Pee, Poison, and Prosthetic Noses: The Story of Astronomer Tycho Brahe's Suspicious Death

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul, author Eleanor Herman delves into the deadly—and often disgusting—world that lay beneath Western Europe's most glittering palaces. From the gut-roiling poisons used to dispatch enemies and inconvenient heirs to the methods the highest-born unknowingly used to poison themselves (think mercury enemas and lead cosmetics), it's a book that will make you think twice the next time you admire a royal portrait. Along the way, Herman analyzes the suspicious deaths of some of the most famous people in European history—deaths in which poison may have played a part. Read on for an excerpt about Tycho Brahe, possibly one of the most eccentric astronomers in history.

 
 

When the world’s greatest astronomer, the colorful Tycho Brahe, sat down to a hearty banquet at a neighboring nobleman’s house in Prague on October 13, 1601, he must have looked forward to a convivial night of wine, food, charming women, and witty conversation, all of which this fun-loving Dane enjoyed in great measure. Brahe was a jolly soul with an eccentric, extroverted personality. Known to his contemporaries as a “man of easy fellowship,” he “did not hold anger and offense, but was ever ready to forgive.”

Red-haired, blue-eyed, and sporting a trim pointed beard and handlebar mustache, the astronomer wore a metal nose reported to be either gold or silver, as he had lost the bridge of his nose at the age of twenty in a duel over a mathematical formula. When the glue holding his nose in place came loose, he would remove the prosthesis, take a bottle of glue out of his pocket, and glue it back on.

Brahe’s eccentricities were widely known. He had a dwarf jester named Jepp with supposed psychic abilities, who sat under his dining room table during meals. For years, Brahe kept a beer-swigging pet elk in his castle. One night the elk drank too much beer, fell down a staircase and died. It is not known if Jepp predicted this.

Noble banquets offered delicious food, fine wine, beautiful music, a glittering table, and fascinating conversation. But there was one down side. They went on for hours, during which time guests were expected to eat and drink until they nearly popped. It was bad etiquette to excuse yourself to use a chamber pot.

As candlelight flickered on golden cups and silver plates, and laughter wafted around him, Brahe felt increasing abdominal discomfort. He must have thought he would be fine once he got home, which was just across the street. After all, the robust 54-year-old Dane had never known any serious illness in his life. By the time he arrived home, the need to relieve his bladder was agonizing. Grunting with relief, he dropped his britches and … nothing. Not a drop. And so began a 400-year-old mystery of jealousy, theft, and possible poison.

Brahe’s fascination with the heavens began in 1560, when, at 14, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He began staying up all night to record astronomical observations. In 1563, he observed a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn and realized that the revered astronomical tables used to predict the event were incorrect. By the time he was in his twenties, his observations had shattered two thousand years of astronomical theory.

In 1599, Brahe became the Imperial Court Astronomer to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Soon after, he hired a new assistant, a 28-year-old German named Johannes Kepler. Though he was an excellent mathematician, Kepler suffered severe hypochondria and violent mood swings. He took the position with Brahe to obtain access to his employer’s 40 years of observations to prove his own astronomical theories—that the universe itself was an image of God, with the Sun corresponding to the Father, the stellar sphere to the Son, and the intervening space to the Holy Ghost. But Brahe, whose work had been plagiarized years earlier by a visitor to his home, refused to give Kepler more than a few observations at a time. Kepler began throwing temper tantrums so epic that Brahe described him as “a rabid dog.” But he didn’t fire him. Perhaps he needed his mathematical abilities.

When Brahe came home from his last banquet, he was in agony, unable to urinate, his belly distended, and feverish. For the next 10 days, pain radiated throughout his body. At times, he was delirious. He died on October 24, 1601.

The strange death of this renowned astronomer caused many to suspect poison. And if Brahe had been poisoned, it must have been the jealous, vicious Kepler, who had carted the 40 years of observations out of Brahe’s house while the grieving family was making funeral arrangements.

Indeed, freed from Brahe’s shadow and armed with his records, Kepler finally achieved the fame he had always desired. He theorized that the planets’ orbits were elliptical, not circular, as had always been believed. He also developed the notion that the sun pulled the planets around by something like magnetic tendrils, a force growing stronger as the planets got closer and weaker as they moved away—breathtakingly close to the theory of gravitational attraction, which Isaac Newton would formulate in 1687 using Kepler’s work.

Archeologists lift Tycho Brahe's tombstone in Prague in 2010.MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

In 1901, researchers in Prague opened up Tycho’s tomb as part of their celebrations commemorating the 300th anniversary of his death. They found a 5-foot-6-inch skeleton in a fine silk shirt, wool stockings, silk shoes, and a hat, and a crescent-shaped injury on the bridge of the nose, the exact same place where Brahe had been maimed in his youthful duel. Researchers removed hairs from the mustache. In 1991, tests conducted on the hair by the University of Copenhagen’s Institute of Forensic Medicine indicated he had, indeed, been poisoned by mercury, which can shut down the kidneys.

But even science is fallible. Given the sensational stories of Tycho Brahe’s poisoning, a team of Danish and Czech scientists exhumed him again in 2010 and took hair directly from his remains. In a stunning reversal of the 1990s findings, the new results showed that Tycho had not consumed excessive amounts of mercury.

So what did kill him? Most likely benign prostatic hyperplasia, known as BPH, an enlarged prostate gland. This gland surrounds the urethra, the tube through which urine flows. As the prostate grows, it can squeeze the urethra, making it difficult and even impossible to urinate. Left untreated, it can prove fatal.

Johannes Kepler is off the hook. He was a thief, to be sure, but no murderer. Though he had succeeded in attaining the fame he always wanted, happiness and health eluded him. At the age of 58, he developed a fever and, speechless in his final delirium, kept pointing from his forehead to the heavens. The night he died, meteors streaked across the sky.

From The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

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Action Park: New Book Goes Inside America's Most Dangerous Amusement Park

Photo courtesy Andy Mulvihill
Photo courtesy Andy Mulvihill

In the late 1970s, ski resort owner Gene Mulvihill transformed a mountain in rural Vernon, New Jersey, into a destination for thrill-seekers in the summer months. The result was Action Park, a one-of-a-kind amusement destination that left guests in charge of their own fun. In this exclusive excerpt from Action Park, new from Penguin Books, his teenage son Andy begins to realize that his father’s insistence on autonomy carries with it a measure of risk.

Emboldened by the success of the Lola race cars and their propensity to facilitate legal drunk driving in New Jersey, my father became preoccupied with growing out the entire motorized area of the park. If it needed fuel, it belonged here. He collected things that went fast and faster still, scooping up anything that could accelerate and filling up virtually every corner of the dedicated property with vehicles that guests could race or wreck.

From across Route 94, my ears partially obscured by the helmet worn while patrolling the skateboard park, I could hear the chants: “Wreck the boats! Wreck the boats!”

On a break, I walked across the road and stood out in the rain next to my older brother, Pete. We watched as people zipped around in speedboats that were roughly two-thirds the size of a full-scale version. Powerful engines that seemed way out of proportion for their flimsy plastic frames weighed them down. They populated a mucky-looking lake in Motor World with a small island in the middle.

“Why are they upset?” I asked.

“When it rains, we close down all the motorized rides except for the boats,” Pete said. “The lines get long. They get pissed and start to revolt.” Once someone got in a boat, he said, it was almost impossible to get them out until they ran out of gas.

The boats made a zipping sound as they looped around the island, noses pointed up in the air as if driven by junior cartel smugglers on the run from the Coast Guard. Two teenagers sped directly at each other, hair blowing back, bearing down on the throttle.

“Don’t do that!” Pete yelled. “Don’t you do that!”

The hulls collided with a thonk noise. Both speedboats began to capsize, spilling the occupants into the water.

“Serves them right,” Pete said.

One of them managed to get back into the boat and began cycling around the island again as Erin, the area’s traffic cop, tried to wave him in. The other climbed back on the dock, dripping with water and reeking of gasoline.

“There’s fuel all over my shorts!” he shouted. “My skin is burning, man!”

“Go to the office,” Pete said. “They have soap.”

Fuel and engine oil leaked from the motors, giving the entire lake a greasy sheen, like the top of a pizza. People who had been tossed into the water often started screaming. “Something brushed against my leg!” they would wail as they waded toward land, looking back as though a shark might emerge from the four-foot depths.

“Snakes,” Pete said. “Some of them are copperheads. We have snapping turtles, too. They can take a toe.” Doing laps in the boats first thing in the morning, Pete said, usually scared them off.

The relative sophistication of the motor-powered rides didn’t prevent us from installing low-cost attractions as well. Adjacent to the speedboat lake was a giant pile of hay bales that stretched more than ten feet in the air. They formed a winding labyrinth that resembled an obstacle course constructed for a rat in a laboratory. A sign next to it read: Human Maze.

A buddy of mine from school, Artie Williams, worked as the maze attendant. He was a good tennis player and read The New York Times every day without fail. These would normally be insufferable qualities for a teenager, but Artie managed to remain likable. He said he often heard muffled pleas for help from inside the maze. “People don’t understand it’s actually complicated and hard to get out of,” he said. “They think it’s like one of those things you draw a line through in a puzzle book. I wouldn’t go in without a rope tied around my waist.”

Snakes occasionally made their way into the bales, he said, popping out and causing people to sprint away in a mad panic, getting themselves even more lost than before. In the middle of summer, the bales also trapped heat, effectively turning the maze into a suffocating furnace. People emerged from the exit soaked in sweat and gasping. “Water, water,” they whispered, dry lips cracking. One of these disappearances actually made the local newspaper.

After a week, I saw a sign go up near the entrance:

DANGER

People Have Been Lost in This Maze for Up to 9 Hours

“It’s good to warn them up front,” Artie said, The New York Times tucked under his armpit.

As Motor World swelled, so did the rest of the park. New attractions seemed to erupt from the ground weekly, and other areas found new purpose. My father put in batting cages and basketball courts. The ski lift became the Sky Ride, a “scenic, 40-minute tour through the mountain landscape.” Trails of pot smoke surrounded the lifts. The race car mechanic, Mike Kramer, had cobbled together single-occupancy tanks that shot tennis balls at velocity at both guests and employees. It was Wimbledon meets Vietnam.

The concept of the Vernon Valley Fun Farm was already too quaint. The park was evolving, reflecting the increasingly rabid tastes of its patrons. The diesel-drenched success of Motor World and the failure of the comparatively serene skateboard park proved that people wanted speed and danger, competition and risk.

They did not want a fun farm. They wanted an action park.

Penguin Books

Excerpted from Action Park: Fast Times, Wild Rides, and the Untold Story of America’s Most Dangerous Amusement Park by Andy Mulvihill with Mental Floss senior writer Jake Rossen. Published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Andrew J. Mulvihill.