Photo by Georges Jansoone
of work by Eugen Felix
via Wikimedia Commons
Dawn was coming too slowly, too quickly. Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the dual thrones of Austria and Hungary, knew he had to complete his plan. It had all seemed so simple, why was he hesitating?
Soon, the handful of servants and his friends would be wandering about the hunting lodge at Mayerling outside of Vienna. Hours ticked by on that frozen January night. Finally, around six a.m., the handsome young man left the chilly bed chamber and summoned his valet, and sending him on a false errand to out of earshot. As the trusty servant dashed out of the house, the valet heard his master whistling. Knowing no one would hear the final shot, Rudolph sat back down next to Mary Vetsera and placed the gun to his head.
When the Crown Prince did not emerge from his chamber later that morning, the valet and the other servants hesitated to disturb him. They knew he was with his mistress. But the prince’s guest Count Hoyos and his brother-in-law Prince Philip of Coburg, who had arrived that morning from Vienna, were unaware that she had been smuggled in. The room was forced open on Prince Philip’s orders and the gruesome scene unfolded before them.
As the only son of the powerful, hard-working but autocratic Emperor Francis Joseph II and his beloved, beautiful but restless wife Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolph had led a charmed life. He was considered one of the handsomest, most popular and most promising young princes in Europe. Even the rapidly aging widow Queen Victoria fell under his spell—her cousin, the Duchess of Teck, teased that Victoria had fallen in love with him.
But as Rudolph grew into adulthood, troubling characteristics began to emerge, like the pleasure he took in killing small animals. His mother’s son, he was restless and liberal-minded. He began keeping company with like-minded people, some of whom sought to overthrow his father. Rudolph even wrote incognito articles for a liberal newspaper. The Emperor, who had once planned to personally train his son for his future role, instead felt compelled to keep him away from state business and had him followed by the secret police. Unlike either of his fearless parents, Rudolph was cowardly and promiscuous. He was moody and felt persecuted.
Forced into a loveless marriage with Princess Stephanie of Belgium, he found no solace in his private life. Even his darling little daughter could not assuage the demons that were pursuing him.
Inspired perhaps by the mysterious suicide of his cousin King Ludwig of Bavaria, Rudolph decided that a murder-suicide was the solution to his troubles. He contemplated the idea for many months, always looking for a companion for his plans. He proposed the idea to his horrified wife, who took the information directly to the Emperor. He asked his longtime mistress Mitzi Kaspar to join his pact. She reported the incident to the police who also notified the Emperor. On both occasions, the Emperor could not bring himself to believe that Rudolph was serious—he may threaten to harm himself, but he could never actually do it.
By Atelier Turk
via Wikimedia Commons
Mary excitedly agreed. She had been the prince’s lover for barely two weeks when she left her mother’s house for a shopping trip with Rudolph’s cousin (and procuress) Countess Marie Larisch. Two days later, her distraught mother, went to the palace to demand that the Empress make the Crown Prince return her daughter immediately.
“Your daughter is dead,” the unusually calm Elizabeth told her, “but also my Rudolph is dead.” The news had been brought to the highly strung Empress only hours before. Everyone feared to tell her—especially since the Emperor tried to keep all unpleasantness from her—but they feared even more to tell the Emperor. So, it fell to Empress to break the news to Francis Joseph, who was distraught and no doubt niggled by guilt at the tragedy.
The palace tried to hush up the cause and circumstances of the death. Little Mary’s uncles were forced to dress her and sneak her away from Mayerling in the middle of the night with her body seated upright between them in the carriage. But, the subterfuge was useless. Telegraph wires and newspapers around the world were already publishing the story before it had even reached the ears of the imperial parents. The doctor would not confirm the proposed cause of death (heart failure), reporting instead that the Crown Prince had died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. He did, however, add that certain brain abnormalities indicated that it had happened in a moment of “mental derangement.”
It was enough to convince the public. Rudolph’s cousin after all was King Ludwig, who had been declared insane before he committed suicide, and who had been succeeded by his even more mentally disturbed brother, King Otto, who had been brought out of confinement to assume the throne under a regency.
It was also enough to guarantee a properly royal and religious burial. His grieving father dutifully attended, but his mother could not bring herself to mourn so publicly. In the middle of the night, she stole out of the palace and hailed a taxi. Against the protests of the monks, she insisted on entering the dark, icy crypt alone but her anguished cries could still be heard ringing through the monastery.
Later, she would say that all those who had whispered against her in Vienna must be satisfied knowing that “no son of mine will ever rule Austria.” The role of heir apparent was assumed by Rudolph’s cousin, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, who, two decades later, would also die with his beloved from gunshot wounds, this time at the hands of an assassin who sparked the First World War.