The Astronomer and the Witch

You have probably heard of Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician, astrologer, and astronomer who is famous for working out the laws of planetary motion. But his talents extended beyond the fields of math and science. He also worked one time as a defense attorney, and the only client he ever had was acquitted. That client was his own mother.

Between 1560 and 1700, nearly 75,000 people were accused and tried for witchcraft in Europe during a massive “witch craze.” Of the 50,000 who were found guilty and executed, nearly half were in Germany. Kepler’s 68-year-old widowed mother, Katharina, became caught up in the craze when she was accused by neighbors of poisoning them in 1615. (The neighbors actually suffered from chronic illness, and had not been poisoned by anyone.)

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In total, 24 people accused Katharina of witchcraft. She was said to appear through closed doors. She was also accused of turning herself into a cat, of killing animals, and of causing severe injury to people just by looking at them or touching them. Her own son Heinrich even said that she had ridden a calf to death and then eaten it, but he did not report it to the authorities.

Based on these mounting accusations, Katharina was arrested in 1620. She was threatened with torture and was even chained to the floor of her prison cell for many months. Despite all this, she would not confess to being a witch.

Kepler was at the height of his career when his mother was accused, and was living in Linz, Austria at the time with his family. When his other siblings were unable to secure her release, he decided he had to do something himself. His mother had first shown him a comet when he was six years old, which ignited his interest in astronomy. He loved her, and his own reputation was on the line, so he packed up his family and moved back to Germany to take up her defense himself.

Kepler attacked much of the witness testimony as hearsay. Many of the accusers were too young to be reliable and had relied only on rumors about Katharina’s reputation when they made their accusations. He found more reliable witnesses who had known her for most of her life and who had nothing bad to say about her.

He argued that being old and bothersome did not make someone a witch and said that it was wrong to accuse them of witchcraft because of such behavior. He also used his extensive medical knowledge to provide a natural explanation for each of her accusers’ various illnesses.

By all accounts, Kepler’s defense was masterful, especially for someone with no legal training. And it worked. His mother was acquitted and released from prison. But Kepler remained humble about all of this. He never published his defense, which could have made him substantial sums of money, and he never defended anyone else in court again.

Sadly, Katharina’s prison ordeal proved too much for her already frail health. She died six months later. The only consolation for the family was that she died legally innocent and in her own home instead of prison. This could not be said for the thousands of other old women who died in the European witch hunts of the time, who did not have talented children to act as their defense attorneys.

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