From Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo to the sinking of the Titanic, history is full of shocking plot twists, but maybe none were as tragic as the fate of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria. Attractive, rich, and powerful, Rudolf had everything—until the fateful day he threw it all away, changing the course of the future forever.
1. He Was Spoiled Rotten
Rudolf’s birth on August 21, 1858, was a long-awaited and tense occasion. His mother, the feisty Empress Elisabeth of Austria, had only had girls before him, and his father Emperor Franz Joseph was anxious for a boy who could become the heir. Overjoyed to find out he now had a son, Franz Joseph expressed his celebration in Vienna with a salute using 101 rounds of artillery. But his excitement soon faltered...
2. His Father Hated Him
Franz Joseph could be unbelievably cruel to his son when he wanted. One day, Rudolf was talking on a subject that interested him, but his father’s response was utterly cruel. Instead of paying attention, the Emperor only snapped, “Rudolf is prattling again!” to make the boy shut up in his presence. Wow, I wonder why Rudolf turned out so badly.
3. He Was a Ladies’ Man
Crown Prince Rudolf was only average in the looks department, with chestnut brown hair and a full beard. Except hey, when you’re the Crown Prince of freaking Austria, it doesn’t really matter if you’re hot or not. According to one counselor, women considered bedding Rudolf “a patriotic duty”—and one he took disturbing advantage of.
4. He Was Arrogant
Those who knew Prince Rudolf as an adult took note of his cavalier attitude toward even the most beautiful women. He generally only saw them as wives, mothers, or mistresses, and once apparently complained, “Women bore me when they are not laughing or singing. As a matter of fact, are they good for anything else?” Come on down, ladies.
5. His Family Was Dysfunctional
Growing up as a Crown Prince isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Not only was Rudolf’s mother Elisabeth one of the most beloved monarchs of her day, she was also domineering, opinionated, and absent for much of his formative years. However, his father Emperor Franz Joseph was even worse. Franz wanted a manly heir, and he was disappointed to find his son emotionally vulnerable. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
6. His Father Put Him Through an Ordeal
In order to drill manhood into his young son, Franz Joseph hired a Major-General to take over the boy’s education. The scenes from this period of Rudolf’s life are like something out of a horror movie. The Major-General would wake Rudolf up with pistol shots in the middle of the night and force him to train in extreme weather conditions. And then it all came to a messy climax...
7. He Went Nearly Insane
When Rudolf’s mother Elisabeth returned from a lengthy stay away, she witnessed a chilling sight. Her only son was a total wreck and on the brink of insanity. Immediately, the headstrong Elisabeth demanded her husband stop the training. Luckily for Rudolf, his father gave in...but the damage was done. This near-mental collapse might explain Rudolf’s infamous actions in his later years.
8. The Emperor Tried to Control Him
Once Crown Prince Rudolf got himself out of Full Metal Jacket: The Victorian Years, it turned out that he had an incredibly keen mind and an insatiable curiosity. He even hoped to go to university someday, although his father put the kibosh on that plan, believing that schooling was beneath Rudolf’s station. But then his parents got even more controlling...
9. His Parents Forced Him to Marry
When the Crown Prince hit his early 20s, his parents started looking for a suitable bride for him to marry. Unfortunately for Rudolf, “suitable” didn’t mean “emotionally compatible,” it meant politically advantageous. So when they landed on Princess Stephanie of Belgium simply because she was wealthy and well-connected, maybe it’s no surprise it ended horrifically.
10. He Got Bored of His Bride
Rudolf picked Stephanie over a couple of other options, but they mostly married because the Catholic Princess pickings were slim and his parents were pushing him to settle down. In a "steamy" letter to his mother, Rudolf called his fiancée “pretty, good, [and] clever". Whoa boy, better go take a cold shower before you overheat. Then, when Stephanie arrived at the palace, it went from bad to worse.
11. His Fiancee Hid a Dark Secret
After proposing to Stephanie, Rudolf made arrangements to have the girl travel to Vienna for the wedding ceremony in 1880. But when she arrived, the princess’s embarrassing secret came out. She hadn’t even reached puberty yet, and had no idea what was required of her in the royal bedchambers. The poor, mortified girl had to ship herself back to Belgium to grow up and get an “education".
12. He Was Known For Dating Much Younger Individuals
Princess Stephanie of Belgium must have hit the books hard, because Rudolf finally married her in Vienna on May 10, 1881, in a lavish ceremony. At the time Rudolf first met her, Stephanie was a mere 15 years old, and on the day of the wedding, she was just about to turn 17, while Rudolf was almost 23. Ah, sounds like a match made in heaven. What could go wrong?
13. His Mother Was Cruel
While Rudolf wasn’t so smitten with his new wife, his dysfunctional family was even more horrible to her. Stephanie was awkwardly tall and no great beauty, leading Empress Elisabeth—who was herself considered one of the most attractive women in Europe—to snipe that her new daughter-in-law was “an ugly bumpkin". But that was only the first volley in the feud.
14. He Ignored His Wife
Elisabeth had an even more disturbing reason to disapprove of her son’s bride. The Empress didn’t think her blood was blue enough for the family. At the time, Belgium’s monarchy was a paltry couple decades old, which was apparently something to sniff at. The monster-in-law would pointedly ignore and avoid Stephanie throughout most of the marriage, and Rudolf was happy to let her.
15. He Took After His Mother
Though Rudolf always had a strained relationship with both his parents, he was eerily like his mother in many ways. Both were sensitive individuals who didn’t flourish at the Austrian court—in fact, Elisabeth was absent for much of Rudolf’s life because she herself was running away from Vienna. Sadly, they had precious little time to really know each other.
16. He Made a Horrific Match
Stephanie and Rudolf were fundamentally incompatible in more ways than one. It wasn’t just that her mother-in-law hated her, it’s that Stephanie was conservative, Catholic, reserved, and even haughty. Meanwhile, Rudolf was idealistic, liberal, and not afraid to engage in an immoral act or three (but more on that later).
17. He Performed His "Duty"
It can’t be said that Rudolf and Stephanie didn’t know their duty. For the first years of their marriage, the young royals found common ground in trying to make an heir for the kingdom. In 1883, Stephanie gave birth to little Elisabeth Marie, the pint-sized Archduchess of Austria. She would be their only child together, which tells you how fast things went south between them.
18. His Marriage Disintegrated
Almost as soon as Elisabeth Marie was born, things started to unravel for the royal couple. While Stephanie delighted in the formalities of court and stayed close to home, Rudolf skipped out on their marriage bed entirely. Instead, the unconventional prince ran off to visit the “simple people” in town, and frequented taverns late into the night. While there, he got up to some very bad behavior...
19. He Had a Double Life
Prince Rudolf wasn’t just sinking pints with his drinking buddies while he visited Viennese taverns at all hours of the night. According to many reports, he also took to visiting, er, "night workers," while on these romps, seeking in them the passion and transgression that the conservative Princess Stephanie lacked. As we'll see, this had devastating consequences.
20. The "Love of His Life" Was Scandalous
One of Rudolf’s most frequent mistresses during his late-night trawls was the buxom and beautiful Mizzi Kaspar, a dark-haired, sharp-witted, and street-smart actress. The crown prince lavished Kaspar with gifts, including a 60,000-dollar “present” to keep Mizzi in the comfort she was accustomed to. Many believe Kaspar was the love of his life.
21. He Kept a Little Black Book
According to historians, Rudolf kept a disturbing keepsake of his conquests. He had a ledger where he would write in the name of each woman he had bedded—and not only that, he color-coded it. While black merely denoted that the liaison had taken place, red meant the girl had been a virgin. Yikes. Oh, but it got so much grosser than that.
22. He Had Horrible Manners
Incompatible schedules and hobbies were far from the only thing keeping Rudolf and Princess Stephanie apart. To get a sense of how messed up the royal marriage was, consider this utterly cruel gesture. When the prince first went to meet his bride in Belgium, he apparently brought along one of his mistresses. Off to a great start.
23. He Gave His Wife a Disturbing "Gift"
In the mid-1880s, Rudolf’s womanizing ways had a brutal backfire. He contracted gonorrhea or syphilis from one of his lovers and then passed it on to his own wife, Stephanie. But that’s not even the worst part. Neither Rudolf nor Stephanie got proper treatment, and tragically, Stephanie ended up becoming sterile from the disease. This was the beginning of the end.
24. His Marriage Came to a Brutal End
By 1886, Rudolf and Stephanie’s always-tenuous marital bliss had completely fallen apart, which is bound to happen when you give your wife a nasty STI from one of your side pieces. Shockingly for Catholics of the time, the royal couple even discussed divorce, though that never came to pass. Instead, Stephanie took up with a Polish count—while Rudolf met the woman who would seal his dark fate.
25. He Had a Teenaged Mistress
For reasons that will become very clear, Rudolf’s mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera has gone down in infamy—but when they met, she may have been just an impressionable 15-year-old girl. Accounts vary, but some say the pair snuck around with each other anywhere from three months to three years, all right in front of Stephanie.
26. He Had Personal Demons
Rudolf was always a very melancholy boy, and he frequently suffered from anxiety and depression. As one of his biographers put it, he "was a poetic young man and brooded a lot". Some historians believe this depression was hereditary, possibly as a result of his family’s close inbreeding over their centuries in power. Either way, this melancholy attitude soon drove him to desperate acts.
27. He Had a Mysterious Allure
Very few people understood why Mary Vetsera and Rudolf fell into each other’s arms. Rudolf was known to like his women more intellectual than the vivacious, coquettish Mary, but they apparently shared a “mystical temperament". The young Baroness was completely focused on him, refusing to consider any other men. Somehow, though, Rudolf was even more obsessed with her...
28. His Mistress Was Bewitching
Rudolf was smitten from the start with Mary, and contemporary accounts make it clear why. Even as a teenager, Vetsera was an absolute man magnet. One lady of the court described “her deep black eyes, her cameo-like profile, her throat of a goddess, and her arresting sensual grace". But for all Mary’s beauty, her affair with Rudolf was utterly doomed.
29. His Marriage Was in Danger
Though Rudolf was over a decade older than the teenaged Vetsera, she had something to gain from the relationship. Vetsera’s mother was extremely controlling and wanted her daughter to marry a rich man. Many say that Mary accordingly set her sights on the crown prince, naively believing she could break his marriage apart and become Empress one day. That is not what happened.
30. He Fell Into a Deep Depression
By early 1889, Rudolf started suffering from his worst depressive spell yet. After all, by giving gonorrhoea or syphilis to his now-sterile wife, he had prevented her from birthing any more precious heirs. Driven to the brink of sanity once more, Rudolf made a desperate decision that led to one of the most infamous acts of the century. You're going to want to sit down for this one.
31. He Went on an Ill-Fated Trip
In late January 1889, Rudolf and his mistress Mary visited the Mayerling hunting lodge for a day of hunting activities on the 30th. But when Rudolf's valet went to rouse him that day, he found the door locked and the inner chamber eerily silent. Knowing something was wrong, the man had to break down the door to open it. What he saw made his blood run cold.
32. His Tragic End Stunned the World
Within the room, Rudolf was found on the bed, slumped over and unresponsive. Next to him was the cold body of his teenaged mistress Mary. They had both been lifeless for quite a while now. In that moment, now called “The Mayerling Incident,” the world changed—and the mysteries of Rudolf's final moments were right at the center...
33. His Advisors Covered up the Truth
The reaction to Rudolf’s tragic end was swift, brutal, and full of misinformation. After viewing the scene, his valet believed Vetsera had vengefully poisoned her lover and then offed herself (it was actually worse than that). Faced with this scandal, the government went to great lengths to hide the “truth". They claimed Rudolf expired from an “aneurism of the heart”—but what they did to poor Mary was even more shameless.
34. His Lover Met a Tragic End
Unwilling to admit that Rudolf had been with his teenage mistress at the time of his notorious end, the Emperor and Empress instead spirited Vetsera’s body away from the Mayerling lodge in the middle of the night. They then buried her without even performing an autopsy, and refused to let her own mother attend the funeral. As for Rudolf? Well...
35. His Mother Found out First
Because of the rigid court protocols in Austria at the time, aides insisted that Empress Elisabeth was the only one who could tell Franz Joseph about the crown prince's shocking end. That's right, messengers had to break it to her first, and then force the shaking, sobbing mother to tell her husband that their only son and heir was gone. Yet, that wasn't the only harshness looming ahead.
36. He Was Branded a Sinner
Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth were desperate to have their son buried in the Imperial crypt, but the Church refused because of the “sinful” manner of his end. Instead, the royal couple managed to have him interred in the Church of the Capuchins with special dispensation for “mental imbalance". Shortly after, the dark truth came out...
37. His Mother Never Got Over the Tragedy
After finding out about Rudolf’s desperate act, Empress Elisabeth only wore black for the rest of her life. She lived in permanent mourning for her son.
38. Doctors Uncovered the Truth
The Austrian government’s explanation of Rudolf’s heart problem didn’t last very long. Not only did reporters discover the presence of Rudolf’s mistress, doctors discovered a much more damning clue. The crown prince had a piece of ordinance embedded in him. Now, people started saying Rudolf shot his terrified mistress before taking his own life. This is close to the real story, but it’s missing one ghastly detail.
39. His End Was a Mystery
In 1959, a young doctor finally examined Mary Vetsera's remains to try to determine what really happened. When he did, he could find no exit wounds in her body. In truth, there was just one projectile at the Mayerling hunting lodge that day, and it was lodged in Rudolf. In short, the crown prince couldn’t have shot his mistress—but then what did happen?
40. He Wrote Letters to His Love
We’d have to wait until 2015 for the whole, tragic truth to come out. Over 100 years after that fateful day, researchers found long-lost letters from Mary Vetsera to her family; they had been buried deep in a safety deposit box since 1926. These letters unequivocally revealed that Rudolf and Mary were in love until the end...and their other contents are heartbreaking.
41. He Had A Dark Pact
Mary and her Prince were so in love, in fact, that they wanted to die for each other. Neither one confronted the other: they collaborated. "Dear Mother," Vetsera pens in one letter just before her final moments, "Please forgive me for what I've done. I could not resist love... I am happier in my final rest than in life". In this dark pact, Mary willingly took poison, while Rudolf shot himself. Yet the story doesn’t end there.
42. His Mistress May Have Been Pregnant
Over the years, many have asked why Mary and Rudolf were driven to such madness. One theory is particularly chilling. The doctor who examined Mary's remains believed she was pregnant, underwent a botched abortion, and ended up succumbing to blood loss. After seeing his lifeless mistress, a grieving Rudolf then ended himself. The evidence, however, points to an even more disturbing turn of events...and as we'll see, it all goes back to Mizzi Kaspar.
43. He Was Incredibly Close to His Sister
Rudolf was extremely close with his older sister Gisela. Though Gisela had more of their father’s sensible, no-nonsense nature and less of Rudolf's emotional temperament, the pair confided in each other, and corresponded through much of their adult life, even when Rudolf took up more monarchical duties. Gisela was heartbroken to hear about his end.
44. His Daughter Became Infamous
Rudolf’s daughter Elizabeth Marie—nicknamed “Erzsi”—followed in her father’s unconventional footsteps. When she grew up, she became an ardent socialist and even a member of the Austrian Social Democratic party, an unusual move for many but especially for a noble at the time. This earned her the (very metal) moniker “The Red Archduchess".
45. He Was Progressive
Rudolf and his mother Elisabeth shared another thing in common: They both held deeply progressive beliefs, especially for absolute monarchs of their time. It probably didn’t hurt that Emperor Franz Joseph, a man they both low-key despised, was staunchly conservative. Hey, they say you bond more intensely over things you hate more than things you love.
46. He Made History
Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary’s dark fate had consequences for more than just their families—it also had consequences for history itself. First, it completely destabilized the country and caused growing strife. Moreover, with Rudolf gone, the Austrian crown had to scramble to find the male heir required for royal succession.
As a result, the crown passed to Franz Joseph’s brother, and then to his eldest son…the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Indeed, Rudolf created the path for the man whose life was ended abruptly, triggering the start of WWI. In this sense, Rudolf’s end wasn’t just a personal tragedy of a lovelorn man, but the end of the world as the Victorians knew it.
47. His Mistress Got Sloppy Seconds
A lot of accounts suggest that Rudolf was so depressed before the Mayerling Incident, he was casting around for anyone to make the pact just so he didn’t die alone. In fact, most historians believe that he asked the “love of his life” Mizzi Kaspar to go down with him first. When she refused, thinking it was a joke, Rudolf turned to Mary. Yes, sadly, the adoring, teenaged Vetsera was just Rudolf’s backup plan.
48. He Was a Nerd
Crown Prince Rudolf was kind of a mega nerd. Need proof? Since he was little, the sensitive and inquisitive boy was obsessed with collecting minerals.
49. He May Have Had Illegitimate Children
This prince sure knew how to get around. Rudolf’s own grandson claimed that the crown prince had more than 30 illegitimate children at the end of his short life.
50. His Father Feared for His Soul
After his son’s demise at Mayerling, the Emperor turned the hunting lodge into a convent for Carmelite nuns. One of Franz Joseph’s only stipulations for the new building was that the nuns commit to giving continual daily prayers for Rudolf’s soul.