If you like mystery stories –dark nights, isolated houses, dodgy characters- and having your imagination tickled, this story had the lot. One of our members, Michael Rose, kept us spellbound as he outlined the plot set in 1889 in a time and place of which we knew little.
On the 30th of January that fateful year the mutilated bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf, the 30 year old heir to the throne of the Austria-Hungarian Empire and Baroness Maria Vetsera, his seventeen old mistress, were discovered in a ground floor bedroom in the Royal Hunting Lodge at Mayerling in a remote wooded area south west of Vienna. Both had met with violent deaths. It was no wonder the Imperial family tried to draw a veil over the affair.
The manner in which the couple died, and the surrounding intrigue, has resulted in one of the great unsolved mysteries of history having become the subject of over twenty movies, a ballet, a musical -including a Japanese version- and countless articles and books in a dozen languages. And the list still grows!
There have been many attempts –legal, forensic, and dramatic to ‘solve’ what has become known as the Mayerling Mystery. Michael suggested the protagonists fell into two main groups: -did the not so happy couple die in a suicide pact, motivated by the fear that they would be forced to part? Or was it a planned murder, driven by the work of darker forces? Our Lawyer speaker invited us to witness this debate which, typical of such stories, raised more questions than satisfactory answers.
Like a Jury, we were asked to consider the evidence and the contextual background. Was Rudolf killed because he was plotting the overthrow of his father, Emperor Franz-Joseph? Apparently they did not get on, the elder favouring to continue independence from, and the younger, closer relations with the ascending Germany. What could have been revealed in the black box full of encrypted papers? Was Johann Loschek, the Prince’s loyal valet and the first to find the bodies at 06.55 precisely, telling the truth? Was Marie Larisch, the Prince’s all-seeing and all hearing cousin and confidante, a reliable source for all the information she discloses? Why have all the police files disappeared? What role, if any, did Dr Karl Graves, a supposed Master Spy, have in influencing events? Did a carpenter’s son have the real solution? And why, after WW2 were the Russians so interested? As for the journalists, they were never to let the facts-if known- spoil a good story!
What we do know is that Rudolf’s life, like many Hapsburgs, was influenced by people of doubtful wisdom and motivation. The family had a history of mental illness and obsessions. It was clear from his Army service the Prince was unreliable and prone to extreme mood swings. Leaving the Army at his father’s insistence his son had nothing worthwhile to do. Rudolf became a serious womaniser –a trait noted when he visited Queen Victoria at Windsor when Edward found he had a competitor! Rudolf’s taste in women ranged from street prostitutes to wives of aristocrats, one of whom had children by four men. Such liaisons rarely lasted long and were subject to rapid turnover but generously rewarded- the wages of sin might amount to a town or country house! His relationship with Maria Vetsara had lasted around 12 months. Her time was more than up. Unable to think of another way of disengagement could Rudolf have killed her and then committed suicide?
The story was not end with those gory deaths in 1889. In 1928 Loschek, the valet, changed his story admitting he had heard shots at 06.55 following a fierce argument between Rudolf and Maria. In 1949 Maria’s (who had been denied a Catholic funeral and burial while Rudolf went to the Royal Mausoleum) remains turned up 150 miles away in Linz. She was reburied in a marked grave but not allowed to rest , her remains being forensically examined –all inconclusively- no less than three times (the latest in 1991).
What is clear is that the story will continue to run if not in fact, certainly in the imagination. Like the many books and films it inspired, the mystery behind this drama will continue to niggle the curious seeking the truth.
Thank you, Michael, for such an entertaining morning!