The king who killed his psychiatrist

7 minute read

Behold a tale of royal eccentricity, venality, penny-pinching and broken medical ethics


Behold a tale of royal eccentricity, venality, penny-pinching bureaucrats and miscarriage of justice – not to mention broken medical ethics

Ludwig II was the splendid king of Bavaria and the Palatinate.

Influenced by Richard Wagner, whom he funded lavishly, he built a number of fairytale castles for no purpose other than to meet his fantasies. When building a castle, Ludwig would become restless and excited, only be calmed by drawing up plans and visiting the construction site; then the cycle would start all over when planning a new castle.

Some good came out of his caprices. The buildings led to new developments in chemistry, physics and engineering, and he founded the Technical University of Munich.

But his castle-mania drained the state coffers, causing much concern to the treasury. The number of unpaid creditors escalated. As does occur, his family were a Macbeth-like lot, seething with jealousy, resentment, intrigue and envy. To add to the problem, Ludwig’s rampant homosexual sexual exploits with the stable men and guards in the royal barracks did not go down well in 19th century Catholic Bavaria.

Some idea of his mental state can be seen by his plan to create a monarchy on a southern island or making outlandish threats to civil servants, fortunately not carried out.

In 1868, the Crown Princess of Prussia wrote that his odd behaviour included dining in his room with his horse who wore a gold crown. After 1870 he became obese and pale, lost his front teeth, gave peculiar answers to questions and expressed suicidal ideas. He was increasingly avoidant of state officials and family, sitting behind a screen during council meetings or going for nocturnal sleigh-rides.

After Richard Wagner’s death in 1883, he became a virtual recluse. At times he would sit before a mirror with his arms held by his sides, pulling faces. Some of his diary entries were quite bizarre, full of incomprehensible allusions suggesting thought disorder.

By 1886, the anti-Ludwig forces had enough. As assassination was no longer considered an acceptable way of solving problems of regal succession, a psychiatric solution was sought. The constitution provided for the king to be removed from the throne if it was determined that he was not mentally fit to hold the position. After that, the details were suitably vague and neither were there any precedents to consult.

It helped that his grandfather King Ludwig I was exceedingly grandiose – for example, elevating his mistress Lola Montez to fire his cabinet – and had been deposed as a result. His younger brother Otto was widely regarded as being insane (he had syphilis) and his aunt Alexandra had an obsessive-compulsive disorder with a severe washing compulsion.

To his enemies, Ludwig had provided enough evidence that he was mad. He was flamboyant, erratic, failing to meet his obligations as a monarch and, of course, losing control of the treasury.

In March 1886, the conspirators prepared the arztliches gutachten (medical report) on Ludwig’s fitness to rule. The dethroning was driven by a stage villain, Count von Holnstein, who was determined to get rid of the king. By intimidation and bribery he obtained a long list of complaints, anecdotes and gossip from his servants. The incriminating information included his odd shyness, neglect of state business and expensive flights of fancy; dining out of doors in cold weather and wearing heavy overcoats in summer; sloppy and childish table manners; dispatching minions on lengthy voyages to research architectural details in foreign lands; and violent threats to his servants.

On a sliding scale of royal misbehaviour, this was minor league stuff compared to, say, most of the Romanovs and some of the Habsburgs.

Psychiatrists (or alienists as they were known in those days) Professor Bernard Von Gudden, Doctors Hubrich, Hagen and Grashey (Gudden’s son-in-law), given the evidence of Ludwig’s unfitness to rule by the officials, signed a document approving his monarchical defenestration. Von Gudden was regarded as a leading psychiatrist – and German psychiatry at that time ruled the world – an authority on neuropathology who ran a liberal regime at his hospital, allowing his patients as much freedom as possible.

There is widespread agreement that the psychiatrists’ document was, by any standards, grossly unethical. The greatest offence was that they had not examined the patient whom they certified. Even by the lax standards of the day, that would not have acceptable. Added to this was the fact that the information they had been given about Ludwig was contradictory, inconsistent and could have multiple interpretations – to say nothing of the likely bias of the informants.

It was, in short, a right royal miscarriage of justice in which the psychiatrists were heavily implicated. Bismarck, the German Chancellor at the time, dismissed the report as no more than civil-servant gossip, adding that it was incorrect to make such a decision on a single medical report. All of which goes to show why he was the smartest politician of his time.

A regent was appointed and, as far as the conspirators were concerned, the business of running the state without Ludwig could proceed. The plan was to seize Ludwig, have him certified insane and placed under psychiatric supervision in an asylum. On the night of 11 June they succeeded. Ludwig, who was drinking heavily, made threats to take action or escape. The traitors, he insisted, should be flayed alive and then starved to death – an example of the kind of threat that he was prone to make.

Ludwig then accepted the inevitable. He was transported to Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg. The next day it was decided to do what should have been done from the start: to have him examined by Von Gudden. At 6.30pm Von Gudden went for a walk around the lake with the deposed king, presumably to provide a calming background to a discussion that was likely to be anything but easy. The king’s attendants were told to follow at some distance to maintain their privacy.

That was the last time they were seen alive. The frantic search that night found Von Gudden’s body alongside the lake shore while Ludwig’s body was floating in the water. A very hurried post mortem, probably intended to hide rather than discover evidence, decided that Von Gudden had been first strangled and then drowned, followed by the drowning of Ludwig. This may well be the truth but there were enough loose ends to leave persisting doubts as to how both of them had met their fate.

The circumstances of Ludwig’s demise remain a continuing mystery. Was he already mad, or driven to such despair at the unjust situation he found himself in that he lost all reason? One of the psychiatrists who signed the document expressed doubts about the diagnosis and another was not convinced of the king’s mental instability.

In the intellectual parlour game that psychiatric historians so love, he has racked up an impressive number of diagnoses including paranoia, schizotypal personality, meningitic brain damage, orbitofrontal lobe syndrome, schizophrenia, manic depression, social phobia or … just another freakish royal who had the means to enact his fantasies unlike the rest of us. An impressive tribute to the psychiatric imagination, to say the least.

And, after all that excitement, Ludwig’s legacy is substantial. His romantic castles provide the state of Bavaria with a huge source of revenue from tourists, to say nothing of their reincarnation in Disney movies. Showing how history turns things around with kitsch after farce, he is now commemorated with prominent portraits in Bavarian hotels and inns.

Regardless of his unethical behaviour (as well as that of his colleagues), Von Gudden did not deserve this fate. It remains therefore the only case in history where a king killed his psychiatrist. Let there be no more.

Of doctors who perjure their Hippocratic oath in the service of the state there are sadly all too many, with more likely to follow in future.

Robert M Kaplan is a writer perennially in search of a publisher

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