Crown Prince Rudolf and the events at Mayerling – Part 2

So what did happen that night of January 29th-30th 1889? As with the unexpected/violent/mysterious death of any famous person, there are many theories, including assassination. However, I believe those theories can be put to rest by Rudolf’s request – as mentioned in my previous post – that Mitzi Kaspar should join him in a suicide pact. Mitzi refused, so he found one who was willing to die with him. That Baroness Marie Vetsera was a willing participant is proved by her farewell letters to family members, which make clear her intention to commit suicide along with Rudolf  ‘out of love’.

Rudolf and Marie
Rudolf and Marie

Marie was smuggled into the prince’s bedroom in the hunting lodge. When Rudolf arrived two of his friends were already there: Prince Philip of Coburg and Count Josef Hoyos. Three servants were in attendance: Loschek, Rudolf’s faithful valet, a cook and a maid. When Rudolf retired that night, Prince Philip had left for a family dinner in Vienna and Hoyos went to his bed in an annex.

In the morning, when Loschek went to awaken his master, there was no response. Because he was aware of Marie’s presence, he was unwilling to force the door until Prince Philip returned for breakfast and gave permission. After further repeated attempts to rouse the prince, Loschek broke into the room. One can only imagine their shock at what they found: Marie on the bed, already cold and rigid, with her long blonde hair spread around her and a single rose held in her clasped hands; the prince in a half-sitting position beside her, bleeding from the mouth. A glass stood on the bedside table. Perhaps because the room was in semi-darkness, it was assumed by Count Hoyos that Marie had poisoned the prince with strychnine – which apparently causes bleeding from the mouth – and then shot herself. For fear of doing the wrong thing, the men closed and locked the door of the bedroom without examining the bodies. Prince Philip was so devastated that he was of little use, and it was Count Hoyos who carried the erroneous news to Vienna.

Even at such a tragic time, Hoyos ran into the barrier of palace protocol. The Lord High Steward said it lay in the province of the Foreign Minister, but the Foreign Minister could not be found, so the Adjutant General was sought, but he insisted that it must be handled by the Controller of the Crown Prince’s household. In the end, they all came to the conclusion that only the Empress could tell her husband, and it fell to Baron Nopsca, her chamberlain, who loved her dearly, to break the news to the Empress that her only son was dead. When Franz Josef left Sisi’s apartment he was a broken man.

Special black-bordered editions of the newspapers which appeared in the afternoon carried the story that the prince had died of heart failure. This information came in a bulletin from the Prime Minister, Count Taaffe. At this time, however, no one knew the truth.

A royal commission, headed by Franz Josef’s personal physician, Dr. Widerhofer, was sent to Mayerling. It wasn’t until the doctor threw open the shutters that he saw the gun lying on the floor in a pool of blood, Rudolf’s skull showing an entrance and exit wound, and the girl beside him with the same kind of wound. On examining the bodies the doctor came to the inescapable conclusion that the baroness died six to eight hours before Rudolf turned the gun on himself.

Rudolf's bed at Mayerling
Rudolf’s bed at Mayerling

What had he been doing in those hours as he sat beside the body of the young girl who had loved him so much she was willing to die with him?  Was he having second thoughts? Was he trying to talk himself into – or out of – killing himself? Having shot Marie, he must have come to the conclusion there could be no turning back.

But perhaps he was writing the half dozen letters that were found on his bedside table, not one of which was to his father. To his mother, he wrote: ‘I have no right to live, for I have killed.’ He also asked his mother to carry out Marie’s dearest wish, which was to be buried beside him in the little church of Alland.

Why did a man who many of us would envy choose suicide? I can only speculate. No matter their status in life, when a person looks back at their youthful aspirations and has met none of them, and looks at the present and sees nothing there that fulfills or gives pleasure, and looks to the future and sees no hope, that person must despair. Thus it was for Rudolf. He had not succeeded in any of his early goals. His marriage was so unsatisfactory he had applied to the Vatican for an annulment. His health was deteriorating. A serious riding accident aggravated the headaches he had been suffering from for years. Injections of morphia were the usual remedy in those days. Unfortunately, Rudolf became addicted. Distracted by her own unhappiness, his mother largely ignored him and his father was an arch-conservative. As a liberal, Rudolf was opposed to his father’s policies. He must have been a great  disappointment to Franz Josef. He couldn’t even look forward to the day when he would be emperor. He believed the empire would end with his father’s reign, and only the Austrians’ love for their aging, hard-working, dutiful emperor prevented them from rushing into the comforting embrace of the German Federation. Given no responsibility, bored, jaded, and discontent, Rudolf could see no better way than ending a life he saw as increasingly useless.

Dr. Widerhofer had no choice but to tell Franz Josef the truth, making it clear that Rudolf had killed Marie and then committed suicide. Now there was a danger that Rudolf, Crown Prince of the Austrian Empire, might be denied the right of a Christian burial. As tragic as his death was, this fear must have compounded his devout father’s grief.

So, what we today would call the palace’s ‘spin’ swung into action.

The body of Rudolf
The body of Rudolf

In the next post: the burials of Rudolf and Marie and the palace’s maladroit efforts to conceal the truth.

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