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From the Archives: Kepler’s Mother-A Scary Story for Halloween

The seventeenth century was a period of scientific revolution. Astronomers, like Galileo, worked out the motions of the planets and stars in the sky, and overturned the concept that the earth stood at the center of the cosmos.(1) Galileo, Newton and others created a new science of mechanics that applied the laws of mathematics to motion. Physicians explored the structure of the human body. The development of scientific instruments allowed students to see new worlds in a drop of water and scan the skies with a clarity not possible with the naked eye. Natural philosophers (the name used by scientists at the time) began to perform experiments in a way that could be verified by others.(2)

The seventeenth century was also the height of the European witch trials. Black magic, maleficum, was a capital crime, clearly defined by law. Between 1570 and 1680, roughly 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft in Europe and between 40,000 and 60,000 were executed. Most of the accused were women. One of the women accused was Katharina Kepler, the 68-year-old mother of German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

The charges against Katharina will sound familiar to anyone who has read accounts of the witch trials.  A woman who suffered from a chronic illness accused Katharina of poisoning her. The local schoolmaster reported that the illiterate Katharina constantly pestered him to read letters from or write letters to her famous son, and that on one occasion she entered his house though the doors were locked. A local matron reported, second-hand, that a young seamstress told her that Katherina had roamed the house late at night(3)  and offered to teach her (the seamstress) witchcraft. She was accused of killing various local animals by magic and of turning herself into a cat. Katherina vehemently denied the charges. The only charges she couldn’t  deny were a) being old and b)being difficult. (4) Obviously prime witch material.

Her trial lasted six years.

In 1620, five years after Katharina’s ordeal began (!), at the height of his career, Johannes Kepler packed up his family, moved to the city where his mother was on trail, and took over her defense. He dissected the charges in a powerful, and groundbreaking, legal document. He attacked the reliability of many of the witnesses. He pointed out the fact that many of the accused acts–like entering someone’s house uninvited–could not necessarily be attributed to witchcraft. And that to do so would make any difficult old woman vulnerable to attack. (5) He discussed the differences between natural and unnatural illness in scientific detail, with the authority of one of the great scientists of his age. He pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony. It took almost a year, but he ultimately succeeded in getting his mother acquitted.

Katharina died six months after her acquittal, no doubt worn down by her ordeal

At base, Kepler wasn’t that different than the men who tried his mother. He believed in magic. The division between magic, religion and science was not clear. Sir Isaac Newton spent as much time studying alchemy and interpreting biblical prophecies as he did on the scientific theorems for which he is famous. William Harvey, who discovered how blood circulates in the body, dissected a witch’s toad familiar, looking for the source of its supernatural power. Most witchhunters and demonologists were scholars and rationalists who believed in the importance of direct observation and were concerned with the question of what constituted reliable evidence . The investigation of witchcraft, magic and miracles was a much a part of the scientific revolution as the study of gravity and electricity.

Small comfort for cranky old ladies who liked cats and annoyed their neighbors.

(1) Or at least shoved it off balance. It takes a while for new ideas about the nature of reality to work their way through society. Consider the existence of the Flat Earth Society.
(2) It is only fair to point out that many of these breakthroughs had been anticipated by Islamic scientists during the Golden Age of Islam, most notably Alhazen, whose work laid the foundation for the scientific method.
(3) There is a reason they call them the witching hours.
(4) In her trial Johannes himself admitted that she “disturbs the whole of her town, and is the author of her own lamentable misfortune.”
(5) As indeed they were.



Agents of Influence

In June 1940, American politics was divided into isolationists, who wanted to keep America out of the European war, and interventionists, who believed that America’s safety and prosperity depended on supporting Great Britain in its fight against Nazi Germany. In Agents of Influence: A British Campaign, a Canadian Spy, and the Secret Plot to Bring America into World War II, Henry Hemming, author of other real-life spy stories such as Agent M and The Ingenious Mr. Pike, tells the story of how Britain and Germany attempted to influence American politics from behind the scenes.

The story feels all too familiar in twenty-first century America: American organizations infiltrated by foreign powers, propaganda, demagoguery, false news. On the British side, businessman turned MI6 operative William Stephenson built a powerful intelligence operation from the 55th floor of the Rockefeller Center’s International Building. His people forged documents, planted false news stories, subsidized protest groups, and coached “Wild Bill” Donovan through the creation of their American equivalent, the Office of Strategic Services.  On the German side, Hans Thomsen, chargé d’affaires at the German embassy in Washington, found ways to distribute Nazi propaganda, including a daring plan using congressional franking privileges, funded isolationist attendees at the Republican National Convention of 1940, helped grow the America First movement, and indirectly coached Charles Lindburgh’s increasingly strident isolationist speeches.

Hemming’s account of this shadow duel is remarkably even-handed, even when Hemming’ grandparents make a cameo appearance on behalf of Stephenson’s organization. No one had clean hands.

This review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Road Trip Through History: Little House in the Big Woods

I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks, not far from Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House books, lived from 1897 to her death in 1957. I remember being thrilled when my family took a day trip to visit her home, probably in the late 1960s soon after it was made into a museum. *

From my perspective, the Mansfield house is the Laura Ingalls Wilder home. (And there is some justification for that perspective. It’s where Wilder wrote the books that made her famous.** ) So I was surprised to discover as we moved north into Wisconsin that we were in the neighborhood of another Wilder site: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Wayside, located near Pepin, Wisconsin.***

The Wayside is a replica of the cabin where Wilder was born, built on the original site of the Wilder farm. The cabin is open everyday, dawn to dusk. There is little interpretive material: a historical marker outside and a small display of letters and other material inside. The audience seems to be people who know and love the books—and their patient companions. I found the experience unexpectedly moving.

There is a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum (and gift shop) in Pepin itself for those who want more information, or souvenirs. I didn’t feel the need.

* The thrill is pretty much all I remember about that visit. I haven’t been back since. Though I’m adding it to the list of things the next time I’m home when it’s open.

**I use the verb “wrote” with caution. There is a reason why the museum in Mansfield is now called the Laura Ingalls Wilder – Rose Wilder Lane Museum. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Wilder’s daughter was deeply involved in the creation of the books. And yet, for me, as for many of my contemporaries, the Little House books are fundamentally Laura’s. Sometimes the fan wins out over the historian.

***I was further surprised to learn after we got home that driving the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites is a popular road trip for hard-core fans.

Travel Tips:

  • The signs leading you to the wayside are small and have an improvised feel, so keep a close watch and be prepared to use your odometer.
  • Pepin celebrates Laura Ingalls Wilder Days on the second full weekend in September. We missed it, but it looks like a lot of fun if you like small town festivals and traditional crafts demonstrations. Which we do.

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