one, and had resulted in the birth of only one daughter, Elisabeth, known as Ertszi.

On January 29th, 1889, Franz Joseph and Elisabeth gave a family dinner party prior to leaving for Buda, in Hungary, on the 31st; Rudolf excused himself, claiming to be indisposed. He had arranged for a day's shooting at Mayerling early on the morning of the thirtieth, but when his valet Loschek went to call him, there was no answer. Count Joseph Hoyos, the Archduke's hunting companion, joined in, with no response. They tried to force the door, but it would not give. Finally Loschek smashed in a panel with an axe, to find the room shuttered and half-dark. Rudolph was found sitting (by some accounts, lying) motionless by the side of the bed, leaning forward and bleeding from the mouth. Before him on the bedside table stood a glass and a mirror. Without closer examination in the poor light, Loschek assumed that the Crown Prince had drunk poison from the glass, since he knew strychnine caused bleeding. On the bed lay the body of Mary Vetsera, white, ice-cold, and already quite rigid.[2] The mistaken impression that poison was involved, and even that the Baroness had poisoned the Crown Prince and then killed herself, would persist for some time.

Hoyos did not look any closer, but rushed to the station and took a special train to Vienna. He hurried to the Emperor's Adjutant General, Count Paar, and requested him to break the appalling news to the Emperor. The stifling protocol that characterized every movement in the Hofburg swung ponderously into action; Paar remonstrated that only the Empress could break such catastrophic news to the Emperor. Baron Nopcsa, Controller of the Empress' Household, was sent for, and he in turn sent for Countess Ida von Ferenczy, Empress Elisabeth's favorite Hungarian lady in waiting, to determine how Her Majesty should be informed. Elisabeth was at her Greek lesson, and was impatient at the interruption. White to the lips, Ferenczy announced that Baron Nopcsa had urgent news. Elizabeth replied that he must wait and come back later. The Countess insisted that he must be received immediately, finally being forced to add that there was grave news about the Crown Prince. This account comes from Ferenczy herself and Archduchess Marie Valerie to whom Elisabeth dictated her memory of the incident, in addition to the description in her diary.[3]

The Countess entered the room again to find Elizabeth distraught and weeping uncontrollably. At this point the Emperor appeared outside her apartments, where he was forced to wait with Nopcsa, who was visibly controlling himself only with great effort. The Empress broke the news to her husband in private; he left the room a broken man.

The Minister for the Police was summoned and the national security services sealed off the hunting lodge and the surrounding area. The body of Mary Vetsera was interred as soon as possible, without judicial inquiry, and in secret; her mother was not even allowed to attend her daughter's burial.

The story

On behalf of the Emperor, Prime Minister Count Eduard Taaffe issued a statement at noon that Rudolph had died "due to a rupture of an aneurism of the heart". The Imperial family and court were still under the impression that he had been poisoned, and it appears that even Mary's mother, Baroness Helene Vetsera initially believed this. It was only when the court medical commission headed by Dr. Widerhofer arrived in Mayerling that afternoon that a more accurate cause of death was established, and not until 6 a.m. the following morning of the 31st that Widerhofer made his report to the Emperor that the true state of affairs became known. The official gazette of Vienna still reported the original story that day: "His Royal and Imperial Highness, Crown Prince Archduke Rudolph, died yesterday at his hunting lodge of Mayerling, near Baden, from the rupture of an aneurism of the heart."[4]

Foreign correspondents descended on Mayerling and soon learned that Rudolph's mistress was implicated in his death. This first official version of a heart attack was quickly dropped. At that stage the "heart failure" version was amended. It was announced that the Archduke had first shot the Baroness in a suicide pact and sat by her body for several hours before shooting himself. Rudolf and the Emperor were known to have recently had a violent argument, with Franz Joseph demanding that his son must end the liaison with his teenage mistress. Their deaths were the tragic result of the desperate decision of thwarted lovers taken "while the balance of the Archduke's mind was disturbed". The police closed their investigations with surprising haste, in apparent response to the Emperor's wishes.

Franz Joseph did everything in his power to get the Church’s blessing for Rudolf to be buried in the Kapuzinergruft, Imperial Crypt, which would be impossible had the Crown Prince deliberately committed murder and suicide. A special dispensation was obtained from the Vatican, declared Rudolf to have been in a state of "mental imbalance", and he now lies with 137 other Habsburgs in the Church of the Capuchins in Vienna. The dossier on the investigations and related actions were not deposited in the state archives, as they would normally have been.[5]

The story that Rudolph had violently quarrelled with the Emperor over his liaison with Baroness Vetsera may have been spread by agents of Germany's Chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, who had little love for the politically liberal Rudolph. It was certainly doubted by many of Rudolph's close relatives who knew the Chancellor personally.

The Empress Frederick of Germany noted:

Yesterday Prince Bismarck came. It was a bitter pill to me to have to receive him [Bismarck] after all that has taken place and with all that is going on. He talked a great deal about Rudolf, and said that a scene with the Emperor [of Austria] had taken place, according to Reuss's account. Perhaps Reuss [the German Ambassador to Austria] was wrong. I should think [it] very likely. [April 9, 1889][6]

She then wrote to her mother, Queen Victoria:

...I have heard different things about poor Rudolf which may perhaps interest you. Prince Bismarck told me that the violent scenes and altercations between the Emperor and Rudolf had been the cause of Rudolf's suicide. I replied that I had heard this much doubted, upon which he said Reuss had written it and it was so! He would send me the despatch to read if I liked, but I have declined. I did not say what I thought, which is that for thirty years I have had the experience of how many lies Prince Bismarck's diplomatic agents (with some exceptions) have written him, and therefore I usually disbelieve what they write completely, unless I know them to be honest and trustworthy men. Szechenyi, the Ambassador at Berlin, whom we know very well, tells me that there had been no scenes with the Emperor, who said to Szechenyi: Dies ist der erste Kummer, den mein Sohn mir macht. [This is the first vexation my son has caused me.] I give you the news for what it is worth. General Loe heard from Austrian sources that the catastrophe was not premeditated for that day! but that the young lady had destroyed herself and, seeing that, Rudolf thought there was nothing else left to him, and that he had killed himself with a Förster Gewehr [brand of hunting rifle] which he stood on the ground and then trod on the trigger. Loe considers, as I do, poor Rudolf's death a terrible misfortune. The Chancellor, I think, does not deplore it, and did not like him! [April 20, 1889][7]

Alternative theories

Mainstream historians generally dismissed the idea that there was more to the Mayerling Incident than a simple murder-suicide. However some[who?] have argued that the official story may be incorrect.

Empress Zita

Notably, it has been rumoured[who?] that Empress Zita, (1892–1989), widow of the last Emperor, Karl (r: 1916-1918) and last surviving Crowned head[citation needed] from The Great War, claimed that the Crown Prince was murdered, and the crime was disguised as a double suicide.[citation needed] In A Heart for Europe (Gracewing, 1990; reprinted 2004), the authors James and Joanna Bogle mention that in a rare public interview with the Empress Zita in 1988, she said that the Mayerling deaths were not suicide but part of a political plot. It is thought the crime was the work of foreign agents who may have been Austrian security officials, in response to the Prince’s suspected pro-Hungarian sympathies. Or, it may have been that French agents were responsible because Rudolf refused to participate in the deposition of his pro-German father: It was known Rudolf opposed his father on certain issues, including liberalising voting and allowing more scope for the activities of national groups within the Empire. This was seen in some quarters in France and elsewhere as an opportunity to weaken the Empire by playing son against father. Since Rudolf refused to agree to any suggestion that he depose and replace his father, the theory has it that he had to be killed to maintain the secrecy of the plot (Bogle & Bogle, p 3, citing Erich Feigl's biography of the Emperor Charles, Vienna, 1988). Although it has been stated that no evidence has been discovered to support either of these theories, differing accounts of the physical evidence (see below) leaves room for conjecture. Although Empress Zita was not yet born at the time of Mayerling, her strong Catholic faith and loyalty to her family would most likely preclude her acceptance of the suicide theory, particularly in the absence of incontestable evidence.[citation needed]

Political conspiracy

The idea that the Prince was killed for political reasons, with Vetsera’s death used to cover up the crime, is one of the more popular theories surrounding Mayerling.[citation needed]

This theory rests in part on the idea that the affair between Vetsera and Prince Rudolf was an open secret in the Imperial Family. Indeed, Rudolf’s wife, Princess Stéphanie, was carrying on her own affair.[citation needed] Thus, the Emperor’s demand that the couple separate was not a serious concern for the two, making a lover’s pact unnecessary.

A resulting re-examination of files about the death of the Crown Prince revealed major discrepancies between the claimed manner of the deaths and the factual evidence.[citation needed] At one point it was claimed that six shots were fired from the weapon, which did not belong to Rudolf. The initial report stated that only one shot was fired, instantly killing the Crown Prince, which raises the question of how the remaining five bullets were fired. This information suggests that Rudolf had engaged in a violent struggle before his death. However, an examination of the Papal Dispensation issued to allow Rudolf’s Christian burial asserts that only one shot was fired.[citation needed]

However, this theory[citation needed] has one major problem. By ruling Rudolf’s death a suicide, the Imperial Family was required to petition the Pope for permission to bury Rudolf in the family crypt. Critics of the conspiracy theory claim that the Imperial Family would have seized on any shred of evidence that might have indicated Rudolf did not kill himself in order to avoid the scandal of petitioning the Pope.[citation needed]

The following is from The Secrets of the Hohenzollerns by Dr. Armgaard Karl Graves, published in 1915 (Graves claims to have been a German spy who reported directly to Kaiser Wilhelm II):

"...Prussian diplomacy had gained such an ascendancy over the House of Habsburg and the affairs of Austria, that Austria has been and is a staunch ally and supported by Germany in all its aims and ambitions. This alliance is developed to such an extent that even an heir apparent to the Austrian empire unless acceptable to and identified with Prusso-Germanic interests finds it impossible to ascend the throne.
"Erherzog Rudolph, the archduke, next in succession, was mysteriously killed at Mayerling, an obscure little hunting lodge in upper Austria. Much has been written and many conjectures made about the cirumstance of this lamentable tragedy. The real reason, so vast in its importance, has of necessity never been divulged.
"On a blustery and cold January night in 1889 His Royal Highness and the Baroness Marie Vetzera (Vetchera) were familiarly seated around a plain but daintily spread supper table in the hunting lodge of Mayerling. They were attended by Max and Otto K----, two brothers much trusted in the archducal household. Supper was nearly finished and the Prince, who was very fond of a certain brand of champagne, had just given the order to Otto for another couple of bottles, when the deep baying of the Prince's favorite deerhound gave notice of the approach of strangers. A dull thud and agonized yelp of the dog made the Prince jump up and stride toward the door, which was guarded by Max. Pushing the servant aside, His Royal Highness pulled the door open. Three men muffled up to their eyes in great coats forced their way into the room. In a trice the leader of the trio pinioned Max to the wall. The Archduke, who had jumped back startled and was reseating himself behind the supper table, demanded the reason for this intrusion, when the smallest of the three, supposedly the brother of the Baroness Vetzer, laid hold of a bottle of champagne and brought the weapon down with terrific force on his unprotected head, completely crushing the skull. The Baroness, who apparently had recognized one of the three intruders, was hysterically screaming and uttering dire threats and vengeance against the perpetrators of this foul deed. As she stood there, gripping the edges of the table, the third, standing at the door, raised his Stutzen (a short hunting gun in great favor in the Austrian Alps), and fired point blank at the unfortunate woman, almost blowing her head to pieces.
"The commotion brought Otto from the wine cellar, and, taking in the situation at a glance, he threw himself fiercely upon the intruders, ably assisted by his brother Max, who also began attacking his captor. They managed to dispose of one of the assailants when again the gun rang out, sending Max to the floor with his chest almost torn to ribbons. The next moment Otto received a Hirsch-fanger (a hunting dagger) between his shoulders. Dragging their wounded conspirator with them, the two assassins disappeared into the night. From that day to this there have never been any arrests made or any one held to account for this dastardly deed.
"Otto, who was left for dead, on regaining sufficient strength decently covered the bodies with table cloths and napkins, and left a short pencil written account of the occurrences pinned on to his brother's clothes. He also disappeared in the night; for he well knew the consequences attached to an even entirely innocent witnessing of such a royal family tragedy. Old, gray and bent, Otto is living to this day the quiet life of a hermit and exile not five hundred miles from New York City. Money would never make Otto talk, but some day the upheaval in Europe may provide an occasion when this old retainer of the House of Habsburg may unseal his lips; and then woe to the guilty.
"Rudolph of Habsburg had to the full the proud instinctive dislike to, and rooted disinclination against, the ever increasing Germanic influence in and over his country. He died. [footnote 1]
"1 The above account of the tragedy of Mayerling, notwithstanding the 'proof' of the Crown Prince's supposed suicide contained in the letters alleged to have been written by him to his confidant and friend Ambassador Szoegyenyi and to the 'Duke of Braganza,' is the correct one, and will be proved when the venerable head of the House of Habsburg shall have passed away. The Author."


Final letter of the Crown Prince to Princess Stephanie, on display at the Mayerling museum. The letter is undated. Click for the German text and translation.

Apart from the straightforward lover’s pact cited in the official report, a lover’s quarrel has also been postulated.[citation needed] It has been said[who?] that Vetsera was murdered by Crown Prince Rudolf, who then killed himself; that they both committed suicide; that they killed or murdered one another, and that she may have been pregnant at the time of her death. One variant[citation needed] states that Mary died during a botched abortion and the grief-stricken Rudolf killed himself.[citation needed]

Examination of the bodies[citation needed] indicated that Mary had likely died several hours before Rudolf, implying that he had killed her (or she had killed herself) and sat next to the body until he finally shot himself.[citation needed]

Rudolf's final letter to Princess Stephanie also supports the suicide hypothesis. In it, Rudolf bids farewell to her and his friends, saying that only death can save his good name. This letter raises at least as many questions as answers, since Rudolf does not give a reason why he must kill himself, nor is there any mention of Mary Vetsera.

During funeral the corpse of the Crown Prince wore gloves and his mother was not allowed to see his hands, since it was said they presented defensive wounds.


Given the age of the case, the delicate nature of the Rudolf and Mary’s deaths (both politically and personally), conflicting initial reports[citation needed] and conflicting official versions, the mystery of the Mayerling Incident will likely never be solved. Much of the evidence was destroyed or concealed at the time, for fear of scandal, hampering later inquiries. All the people central to the incident have died, most without publicly commenting on the tragedy.

A major obstacle to all of these theories, alternative and official, is the question of why any of these stories would be suppressed. The apparent suicide of the heir to the throne was at least as damaging as any other story, thus it would be illogical to conceal one painful or damaging truth with another.

Political ramifications

Rudolf's death may have brought ruin to his parents' marriage, changed the imperial succession, and perhaps contributed in a small way to the end of the ancient house of Habsburg in 1918. The removal of the liberal Rudolf made Franz Joseph's conservative policies easier to pursue.

The mysterious death of Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria and Hungary, immediately caused a dynastic crisis. Since Rudolf was the only son of Franz Joseph, Emperor Franz Joseph's brother, Karl Ludwig, became heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire but he renounced his succession rights a few days later in favour of his eldest son Franz Ferdinand.[8] After Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914, Franz Ferdinand's nephew, Karl Ludwig's grandson, Karl, became the heir-presumptive. Karl would ultimately succeed his grand-uncle as Emperor Charles I in 1916.

Exhumations and Forensic Evidence

HMary Vetsera's body was spirited out of Mayerling and interred in the Cistercian monastery at Heiligenkreuz.

The official story of murder-suicide was unchallenged until just after the World War II. In 1946 occupying Soviet troops dislodged the granite plate covering the grave and broke into Vetsera's coffin in the bombed-out crypt at the Heiligenkreuz Abbey, perhaps hoping to loot it of jewels. This was not discovered until 1955 when the Red Army withdrew from Austria. In 1959, a young physician stationed in the area named Gerd Holler, accompanied by a member of the Vetsera family and specialists in funereal preservation, inspected her remains. Dr. Holler carefully examined the skull and other bones for traces of a bullet hole, but stated that he found no such evidence. Intrigued, Holler claimed he petitioned the Vatican to inspect their 1889 archives of the affair, where the Papal Nuncio's investigation found only one bullet was fired. Lacking forensic evidence of a second bullet, Holler advanced the theory that Vetsera died accidentally, probably as the result of an abortion, and it was Rudolph who consequently shot himself.[9]

Holler witnessed the body's reinterrment in a new coffin in 1959.

In 1991, Vetsera's remains were disturbed again, this time by Helmut Flatzelsteiner, a Linz furniture dealer who was obsessed with the Mayerling affair. It was initially reported that her bones were strewn round the churchyard for the authorities to retrieve, but Flatzelsteiner actually removed them at night for a private forensic examination at his expense, which finally took place in February 1993.[10] Flatzelsteiner told the examiners that the remains were those of a relative killed some one hundred years ago, who had possibly been shot in the head or stabbed. One expert thought this might be possible, but since the skull was not only in a state of disintegration, but was actually incomplete, this could not be confirmed. The crown of her skull showed a large area of trauma, indicating she could have possibly died from a blow to her skull, which would support the version that Vetsera had not been shot by Rudolf. Flatzelsteiner then approached a journalist at the Kronen Zeitung to sell both the story and Vetsera's skeleton, which was reinterred in the Heilegenkreuz. That these were Vetsera's remains was confirmed through forensic examination. [11]

Flatzelsteiner was never prosecuted and Vetsera's bones were reinterred in the original grave in October 1993.[12]


In the media

The Mayerling affair has been dramatized in:

fictionalized account

See also


  1. ^ a b Twilight of the Habsburgs: The Life and Times of Emperor Francis Joseph. By Alan Palmer. Atlantic Monthly Press. pp. 246-253
  2. ^ Corti, Egon, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, Yale University Press, 1936, p. 391.
  3. ^ Corti, Egon, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, Yale University Press, 1936, p. 392.
  4. ^ Emerson, Edwin, A History of the Nineteenth Century, Year by Year. Volume: 3,P. F. Collier and Son, New York, 1902, p. 1695.
  5. ^ Ronay, Gabriel, Death in the Vienna woods
  6. ^ Ponsonby, Frederick, ed., Letters of the Empress Frederick, Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1929. P. 370
  7. ^ Ponsonby, Frederick, ed., Letters of the Empress Frederick, Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1929. P. 370
  8. ^ "The Crown Prince’s Successor". New York Times. 1889-02-02. 
  9. ^ Holler, Gerd, Mayerling: Die Losung des Ratsels [Mayerling: The Solution to the Puzzle], Molden, 1983
  10. ^ Pannell, Robert, Murder at Mayerling?, History Today, Volume 58, No. 11, November, 2008, p. 67.
  11. ^ Markus, Georg, Crime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera: With New Expert Opinions Following the Desecration of Her Grave, Ariadne Press, 1995
  12. ^ Markus, Georg, Crime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera: With New Expert Opinions Following the Desecration of Her Grave, Ariadne Press, 1995
  13. ^ Go! Comi, "Angel's Nest."
  14. ^ [1]

Further reading

  • Barkeley, Richard. The Road to Mayerling: Life and Death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria. London: Macmillan, 1958.
  • Franzel, Emil. Crown Prince Rudolph and the Mayerling Tragedy: Fact and Fiction. Vienna : V. Herold, 1974.
  • Graves, Armgaard Karl. The Secrets of the Hohenzollerns. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, Ltd., 1915.
  • Judtmann, Fritz. Mayerling: The Facts Behind the Legend. London: Harrap, 1971.
  • Lonyay, Károly. Rudolph: The Tragedy of Mayerling. New York: Scribner, 1949.
  • Markus, Georg. Crime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera: with New Expert Opinions Following the Desecration of Her Grave. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne, 1995.
  • Victor Wolfson. The Mayerling Murder. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

External links

Coordinates: 48°02′49″N 16°05′54″E / 48.04694°N 16.09833°E / 48.04694; 16.09833

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