Last Ride to Heiligenkreuz

featuring mary vetsera

On 8 Dec 1881 a huge lamp came down at the Ring Theatre in the Schottengasse, Vienna. Soon the entire theatre was an inferno of fire and hundreds of people lost their lives. Among them was Ladislaus Vetsera, whose body disappeared into a mass grave at the Central Cemetery, Vienna. Ladislaus was the oldest son of Albin, Baron Vetsera and his wife Helene Baltizzi.

Albin Vetsera was a diplomat in foreign service at the Austrian court. His family came from Pressburg (now Bratislava), in those days part of Hungary. He was a rich man and with Helene Baltizzi he had four children. A second sister to the aforementioned Ladislaus was born on 19 Mar 1871 and her name was Marie.

Mary Vetsera (1871-1889)

When Mary - as she preferred to call herself - was 17 years old she was considered pretty by the standards of her time. She was small and she had a slightly tinted skin. She had a sensuality about her that attracted men and looked older than her age.

On 12 Apr 1888 Mary was at the horse races at the Freudenau in the Prater and there her eyes met those of crown prince Rudolf. He smiled to her and Mary started phantasizing immediately. Possibly Mary was introduced to Rudolf by the British crown prince, but it seems that Mary walked up to Rudolf herself and soon they started an affair. Rudolf took her for walks at the Prater and gave her little gifts. Countess Marie Larisch (1856-1940), the daughter of empress Elisabeth's oldest brother Ludwig, helped her to gain access to his room.

By Januari of 1889 they had become lovers and their affair was known by lots of people including Emperor Francis Joseph himself. At the end of January Rudolf had a serious argument with the emperor, possibly about his liaison with the young baroness. On 29 Jan 1889 Rudolf and Mary were together at the royal hunting lodge at Mayerling, located 30 kilometers from Vienna. It's still unclear what happened, but on the next morning both were found dead.

Mayerling in 2001. The chapel on the left was built on
the place where Rudolf and Mary died.

When the news arrived at the Hofburg nobody had the courage to break it to the emperor. The empress had just been told by Baron Nopcsa that her son was dead when Francis Joseph headed for her appartments to visit her after her Greek lesson. He was admitted to her room and it is unknown what happened between them. Soon afterwards Elisabeth called for Katharina Schratt to console her husband and sent for her daughter Valerie. Valerie's first reaction was "Has he killed himself?". But Elisabeth denied this vehemently. It seems that she was told that Mary poisoned Rudolf and then herself. Only 24 hours after the tragedy Francis Joseph learned to his astonishment that Rudolf had shot himself. The official version was that the crown prince had died from heart failure.

On examination of the bodies it soon became clear that Mary had died several hours before Rudolf, indicating that he had killed her and sat next to the body until he finally shot himself. One theory is that Rudolf had suggested to commit suicide together and that she - who was madly in love with him - was only too ready for the sacrifice. Another suggests that Mary died of an abortion and that Rudolf was so stricken with grief that he killed himself. Only one bullet was found at the spot and eye witnesses that claimed she had a bullet hole in her head may have made wrong observations in the confusion of the moments they saw the body.

We may not know what happened that night and why, but it is certain that Mary knew that she was going to die. She wrote letters to her mother, her sister and her brother that were found a Mayerling. These were brought to the emperor and later they were handed to Helena Vetsera's brother in law Count Stockau under the strict condition that Helena would only get one hour to read them. Mary wrote to her mother that she would be happier in death than in life and that she wanted to be buried beside Rudolf at the cemetery of Alland (one mile from the monastery's cemetery at Heiligenkreuz).

There was the problem of Mary's body. The government had to get rid of it quickly and secretly to hold on to the official version of Rudolf's death. The "removal of the female body" was ordered. Dr. Slatin (who was Secretary of the Court) was to go to Mayerling, together with Rudolf's physician Dr. Auckenthaler. The police would take care of the funeral arrangements. Because her death was understood to be a suicide, some pressure wat put on the Abbott Grünbeck to allow a Christian funeral. He gave this permission on the grounds that she "had committed suicide because of a temporary loss of her senses" (the same argument would be used to convince Pope Leo XIII in the case of Rudolf). The Abbott also allowed the construction of a coffin in the monastery's workshop. Grünbeck died in 1902 and his papers were mysteriously destroyed.

Meanwhile, Mary's body had been placed in a storeroom until finally her uncles Alexander Baltazzi and count Stockau were taken to it by the police for identification. Late on Thursday night, nearly two days after she had died, Mary's was put in a fur coat and a hat was placed on her head to hide the wound (or at least to hide her face from view). Her uncles lifted her body between them and walked with it to the carriage that was waiting as if they were walking with a living person. It's curious that such an act was put up for the few meters from Mayerling to the carriage and even more strange that Mary's uncles didn't refuse to participate in it.

Mary sat between her uncles during this sinister ride and her body fell forward all the time as the carriage drove to the monastery of Heiligenkreuz. They had to attach a broomstick to it to keep her upright. The carriage reached Heiligenkreuz Monastery at 10 pm.

The road to the cemetery of the monastery of
Heiligenkreuz in the year 2001.

The gates of the cemetery.

The snowy cemetery (Mary's grave is in the middle near the wall).

The weather was bad and it was close to midnight when they were at the gates of the cemetery, that was guarded by 30 police officers. The body was taken to the mortuary and put into the wooden coffin. The hat she was wearing was now put under her head. But because of the wind and the cold the grave wasn't ready yet. Mary wasn't buried before nine o'clock the following morning. Her grave was 20 meters from the mortuary and all that were present helped to let the coffin down in the grave.

Hanna Vetsera wasn't able to attend the funeral. In a desparate attempt to find her missing daughter she had spoken to the empress who had told her Mary was dead. After she had left Elisabeth, Helena was told that it was in her best interests to leave Vienna for the time being, since she might be in danger from the moment it became known to the public that her daughter had murdered Rudolf (which Mary hadn't). So Hanna Vetsera left Vienna for the time being and wasn't there when here daughter was buried.

It's not clear who coordinated this inhuman sequence of events. Probably it was prime minister Taaffe. It's certain, however, that emperor Francis Joseph knew about it and didn't stop it. For this was exactly what they wanted: Mary Vetsera had simply disappeared from the earth.


On 16 May 1889 Mary's temporary grave was opened and she was moved to a permanent grave a few yards away that was commisioned by her mother. The wooden coffin was replaced by a copper one and a simple monument was erected, carrying the following inscription:

Geb. 19 März 1871
Gest. 30 Jänner 1889
Wie eine Blume
sproszt der
Mensch auf und wird gebrochen
Hiob. 14,2

(like a flower a human being sprouts and is broken)

Mary's grave on 1 Feb 2001.

Mary's grave.

Hanna Vetsera had a chapel erected opposite of the entrance of the cemetery. It has a window that shows the Holy Mary and two angels with the faces of Mary (Vetsera) and her brother Ladislaus. Hanna wanted the Holy Mary to have the face of her Mary, but this was forbidden by the monastery. The chapel has a plague with an inscription in Latin, but the name of Vetsera was not allowed to appear there by order of the court. The one consoling point is that Abbott Grünbeck promised the grieving mother that the grave would never have another destination and that the chapel would be preserved by the monastery.

What happened to the other Vetsera's?
Baron Vetsera had died before Mary of a lung disease in 1887.

Mary's sister Hanna married the Dutch count Hendrik van Byland in 1897 and lived in Zoeterwoude (near Leiden) in Holland. But when they were in Rome for the winter she miscarried and had hardly healed before she died from typhoid fever in 1902, only 32 years old. She was in the posession of a rare copy of the protest that her mother issued against the way the Austrians had treated the affair. Most other copies of this "Denkschrift Über Die Katastrophe Von Mayerling" were located and destroyed by the secret police.

Feri, the second son of the Vetsera's, married Magrit, countess of Bissingen. They had three children. During the First World War he died in Poland on October 22, 1915.

Baroness Hanna Vetsera had lost her last child and she also lost her wealth during the inflation of the twenties. She had to sell her house and lived in modest circumstances at the Prinz Eugenstrasse. There she died impoverished on 1 Feb 1925.

In later years the mystery of Mayerling was never fully solved. In 1945 Mary's tomb was opened by plundering Russians who had fought in the neighbourhood. The copper coffin was broken and when the fathers of the monastery repaired the grave they saw a small skeleton in the damaged coffin. The skull was there and seemd to be undamaged.

In 1959 the act of the Russians was considered once more and it was suspected that the skull was somewhere outside the coffin. The grave was opened to perform a reburial. Now the bones were all over the coffin. Mary's small shoes were still there and a lot of long black hair was collected. Once more witnesses declared that the skull had not been hit by a bullet. It was slightly damaged, but that was probably done by the Russians in 1945. When further research was requested in 1979, a new exhumation of the body was refused by Abbott Franz Gaumannmüller on human grounds.

But the story still doesn't end there. On 8 Jul 1991 the coffin was stolen from the grave by Helmut Flatzelsteiner (a furniture merchant) and two accomplices. Flatzelsteiner had lost his wife and it seems he had become obsessed by solving the Mayerling mystery. He took the coffin home to Linz and examined it's contents. Then he even took the remains to a medical specialist without disclosing Mary's identity. The Neue Kronen Zeitung newspaper in Vienna was anonymously informed that Mary's grave was empty and to the surprise of the police this turned out to be true when on 22 Dec 1992 it was opened in the presence of the press. It seems that the correspondent was Flatzelsteiner himself, who confessed to his deeds. Mary's remains were taken to the Legal Medical Institute in Vienna for further examination. The bones in question were indeed a hundred years old and those of a woman around twenty, but part of the skull was missing. At this time the (and after a lot of legal confusion) the examination was stopped because the body was released for reburial and handed over to the abbott of Heiligenkreuz, Gerhard Hradil. A reburial was also the wish of Hermann Swistun, who had been appointed trustee of Mary's estate by Nancy (d.1990) and Nora (d.1991), the daughters of Mary's brother Franz Albin (d.1915). H
owever, according to Hermann Swistun, careful examination of the photographs showed evidence of a bullet entrance hole and another hole where the bullet might have left the skull.

Mary's remains were put to rest once more on the early morning of 28 Oct 1993, under the guiding eyes of Gerhard Hradil and Hermann Swistun (Swistun had been handed over most of the Vetsera archive in the 1960s and died in 1999; after his death the archives had disappeared; it seems that several items were sold or destroyed and the archive is lost forever). There are probably no more answers to be found in Mary's tomb, but the mystery lingers on!


  • Conte Corti, Elisabeth, Die Seltsame Frau, Anton Pustet, Salzburg, 1936.
  • Brigitte Hamann, Rudolf, Kronprinz und Rebell, Amalthea, Wien, 1978
  • Joan Haslip, The Lonely Empress, A biography of Elisabeth of Austria, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1965
  • Jean-Marc Nothias, Le Profanateur arrêté, Point de Vue M2393, Cavenne Éditeurs, 1992.
  • Hermann Swistun, Mary Vetsera, Gefährtin für den Tod, Ueberreuter, Wien, 1999.
  • S. van der Werff, Het drama van Mayerling, De Bataafsche Leeuw, Amsterdam, 1991

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