Country Focus: Germany
The Hangman’s Daughter
By Oliver Pötzsche
Translated by Lee Chadeayne
Originally published as Die Henkerstochter in Germany by Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, 2008.
My edition: Mariner Books, 2011.
Time period: 1659
Author Simon Pötzsch’s ancestors, the Kuisls, rank as “one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners.” History books claim that one Kuisl paterfamilias killed at least sixty people during the 1589 Schongau Witch Trials. Pötzsch grew up hearing stories about these unusual relatives. He delved into his own genealogy and Germany’s executioner lore and from that research wrote The Hangman’s Daughter, a fictional account of family members Johann Jakob Kuisl, his wife Anna and their three children Magdalena, Georg and Barbara.
The tale begins with a dead boy who has been fished out the Lech River by several raftsmen. Physician Simon Fronweiser arrives on the scene and inspects the body. Along with multiple stab wounds, he sees a purple mark – a short cross with a circle on top – beneath the boy’s shoulder blade. In the year 1659, strange dark symbols found on dead bodies point to witchcraft, and the onlookers freak out. The boy’s father accuses midwife Martha Stechlin, the last person seen with his son, of the murder.
Word spreads quickly. Town hangman Jakob Kuisl locates Martha and rushes her off to the keep before the bloodthirsty mob can get to her. He has a soft spot for Martha, who had delivered all three of his own children.
In the meantime, Simon brings the boy’s body to the hangman’s house to ask for Jakob’s opinion. Simon has grown fond of both Jakob’s extensive medical library and his eldest daughter Magdalena and visits the family often despite disapproval from his father and the community. Fraternizing with hangmen and their families is considered taboo.
Neither men suspect Martha of the crime, but both are concerned that the tattoo is indeed a “witches’ mark”, and that the dead boy’s father bears a grudge against Martha for not being able to save his wife during labor.
In a matter of days, another child dies and one goes missing. The townspeople demand Martha’s torture, confession and execution, and Jakob is forced to begin his brutal work. In secret, he, Simon and Magdalena investigate several possibilities: Could Augsburgers from the north, disgruntled over a commerce dispute, be responsible? Did the children see or overhear something they shouldn’t have about the controversial home for lepers being built just outside of town? Or are they being murdered by itinerant soldiers, like one that some people call “the devil” and has a hand made only of bones?
Pötzsch unravels an amusing, fast-paced historical mystery that slips in fascinating period details. I learned that hangmen doubled as city garbagemen and earned money under the table as black market healers.
My main gripe lies with the title, which points to Magdalena as a vital character. Although she plays a role in the sleuthing and as Simon’s love interest, I thought that her underdeveloped character paled in comparison to both the formidable hangman with a heart of gold and metrosexual, coffee-loving Simon.
According to Pötzsch, 17th century hangman and their families were pariahs; associating with them brought bad luck. Good thing it’s not 1659 anymore. Jakob Kuisl and Simon Fronweiser, if not Magdalena, are characters worthy of a series and Pötzsch has followed his international bestseller with a series of Hangman’s Daughter Tales, including The Dark Monk, The Beggar King and, coming in July 2013, The Poisoned Pilgrim.
Jakob Kuisl longed for his pipe. He would have loved to clear the room of evil thoughts with its smoke. He was fully aware of the aldermen’s prejudice against midwives. Martha Stechlin was the first midwife whom the town had officially appointed. These women with their feminine wisdom had always been suspect to men. They knew potions and herbs; they touched women in indecent spots; and they knew how to get rid of the fruit of the womb, that gift of God. Many midwives had been burned as witches by men. Jakob Kuisl, too, knew all about potions and was suspected of sorcery. But he was a man. And he was the executioner.