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.
Crown Prince Rudolf Facts
1. It’s a Boy!
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. Ecstatic to discover he now had a son, Franz Joseph celebrated by giving the newborn a 101-gun salute in Vienna.
2. 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.
3. One-Track mind
Those who knew Crown 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.
4. Revenge of the 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.
5. Meet the Parents
Growing up as a Crown Prince isn’t always all it’s cut out to be. Not only was Rudolf’s mother Empress Elisabeth one of the most beloved and respected 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 Joseph wanted a manly heir, and he was disappointed to find his son emotionally vulnerable. But that was just the beginning of the nightmare.
6. That’s My Boy
In order to drill manhood into his young son, Franz Joseph hired Count Leopold Gondrecourt, a Major-General, to take over the boy’s education. The scenes from this period of Rudolf’s life are like something out of horror movie. The count would wake Rudolf up with pistol shots in the middle of the night and force him to train in extreme weather conditions for long periods of time.
7. Mother Knows Best
When Rudolf’s mother Elisabeth returned from a lengthy stay away from the Austrian court, she arrived to a chilling sight. Thanks to the count’s cruel regimen, her only son was a total wreck and on the brink of insanity. Immediately, the headstrong Elisabeth went to her husband and demanded he stop the training.
Luckily for Rudolf, his father gave in. Still, the damage was done. His near-collapse into insanity might explain Rudolf’s infamous actions in his later years.
8. Don’t Stay in School
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. Thanks again, dad.
9. Looking for Love
When Crown Prince Rudolf 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. The Final Rose: Royals Edition
Crown Prince Rudolf ultimately picked Stephanie as his bride over a couple of other options, but mostly 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 fiancé “pretty, good, [and] clever.” Whoa boy, better go take a cold shower before you overheat.
11. Grow up
Things on the SS Rudolf and Stephanie only got more disastrous from there. After proposing marriage to her, Rudolf made arrangements to have the girl travel to Vienna for the wedding ceremony in 1880. But when Stephanie arrived in the capital, her ladies-in-waiting discovered the Princess’s embarrassing secret.
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. The Apple Doesn’t Fall Far
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.
13. Left Wingman
Elisabeth and Rudolf shared another thing in common: They both held deeply progressive beliefs, especially for absolute monarchs of their time. It also 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.
14. A Royal Wedding
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?
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.”
16. You Can’t Sit With Us
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. Elisabeth would pointedly ignore and more often avoid Stephanie throughout most of the marriage.
17. Swipe Left Before You Say Yes
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).
18. You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Rudolf was extremely close with his older sister Gisela. Though Gisela had more of their father’s sensible, no-nonsense nature, the pair confided in each other, and corresponded through much of their adult life, even when Rudolf took up more monarchical duties and moved away from his home.
19. Not Playing Favorites
Emperor 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 disturbing. Instead of paying attention, the Emperor only snapped, “Rudolf is prattling again!” to make the boy shut up in his presence.
20. The Princess Is Here
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.
21. Time for Couples Counseling
Almost as soon as Elisabeth Marie was born, things started to unravel for the royal couple. While Stephanie delighted in the formalities of court, the unconventional Rudolf liked running off to visit the “simple people” in town, and frequented taverns late into the night.
22. Meet My Plus One
But incompatible schedules and hobbies were far from the only thing keeping this couple apart. To get a sense of how messed up Rudolf’s marriage to Stephanie 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. Pay to Play
Crown 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 sex workers while on these romps, seeking in them the passion and transgression that the conservative Princess Stephanie lacked.
24. In the Red
According to historians Greg King and Penny Wilson, Rudolf kept a disturbing keepsake of his all 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.
25. The One for Me
One of Rudolf’s most frequent mistresses during his late-night trawls through Vienna 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.
26. My Gift to You
In the mid-1880s, Rudolf’s womanizing ways had dark consequences. 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. 19th-century medicine being what it was, neither Rudolf nor Stephanie got proper treatment. Tragically, Stephanie ended up becoming sterile from the disease.
27. Trouble in Paradise
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.
28. A Kingdom of Kids
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.
29. The Not-So Virgin Mary
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.
30. The Red Archduchess
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 noble at the time. This earned her the (very metal) moniker “The Red Archduchess.”
31. All in the Family
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.
32. Let’s Get Physical
Very few people understood why Baroness 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.
33. New Girl Shine
Likewise, 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.
34. Crown Catcher
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 him and Princess Stephanie apart and become Empress one day. That is not how it went down.
35. Desperate Measures
By early 1889, Rudolf was suffering from his worst depressive spell yet. After all, he was not only suffering from syphilis or gonorrhea, he had also given it to his wife and prevented her from birthing any more heirs. Driven to the brink of sanity, Rudolf made a desperate decision that led to one of the most infamous acts of the century.
36. Mystery at Mayerling
In late January, 1889, both Rudolf and Mary Vetsera went to Mayerling hunting lodge; Rudolf had arranged for a day of shooting on the morning of the 30th. But when his valet went to rouse him that day, he found the door locked and the inner chamber silent. Knowing something was wrong, the man had to break down the door to open it. What he saw made his blood run cold.
37. The Room Where It Happened
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 Vetsera. They were both dead, and had been for some time. In that moment—now called “The Mayerling Incident”—the world changed. Austria, one of the most powerful nations in the world, suddenly had no heir. But as we’ll see, there were other dark consequences.
38. The Cover-up
The reaction to Rudolf’s tragic end was swift, brutal, and full of misinformation. After viewing the scene, his valet believed Vetsera had poisoned her lover as an act of vengeance and then offed herself—it was actually worse than that, but more on that later. Faced with this scandal, the Austrian 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 Vetsera’s body was even more shameless.
39. Spirited Away
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.
40. Church Burial
Although they treated Mary Vetsera’s body like it was disposable, Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth were desperate to have their son buried in the Imperial crypt. No matter how hard they tried, however, the Church refused because of the “sinful” manner of his end. Instead, they managed to have him interred in the Church of the Capuchins with special dispensation for “mental imbalance.”
41. Say a Little Prayer for You
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.
42. Breaking the News
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. Because of this, they 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.
43. Lady in Black
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.
44. Majority Report
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 bullet in the crown prince. After that, they released their real belief—and it was a gruesome story. Rudolf had shot his terrified mistress in cold blood before taking his own life.
It’s close to the real story, but it’s missing one ghastly detail.
45. A Mystery Unveiled
In 1959, a young doctor finally examined Vetsera’s remains to try to determine what really happened. When he did, he could find no bullet holes in her body. This was actually a monumental development: You see, there was only one bullet at Mayerling, and it was in Rudolf. In short, the crown prince couldn’t have shot his mistress—but then what did happen?
46. Paper Trail
We’d have to wait until 2015 for the whole, tragic truth to come out. Over a hundred years after that fateful day, researchers found long-lost letters from the Baroness Vetsera to her family. They had been buried deep in a safety deposit box since 1926. These letters unequivocally reveal the last moments of Rudolf and his lover.
47. From Mary With Love
“Dear Mother,” Vetsera writes in one letter just before her end, “Please forgive me for what I’ve done. I could not resist love…I am happier in death than life.” This writing proves that the Mayerling Incident wasn’t a murder-suicide of a desperate man. It was a suicide pact of two hopeless lovers, with Mary willingly dying of poison or another method and Rudolf shooting himself. Yet the story doesn’t end there.
48. Fringe Theory
Over the years, many experts have asked why Vetsera and Rudolf were driven to such madness, and some have even offered alternative explanations. One theory is particularly chilling: The doctor who examined Vetsera’s remains believed that the teenager was pregnant at the time, underwent a botched abortion, and ended up succumbing to blood loss.
After seeing his lifeless mistress, a grieving Rudolf then died by suicide. The evidence, however, points to an even more disturbing turn of events.
49. Second Best
A lot of accounts suggest that Rudolf was so depressed and suicidal 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.
50. The Rest Is 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. That’s right, Rudolf paved the way for the man whose assassination kicked off 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.