This Week in Odd History: Kepler’s Mother Arrested for Witchcraft (August 7, 1620)

This Week in Odd History, Johannes Kepler’s elderly mother Katharina was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft in Leonberg, a charming little town in Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

Mrs. Kepler wasn’t the first member of the family to run into trouble with the witch-hunting authorities. She had been raised by an aunt who had herself been burned at the stake, and she dabbled in herbal concoctions she believed to be magical. Nor was she particularly well-liked (her own son described her as “small, thin, swarthy, gossiping and quarrelsome, of a bad disposition”). In 1615, one of Mrs. Kepler’s customers – a nasty piece of work named Ursula Reinbold, who’d fallen out with the Kepler family over a series of business transactions – accused the old lady of having poisoned her with a witch’s brew. Mrs. Kepler had had enough. She not only denied the charges (even when Mrs. Reinbold’s brother pressed a sword to her throat and demanded that she produce an antidote), she filed a libel suit against her accuser.

Mrs. Kepler was not the only woman accused of witchcraft in Leonberg (Lutherus Einhorn, who served as Vogt – something like a town bailiff – from 1613-1629, had 15 women arrested for witchcraft, and eight of them were executed for it), but she was the only one whose son was Imperial Mathematician to Rudolph II. Johannes Kepler spent the next several years mustering his considerable resources in his mother’s defense, commuting back to Leonberg from his home in Linz, hiring attorneys and making legal arguments on her behalf. Mrs. Reinbold, though, was not without political connections of her own – her brother was the court barber-surgeon to the prince of Württemberg.

In October 1619, Mrs. Reinbold upped the ante. Her family filed a counter-suit, demanding 1,000 florins for the sorcerous damage they insisted she’d caused Mrs. Reinbold. In lieu of evidence, their complaint was crammed full of local gossip: Mrs. Kepler could pass through locked doors without opening them; she’d once ridden a calf to death; she could kill babies by blessing them; she had killed her neighbors’ pets and livestock; she had asked the gravedigger for her father’s skull. (That last, it turns out, was true – she intended to have it set in silver as a gift for her son Johannes. She couldn’t see what the big deal was, though – she said she’d heard about the ancient custom of making drinking vessels from deceased relatives’ skulls in a sermon.)

In the face of these allegations, and the testimony of dozens of no-doubt-reliable witnesses, the duke finally agreed to bring criminal charges against Mrs. Kepler. On August 7, 1620, the authorities invaded the old lady’s home, bundled her into a large chest, and carried her off to jail in nearby Güglingen. At Johannes Kepler’s request, the trial was delayed until he could arrive to take charge of his mother’s defense. Meanwhile, the duke asked the judicial faculty at Tübingen (Johannes Kepler’s alma mater), to examine the evidence and decide whether the court might be allowed to torture the accused. The faculty (which included Christopher Besold, an old acquaintance of Johannes’), apparently not as impressed with these tales of dead cattle and silvered skulls as Mrs. Reinbold might have hoped, declined to allow torture, but did give the authorities permission to describe what she was missing. On September 28, 1621, the torturer of Güglingen spent several hours showing her his instruments, explaining how each of them was used, and exhorting her to confess. She refused. “Do with me what you want,” she said. “Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit.”

With no evidence and no confession, the duke had no choice but to let his prisoner go. She died of natural causes the following April, at the age of 75.

Biography of Johannes Kepler at Galileo and Einstein.
Biography of Johannes Kepler at The Galileo Project
Biography of Johannes Kepler at Wikipedia
Biography of Katharina Kepler at Wikipedia >> 1621: Not Katharina Kepler, thanks to her son Johannes
Johannes Kepler and the New Astronomy, at Google Books.
Profile of Leonberg at Wikipedia
A timeline of mathematics and theoretical physics

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