Bavarian Prince Otto and Insanity in the 1800s

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In my research on Bavarian King Ludwig II, I couldn’t overlook Ludwig’s younger brother, Otto.

Their parents always preferred Otto to Ludwig. It’s easy to see why: Otto’s cheery, fun-loving personality was more appealing than Ludwig’s preference for brooding and thinking in solitude.

Ludwig II of Bavaria and younger brother, Otto

Ludwig II of Bavaria and younger brother, Otto — public domain

Bavarian Prince Otto and Insanity in the 1800s

But as Otto got older, he began to show many signs of his family’s famous “Wittelsbach eccentricity.” Otto began by staring off into space during meetings, seeming unresponsive. He grew worse over the years, finally being declared insane in his late 20s, after serving in war and witnessing atrocities that wounded his sensitive spirit.

Being consigned to an insane asylum in the 1800s was not a good thing. Not at all. Early in the century, the prevailing wisdom was to treat the insane as animals, restraining them. And insanity had a pretty loose definition. Basically, a good case of PMS could saddle a woman with a diagnosis of insanity. Men could find their wives “insane” due to disobedience or hysterics.

As someone insane (the term “mentally ill” came about later), you could expect to end up in an institution, perhaps wrapped tightly in a wet sheet.

Otto does seem to have been legitimately troubled, though. He is reported to have spent his days barking like a dog, screaming in a high-pitched voice, banging his head against the walls, and insisting that his feet were covered in boils. His mother couldn’t bear to visit him for the last many years of her life.

Being a prince, Otto was housed in a much nicer place than the typical insane: he spent his last 30 years or so being looked after at Furstenried Palace.

By the time Otto had been confined, the thinking on how to treat the insane had moderated a bit. “Moral treatment” was now the accepted theory, and it involved treating patients as children rather than as animals. There was an emphasis on living moderately, with routines. Otto never really seemed to improve with this treatment.

After Ludwig’s mysterious death, Otto reigned as Bavarian king (in name only; a regent actually ruled. It’s unknown whether Otto ever even realized his status as king). Ironically, he reigned longer than any of the other Wittelsbach rulers, dying in 1916. Despite reports that he smoked 30+ cigarettes per day, he died of a stomach hemorrhage.

Otto Bavaria dead

public domain photo

Must have been a tradition of the time to photograph people after death — I’ve come across photos of Ludwig like this, and now Otto.

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Royal fan? You need to read about Mad King Ludwig, the most fascinating character you’re ever likely to meet. Paperback or Kindle versions at  Not So Happily Ever After: The Tale of King Ludwig II.

7 thoughts on “Bavarian Prince Otto and Insanity in the 1800s

  1. Well this was an interesting little side trip to begin my Hump Day. It was all new to me!

  2. Oh, my goodness! Just looking at those people wrapped like a mummy makes me want to scream and bark like a dog. If they didn’t have mental problems before, they certainly would after being treated like that. It amazes me what the medicial world thought proper years ago. Most of it was completely brutal.

  3. Very Interesting info! You are truly talented at making history come alive! Hope that you decide to do other historical figures in the future. Look what the book KILLING LINCOLN has done for Bill O’Reilly; why not you? Go, girl, go…

  4. I agree that this is very interesting! I hate to think of the mentally ill being treated as they were, although I saw them treated worse in Cote d’ivoire.

  5. it really pains me to see how the mentally ill were treated in the olden day,it also makes me wonder how they are treated now…

  6. Otto might have been able to lead a more normal life and even do the ruling himself if there had been modern drugs back then to address problems like hormonal imbalance. Prozac, Wellbutrin, or Zoloft might have fixed the king’s head problems and Prilosec could have aided his tummy problems. Sounds like he might have had a bleeding ulcer. Poor guy!

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