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."

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