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Unnatural Causes: the Poisoning of MARTIN LUTHER

The Death of a "Heretic"

Martin Luther, the German Christian Church Reformer and "founder" of Protestantism, often said "I expect daily the death of a heretic".

Defying the Roman Catholic Church "universal" was a risky business and often his life was in great danger. Yet Luther lived a long life by the standards of the time. He was 62 at the time of his death (40 was the average life span).

During the last three years of his life, Luther had suffered from a long "laundry list" of diseases and infirmities. Only his deep, abiding love for his wife, her skillful ministrations, and the constant demands of the reform movement kept him going.

Yet, as countless Luther biographers have noted, days before his death "no one had any idea that the end was near". No one except for the servant whose heart raced wildly as she handed him a tankard of beer. She was not quite sure why but she knew there was something wrong with it.

Her master - who never bothered with mundane household details - had handed her the tankard which was "to be given to Doctor Luther and no one else". Yet she was too terrified of her master to question him.

Unknown to her, her master was in the pay of the Counts of Mansfeld. They were in league with others among the German nobility who resented Luther's political influence and his readiness to use it. The nobles wanted him out of the way.

Luther barely noticed the servant girl for he was deeply engrossed in conversation with his friend, Justus Jonas. They had successfully concluded negotiations with those same Counts of Mansfeld at Eisleben (Luther's birthplace). It was a small legal disagreement that the reformer normally would not have troubled with - except that it involved the property and interests of the extended Luther family.

Once the final papers outlining the settlement had been signed, Luther and Jonas had decided to celebrate their "victory". That celebration was to be short lived. When Luther awoke the next day, he felt very weak. He kept to his room and rested. Luther told the servant waiting on him (the same girl who had served him the tankard the night before) that he was just overtired.

The journey in the middle of winter had been full of difficulties (including a flood). The negotiations had been trying and stressful (too many lawyers were present to suit Luther). The sermon he had given at the end of the talks had drained him (his weakness forced him to end it earlier than planned). Yet, he said with a weak smile, his health had been worse and rest usually helped to restore him. Luther confided in her that the only thing worrying him was an unusual pain in his heart.

After half a day's rest, when the servant helped Luther to get up, his heart began to race within him. It stopped beating wildly when she laid Luther back down. Yet by the evening, it was pounding out of control. He called the servant girl to his side and asked her to summon his friends. By now, Luther was alarmed.

His friends were panic stricken when they saw his suffering. One of them gave him "medicine" which induced vomiting. This must have rid his system of some poison for Luther felt well enough to sleep soundly. Then, in the middle of the night, Luther was suddenly woken by more terrible pains in his chest.

The girl sat unnoticed in Luther's room, a silent observer of his agony. By now, even the great reformer knew the end was now near. It broke her heart when he declared "the pain is so great... I am certain that I will remain in Eisleben where I was born..." Then she was pushed aside as his friends gathered around him.

During the night, Luther's heart burst and he died. The girl could not look her master in the eye after that for she knew he put something in Luther's drink. It was not too much longer when the girl met with "an unfortunate accident" in the street.

Credits: from the servant girl who gave Luther a poisoned tankard of beer.



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