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Bavarian King’s Birthday Revives 19th Century Whodunnit

August 24, 1995

BONN, Germany (AP) _ Did a power-hungry uncle murder Ludwig II, Bavaria’s 19th century ``mad king″ who was accused of dining with his horse and conversing with statues? Or did insanity drive Ludwig to drown himself in an alpine lake?

With Ludwig’s 150th birthday coming up on Friday, a real-life whodunnit that stretches back to his death in 1886 has been revived by newspapers, magazines and TV programs that are speculating on the cause of his demise.

``Ludwig’s death was never cleared up. I think it was murder, and most people in Bavaria agree,″ says Hannes Heidl, the leader of a King Ludwig fan club in Munich.

The mystery is like a Shakespearean tragedy, complete with conniving relatives, suspicions that Ludwig’s true father was his grandfather, and foreign agents who might also have had a hand in Ludwig’s death.

Ludwig is loved in Bavaria, where many people call him eccentric, not insane, and the sad victim of political intrigue. Gala dinners, alpine fairs and other celebrations are planned in Bavaria for his birthday.

Ludwig is also known by throngs of tourists who have visited Neuschwanstein, a spired alpine castle.

Walt Disney visited the castle in the late 1940s and used it as the model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

Called both the ``fairytale prince″ and the ``mad king,″ Ludwig was born on Aug. 25, 1845. He ascended to the Bavarian throne in 1866. Suspicions have persisted that Ludwig’s true father was not the late king Maximillian II, but Max’s father, a known philanderer who abdicated because of an affair.

The wildest accusations against Ludwig come from a report by psychiatrists who never examined him, but were ordered by politicians and members of his family to make the diagnosis used to dethrone him.

That report says Ludwig spoke of wanting to fly across the sky in a chariot pulled by peacocks. Witnesses were quoted as saying he ordered young servants to play children’s games with him, had his favorite horse at the table while dining, and discoursed out loud with a marble bust of one of his ancestors.

Ludwig was a patron to Wagner, and often had performances of the operas staged for himself alone.

Still, Ludwig was highly popular with the locals. He was a dandy over whom women swooned, and although he was briefly engaged to a cousin, he never married. The royal court did all it could to hush up Ludwig’s homosexuality.

On June 8, 1886, Ludwig was judged insane by a royal court commission and ordered off the throne.

He was taken to Castle Berg, and soldiers went from house to house nearby, ordering citizens to stay in their homes. This action unleashed rumors immediately after Ludwig’s death that he had been murdered.

Ludwig’s body was found in nearby Starnberger Lake on June 13, 1886. So was the corpse of Bernhard von Gudden, a psychiatrist who had helped write the report declaring Ludwig insane.

The two men were last seen alive as they left the castle to take a walk. According to one report, Gudden, who was assigned to care for Ludwig, had waved back two watchmen whose job it had always been to follow the king when he went out.

Ludwig’s brother, Otto, was also judged mentally ill. Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold was named prince regent and ruled Bavaria until his death in 1912. His own son became the last king of Bavaria, losing the throne at the end of World War I.

In 1986, the Wittelsbach family, descendants of Luitpold, let a Munich prosecutor have a look at papers it had kept secret since Ludwig’s death. The prosecutor concluded that Ludwig committed suicide.

But that hasn’t stifled suspicions of foul play.

Some people believe Ludwig’s death was engineered by Luitpold or someone else in the royal house. Ludwig’s obsessive castle-building was carried out with state money guaranteed by the Wittelsbach family’s personal funds, according to the official guides at the castles.

Immediately after his death, the castles were opened to tourists to recoup the money.

But, German recent news reports say Ludwig got up to 6 million marks ($4 million in today’s money) from Prussia’s chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in exchange for the Bavarian king’s allegiance. Bavarians don’t like to talk about the Prussian connection because of a centuries-long rivalry, but fears of Prussian control may have been another reason why locals wanted Ludwig dead.

Others think Ludwig was murdered by assassins from Prussia, possibly because of his support of democratic ideas opposed to the ideal of a Greater Prussia ruled by the kaiser.

Some believe that Gudden was also involved in the plot to kill Ludwig and the two drowned in a struggle, or that the psychiatrist was killed because he knew too much.

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