Tag Archives: unsolved mysteries

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria --- Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.

 

Upbringing and early life

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.

 

Castles, madness, and the death of a king

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.

 

What happened to the Mad King?

Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.

 

Sources:

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” neuschwanstein.de. 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen. http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/ludwig/biography.htm

 

Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” Independent.co.uk. 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/murder-mystery-of-mad-king-ludwig-399742.html

 

“The Death of King Ludwig II.” Lib.cam.ac.uk. 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16. http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/german/spotlight4.html

 

 

Bela Kiss–The Monster of Cinkota

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

Humans have long told stories about monsters. From the fantastic beasts of ancient mythology to the sometimes all too human monsters of modern cinema, lurid tales of death and violence have always entranced some facets of humanity. Why this is may always be a subject for debate, but in large part these stories allow us to play out very real fears in a safe manner, where the hero swoops in to save the day. Or, at the very least, we ourselves aren’t the ones being butchered.

Unfortunately, stories are not reality. The good guy does not always save the day, and the bad guy doesn’t always feel the sting of justice. Some murderous madmen ply their bloody trade and their identity is never discovered, passing into legend and becoming immortalized as a bogeyman of folklore. Some monsters are named, but manage to elude authorities just the same.

Such is the case of Bela Kiss (pronounced Kish). An amiable young bachelor, handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the darling of Cinkota, a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary in the early 1900s. A self taught tinsmith, young Bela Kiss did well for himself, and shared his good fortune with others. He married for a time, but his wife soon cheated on him with a young artist and the two eloped to America, or so Kiss said, leaving him Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be with him, married men in town envied him for the parade of beautiful women from Budapest who could be seen coming and going from his house. But Kiss, like many men of the time, was swept into the conflagration known as the Great War, his neighbors would learn a horrifying truth: Kiss was a killer of women, and a prolific one at that.

 

A ghastly discovery

The horrible truth about Bela Kiss was discovered two years after he marched to war in 1916. Kiss’ landlord, figuring that the reports of the tinsmith’s demise must have been true since it had been two years since anyone had seen or heard from him, decided to clean up the cottage and rent it out to a new occupant.

Starting with the obvious, the landlord began the cleanup operation with seven large metal barrels in the front yard. These barrels had been the subject of rumors for a long time. Neighbors whispered that Kiss was storing alcohol, while Kiss explained them away saying he was stockpiling gasoline for the coming war. The explanation seemed to satisfy everyone concerned, but despite that the landlord couldn’t help but be curious. He poked a small hole in one barrel, and was soon overwhelmed by the stench of death.

The landlord called the police, who descended on the scene and opened the barrels. Inside, they found the naked bodies of seven women, some with the killing ropes still around their neck, still others with puncture wounds in the neck that implied the killer had drained the bodies of blood. They had been pickled in wood alcohol.

A search of the grounds turned up more barrels and more bodies, for a grand total of 24 killed, including one male, later identified as Bikari, the young artist with whom Kiss’s wife had been unfaithful. Mrs. Kiss herself turned up in another barrel.

The ghastly discoveries continued. Police found evidence of how Kiss systematically lured in his victims. He placed adds in a Budapest newspaper, under the name Hoffman, advertising that he was a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” He kept the correspondence in a series of packets, giving police a portrait of a predator.

Kiss, who had been luring lonely women from Budapest since 1903, targeted women with large bank accounts and few friends. He talked them into emptying their bank accounts, promising wedded bliss. Some 175 women had responded to his ads. One, Katherine Varga, sold her dressmaking business and planned to move to Cinkota with her handsome suitor. She was later positively identified as one of Kiss’s victims. Other women brought lawsuits against Kiss when they realized he was manipulating them, but they disappeared before the proceedings could finish. They too were discovered among the pickled and strangled bodies.

 

An elusive killer

The last anyone had heard from Bela Kiss, he had been fighting among the Carpathian Mountains. He was presumed dead. Regardless, police contacted the military ordering the immediate arrest of Bela Kiss. The problem, of course, was that the name Bela Kiss was as common in early 20th century Hungary as John Smith is today. Add to that the chaos of war, and the fact that Hungary’s armies were in disarray, and it is no wonder that the search came up largely fruitless.

There were a few tantalizing leads in the case, however. A Bela Kiss was discovered in a Serbian hospital, either injured or dying of typhoid, but by the time police could arrive to detain him, the killer had lain a dead soldier in his bed and escaped.

Later, in 1920, a member of the French Foreign Legion contacted authorities about a suspicious Legionnaire, who he believed might be the infamous Monster of Cinkota. The suspect had bragged about his proficiency with a garrote, the method used in the Cinkota murders. However, the mysterious soldier disappeared before he could be detained.

In 1932, a New York detective by the name of Henry Oswald sighted a man he thought might be Bela Kiss walking out of the subway at Times Square. The suspect was soon lost in the crowd. Rumors still persisted that Kiss had taken up residence in the New York area, working as a janitor, but no one could be sure.

No doubt, Bela Kiss is long dead now. While the long arm of the law sometimes falls short, death never fails to get its man eventually. Still, there is no way of knowing how many women fell prey to Bela Kiss’s deadly appetites in the years after the horrific discoveries in Cinkota in 1916.

 

Sources:

Bardsley, Marilyn and Noe, Denise. “The Crimes of Bela Kiss.” CrimeLibrary.com. Crime Library. February 7, 2015. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/bela_kiss/1.html

Bovsun, Mara. “Hungarian man murdered 24, pickled each corpse in barrels of alcohol in early 1900s.” NYDailyNews.com. February 9, 2014. Daily News. February 7, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/killer-murdered-24-pickled-corpses-barrels-article-1.1607445

When Hell Came to Earth: The Axeman of New Orleans

An illustrated map of the sites of the Axeman's crimes.

An illustrated map of the sites of the Axeman’s crimes.

History is littered with mysterious assailants who appear from the dark shadows and terrorize the community, only to disappear almost as fast as they came. Many of these mystery figures were products of mass hysteria, such as the gas-wielding madman who stalked Mattoon, Illinois during World War II. The origins of other shadow attackers are less clear cut. The London Monster, who allegedly attacked women in 18th century London, was likely not a single individual but rather a collective delusion generated by similar style attacks committed by many individuals. The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula snipped the hair of several women. While this case may well have been a case of collective delusion on the order of the London Monster, the causes remain unclear.

However, a case in New Orleans in 1918 leaves no doubt that a mad man was on the loose. An assailant only known as the Axeman cut a swath through the Italian community of New Orleans, leaving fear and death in his wake. There is no doubt that the Axeman was a real figure and not an artifact created  from common belief. Even so, his identity and motivations remain a mystery until this day.

 

The Killings Begin

The Axeman first materialized on May 23, 1918, leaving death in his wake. Joseph Maggio and his wife were butchered in their apartment, which was above the grocery they owned and managed together. Police found that a panel on the rear door had been chiseled out. An axe, coated with blood, was found in the apartment. Nothing else in the apartment was touched. The only other clue was a message written in chalk near the victim’s home that read: “Mrs. Joseph Maggio will sit up tonight. Just Write Mrs. Toney.” (check)

As the investigation progressed, police discovered more murders of Italian grocers, these from 1911. The killings bore a striking resemblance to the Maggio murders: the killer chiseled out a door panel and killed the victim with an axe he found in their home. Police suspected a mafia connection. For their part, residents barred their doors, held their families close, and prepared for more carnage.

The phantom killer struck again a month later. Louis Bossumer and his common law wife, Annie Lowe,  were found by neighbors, covered in blood and bearing terrible gashes made by an axe, which the assailant left in the bedroom. A panel on the kitchen door had been chiseled out. Again, nothing was stolen.

Annie Lowe later claimed the assailant was a young, dark man. But she changed her story and claimed that Bossumer himself was the culprit. Police dismissed this story as nonsensical, since no person in their right mind would take an axed to their own face. The killer remained at large, with no real clue to his identity.

Lowe and Bossumer both survived their injuries. His next victim, Mrs. Edward Schneider, who described her attacker as tall and phantom-like, also managed to survive. The next victim, who was attacked in August, was not so fortunate. Joseph Romano, another Italian grocer, died of his injuries.

 

A Letter From Hell

The attacks left panic in their wake. People began to see the attacker in every shadow and around every corner. Some said he was a tall, thin man, while others claimed that he was a man dressed in women’s clothes. Still others claimed that the killer was a woman, or that he was a man but a midget. Otherwise, how could he fit through the small hole of a chiseled out door panel? Others whispered even stranger tales, that perhaps the killer was not of this earth. A vengeful spirit perhaps, or even the Devil himself come to Earth to punish New Orleans for her sins.

Whatever the attacker’s identity, he or she went mostly dormant through September. A few residents reported attempted break ins, and others fired shots at lurkers in the dark. After September, there were no more such reports. As suddenly as he had come, the Axeman was gone. The crisis, it seemed, was over.

Or so it seemed. But on March 10, 1919, the Axeman perpetrated the most gruesome crime yet. in the town of Gretna, near New Orleans, an assailant in dark clothes attacked the Cortimiglia family. Charles Cortimiglia struggled with the attacker, but was overcome by his wounds and died. The attacker then turned on Rosie Cortimilgia and her two year old daughter, Mary. despite Rosie’s pleas, the Axeman struck, killing the two year old and severely injuring her mother, who ultimately survived the ordeal.

The bloody attack set the city into a panic, which was only stoked by a letter received by the editor of the New Orleans Times Picayune on Friday, March 14, 1919:

Hell, March 13, 1919

Esteemed Mortal:

They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.

When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know who they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.

If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am; for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don‘t think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.

Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens, for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.

Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people.

Here it is:

I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it on Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.

Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.

The Axeman

That night, the people of New Orleans partied as if their lives depended on it. Clubs and music houses were packed, and neighbors gathered in homes to play music. The city was alive with the strains of Jazz music. Joseph Davilla, a local composer, composed a song called “The Mysterious Axeman Jazz,” which became a hit in the city. That night, no one died at the hands of the Axeman.

Sheet music for the Axeman's Jazz.

Sheet music for the Axeman’s Jazz.

Last Gasp and an Enduring Mystery

The Axeman’s fury seemed to have dissipated with the night of music. Months went by without incident. It seemed the city had appeased whatever dark soul, human or otherwise, that had decided to torment it.

That is, until the night of August 3, 1919, when the madman attacked a girl named Sarah Laumann in her home. Laumann survived, but this new atrocity marked a change in the Axeman’s behavior–Laumann was neither a grocer nor Italian. New Orleans was horrified to realize that no one was safe from the Axeman’s wrath.

He struck again that August, and in September he tried to strike again but was thwarted by a homeowner with a gun. The final attack came in October, when the Axeman slaughtered Mike Pepitone in his bed as his wife and six children slept in the next room. Police found all of the now familiar signatures of the Axeman, but still had gleaned no clues to his identity. To this day, no one can say for certain who the Axeman was.

There is, however, a tantalizing lead in the case. A year after the last killing, a man named Joseph Mumre was shot and killed on the Pacific Coast by Mike Pepitone’s widow, Esther Albano. She claimed Pepitone had killed her husband. There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest Mumre’s involvement in the killings. Mumre had taken part in a group of blackmailers who preyed on the Italian community. He was sent to prison in 1911, just after the first killings attributed to the Axeman. he was paroled in 1918, around the time that the killings began again. Mumre left for the coast around the time that the Axeman killings ended in 1919.

While the timeline syncs up, there was no physical evidence linking Mumre to the crimes. His death erased any chance for police to question him and ferret out his involvement in the case, if any. The only real lead died with him. Since those terrifying two years, the Axeman has passed into legend, and enduring and macabre figure in the folklore of a city steeped in bizarre happenings.

Sources:

Smith, Kalila. “Axe Murder in New Orleans.” CrimeMuseum.org. November 11, 2011. Crime Museum. December 30, 2014. http://www.crimemuseum.org/blog/axe-murder-in-new-orleans

Rumsland, Katherine. “The Axeman of New Orleans.” CrimeLibrary.com. December 30, 2014. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/weird/axeman/index.html

Taylor, Troy. “The Axeman’s Jazz.” Praireghosts.com. 2004. Ghosts of the Prairie. December 30, 2014. http://www.prairieghosts.com/axeman.html