THE EXPERT WITNESS: Everyone loves a good mystery


By John F. Sase, Ph.D.
Gerard J. Senick, senior editor
Julie G. Sase, copyeditor

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind….”
—Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “Paul Clifford” (Colburn & Bentley, 1830)

Real-world mysteries make great puzzles. Attempting to solve them helps us to sharpen our minds. Furthermore, these mysteries are fun.

However, the primary rule for this kind of puzzle-solving is to remain scientific and objective, lest one drifts into the realm of unsupportable conspiracy theory, for or against any official story.

In celebration of “Summer of Darkness” on Turner Classic Movies, which honors the great film-noir detective and murder-mystery movies of the 1940s and 50s, we focus the lens of our column on the convergence of Law, Economics, and Murder Mystery. Almost everyone seems to enjoy a good mystery, with the exception of the victim, the perpetrator, and a few others. Many real-life mysteries are doomed to collect dust in the bins of history. However, a few of these mysteries have continued to intrigue us for more than a century. For example, the assassination of Presidents
Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy survive as perennial favorites in the public media.

This month, let us turn our attention to the Kingdom of Bavaria in the year 1886. Taking the role of forensic scientist in the case of Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm von Wittelsbach, we will scrutinize the official story, consider contrasting assertions, and weigh the evidence that has come to light during the past 130 years. Many of us have heard of this personage as “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a ruler who died suddenly on the dark and stormy night of 13 June 1886. All that we have as official fact is that Ludwig and his attending physician, Professor Bernhard von
Gudden, departed alone for a walk along the shore of Lake Starnberg between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. A search party of castle staff discovered the corpses of the two men. They were found floating in waist-deep water along the shoreline, sometime between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., in a gale with heavy rain. However, the watch worn by Ludwig had stopped at 6:54 p.m.

Following a brief forensic investigation that night, the official autopsy ruled that the death of King Ludwig was a “suicide by drowning.” However, the autopsy report indicates that no water was found in his lungs. Since that night, the official story has been challenged and numerous attempts have been made to refute it. As additional evidence surfaced throughout the past century, the alternative assertion of murder by a third party has continued to gain credence as the probable cause of death.

General Background of Time and Place

The history of rulers and assassinations has gone hand in hand, since before Osirus, through the time of Julius Caesar, and onward to the present. Seizure of power appears to be the most obvious motive. Before delving into this growing body of evidence, let us consider a short exposition of the time and events that form the foundation of the assertion of death by murder. We can agree that first-degree murder generally has a motive behind it. Furthermore, the hope to gain power and material wealth often forms the motive, even over an extended period of years. Therefore, let us consider the following relevant history. The central European country of Bavaria became an independent kingdom in 1806.

During the early years, leading government ministers adopted a policy of modernization and laid the foundations of administrative structures that have remained valid into the twenty-first century. The constitution of 1808 was updated in 1818, establishing a bicameral Parliament with a House of Lords and a House of Commons. This system of Parliament lasted until the collapse of the monarchy at the end of the First World War in 1918.
Within nineteenth-century Europe, Bavaria remained an ally of neighboring Austria, with which the former had shared an extensive marriage circle. The major threat to the independence of both countries came in the person of Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia. Von Bismarck was backed by the Prussian government and military, both controlled by King Wilhelm I. The Minister President eventually succeeded in unifying Germany by confederating more than 100 small and medium-sized principalities and free-cities. Bavaria and Austria continued to resist.

In 1864, Ludwig II ascended to the throne at the age of eighteen. The Bavarian-Austrian alliance suffered defeat by Prussian forces in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Nevertheless, Bavaria and Austria continued to remain independent and neither monarchy joined the North German Federation of 1867. However, a pressured Bavaria joined the Federation--the German Empire (Deutsches Kaiserreich)—in 1871, though Bavaria continued as a monarchy and maintained its own army.

Kaiser Wilhelm I and Chancellor von Bismarck held sway over the Empire from 1871 to 1890 while conducting the Kulturkampf (Culture War) against the families in the marriage circle that maintained an alliance with the Austrian family. During this era, the Austrian-centered marriage circle mostly included families in the German states of Bavaria, Baden, Hesse, and Prussia as well as in occupied Poland. This “tribe,” along with associated religious orders, faced legal disabilities, imprisonment, expulsion, and confiscation of property. 

Overtly, the Culture War subsided in 1878 when von Bismarck recognized the need for an alliance with the Austrian Empire to counterbalance the power of the Russian Empire. However, the Culture War reheated when the Conservative Party reclaimed power in the Reichstag in 1882. In the next few years, many of these families that were perceived as having a questionable loyalty to the German Reich were forced to abandon their land and other holdings. The oral histories of these families have a common theme:  Von Bismarck sent troops to various estates throughout Germany with the orders to slaughter the families that held the titles and deeds. Fortunate families who received warnings from friends and allies beforehand managed to escape and emigrate to the American Midwest and elsewhere. This episode of dark history reached its peak in 1885. It was not until 1886 (following the death of Ludwig) that the Culture War subsided.


Many historians regard Ludwig II as a curious figure from a family with many eccentricities. As a number of personality traits tend to distort the essence of the case, let us begin by discussing and dismissing the best-known elephants from the room. At age twenty-one, Ludwig was engaged to his cousin Duchess Sophie Charlotte. Sophie was the favorite sister of Elisabeth (aka Sissi), Empress of Austria. Ludwig and Sophie were engaged for eight months in 1867. However, Ludwig cancelled the engagement. He never married and never had any known mistresses. From this chain of events, entries from his diary, private letters, and other surviving personal documents, many historians and muckrakers suggest that that the young king had “strong homosexual desires.” Since homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813, such claims did not have a great deal of bearing under Bavarian law. However, homosexuality was punishable under severe Prussian law.

Furthermore, let us keep in mind that marriages of state at that time did not require love between the couple. They merely demanded the production of a suitable heir and attendance together at required state functions. Couples were free to pursue whatever other personal life pleased them, as long as they remained suitably discrete. Nevertheless, Ludwig wrote to his former fiancée using a mutually understood quote from the opera Lohengrin by Richard Wagner:  “My beloved Elsa! Your cruel father has torn us apart. Eternally yours, Heinrich.” As the marriage of Ludwig and Sophie would have been a cousin-marriage repeated for a second generation within a family that had challenges from inbreeding, one might suggest that Sophie’s father, Duke Maximilian Joseph, may have intervened to halt the marriage due to concerns over further inbreeding. With these matters laid out, let us set aside the assertions that Ludwig was murdered because of his sexuality.

King Ludwig has been characterized as a spendthrift who bankrupted both himself and the Bavarian treasury. However, Ludwig wanted Bavaria to become a cultural center of Europe. To do this, he built the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Munich that opened in 1876. Ludwig built the theatre as the patron of composer Richard Wagner, whose works were performed there. After visiting Versailles and other major palaces that expressed the character of their respective countries, Ludwig drew the original sketches for and oversaw the construction of three “fairytale” castles in the southern Bavarian countryside and made additions to the Residenz Palace in Munich.

Today, we know that Ludwig paid for these “public-works” projects largely with his own inherited funds, supplemented through personal debt that increased to 14 million marks ($211 million in current U.S. dollars) by 1885.  There is a lesser-known financial fact that may be relevant to this case. Ludwig, along with other heads of state throughout Europe, drew an income from the Welfenfonds (aka Guelph Funds). These funds came from the confiscation of property that concurred with the annexation of the Kingdom of Hanover in the German War of 1866. Ludwig drew 270,000 marks per year from 1873 to 1885 (about 3,375,000 marks in total--$50.9 million in current U.S.). This annual draw covered 10% of the cost of building the three castles.

Therefore, let us put the economics of Ludwig’s projects in perspective. The Neuschwanstein castle, built atop a mountain, is the most famous. However, it was the least expensive of the three castles built by King Ludwig. This castle took twenty years to construct and cost 6,180,047 marks ($93.2 million in current U.S.). Over the two decades, the Neuschwanstein project was the primary employer in its vicinity, with 200 to 300 craftspeople employed at any given time. These artisans used materials harvested and brought by lesser-skilled labor and local businesses from this region, which is located fifty miles southwest of Munich.

The other two castle projects, Linderhof (located ten miles east of Neuschwanstein) and Herrenchiemsee (located forty miles southeast of Munich), were the more expensive ones. Linderhof cost 5.8 million marks ($128 million in current U.S.). Herrenchiemsee came in at just under 16.6 million marks ($251 million in current U.S.). Together, these three projects cost $471 million, current U.S. In perspective, the cost of the Freedom Tower at the site of the World Trade Center cost $4 billion, paid for by an insurance settlement of a near-equal amount.

The three castles opened to the public shortly after the death of Ludwig. Since then, their number of annual visitors has grown into the millions. Neuschwanstein alone receives 1.3 million visitors per year. If we were to measure the economic impact of these projects to their local vicinities in terms of admission fees, food and lodging, and a multiplier for the value of increased employment and local spending, we would determine that the castles have recouped their cost many times over. Today, one could argue that Ludwig II was the father of modern tourism in Bavaria.

Although, his contemporaries may not have shared the same foresight, the spending of public funds perceived as excessive was continually approved over the two decades of construction and could have been curtailed easily by means other than murder.

However, there remains one significant support to the assertion of an economic motive for murder. Historians have noted that Ludwig maintained the loyalty of the Bavarian people and the military, who voiced their desire for independence from the Reich; of course this loyalty was not shared by most of the government ministers. Also, given the past history of property confiscation that included the Welfenfonds by the Kaiserreich, Ludwig may have had the sense to empty both the Bavarian treasury and his own pockets as much as possible out of fear of the slow but eventual takeover by von Bismarck and the Reich. The castle projects broke ground in 1869, two years after the formation of the North German Federation of 1867 (the year of Ludwig’s engagement) but before Bavaria reluctantly joined the German Empire in 1871. If Ludwig stalled for time against the inevitable, a slow annual flow of marks to the people of Bavaria provided two decades of consistent employment as well as a wide disbursement of wealth among the populace.

In the end, this left the state of Bavaria with land, buildings, and people but not much in the way of portable wealth. After the death of Ludwig, the inevitable finally happened during the Regency Era. Prince Otto, the younger brother of Ludwig and the next in line for the throne, was in an asylum at the time of his brother’s death. Although he was technically the new king, Otto was deposed quickly by his paternal uncle, Prince Luitpold, who assumed the regency. Given this event on top of the actions of the Culture War, which came to a head at that time, one might ask if some interests decided to put an end to the subtle resistance promulgated by Ludwig and his loyalists once and for all.

General Evidence of the Alleged Murder
The official story of the death of King Ludwig has remained “suicide by drowning.” Building upon this premise and the limited facts surrounding the case, the official view states that Ludwig attacked and killed his physician Professor von Gudden, who had declared the king to be insane. After that, Ludwig killed himself. The claim of insanity is very important in this case. Given the assertion of suicide, insanity was a necessary condition because of the following: Under the law of the Catholic Church, Ludwig could not have been buried in of the family crypt at St. Michael’s Church in Munich, which was consecrated ground. Also, the illness of insanity would excuse Ludwig in the eyes of the Vatican for the murder of von Gudden. A similar situation involving alleged murder-suicide absolved by insanity would occur with his cousin, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, in the Mayerling Incident of 1889. However, that is another case.

The allegation of murder-suicide unfolded thusly:  In a state of rage, Ludwig murdered the professor and then drowned himself. The autopsy report indicates that the body of von Gudden had sustained a number of injuries to the neck and shoulders. The explanation of a murder-suicide by an insane person neatly fits the situation of two bodies found floating in the water. Case closed.

However, over the past 130 years, many individuals and groups have come forward to support the alternative hypotheses formed shortly after the death of Ludwig. Evidence of varying quality has been entered and weighed. The alternative hypothesis of murder by a third party seems to have come to life with the statement in the official record that no water was found in the lungs of the king. By definition, the presence of water is a necessary condition for death by drowning. 

Medical Evidence in Support of the Allegation of Murder
Given the report of the absence of water in the lungs, let us review some related medical evidence. Professor von Gudden diagnosed Ludwig as suffering from paranoia, a condition that would be classified as schizophrenia today. Von Gudden made this diagnosis without a proper examination of his patient. An additional three concurring physicians signed off without any other examinations being made.

Professor von Gudden also diagnosed Prince Otto as having hereditary insanity. History tells us that Prince Otto had risen through the ranks to Colonel in the Bavarian Army before being seriously injured on the battlefield. Given the symptoms exhibited by Otto, modern medicine probably would diagnose his condition as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In both cases, it remains questionable if any proper examination could have been made. We remind our readers that Austrian neurologist Sigismund Freud, widely considered the Father of Psychoanalysis, did not finish his habilitation (similar to completing a research Ph.D.) until 1885. At best, psychiatry was in utero at the time of the depositions of Ludwig and Otto.

Recent medical evidence also suggests something different for Ludwig. It seems that he suffered from a form of meningitis and was far from being insane. Furthermore, these assertions are supported in the official autopsy report, which mentions a frontotemporal lobar degeneration.
This condition suggests that Ludwig suffered from what is known as Pick’s Disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder that causes progressive destruction of nerve cells in the brain and is accompanied by symptoms that include dementia and loss of language.

Concurring and Supporting Evidence
The Art World enters our story with evidence that counters the official cause of Ludwig’s death. Seigfried Wichmann is recognized as the leading authority on Bavarian paintings from the late nineteenth century. In 2008, Wichmann published a photograph of a post-mortem portrait painted within hours after the death of the king that shows blood oozing from the corner of his mouth. Though not a medical doctor, Wichmann survived a similar wound from shrapnel that entered his lung while he fought in the Second World War. He asserts that the blood in the painting would have come from the lungs. However, the thick blood portrayed in the painting shows no signs of water. In addition, Wichmann claims that the portrait features no indication of rigor mortis and that the mouth is agape. This evidence contradicts the official autopsy report in respect to the water and the official claim that Ludwig died at 6:54 PM, the time that his watch stopped. Therefore, I (Dr. Sase) would request a further opinion from a medical expert in order to support this assertion.

In the same year as Wichmann’s claim, the Bavarian banker Detlev Utermohle came forward and gave a sworn affidavit that he had seen the grey Loden coat worn by Ludwig on the evening of the tragedy. The coat contained two bullet holes in the back. At the time, Utermohle was ten years old. He and his mother had visited the home of Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz, who looked after some of the assets of the Wittelsbach family. The Countess had the coat with two bullet holes in her possession. Unfortunately for the world of forensic science, the coat was lost after the fire that destroyed the home and killed both Countess Wrba-Kaunitz and her husband in 1973.

An Eyewitness Report
The evidence asserted in the sworn affidavit concurs with another surviving record of the events at Lake Starnberg on 13 June 1886. A handwritten statement by Jakob Lidl, the personal fisherman of King Ludwig, tells a story contrary to the official statement. Lidl’s notes, which were found after his death in 1933, state that he saw the murder of Ludwig with his own eyes. As Ludwig stepped onto the boat, a shot rang out from the shore. The king fell across the bow of the boat.

Three years after the incident, the State of Bavaria made Lidl swear an oath not to reveal what he heard and saw to his wife, his priest, or anyone else. In return for his compliance, the State agreed to look after his family if anything should ever happen to him in war or peace. In his notes, Lidl wrote that he was engaged to row the king out into the lake to a location where loyalists were waiting to help him to escape. Lidl had been hiding behind bushes with his boat, waiting to meet King Ludwig. Note:  the official autopsy report indicates that no scars or wounds were found on the body of the dead king. Also, where was von Gudden? Was he already dead when Ludwig stepped onto Lidl’s boat?  

Much of the evidence in support of the hypothesis of Ludwig’s murder by a third party is either circumstantial or difficult to corroborate. However, if the truth is to be found in this Mystery of History, there may be alternate direct routes to take. Habeas Corpus? Presumably, we know that most of the remains are buried in the family crypt in Munich. (By Bavarian tradition, the heart of the king is removed, placed in a silver urn, sent to the Chapel of Mercy in Altötting, and placed beside those of his ancestors.)

A request to exhume the body and conduct a modern, independent autopsy would settle the matter at last, one way or another. Over the years, numerous requests have been made to the Wittelsbach family to have the remains of Ludwig exhumed. However, members of the family dismiss the theories of a third-party murder and have refused all requests for exhumation.

More recent requests have included the proposed use of Computer Tomography (CT Scanning). CT has been used successfully in the field of Archeology to view mummified remains. At present, this may be the least invasive procedure, as it would not require the touching of the body. However, the alleged gunshot or other wounds would show up clearly in the imaging. Though expensive and difficult to move, portable CT Scanners such as the BodyTom could fit around the mahogany casket that holds the remains of Ludwig. However, the wooden casket rests within a zinc sarcophagus that is solder-sealed. Anyone who has been asked to remove watches, jewelry, or other metal objects before having a CT Scan or MRI understands this last challenge to determining the truth in this case. For the moment, this case is closed and sealed, quite literally.

We hope that our readers have enjoyed this excursion into history. Murder, Economics, and the Law remain inseparable. Generally, homicide cases will have some economic aspect to them. Not only are economic damages a part of these cases, but economics can help to support the motive for the actions. The story of Ludwig II shows us that the economic aspects of any case may be potentially wide and encompassing.

Understanding the economics involved in any court case helps to shed light on any mystery that may remain as well as clear out any irrelevant baggage. 
Dr. John F. Sase has taught Economics for thirty-five years and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics since the early 1990s. He earned an M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit and a Ph.D. in Economics at Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Dr. Sase can be reached at 248-569-5228 and at You can find his educational videos of interest to attorneys at

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a supervisory editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication and gives seminars on writing and music. Senick can be reached at 313-342-4048 and at You can find some of his writing tips at

Julie G. Sase is a freelance copyeditor and proofreader. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. As a consultant, Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles for publication, and gives interviews to various media. Ms. Sase can be reached at and