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. Prince Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, and therefore heir to his father as Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, and King of Bohemia. Rudolf's mistress Mary was the daughter of Baron Albin Vetsera, a diplomat at the Austrian court. The couple's bodies were discovered at Mayerling, Rudolf's hunting lodge, in Lower Austria on January 30, 1889
By 1889, many people at the Court, including Rudolf's wife Stephanie and his father Franz Joseph, knew that Rudolf and Mary were having an affair. Rudolf's marriage to Stephanie had resulted in the birth of one daughter, Elisabeth, and was not particularly happy. Rudolf had no male heir.
On the morning of January 30, 1889, Rudolf and Vetsera were found dead at his hunting lodge Mayerling. The death of their only son devastated Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth of Bavaria. As Rudolf had no son, the next male heir was Franz Joseph's brother, Karl Ludwig and his issue.
The initial official explanation for the incident was that Rudolf had suffered heart failure; Vetsera was not mentioned and her body was secretly buried. However, the official story did not hold up well. The court later admitted that Rudolf had committed suicide. Many stories were floated about the pair’s death; the most widely accepted was that the two lovers had carried out a suicide pact after Franz Joseph demanded they separate. Police investigation suggested that Rudolf shot his mistress in the head, then sat by her body for several hours before shooting himself. A special dispensation from the Vatican was obtained to declare Rudolf to have been in a state of “mental imbalance”, so that he could be buried in the sacred Imperial Crypt.
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.
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 from The Great War, claimed that the Crown Prince was murdered, and the crime was disguised as a double suicide. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
However, this theory 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.
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]
" 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."
Final letter of the Crown Prince, on display at the Mayerling museum.
The last photograph taken of Baroness Mary Vetsera on the right. This is the dress in which she was buried. On the left is Countess Marie Larisch
Grieving emperor and empress at the deathbed
The crown prince lying-in-state. His head had to be bandaged in order to cover the self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
Cemetery in Heiligenkreuz - grave of Mary von Vetsera
Myths of Mayerling
Vienna Review of Books
For many Austrians, the unsolved mystery of the death of the Crown Prince Rudolf carries enduring fascination and romance
Books and dramatic works included in this review
Crime at Mayerling. The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera,Georg Markus (1995)
The Habsburgs’ Tragedy written by Polish author Leo Belmonto
Rudolf, The Mayerling Affair, a musical by directed by David Leveaux (2009)
Mayerling, a film directed by Terence
Every country has its myths. More than 100 years passed since unsolved mystery of the last night of the Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, but for many Austrians, every Mayerling related detail still carriessensational and causes great interest.
In a small village called Mayerling, some 20 km southwest of Vienna, a lovely church greets visitors from the low hill. Here within the walls of the Cloister of Carmelites lies the memory of a 100-year-old tragedy and a great imperial mystery.
The hunting lodge that once stood at Mayerling belonged to the Austrian Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth; it was his retreat from the life at court, where he told friends he felt most himself.There, on the Jan. 30, 1889, in the stillness of the Wienerwald, witnesses found the bodies of Rudolf and his mistress, the Baroness Mary Vetsera, daughter of Austrian diplomat, both dead of gunshot wounds.
After the incident, at the request of the Emperor, in the place of the hunting lodge the new church was built, so that nuns could pray daily for the soul of Rudolf. The altar of the church, it is said, stands on the site of the lovers’ bed – today, on display at Vienna’s royal furniture museum, the Hofmobiliendepot. And in the chapel, the Madonna reminds many of the face of the Empress Elisabeth. The small museum inside the church has a small exhibit dedicated to the fatal night with the last letters of the Crown Prince Rudolf, photos and even the coffin of Mary Vetsera, whose grave (with her remains lying in a new coffin) can be found in Heiligenkreuz, not far away.
Many tourists come to Mayerling each year. The rich list of novels, plays, operas, movies’ screen plays or even musicals, whose authors were inspired by the tragic love story of Rudolf and Mary, keep public interest alive.
For it is not just the incident itself – romantic as it is – that continues to fascinate people more than a century later, but more the behavior of imperial family after the shocking event. The Habsburgs not only kept their silent about the incident that night, they tried hard to silence every possible witness. The Prince’s own coachman Josef Bratfisch, for one, was offered a monthly income for life to keep his master’s secrets and to take everything he knew to the grave. And he knew a lot, as he had spent the last evening with Rudolf and Mary, and her last words in a farewell letter to her family were, “Bratfish played the pipes wonderfully.” Also, all the writings of Countess Marie Larisch’s, who used to arrange the meetings between Rudolf and Baroness Vetsera, some of which secretly took place in Viennese inn called Gmoa Keller, Am Heumarkt, still in business to this day, containing the ‘complete truth about Mayerling,’ were purchased by the Emperor, for what reportedly cost him more than the Giant Wheel in the Prater.
Any Viennese newspapers that reported anything other than a heart attack as the reason for the sudden death of the Crown Prince were censored or confiscated. And the name of Mary Vetsera became taboo until after the collapse of the Monarchy.
As a result, theories abound. Maybe Rudolf shot Mary and then shot himself? Maybe the lovers shot each other? Maybe Mary was poisoned or took poison herself? Maybe she died during the abortion? Maybe the lovers became victims of political conspiracy? Or a failed coup d’etat?
In his book Crime at Mayerling, The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera, Georg Markus claims that what happened at Mayerling was never seriously investigated, and the few investigations that were made were falsified – manipulated by the monarchy. The body of Mary Vetsera was buried as soon as possible, without judicial inquiry, and as secretly as possible, not even allowing her mother to attend. It was only later, that the version of the story surfaced in which Rudolf shot Mary and then shot himself.
At the time, Emperor Franz Joseph did everything in his power to get the Church’s blessing for Rudolf to be buried in the Imperial crypt, the Kapuzinergruft, impossible had the Crown Prince been seen committing murder and suicide. Instead a special dispensation was obtained from the Vatican to declare Rudolf ‘in a condition of mental derangement.’
Stories of the tragic ending of the Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary Vetsera at Mayerling have been a favorite of dramatists and filmmakers. In the musical Rudolf, The Mayerling Affair, directed by David Leveaux at Vienna’s Raimund Theater as well as in the ballet Mayerling at the Vienna State Opera, both staged in the 2009-2010 season, the final scene between the lovers together in bed at the hunting lodge could be observed by spectators only in a total dark or behind the folding screen, just with the clear sounds of two shots.
On the contrary, in the Terence Young’s 1968 movie Mayerling, Omar Sharif as the prince and the young Catherine Deneuve, were constantly on camera until the very end. The film, an English-French co-production, maintains the legend of undeniable love leading to death. At the end, Rudolf shoots Mary Vetsera and moments later, overwhelmed, shoots himself, still keeping her hand in his.
In the novel The Habsburgs’ Tragedy written by Polish author Leo Belmonto (Leopold Blumental) suggests quite uncommon interpretation of the event by creating the portrait of the Baroness as smart, selfish and manipulating feelings of her beloved. In the last pages of the book, facing the growing indifference of the Crown Prince, Mary decides to poison herself at Mayerling, leaving a letter inviting him to follow her, knowing it would be a question of honor for the Emperor’s son. Staying alive he would have to find a public explanation of dead woman’s body in his hunting lodge, the fact which undoubtedly was a real threat of staining his name in society and, more important, in the eyes of imperial family.
Nevertheless some things are common in many pieces of art inspired by tragic life of the Crown Prince Rudolf. These is the troubled relationship between the Emperor and his son and successor, the need for a mother who was constantly away avoiding the duties of the court, the unhappy marriage with Princess Stephanie of Belgium, his frustrated political objectives, and a series of physical symptoms including constant headaches, insomnia and the effects of morphine and alcohol – and what was perhaps a clinical depression. Maybe all of them were led to suicide, maybe none. That’s why Mary powerful line in Rudolf: the Mayerling Affair is so convincing: ‘It is often better to die at once, than to die a little every day’.
But among the romancers of ‘Mayerling fever’, little of the darker sides of the story emerged: That the Crown Prince had sired some 30 illegitimate children (according to his grandson Prince Francis Joseph Windisch-Graetz), or that he carried the gonorrhea that infected his wife and led to her sterility thus burying their hopes for masculine heir; or his affair with Mary’s mother Baroness Helene Vetsera, when Mary was only six, or that Mary was perhaps not his great love after all.
According to the Imperial Police Institute, who sniffed about Rudolf’s private life “for the sake of his security”, even the night before Mayerling Crown Prince spent with his another mistress Mizzi Caspar. And that six months earlier, he had suggested a double suicide to Mizzi, who refused. In Crime at Mayerling, Georg Markus suggests that Rudolf was afraid of being alone, both of living alone and also of dying alone. And it was Mary who agreed to the plan.
Many of the mysteries of Mayerling may never be solved. Many witnesses are dead, much of the evidence destroyed. And the appeal of a story of tragic romance is too strong. It would probably take an exhumation of the prince to put the speculations of this most sensational chapter in the six hundred years history of the Habsburg empire to rest. But so far, writes Marcus, heir to the throne Otto von Habsburg and the Capuchin friars who govern the crypt have refused all requests.
And sometimes the details have proved dangerous. In 1991 Linz furniture dealer Helmut Flatzelsteiner removed the remains of Mary Vetsera and approached a journalist at the Kronen Zeitung to sell the story and the skeleton, which was then reinterred in Heiligenkreuz in 1993. It had been the second time, after the body had been placed in a new coffin in 1959 after the original one was plundered by Soviet soldiers looking for jewelry.
It’s the same mistake all over again, writes Markus: As in 1889 Habsburgs’ silence allows the myth to survive, and forever new, fantastic versions to be imagined.