ODD TRUTHS: THE ENCHANTED HOUSE OF JUSTINUS KERNER
“There were visions in the air, and dreams sitting on the staircases…”
-from Memoirs by Charles Godfrey Leland (1893).
“Kerner’s house is, perhaps, the most remarkable and peculiar in all Swabia…if we wish to receive or impart a right idea of Kerner, we must see him and describe him in his own house.”
-from Justinus Kerner by David Friedrich Strauss (1842).
In his Memoirs and Miscellanies (1838), Karl August Varnhagen von Ense writes that there is something peculiar about Württemberg (part of modern-day Baden-Württemberg, Germany). “Württemberg,” he says, “is rightly the homeland of haunted and spectral doings, of the wonders of the spiritual life and of the dream-world.” He then goes on to describe the extrasensory powers of its denizens, the Swabians, implying—in a word—that they benefit from something in the air, a special spirit of the landscape. Another essayist, writing in the Westminster Review (1859) says something similar: “Swabia in particular, with its narrow valleys and old castles, is a very goblin’s nest.” Both writers might have been thinking about Württemberg’s historical association with the paranormal.
A cradle of radical and mystical sects of Pietism (a Christian movement which prioritised the sanctity of the individual believer’s inner life), Württemberg was the birthplace of esotericists and theologians like Johann Valentin Andreae and Simon Studion. Even the outspoken physician Paracelsus (who was raised in Switzerland) had ancestral roots in the region. In addition, as historian Edward Bever has observed in his book The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe (2008), sixteenth-century Württemberg in particular was the site of a number of court cases which dealt with claims of “diabolic possession” and witchcraft. In the nineteenth century however, someone burst onto the scene who seemed to syncretise Württemberg’s traditions of magic and theosophy. This person, a man who was said to have walked “amongst spirits as commonly as amongst his fellow men”, was a country doctor and poet named Justinus Kerner.
Kerner was born in Ludwigsburg in 1786. He attended the University of Tübingen and earned his doctorate in 1808. After some time as a rustic physician in which he shed light on the pathology of botulism (also known as “sausage poison”), Kerner acquired a plot of land in Weinsberg and settled there with his wife and children in 1822. It was no ordinary piece of property. The land was a stone’s throw from the Weibertreu (in German, “Women’s Faithfulness”), a ruin from the Middle Ages. According to legend, the place was named after the courageous women who saved their husbands during the Thirty Years’ War by carrying them to safety on their backs. Kerner, ever the visionary, must have seen the Weibertreu as sacred ground, the perfect place to start building a new life.
To fund his construction project, Kerner petitioned King William I of Württemberg. The king in turn spoke to his wife, who established The Ladies of Weinsberg, a social club to fund the endeavour. Part of the money was raised by the sale of gold-coated Weibertreu Rings. Each was sourced from rubble that was salvaged from the ruins.
As the project neared its completion, Kerner’s house and gardens became Weinsberg’s temple of the Muses. To amplify the atmosphere of enchantment, Kerner installed Aeolian harps into the windows of his backyard watchtower. The harps, imitating a symphony of fairies, used the wind to generate continuous ethereal music. In no time, or rather, as if summoned by magic, visitors began to appear at the gates. Kerner welcomed these guests (who sometimes included fellow poets, heads of state, and refugees) with open arms. One of Kerner’s visitors was Charles Godfrey Leland. Leland made his trip in 1846 during his graduate studies at the University of Heidelberg. As can be expected, Leland was spellbound by what he saw:
Despite the public nature of his house, Kerner, like any adept, did have secrets. One French writer describes Kerner as a “Faust” whose occult library was a place in which one could “consult the annals of another world”. The writer also says that the “sufficiently initiated” were allowed to meet Kerner’s patients. Who were these patients? Some were psychologically disturbed, others were alleged demoniacs. Kerner used a combination of magnetic therapy, counselling, and traditional medicine to form diagnoses. The most famous of his patients was a woman named Friederike Hauffe, the “Seeress of Prevorst”. Kerner’s experiences with her were the basis for his book, The Seeress of Prevorst: Being Revelations Concerning the Inner-life of Man and the Inter-diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One We Inhabit (1829).
Hauffe arrived at Kerner’s house for treatment in 1826. For three years, Kerner treated her as if she were the oracle of Delphi, earnestly studying her every move. As Hauffe’s miracles multiplied, Kerner’s abode morphed into the archetypal haunted mansion. Invisible forces cast objects around the house and tormented phantoms dropped in to seek Hauffe’s advice. It became, as one writer humorously remarks in his review of Kerner’s book, “a fashionable resort for ghosts and ghost-seers…the Spectre’s Castle…”
Not all of Kerner’s peers were convinced by the hauntings however. One of Kerner’s biggest critics was his neighbour, biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss appreciated Kerner’s “comic humour” and “intellectual sociality” but thought that there was a physical explanation for Hauffe’s powers. Kerner himself was rarely privy to direct ghostly revelations. Although he was frequently disturbed by anomalous noises, Kerner only had one visual encounter with an apparition. Still, when Hauffe died in 1829, Kerner believed that he had enough evidence to demonstrate the existence of the spirit world.
As the years passed and Kerner’s publications increased, Kerner and his house became the stuff of legend. Admirers flocked to Weinsberg to meet him, and the Spiritualism movement (then one of the fastest growing religious trends on both sides of the Atlantic) lionised him as a sage and standard-bearer of an imminent spiritual awakening. In his final years, Kerner also recieved public recognition and accolades from the kings of Württemberg, Bavaria, and Prussia.
After Kerner’s death in 1862, his estate passed into the hands of his son, Theobold. In the early twentieth century, it was purchased and turned into a museum. Although the house’s otherworldly inhabitants appear to have departed, Kerner’s imaginative spirit (represented by his art, letters, and other museum memorabilia) still hovers around the bookshelves and galleries. In this regard, his home, which is now open to the public, remains one the most tangible remnants of Württemberg’s occult past.