For Halloween, I thought I’d post something about a real witch trial. Johannes Kepler had to drop his scientific research to travel home to defend his mother, who had been accused of being a witch. This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Scientists Are Strange Enough.
Johannes Kepler was an astronomer and mathematician. He is the dude who discovered that planets move not in circles, but in ellipses. He helped convince the world that Galileo was right—the sun really is the center of the solar system. But in 1620, he had to interrupt his scientific career to keep his mother from being burned for being a witch.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe went through occasional bouts of witch hunting. Between 1500 and the late 1600s, as many as 50,000 people—mostly older, often poor or widowed women—were executed because their neighbors thought they were witches. Kepler’s mom, Katharina Kepler, was a 68-year-old widow when her neighbors in the small town of Leonberg, Germany, had her arrested for being a witch. She was accused of using magic to make her neighbors ill, of killing her neighbors’ animals, and of turning herself into a cat. It sounds a little goofy, but it was anything but harmless. Mrs. Kepler was kept chained to the floor of her prison cell for fourteen months of the six years it took to resolve her case. Her captors threatened her with torture. They generally did this by showing the potential victim the torture instruments they planned to use, in the hopes that the fear of it would cause the accused to confess—which of course had she done, they would have burned her at the stake.
In the midst of all this, her son, Johannes Kepler, moved his family from Austria, where he was working at the time, to Germany to defend his mother against the charges. Johannes Kepler was a very good choice for defense attorney in a witch trial. He was exceptionally clever at spotting inconsistencies in the stories of his mother’s accusers. However, his main virtue as a defense attorney was that he could use his scientific expertise and a good dose of common sense to refute the charges. What had seemed like magical illnesses to the people of Leonberg, Kepler showed to have very un-magical medical causes. Mrs. Kepler was freed in 1621—six years after the first accusation—but sadly the experience had been hard on her. She died only six months later. But at least, thanks to the efforts of her son, she died quietly in her bed rather than at the stake.