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Death in the Vienna Woods

Gabriel Ronay revisits the story of a Crown Prince’s suicide pact with his mistress and finds the evidence clearly pointing to murder. 

It was a scandal that shook an empire. At 7am on January 30th, 1889, the Archduke Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was found dead by his valet in the Imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in the Vienna Woods, 15 miles southwest of the capital. The 31 year old Crown Prince was lying on his bed in a pool of blood. The body of his 17 year old mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera, was lying close by on the floor. The local police called in the Minister for the Police and the national security services sealed off the hunting lodge and the surrounding area. The first official explanation was that Rudolf had died of a heart attack. But, as this failed to explain the dead body of his mistress, this version was quickly dropped. The Police Minister then announced that the Archduke had first shot Marie Vetsera and then killed himself in a suicide pact. Rudolf and his father, Emperor Franz Joseph, were known to have recently had a violent argument, with the Emperor demanding that his son, as a married man, must forthwith end his liaison with his teenage mistress. What had happened, the Minister indicated, was tragic but clear. The Mayerling deaths were the result of the desperate decision of thwarted lovers taken ‘while the balance of the Archduke’s mind was disturbed’. The police closed their investigations with surprising haste, in apparent response to the Emperor’s wishes. The Catholic Church gave its implicit support to the handling of the matter. Officials involved in the case and members of the Imperial household were sworn to secrecy.

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