On the afternoon of Feb. 17, 1934, King Albert I of Belgium asked his valet to wait in the car while he went for a climb in Marche-les-Dames, where the rock peaks reach 600 feet above the River Meuse. The king glanced at his watch before he left — he had to appear that evening at the Palais des Sports in Brussels. His valet watched him start up the rocks, and after a few minutes he was out of view.
The king would never be seen alive again.
As the sun went down, a sense of unease descended upon the valet. King Albert was an accomplished climber, but also 58 years old and very far-sighted. Hours went by. The valet enlisted the help of local villagers and gamekeepers to search among the cliffs called “Crow’s Nest,” named for their staggering heights and inaccessibility.
At 2 a.m., in the dark, one of the volunteers caught his foot on some rope. Then, he saw that it was attached to the king’s body. The New York Times reported the next day that “the body was bent in double and there was a huge gash in the left side of the head.”
His eyeglasses were found 36 feet above his corpse.
Almost immediately, there were whispers around the circumstances of the king’s death. The New York Times reported that those close to the king were convinced he had given up dangerous climbing.
In May 1934 in Nottingham, the British officer Graham Seton Hutchison, who formed his own Fascist party in Britain, gave a speech claiming that the king had been killed because of his efforts to keep peace in Belgium during World War I, a position that made him beloved among his subjects. The king had refused to let Germany pass through Belgium to attack France. Ultimately, the Germans marched into Belgium and occupied the country. The king personally fought along the Western Front.
“The true facts were that Albert was opposed to war,” Hutchison said in 1934. “The biggest piece of spoof put over on the world in the past six months was the story of Albert’s death. A man with a rope around his waist does not go climbing by himself. There were no bruises on the body. In other words, he was rapped on the back of the head.”
Conspiracy theories erupted. Rumors flew that the accident had been staged, the king had been killed elsewhere, and his body dumped at the site.
But now researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium say they have found DNA evidence to provide some closure to this 82-year-old cold case.
After the king’s death, the spot where he fell turned into a place of pilgrimage. A barbed wire fence had to be put around the area to prevent visitors from taking home relics. The New York Times reported that it had “begun to be plucked bare of stones, leaves, branches and everything else removable by souvenir hunters.”
And people held on to their treasures. In 2014, a journalist for a Flemish television network, Reinout Goddyn, bought blood-stained tree leaves that had been collected at the site in the days after the king’s death. Beyond obtaining a historical relic, Goddyn wanted to see if the conspiracy theories could be proven, one way or another.
In 2014, the blood was confirmed to be human.
Last week, forensic geneticist Maarten Larmuseau announced in a statement that thanks to DNA tests he could definitely say the blood belonged to King Albert. Finding his blood at the site strongly contradicted any plot that would have involved moving the king’s body.
“The authenticity of the trails of blood confirms the official account of the death of Albert I,” Larmuseau wrote in a statement. “The story that the dead body of the king has never been in Marche-les-Dames or was only placed there at night has now become very improbable.”
To do the DNA testing, Larmuseau found two living relatives of the king: King Simeon II, the last czar and former prime minister of Bulgaria, and a German baroness, Anna Maria Freifrau von Haxthausen. Both gave DNA samples to compare the DNA from the blood-stained leaves, and testing showed them to be related. Larmuseau wrote that their results also showed how a proper investigation was difficult to conduct in 1934 because the area was so thoroughly scavenged.
“80 years after the fact, everyone involved has passed away, and most material is gone; we will probably never be able to dismiss all speculations concerning this ‘cold case,'” Larmuseau said.
But even decades later, Belgians will be relieved to hear that their popular king most likely wasn’t killed as a result of foul play. As mourners heard the news of his death back in 1934, the Times reported that people remembered publicly how King Albert had stood up for Belgium again and again during the war.
“Albert the Good is gone,” they said.