The Hangman’s Daughter is the first in a series of historical mysteries set in seventeenth-century Bavaria, and combines a historical background and characters with a fictional plotline to give us an interesting but intense read.
The book takes us to the town of Schongau, where Jakob Kuisl is the hangman/executioner, having taken over the job from his father, though as the prologue tells us, an incident in his childhood had made him swear off the work. He is also well versed in medical knowledge (from practice and self-education rather than any formal training) and has an enviable library from which the local doctor’s son, Simon Fronweiser (a doctor himself) often borrows books (much to his own father’s disapproval). As the hangman, Jakob is necessary for the town yet feared and seen as bad luck so while people visit him for his medical knowledge, they often refuse to acknowledge him and keep out of his (or his family’s) path. Jakob lives with his wife Anna Marie, oldest daughter Magdalena, and two smaller children, twins Georg and Barbara. While Magdalena is clever and does find some information and clues, it is mostly Jakob and Simon that do the investigating in this one.
The events on which our story focuses—the entire mystery—play out within the space of a week—25 April to 1 May 1659. Our story opens with a little boy, Peter Grimmer, son of a wagon driver, Josef Grimmer being found badly wounded in the river Lech. While some men pull him out and send for the doctor, by the time Simon arrives, it is too late and the boy is dead. The people, particularly, the wagon-drivers are convinced that this is the work of the Augsburg wagon-drivers for under the arrangements in place, they can carry goods only till Schongau after which wagoners from Schongau alone can carry goods forward depriving the Augsburgers of profit. Also some Augsburg drivers had had a serious brawl with little Peter’s father. But on examining Peter’s body, besides the wounds, a strange mark is found which is immediately taken to be a symbol of witchcraft. Things soon blow out of proportion, and a mob targets Martha Stechlin, one of the local midwives, with whom Peter and other orphan children from town were known to spend time. She is initially arrested for her safety but people are out for blood, and when more of the children from their group are targeted, Johann Lechner, the court clerk decides to try Martha for witchcraft.
As hangman, Jakob Kuisl is in-charge of interrogating (read: torturing) Martha (who has helped bring his own children, besides other village children into the world), and he knows she is innocent. But unless he does his job, he will lose his position and someone else will be called in. Kuisl tries to protect Martha while also buying time to investigate the matter and find out who was responsible. But time is running out for rumours and superstition are rife and townspeople are demanding Martha be burned at the stake!
This was a rather intense read with the tension palpable all through, but one which kept me reading all the same. Martha is innocent and despite Jakob and Simon, and indeed even the court clerk Lechner knowing it, she is to be subjected to torture and even ‘sacrificed’—it being the only outcome that will satisfy the superstitious (and bloodthirsty) people. While reading, finds oneself tense up, shudder and even feel near ill when poor Martha is mistreated and tortured (Jakob with his knowledge of herbs does help her avoid the pain as far as he can, but even he is helpless on some occasions), and one hopes the solution is found soon. Pressed for time and the urgency to not only find a solution to the mystery but a way for Martha to be absolved of the allegation against her, Jakob and Simon investigate the matter and find themselves pitted against the ‘devil’ himself, a man with a skeleton for a hand, and a lust for torture, who is on the trail of the children. The mystery isn’t a very simple one, and they must work out who is involved and why. The solution in itself was quite interesting, and while for a fair way into the book I could not work out who was responsible, about two-thirds of the way in, one conversation pointed me in the right direction.
Reading the book, I got the impression that the historical events referenced like the horrific witch trials of 1589 in which over 60 women were burnt were real-life (which I confirmed on good old Google later). What I didn’t realise until reading the author’s afterword was that Jakob Kuisl and his family too, were historical characters, and in fact, the author’s own ancestors.
Jakob comes across as a really interesting character, for despite the job that he does (and this was far different from and worse than I realised), he is an intelligent and well-read man and also one full of compassion, more so than the so-called ‘common’ people, and of course, those in power. He uses his medical knowledge to help townsfolk that need it (his job protecting him to an extent from sorcery accusations), and in his job as hangman ensures that the innocent don’t suffer but those that deserve it get their just punishment. What I hadn’t realised before reading this book was that the hangman at that point in time didn’t only ‘hang’ people—death sentences took many forms, from hanging to beheading to burning at the stake, and all of it was his job. Also, he was responsible for torturing people in interrogations and also keeping the town clean of refuse and dead animals. The job carries a heavy burden and Jakob takes to drink before the worst he must carry out, and one feels for him at such times.
Dealing with the time period, and the themes it does, this book does have a lot of torture and violence and quite a bit of it does take place on the page, but I thought the author put it across quite subtly, so it even if one does feel very unsettled, it isn’t to the point to wanting to not read on.
I found this a really interesting read especially for the historical setting and characters. The mystery was an engrossing one as well ends with a mix of fear, excitement and drama.