The Mayerling Incident

Photographs of Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Mary Vetsera.

Crown Prince Rudolf was the heir to the Habsburg throne and the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and his beautiful wife Elisabeth, or Sisi.  He was in a notoriously bad marriage to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of Leopold II.  At first, the prince seemed to be in love but Stéphanie suffered under her mother-in-laws scorn.  The elegant Sisi referred to Stéphanie as a “clumsy oaf”.  Rudolf and his mother were more alike in their ideals than his very conservative father, however, their relationship was not close.  Sisi suffered from depression and Rudolf’s care was primarily from Sisi’s formidable mother-in-law.  Not much a good example of family life to follow.  Rudolf and Stéphanie drifted apart after the birth of their daughter in 1883.  Rudolf took comfort in drink and women, and it was known about court he was having at least one affair probably more.  In 1887, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the village of Mayerling.  It was the perfect get away from the formality of court life to drink and carouse.  

On January 29, 1889, Rudolf attended a family dinner with his parents before they were to leave for Hungary.  Rudolf excused himself headed for Mayerling for a day of shooting with his current mistress, the 17 year old Baroness Mary Vetsera.  What happened after that is anyone’s guess.  What we do know is on January 31, Rudolf’s valet, Loschek, went to his rooms at Mayerling to call him and there was no answer.  Rudolf’s shooting partner, Count Joseph Hoyos, joined in and still got no response.  Hoyos became concerned and got an axe and broke down the door.  What he found was terrifying.  Rudolf was seated at the side of the bed, motionless and with a trickle of blood running from his mouth.  Mary was lying on the bed, ice cold and rigid.  The heir to the throne was dead with his mistress.

Hoyos sprang into action and took a special train back to Vienna to get help.  Hoyos and the Emperor’s Adjutant General told the Empress’ favorite lady in waiting, who informed the Empress.  She was the only one with the authority to tell her husband of their son’s death.  In this strict court, even in the face of this tragedy proper protocol had to be followed.  The Empress was distraught, but pulled it together enough to tell her husband.  He left the room a broken man.  In the meantime, there had to be a cover story.  No one knew exactly what happened, but Hoyos suspected poison as strychnine caused bleeding when taken.  It was later found Rudolf and Mary both died of gunshot wounds.  However, the Crown Prince could not have been known to have committed suicide.    The Minister of Police was dispatched to secure the hunting lodge and the body.  A story was released that the Crown Prince had died “due to a rupture of an aneurysm of the heart”.  Rudolf’s body was taken to be buried in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.  Mary’s body was smuggled out in the middle of the night and put in a hastily dug grave in the cemetery of the Holy Cross Abbey in Heiligenkreuz.  And that was to be that.  But what really happened?  There are several theories.

The obvious answer is suicide.  Several historians suspect Rudolf had syphilis.  His health deteriorated markedly while relatively young.  Pictures show that he aged prematurely and suffered early tooth loss.  Brigitte Hamann suggests in her biography of Rudolf that he had infected his wife Stéphanie with syphilis and felt guilty.  She goes on to tell the tale of Mizzi Kaspar, who was a prominent courtesan in the Habsburg court.  She and Rudolf were lovers and she claims Rudolf proposed a “love murder-suicide” to her.  She refused.  The thought is that Rudolf then pitched the same idea to the love struck 17 year old Mary.  Rudolf even admitted he wasn’t in love with her, but was taken by her devotion to him.  According to this theory, that devotion ran deep enough for her to accept her death at his hands.  It has also been hypothesized that the two fought and Rudolf killed Mary in a crime of passion.  Franz Joseph did not approve of their relationship, and some sources say he brought Mary to Mayerling to break it off.  Perhaps she did not take it well?  Gerd Holler writes in his book a bit of a different story.  He believes that Mary was pregnant, and Rudolf had taken her to Mayerling for an abortion.  When she died in the process, Rudolf committed suicide.

Then there are those who say it was not suicide at all.  Clemens M. Gruber claims in his account “The Fateful Days of Mayerling” that Rudolf died in a brawl.  He tells the story that Mary’s relatives fought their way into the hunting lodge and Rudolf drew a revolver.  In the midst of the fight, the gun went off killing Mary.  Rudolf was then taken out by her enraged relatives.  Empress Zita, the widow of the last Austrian emperor, claimed before she died in 1989 that Rudolf and Mary had been murdered as part of a political conspiracy.  She claimed that a pro-French faction in the court approached Rudolf about deposing his father, and then run the country with a more pro-French slant.  He refused, and supposedly they killed him.

After all this time, no one has the permission to exhume Rudolf’s remains.  However, much later a report came to light that his body showed signs of violent struggle.  In 1992 Mary’s remains were stolen from the Heiligenkreuz cemetery.  They were tracked down by Viennese police and examined by the Viennese Medical Institute.  The identity of the remains were confirmed as Mary Vetsera, and they reported there was no bullet hole in the skull.  However, there was evidence she was killed by several violent blows to the head.  A contemporary report did state that all six bullets were fired from the gun at the scene, but it did not belong to Rudolf and there was no report of where those bullets went.

We will never know the truth about what happened that night at Mayerling.  In his grief, Franz Joseph had the hunting lodge turned into a convent.  Masses were said for the soul of his dead son.  No one really said much about his companion, and Mary went unremembered.

ER