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 the tombstone of the grave of noted Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe at the Church of Our Lady in Prague on November 15, 2010
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.

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

10 Strange Questions People Asked NYPL Librarians Before Google

The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
The New York Public Library's Rose Main Reading Room
cla78/iStock via Getty Images

Some of us can barely get through a dinner conversation without consulting Google, our search histories littered with queries both banal ("Why do airlines serve peanuts?") and unusual ("Does the full moon really make people act crazy?"). But before the dawn of the internet, people often turned to librarians to answer life's little (and not-so-little) questions. A couple of years ago, staff at the New York Public Library discovered a small gray file box filled with questions posed to the venerable institution's librarians between 1940 and 1980. A new book, Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library collects these questions alongside answers provided by NYPL librarians today, and featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Barry Blitt. We've rounded up some of our favorite questions below.

1. Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home? (1944)

A cartoon of an octopus in armchair with coffee and pipe
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

Yes, but they require a lot of work and you better keep a tight lid on their tank. Octopuses are excellent escape artists. A good place to start your research is The Octopus News Magazine Online. Want to learn more about these creatures in general? You can find books about octopuses at your local library under the Dewey number 594.56.

2. What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance? (1944)

It’s complicated, depending greatly on the specific movement and the context in which it is placed given that the Hawaiian hula is a sacred ritual dance in which every movement of the performer is codified and deeply symbolic. As definitive a book as it gets is Mahealani Uchiyama’s 2016 The Haumana Hula Handbook for Students of Hawaiian Dance, which describes in depth the origins, language, etiquette, ceremonies, and the spiritual culture of hula. Ultimately though, the full significance could never be communicated in writing—to paraphrase the famed apothegm, writing about hip movements is like singing about architecture.

3. What time does a bluebird sing? (1944)

Well, the eastern bluebird sings whenever it is motivated to. Most often, males are motivated by seeing nice female bluebirds they want to court, or seeing them laying eggs (at which time they sing softly, which is sweet). Females are motivated to sing more rarely, but may do so when they see predators.

You can hear their recorded song at the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and learn more through Vassar College’s page as well.

4. How much did Napoleon’s brain weigh? (1945)

Unfortunately, Napoleon’s brain was never weighed after his death on St. Helena in 1821. In the 19th century there was a belief that the size of a person’s brain had a correlation with one’s intelligence, and there were a great number of estimates and speculation as to the weight of Napoleon’s brain. However, French officials refused the request of one of Napoleon’s physicians at the autopsy to open Napoleon’s head surgically and it was left intact—although almost bald from the amount of hair Napoleon had sent to his family and friends as mementos.

5. Can mice throw up? (1949)

A cartoon of mice on a roller coaster
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

A study titled “Why Can’t Rodents Vomit? A Comparative Behavioral, Anatomical, and Physiological Study,” published in 2013 in PLOS One, concluded that they cannot and that “absent brainstem neurological component is the most likely cause.” Their brains are just not wired for this action.

6. What kind of apple did Eve eat? (1956)

The Bible fails to identify the varietal type of fruit, noting only that it was “seeded.” (It is depicted as a pomegranate and not an apple in all early representations.) The actual type of apple, however, is irrelevant to understanding the parable. The fruit symbolized the knowledge of good and evil. In this librarian’s opinion, that sounds sinfully delicious.

7. What is the life cycle of an eyebrow hair? (1948)

There are three phases in the life of an eyebrow hair: Anagen (growth), Catagen (resting or intermediate), and Telogen (shedding), with the average life span being about four months. According to the Bosley Hair Transplant Company, the average person has 250 to 500 hairs per eyebrow. The older you get, the longer it takes to grow eyebrow hair.

8. What did women use for shopping bags before paper bags came into use? (n.d.)

A cartoon of a woman carrying piles of groceries in her skirts
Barry Blitt/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

The paper bag was invented in 1852, the handled shopping bag in 1912. Plastic shopping bags rose to prominence in the 1960s before achieving worldwide shopping domination by the early 1980s. Prior to the common use of a common bag, women—and men for that matter—used their hands and arms and any other vessel at their disposal to carry as much as they possibly could. The paper bag was actually invented so that shoppers could purchase more at one time!

9. What is the nutritional value of human flesh? (1958)

Hannibal Lecter would truly have to be a serial killer—if he intended to live solely from human flesh. The human body is edible and there have been documented instances of human cannibalism for thousands of years and across many cultures. And human flesh has been used as one form of nutrition from Paleolithic times to those desperate for food in twentieth-century concentration camps and among survivors of disasters in remote areas.

However, according to one recent study of “nutritional human cannibalism” during the Paleolithic (when there was no evidence cannibalism was practiced for a spiritual or ritual purpose) the human body is not an optimal resource in terms of the sheer number of calories that it provides when compared to other sources of meat. The study estimates that, if consumed, a human body would provide an average of 125,000 to 144,000 calories. This means that the meat on one human’s body could have provided a group of twenty-five modern adult males with enough calories to survive for only about half a day. In contrast, that same tribe during Paleolithic times could have feasted on a mammoth that, with 3.6 million calories, would have provided enough sustenance for sixty days. Even a steppe bison would offer 612,000 calories, which is enough for ten days of nourishment.

The study suggests that because humans offered such a comparatively low amount of calories that some examples of Paleolithic cannibalism that had been interpreted as “nutritional” may have occurred for social or cultural reasons.

10. Who was the real Dracula? (1972)

For an answer to this question look no further than Bram Stoker’s Notes and Outlines for Dracula that are held in the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. In her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense, Elizabeth Miller writes that Stoker got the idea for the name Dracula from the book An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Maldovia by William Wilkinson that the author borrowed from the Whitby Public Library. In his notes he wrote “Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil.”

11. Why do 18th-century English paintings have so many squirrels in them, and how did they tame them so that they wouldn’t bite the painter? (1976)

For upper-class families of the 1700s, squirrels were very popular pets. Children truly enjoyed these fluffy devil-may-care rodents so naturally they made their way into portraits and paintings of the time. In most cases, however, the painter would use a reference from books on nature and animals rather than live squirrels, thus bypassing the need to tame them to sit still and pose!

From Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom from the Files of The New York Public Library by The New York Public Library and illustrated by Barry Blitt. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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