On October 4, 1621, the Duke of Württemberg declared Katharina Kepler free of a witchcraft charge for which she had barely avoided execution … with the help of her son, the astronomer Johannes Kepler.
The famous scientist was very well along his career, and his mother (German Wikipedia link) a too-old-for-this-crap 69, when authorities in her native town of Leonberg initiated proceedings in 1615.
It says here she was an eccentric, cantankerous old dame, just the sort liable to face a gossip campaign that would promote her into partnership with the Evil One. She was only one of a number of people targeted in the town’s witch-spasm, noticeably occurring as the Catholic-Protestant conflict was stoking that crucible of modernity, the Thirty Years’ War — a fine time and place for infernal superstition.
Several of the suspected were put to death.*
Kepler, whose heterodoxy and heliocentrism made him a touchy figure in a fraught time for scientists, might have done her no favors with his trippy Dream, whose overt musings on “daemons” and the like might have drawn suspicion onto the family. Johannes made six years of atonement struggling — ultimately successfully — to keep his mother alive and untortured.
Commuting back and forth from his work in Linz (showing an admirable capacity for keeping his head while others about him were in danger of losing theirs, Kepler discovered his third law of planetary motion in 1618; apparently he also read Galileo’s father on one of the trips between Linz and Leonberg), he organized his mother’s defense and wrote her briefs in his own hand.
It finally paid off.
The judicial college at the University of Tübingen — Kepler had matriculated there as a younger man — opened the door to Katharina’s release by declaring the evidence insufficient either way, and issuing a split-the-baby conviction directing that she be shown but not subjected to the instruments of torture.
On September 28, 1620, the Feast of St. Wenceslas, the executioner showed Katharina Kepler the instruments of torture, the pricking needles, the rack, the branding irons. Her son Johannes Kepler was nearby, fuming, praying for it to be over. He was forty-nine and, with Galileo Galilei, one of the greatest astronomers of the age — the emperor’s mathematician, the genius who had calculated the true orbits of the planets and revealed the laws of optics to the world. Dukes listened to him. Barons asked his advice. And yet when the town gossips of Leonberg set their will against him, determined to take the life of his mother on trumped-up charges of witchcraft, he could not stop them.
There were tidal forces at work in this little town. The events around the duchy of Württemberg would gather into themselves all the violent changes of the day, for by their conviction of Katharina, the consistory (the duke’s council), the magistrates, and the Lutheran church authorities had bundled together their fear of Copernicus and their anger against Johannes, a man they had already convicted of heresy. The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting apart like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had begun changing, and Kepler had been a part of that change. … Fear ruled Europe — fear of difference, fear of change.
And there, in one corner of Swabia in southern Germany, the mother of a famous man, a mathematician and scientist, a respected, pious Lutheran, nearly paid with her life.
Early that morning, she was led to the torturer by Aulber, the bailiff of Güglingen, who was accompanied by a scribe for recording her confession, and three court representatives. The torturer, with the bailiff standing to one side, then shouted at her for a long time, commanding her to repent and tell the truth and threatening her if she didn’t. He showed her each instrument and described in detail all that it would do to her body — the prickers, the long needles for picking at the flesh; the hot irons for branding; the pincers for pulling and tearing at the body; the rack; the garrote; and the gallows for hanging, drawing, and quartering. He adjured her to repent, to confess her crimes, so that even if she would not survive in this world, she could at least go to God with a clear conscience.
Stubborn Katharina was having none of it.
Do with me what you want. Even if you were to pull one vein after another out of my body, I would have nothing to admit. (Source)
Having survived the “torture,” she was in the clear; at her son’s relentless insistence, the Duke ordered her released six days later.
* This German timeline of Leonberg says the witchsmeller got nine out of 10 targets. Other versions have slightly different head counts for the persecution; at any rate, Katharina wasn’t alone.