On the night of 30th January 1889, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, shot his mistress Baroness Marie Vetsera before shooting himself several hours later in what was, undoubtedly, a suicide pact. In a letter to his mother, Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), Rudolf admitted that he had taken Marie along on a journey he was afraid to make alone. She gave him courage.
As a suicide, there was grave danger that Rudolf would be denied a Christian burial, which would have caused additional grief to his devout father, the emperor. The royal physician who had first examined the body, Dr. Widerhof, could not be prevailed upon to change his opinion that the death was suicide. But he did agree to declare the crown prince mentally unbalanced on the night of his death, allowing Rudolf a church funeral and burial among his Habsburg ancestors in the imperial crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.
I imagine it was a grand funeral, with vast silent crowds, masses of flowers, lots of black-clad dignitaries from other states come to pay their last respects… But it wasn’t at all what Rudolf wanted. In the letter to his mother he asked to be buried next to Marie in the church of Heiligenkreuz, an old abbey in the Vienna Woods. Well, obviously that didn’t happen.
Initially Marie’s body was carried into a store room and covered in a white cloth. The less people who knew of her presence the better. I suspect she was neglected for a time while everyone was concerned with notifying the parents of the crown prince and removing his body to his apartment in the Hofburg. Eventually, however, two of Marie’s uncles arrived after midnight to claim her body which they loaded into a carriage and propped up on the seat between them. (I wonder what their conversation between them was like?)
Marie’s body was in fact taken to Heiligenkreuz, where she was buried rather quickly with only her uncles attending. Because it was assumed she was a suicide the uncles had to persuade the abbot to allow her burial. Perhaps he said a few words over her.
But she was not allowed to rest. Four months later her mother had the grave opened and her body removed to a better site. The simple wooden coffin was replaced by a copper one and a monument erected. There Marie slept peacefully until just after World War II when some Russian soldiers broke into the grave – perhaps hoping to loot it of valuables. When the grave was repaired by the monks they observed that the skull appeared to have no holes in it.
Fast forward to 1955 when the grave was again opened and inspected by a physician and an expert in grave preservation, (Who knew there was such a profession?) with a member of the Vetsera family present. They too found no bullet holes in the skull, although there was some trauma. It might have been done by the red army guys, or it might have happened on the night of January 30th 1889, which would mean Rudolf had not shot her. After some investigation, poor Marie’s remains were reburied again.
Probably at this point the conspiracy theorists began to get excited. Then in 1991 along came one of those excitable conspiracy theorists. Helmut Flatzelsteiner was obsessed with the Mayerling affair, and utterly convinced that the crown prince had been murdered – and never mind those farewell letters written in his own hand. Clever forgeries, no doubt. Anyway, this prince among men removed the bones secretly at night and kept them for two years before having them examined at his own expense by forensic experts. The examiners could not be certain what had happened because the skull was in a state of decomposition. Then Flatzelsteiner tried to sell both the story and the skeleton to a newspaper and that got the attention of the police.
The bones were given to a Medical Institute in Vienna where they were forensically examined again. But since a piece of the skull was missing, it could not be concluded if there was a bullet hole. After a court case, Flatzelsteiner was forced to pay the abbey 2000 euros for the desecration of the grave.
Marie’s remains were finally reburied in October 1993. I wonder if she would have agreed to the suicide pact if she had known of the outrages that were to be perpetrated on her body after death.
Meanwhile, Rudolf has been sleeping the everlasting sleep undisturbed among his Habsburg ancestors in the imperial crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.