The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

‘Hangmen’s daughters married hangmen’s sons – that was an unwritten law.’

Jakob Kuisl is the hangman in the small Bavarian town of Schongau in 1659. It’s a shunned profession, so Jakob and his family: wife Anna Maria and their three children live outside the town walls. His daughter Magdalena, clever and headstrong, is destined to marry the son of another hangman, even though the son of the town’s physician, Simon Fronweiser, is in love with her.

While practicing his trade, Jakob has learned quite a bit about the human body as well as about how some potions can ease suffering. His knowledge is valued by some of his neighbours, who’d rather seek advice from him than other healers – even though visiting the hangman is believed as bringing bad luck.

The Thirty Years’ War has finally ended, and although witchcraft is feared, there’s been no mass hysteria about it for many years. Until a drowning and badly injured boy is pulled from the nearby Lech River. He has been tattooed with what the villagers believe is the mark of a witch, and they suspect Martha Stechlin, the local midwife.

‘None of this makes sense!’

Jakob Kuisl is charged with extracting a confession from Martha Stechlin, and is expected to torture her until he obtains it. Jakob believes that Martha is innocent, and he, Magdalena and Simon set out to identify the real killer. It’s approaching Walpurgisnacht (when witches are reputed to meet and celebrate) when another dead, tattooed child is found. The town is in a frenzy: especially as a number of people have reported seeing a man (surely the devil!) with a hand made only from bones. And, surely Martha is innocent as she was imprisoned when the second child’s body was found?

‘Have you lost all your senses, or what? Don’t you realize there’s a murderer at large?’

So, who is killing these children, and why? Will Jakob, Simon and Magdalena be able to solve the mystery before mass hysteria reigns supreme?

This novel takes the reader straight into a 17th century world in which superstition is rife and in which fear is easily invoked. I really enjoyed this story, both for the 17th century setting and especially for the character of Jakob Kuisl. I was intrigued to learn that Oliver Pötzsch is descended from the Kuisl family and that Jakob (and other family members in the novel) were real people.

There are other novels in the series as well: I’m working my way through them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith