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01/16/2009 05:27 PM

Rotten in the State of Denmark

Was Tycho Brahe Murdered by a Contract Killer?

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Over 400 years after the death of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, scientists in Prague are preparing to exhume his body. Was Europe's most renowned scholar poisoned with mercury? A Danish scholar claims to have decoded the murderer's diary.

Walls of people formed to watch a funeral procession pass through the streets of Prague on Nov. 4, 1601. A herald carrying a billowing damask flag was followed by 12 imperial guards bearing a coffin covered with black satin. The man inside wore a full suit of armor.

Tycho Brahe, the brilliant observer of the stars in the Renaissance, was being carried to his grave. The scholar had systematically measured the sky, paving the way for science in the modern age. In 1573 he became the first person to describe a supernova, the explosion of a star.

His assistant, Johannes Kepler, praised him as a "phoenix" of astronomy. Brahe simply compared himself to the "Messiah."

He was also a bon vivant -- a member of the Danish aristocracy, and master of his own island. A biographer called him an "indestructible, blustering social being with an enormous appetite for food and wine."

So what killed this tycoon of the heavens? According to contemporary reports, while attending a banquet at the emperor's court in Prague, Brahe suddenly felt a strong urge to urinate, but was too polite to excuse himself. Finally, the reports conclude, his bladder became "twisted," blocked up or somehow "torn."

Kepler, who was also a tenant of Brahe's, witnessed the subsequent illness first-hand. Brahe was unable to urinate for 11 days, and he eventually died in a delirious state.

In his 1990 novel "Immortality," Czech novelist Milan Kundera characterized Brahe's death as "ridiculous." In Kundera's description, the astronomer slid around on his chair so much that "the urinary tract burst." For him, Brahe was a "martyr of shame and urine."

But is this true? Even the funeral orators were shocked by the scholar's "unexpected death." Rumors of murder soon spread through Europe.

The truth didn't begin to emerge until 1991. The Prague National Museum, which has Brahe's moustache in its collection, sent a few of the hairs to Denmark. Lab tests revealed mercury levels more than 100 times above normal.

Five years later, physicists at the University of Lund presented the results of another study, this time using a proton microprobe. The famous scholar had swallowed the heavy metal all at once, about 13 hours before his death.

Was he poisoned? US expert Joshua Gilder believes an assassin used mercuric chloride, which he dripped into Brahe's glass. A few drops would have been fatal.

But who was devious enough to commit the crime? Some suspected the Jesuit order, while a 2004 book points to Brahe's fellow scientist, Kepler, as the murderer. But there is not the slightest bit of proof to back up this assertion.

And not everyone believes Brahe was killed. Administrators of the astronomer's estate in Copenhagen question whether the mercury was even sufficiently potent to cause death. Others believe it was an accident. Brahe, as an alchemist, also made miracle drugs, and some believe he may have killed himself by accident.

To resolve this mystery once and for all, Brahe's grave will be exhumed. This year, a group of conservators, chemists and physicians plans to open the vault in Prague's Tyn Church, on Wenceslas Square, and perform a forensic analysis on the body.

A Danish King, and a Distant Relative

The experts' plans include a "computer tomography of the skeleton" and the removal of "100 milligrams of bone material," according to Danish archeologist Jens Vellev, who leads the group. His autopsy team is now waiting for final approval.

Most experts think they know the result. They claim existing test data already show that Brahe was murdered.

Peter Andersen's new theory
DER SPIEGEL

Peter Andersen's new theory

But a new lead has emerged in the search for the killer. Peter Andersen, a Strasbourg German Studies expert, has studied all individuals who were in contact with the Prague court astronomer. He suspects "the murder plot was hatched at the highest political level. Danish King Christian IV was the mastermind."

Andersen also says he's identified the killer: Erik Brahe, a Swedish count. Historians traditionally consider him a "friend" and "affectionate cousin" of Tycho Brahe. He was in Brahe's house shortly before the astronomer's death.

But Andersen has unmasked the relative. "Erik Brahe was an amorous bon vivant, always in financial difficulty," he explains. "He served several crowned heads of state as a secret diplomat."

Andersen says he was only distantly related to the astronomer, "through the Swedish secondary line of the family, which had split off 200 years before."

A Bitter End to a Charmed Life

On January 15, Andersen will lay his case before the general public for the first time in Copenhagen. His most important piece of evidence is the diary of the supposed murderer, which Andersen tracked down in Stockholm. "It contains the details of the attack and, indirectly, the murderer's confession," says Andersen.

Has he uncovered a new trail leading into the late Renaissance (an era marked by grisly intrigues)? There was undoubtedly a strange curse on Brahe's life shortly before his death. At first he lived like a darling of fortune. He studied in Leipzig and Wittenberg. He started to build increasingly large tools -- brass models of the universe called armillary spheres, giant quadrants for measuring altitudes and angles -- to map the visible stars.

In 1576, the king of Denmark gave him an island in the Öresund Strait, where Brahe built "Uraniborg" (Castle of the Heavens), complete with observatories. Massive pieces of astronomical equipment were kept in an underground station where the roof could be pulled aside with pulleys.

For 21 years Brahe studied the heavens from Uraniborg. It's considered the world's first large research institute. Using data Brahe gathered, Kepler was later able to formulate his "Laws of Planetary Motion."

But in 1596, dark clouds began to gather. Christian IV assumed the throne of Denmark and Norway. He had just turned 19. One of his first official acts was to humiliate his famous subject and to illegally deprive him of his estate. It was the start of a witch hunt.

Within months the situation grew so tense that Brahe was at risk of imprisonment. He fled to Germany and took refuge with Emperor Rudolf II, an eccentric misanthrope who lived in the castle of Hradjin in Prague. Meanwhile, the young Danish king had Uraniborg torn down. Not a single stone of Brahe's observatory remains in place today.

But what was the source of this hatred? King Christian's craving for revenge is still a mystery, though Andersen believes his motives may have been Oedipal. He says the young monarch's mother had had an affair with the astronomer. "There were rumors among European nobility that Christian IV was a bastard." Even whispers of his possibly illegitimate parentage, says Andersen, were "extremely threatening" to the new monarch.

Some Renaissance kings were killed -- in some cases poisoned -- for far less significant reasons. Arsenic, for example, was found in the vault of Sweden's King Erik XIV, who died in 1577.

Some literary scholars even believe Shakespeare had heard of Brahe's secret paternity, and used the topic as the basis for his greatest play. Shakespeare's Hamlet, like the real Danish king, lived in Helsingør Castle.

The new murder theory is also based on more substantial evidence. Andersen has combed through Erik Brahe's unusual diary. It is a 600-page volume bound in brownish leather, which he found in the Royal Library in Stockholm. The work is filled with secret notes, but most entries are written in Latin.

The diary shows its author preparing for an important mission early in 1601. He left his castle in Sweden in a great hurry, and met several times with the brother and other confidants of the vengeful Danish king, first in a hotel in Copenhagen and then in Gdansk.

Peter Andersen's new theory
DER SPIEGEL

Peter Andersen's new theory

In April, Erik Brahe traveled to Prague, where he ingratiated himself with the astronomer. They didn't know each other until then. Erik Brahe also met with the astronomer's Danish enemies in a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, he entrusted pangs of remorse to his diary, which contains the words "mea culpa" in several passages, but without further explanation. On June 4, he wrote, "mea maxima culpa."

But what would the motive be? Erik Brahe had money troubles at the time, and apparently few scruples. A year earlier he had allowed himself to be used in a plot to kill his own brother-in-law through a bogus court verdict.

It also seems suspicious that Erik Brahe finagled an invitation to the banquet where Tycho Brahe fell ill. The host of the gala dinner was Baron Peter Vok von Rosenberg, a wasteful libertine who lived next to the emperor's palace. Research has shown that the nobleman was in deep financial trouble. Andersen is convinced that "Rosenberg was initiated into the intrigue."

The banquet halls where the pleasure-loving surveyor of the heavens ate his last meal are still preserved today. It was there that Tycho Brahe, to the sounds of harpsichords, and surrounded by Turkish rugs and women dressed in silk, ate roast and drank the baron's wine. Then he suddenly fell ill.

Erik Brahe wrote in his diary: "I was strong, until I could no longer be strong."

The gourmand had hardly returned home from the banquet before he began suffering horrible pain. "He was unable to sleep for five nights," writes his assistant Kepler, "until finally, with great effort and in great pain, he managed to press out a few drops." Tycho Brahe was afflicted by "inner heat." But the 54-year-old astronomer also had a strong constitution -- and recovered.

Andersen says the would-be murderer then tried poisoning Brahe a second time. According to his diary, the presumed contract killer appeared at his distant relative's house on Oct. 20, "for lunch with T. Brahe." Oddly enough he wrote his relative's name in secret letters, as if to conceal the recent establishment of content.

He paid visits to the slowly recovering astronomer on Oct. 22 and on the evening of Oct. 23. Did he take advantage of that opportunity to drop mercury salts into his glass? On the date of the death Erik Brahe merely noted the great man's "exhalation," at 9 a.m.

Andersen has undoubtedly shone a new light on the drama surrounding the death of the Scandinavian master of the planets. But it will take more analysis to know whether the trail does in fact lead to the murderer.

All eyes are now on Brahe's musty vault, where memorial slabs will soon be pushed aside. A number of TV broadcasters have already shown interest in the exhumation.

The Danes in particular are excited to see what happens. But they're also nervous, because the suspected mastermind, King Christian IV, is revered in Denmark as the protector of the fatherland. In fact, his military exploits are praised in the national anthem.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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