The Hapsburg Anastasia, Part 1On February 17, 2021 by Elyse
Remember Second Glance History’s friend Crown Prince Rudolf, heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Conspiracy theorists claim that despite what the history books say, the Hapsburg prince didn’t die on January 30, 1889 in a murder-suicide with Baroness Mary Vetsera, his 17-year-old mistress. In fact, they say he left that hunting lodge in Mayerling, Austria and went on to literally become Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States. Their proof is irrefutable.
Today, I have more good news for those conspiracy theorists: Before Rudolf definitely didn’t die, he and Mary had a daughter together in 1888. At least, according to that supposed daughter. Alma Vetsera, as she was known, figured out well before Romanov imposter Anna Anderson—and 20th Century Fox, for that matter—that everyone loves a story about a long-lost princess.
Alma asserted she had been smuggled out of Austria by a priest on the orders of the government and educated at a convent school in Toronto, Canada—or she was taken to the U.S. from Vienna by her mother’s relatives in the early 1900s. The newspapers covering her claims in the early 20th century reported both versions with equal conviction.
Regardless of how Alma ended up in the Western Hemisphere, the articles were consistent about her charms. They dubbed her “a beautiful Austrian,” “life of the party,” “most always smiling” and “looking for all the world like the pale, tragic Marie Vetsera.” More specifically, “She is small and slender, with very wide and heavy lidded blue eyes, a rather large but smiling mouth and plenty of blond hair.” At least they didn’t call her a big mouth.
Records of her childhood are conspicuously hard to find, but the paper trail shows that in 1907, she married American stockbroker George Osborne Hayne. A year later, their son was born in New Jersey. They named him Rudolf Vetsera Hayne—not subtle at all.
According to Alma, George had no doubts about her parentage, calling her the “truest of all the Hapsburgs.” With conviction like that, no wonder the two of them traveled to Austria in 1911 and “tried to obtain from the authorities recognition of Mrs. Hayne’s claim to be the daughter of Crown Prince Rudolf.”
The government took a hard pass:
[T]he Austrian Government issued an official proclamation stating that as no child was born as a result of the infatuation of the Crown Prince for the Baroness Vetsera no person could genuinely claim such ancestry.– The Washington Times, January 4, 1920
The government wasn’t the only one. An article published in 1914 bristled:
[N]othing but derision would be accorded to the pretensions of the young woman, a Mrs. Hayne, who has induced a number of credulous people here in New York actually to believe her assertions to the effect that she is a daughter of the late Crown Prince Rudolf and of Baroness Marie Vetsera, and that her little boy is therefore an Austrian Prince and one of the heirs to Francis Joseph’s throne. . .
Baroness Marie Vetsera. . . left no child born to her infatuation for the only son of the Emperor and Empress of Austria. This is a matter of such common and positive knowledge to every one of any standing in Viennese society and in the Austrian official world that it is difficult to understand how any woman in her senses can have put forward pretensions to any such parentage.– E. Cunliffe Owen, The Sun, July 5, 1914
That pesky proclamation and grouchy columnist weren’t going to stop Alma from fighting for her alleged birthright. If anything, they only made her more popular, judging by her love life.
In November 1911, a young man named Justin McDougald, son of a wealthy Canadian businessman, was head over heels for Alma. They’d met in Montreal, after her husband had moved to New York and left her behind. Justin was ready to marry Alma yesterday, so she set about divorcing George.
However, before they could tie the knot, Justin’s disapproving father—having learned nothing about parental meddling from “Love in the Time of Ice Cream Sundaes”—intervened.
He induced his son to accompany him to St. Benoit Joseph Asylum at Longue Point, and had him detained in order to give him time to reflect over his conduct.
Like any grounded teenager, Justin was desperate for a way out.
While there he wrote several piteous letters to Mrs. Hayne, telling her of his plight and imploring her to assist him to escape. This led to a most exciting fight for freedom.
Through the connivance of Mrs. Hayne a file was smuggled to the incarcerated young man by means of a box of candy. A night was decided on for the escape. The bars that kept McDougald from freedom were to be cut, the young man was to lower himself quietly to the grounds below, where a conveyance waited at the asylum gate to bear him away to the woman he loved.
Hollywood, get ready to green light Ocean’s Fourteen.
The attempt proved a failure, however. The sound of the file against the steel of young McDougald’s prison bars was heard by the keen ears of asylum warders, and the bid for freedom was frustrated.
Like any good heist movie, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
Further piteous letters were sent from the prisoner to Mrs. Hayne, begging her to discover some other way to help him out of his plight. A second attempt was made.
On a dark night a few days later a high-powered motorcar bearing three or four friends of the young couple travelled to Longue Point to reconnoiter the place, with a view to making an effort to release the young fellow on the following night. Shortly before midnight of the appointed day a big touring car containing five men arrived noiselessly on the scene.
I have some good friends, but would any of them break me out of an asylum? I’m not so sure.
The guards of the asylum, however, were not asleep, and soon the challenge was given to those who were seen to be crouching in the shadow of the asylum gate. No satisfactory answer being given, the guards opened fire on the party. This was returned by the would-be rescuers, one of whom emptied a chamber of revolver shots on the custodians of the institution.
A general alarm resulted; lights began to appear about the grounds and reinforcements beat off the attack. The would-be rescuers clambered back into their car and disappeared into the darkness.
Alma and Justin were down but not out.
Accepting the hopelessness of quixotic rescue, Mrs. Hayne decided to appeal to the law to assist her cause, and applied for a writ of habeas corpus demanding the asylum authorities to “deliver up the body of Justin B. McDougald.” When the case was called the asylum brothers did not appear, but Mr. McDougald, Sr., was in court on their behalf. The case was adjourned so that the brothers might appear.
After the adjournment Mrs. Hayne appealed to the young man’s father and agreed to accompany him to the asylum. What transpired on this journey has never been revealed, but on the way Alma agreed not only to make no further fuss about the young man’s incarceration, but even agreed to persuade him to remain there of his own consent until his father agreed to his release.– The Washington Times, January 4, 1920
I have a theory about what transpired on that journey: $$$$$. So much for true love.
After her fling with Justin, Alma briefly reconciled with George. However, those two crazy kids couldn’t make it work. In 1914, she charged him with desertion and divorced him.
That’s where we’ll leave Alma for now. What will she do with her newfound freedom? Will she find love again? Is there a touching, royal family reunion in her future? Tune in next time to find out!
For more on this kooky story, as well as a deep dive into what may or may not have happened to Rudolf and Mary at that hunting lodge in Mayerling in 1889, keep an eye, er, ear, out for an upcoming episode of the hilarious Body Count podcast. Along with the fabulous history blogger Girl in the Tiara, I recently had the privilege of recording an episode about these stories. I’ll add the episode link here when it’s available, but in the meantime, check out the blog and previous episodes of the podcast!
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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