The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potszch
JAKOB KUISL, the hangman of Schongau
SIMON FRONWIESER, the town physician’s son
MAGDALENA KUISL, the hangman’s daughter
ANNA MARIA KUISL, the hangman’s wife
THE KUISL TWINS, Georg and Barbara
BONIFAZ FRONWIESER, the town physician
MARTHA STECHLIN, midwife
JOSEF GRIMMER, wagon driver
GEORG RIEGG, wagon driver
KONRAD WEBER, parish priest
KATHARINA DAUBENBERGER, midwife from Peiting
RESL, serving maid at the Goldener Stern Inn
MARTIN HUEBER, wagon driver from Augsburg
FRANZ STRASSER, innkeeper in Altenstadt
CLEMENS KRATZ, grocer
AGATHE KRATZ, the grocer’s wife
MARIA SCHREEVOGL, the alderman’s wife
COUNT WOLF DIETRICH VON SANDIZELL, the secretary of the
Duke-Elector of Bavaria
JOHANN LECHNER, court clerk
KARL SEMER, presiding burgomaster and landlord of the
Goldener Stern Inn
MATTHIAS AUGUSTIN, member of the inner council
MATTHIAS HOLZHOFER, burgomaster
JOHANN PÜCHNER, burgomaster
WILHELM HARDENBERG, superintendent of the Holy Ghost
JAKOB SCHREEVOGL, stovemaker and trial witness
MICHAEL BERCHTHOLDT, baker and trial witness
GEORG AUGUSTIN, wagon driver and trial witness
SOPHIE DANGLER, ward of linen weaver Andreas Dangler
ANTON KRATZ, ward of grocer Clemens Kratz
CLARA SCHREEVOGL, ward of alderman Jakob Schreevogl
JOHANNES STRASSER, ward of innkeeper Franz Strasser in
PETER GRIMMER, son of Josef Grimmer, mother deceased
CHRISTIAN BRAUNSCHWEIGER, ANDRÉ PIRKHOFER, HANS
HOHENLEITNER, CHRISTOPH HOLZAPFEL
OCTOBER 12, A.D. 1624
OCTOBER 12 WAS A GOOD DAY FOR A KILLING. It had rained all week, but on this Friday, after the church fair, our good Lord was in a kindlier mood. Though autumn had already come, the sun was shining brightly on that part of Bavaria they call the Pfaffenwinkel—the priests’ corner—and merry noise and laughter could be heard from the town. Drums rumbled, cymbals clanged, and somewhere a fiddle was playing. The aroma of deep-fried doughnuts and roasted meat drifted down to the foul-smelling tanners’ quarter. Yes, it was going to be a lovely execution.
Jakob Kuisl was standing in the main room, which was bathed in light, trying to wake up his father. The bailiff had called on them twice already, and there was no way he’d be able to send him away a third time. The hangman of Schongau sat bent over, his head lying on a table and his long straggly hair floating in a puddle of beer and cheap brandy. He was snoring, and at times he made twitching movements in his sleep.
Jakob bent down to his father’s ear. He smelled a mix of alcohol and sweat. The sweat of fear. His father always smelled like that before executions. A moderate drinker otherwise, he began to drink heavily as soon as the death sentence had been pronounced. He didn’t eat; he hardly talked. At night he often woke up screaming and drenched in perspiration. The two days immediately before the execution there was no use talking to him. Katharina, his wife, knew that and would move to her sister-inlaw’s with the children. Jakob, however, had to stay behind, as he was his father’s eldest son and apprentice.
“We’ve got to go! The bailiff’s waiting.”
Jakob whispered at first, then he talked louder, and by now he was screaming. Finally the snoring colossus stirred.
Johannes Kuisl stared at his son with bloodshot eyes. His skin was the color of old, crusty bread dough; his black, straggly beard was still sticky with last night’s barley broth. He rubbed his face with his long, almost clawlike fingers. Then he rose to his full height of almost six feet. His huge body swayed, and it seemed for a moment that he’d fall over again. Then, however, Johannes Kuisl found his balance and stood up straight.
Jakob handed his father his stained overcoat, the leather cape for his shoulders, and his gloves. Slowly the huge man got dressed and wiped the hair from his forehead. Then, without a word, he walked to the far end of the room. There, between the battered kitchen bench and the house altar with its crucifix and dried roses, stood his hangman’s sword. It measured over two arm’s lengths and it had a short crossguard, and though it had no point, its edge was sharp enough to cut a hair in midair. No one could say how old it was. Father sharpened it regularly, and it sparkled in the sun as if it had been forged only yesterday. Before it was Johannes Kuisl’s, it had belonged to his father-in-law Jörg Abriel, and to his father and his grandfather before that. Someday, it would be Jakob’s.
Outside the door the bailiff was waiting, a small, slight man who kept turning his head toward the town walls. They were late as it was, and some in the crowd were probably getting impatient now.
“Get the wagon ready, Jakob.”
His father’s voice was calm and deep. The crying and sobbing of last night had disappeared as if by magic.
As Johannes Kuisl shoved his heavy frame through the low wooden doorway, the bailiff instinctively stepped back and crossed himself. Nobody in the town liked to meet the hangman. No wonder his house was outside the walls, in the tanners’ quarter. When the huge man came to the inn for wine, he sat alone at the table in silence. People avoided his eyes in the street. They said it meant bad luck, especially on execution days. The leather gloves he was wearing today would be burned after the execution.
The hangman sat down on the bench in front of his house to enjoy the midday sun. Anyone seeing him now would hardly believe that he was the same man who had been deliriously babbling not an hour before. Johannes Kuisl had a good reputation as an executioner. Fast, strong, never hesitating. Nobody outside his family knew how much drink he used to down before executions. Now he had his eyes closed, as if he were listening to a distant tune. The noise from the town was still in the air. Music, laughter, a blackbird singing nearby. The sword was leaning against the bench, like a walking stick.
“Remember the ropes,” the hangman called to his son without so much as opening his eyes.
In the stable, which was built onto the house, Jakob harnessed the thin, bony horse and hitched it to the wagon. Yesterday he had spent hours scrubbing the two-wheeled vehicle. Now he realized that it had all been in vain. Dirt and blood were eating into the wood. Jakob threw some straw on the filthiest spots, then the wagon was ready for the big day.
Though he was only twelve years old, the hangman’s son had seen a few executions up close: two hangings and the drowning of a woman three times sentenced for thieving. He was barely six when he saw his first hanging. Jakob remembered well how the highwayman wriggled and writhed at the end of the rope for almost a quarter of an hour. The crowd had cheered, and Father had come home with an extra large leg of mutton on that evening. After executions, the Kuisl family was always in for a feast.
Jakob grabbed a few ropes from the chest way back in the stable and stuffed them into a sack together with the chains, the rusty pincers, and the linen rags used for mopping up the blood. Then he tossed the sack onto the wagon and led the harnessed horse to the front of the house. His father scrambled onto the wagon and sat down cross-legged on its wooden bed, the sword resting on his powerful thighs. The bailiff walked ahead at a swift pace, glad to be out of the hangman’s reach.
“Off we go,” Johannes Kuisl called out.
Jakob pulled at the reins, and with much squeaking, the wagon started to move.
As the horse plodded along the wide lane that led to the upper part of the town, the son kept looking back at his father. Jakob had always respected his family’s work. Even if people called it a dishonorable trade, he couldn’t see anything shameful about it. Painted whores, yes, and itinerant street artists—those people were dishonest. But his father had a hard, serious trade that demanded a lot of experience. It was from him that Jakob learned the difficult craft of killing.
If he was lucky, and if the Elector permitted it, he would be able to become a master executioner in a few years. To qualify, he would have to perform a professional, technically perfect beheading. Jakob had never seen one take place, and so it was all the more important that he pay full attention today.
In the meantime the wagon had entered the town along a narrow, steep lane and came to a halt in the market square. There were rows of stalls and tents along the patrician housefronts. Little girls with filthy faces sold roasted nuts and small, fragrant rolls. In one corner a group of traveling minstrels had gathered. They were juggling balls and singing crude ballads mocking the child murderess. The next town fair wasn’t to take place till the end of October, but the news of the beheading had reached the nearby villages. People were gossiping, eating, buying sweets, and looking forward to the bloody drama as the high point of the day.
From his seat on the wagon, Jakob looked down at the people crowding around the hangman’s wagon, some laughing and some just staring in amazement. There was not much more going on here. The market square had emptied out and most Schongauers had already moved to the execution site just outside the town walls, to get good seats. The execution was to take place after the noonday ringing of the bells, and that was less than half an hour away now.
As the hangman’s wagon entered the paved square, the music broke off. Someone screamed, “Hey, hangman! Have you sharpened your sword? But perhaps you want to marry her?!” The crowd howled with delight. True, it was customary in Schongau that the hangman could spare the offender if he married her. But Johannes Kuisl had a wife already, and Katharina Kuisl wasn’t exactly known to be kind and gentle. She was the daughter of the infamous executioner Jörg Abriel, and people called her the “Bloody Daughter” or “Satan’s Wife.”
The wagon rumbled across the market square, past the Ballenhaus, the building that doubled as warehouse and town hall, and toward the town wall. A tall, three-story tower stood there. Its outer walls were covered with soot and its tiny barred windows mere slits, like embrasures. The hangman shouldered his sword and descended from the wagon. Then father and son stepped through the stone gateway into the cool darkness of the tower. A narrow, worn flight of stairs led down into the dungeon. Here they found themselves in a gloomy corridor lined on both sides with heavy, iron-studded doors with tiny barred openings at eye level. Childlike whimpering and a priest’s whisper emerged from a peephole on the right, and Jakob heard fragments of Latin words.
The bailiff opened the door and immediately the air was filled with the stench of urine, excrement, and sweat. The hangman’s son involuntarily held his breath.
Inside, the woman’s whimpering ceased momentarily, then turned into a hollow, high-pitched wailing. The child murderess knew that the end was at hand. The priest’s litany, too, became louder, and prayer and screaming merged into one infernal din.
“Dominus pascit me, et nihil mihi deerit . . . The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want . . . ”
Other bailiffs approached to help drag the human bundle out into the daylight.
At one time Elisabeth Clement had been a beautiful woman with blonde shoulder-length hair, smiling eyes, and a puckered mouth that seemed to be pursed in a perpetual, slightly sardonic smile. Jakob had often seen her with other girls washing linen down at the Lech River. Now the bailiffs had shorn her hair; her face was pale and her cheeks hollow. She was wearing a sinner’s shift, a simple gray shirt covered with stains. Her shoulder blades seemed to pierce the skin and the shirt. She was so gaunt that it seemed she had hardly touched the hangman’s feast, the generous last meal that a condemned person was entitled to for three whole days and was traditionally provided by Semer’s inn.
Elisabeth Clement had been a maid at Rösselbauer’s farm. She was beautiful and therefore popular with the farmhands. They’d been attracted to her like moths to a flame; they’d given her small gifts and picked her up at the door. True, Rösselbauer did scold her for it, but it didn’t do any good. They said that one lad or the other had taken a roll in the hay with her.
It was another maid who had found the dead baby behind the barn in a pit, the soil covering it still fresh. Elisabeth broke down under torture right away. She couldn’t say, or didn’t want to say, whose baby it was. Womenfolk in town gossiped. It was Elisabeth’s beauty that had been her downfall, and that was enough to restore peace of mind to many an ugly burgher’s wife. The world was no longer out of joint.
Now Elisabeth was screaming with fear, struggling and kicking as the three bailiffs tried to drag her from the hole. They tried to tie her up, but again and again she slid away like a slippery fish.
Then something remarkable happened. The hangman moved forward and placed both hands on her shoulders. Almost tenderly, the huge man bent down to the slight girl and whispered something in her ear. Jakob alone was close enough to understand his words.
“It won’t hurt, Lisl. I promise. It won’t hurt.”
The girl stopped screaming. She was still trembling all over, but she allowed herself to be tied up now. The bailiffs eyed the hangman with a mix of awe and fear. It had seemed to them that Johannes Kuisl had whispered an incantation in the girl’s ear.
Finally they stepped out into the open, where a throng of Schongauers was already waiting for the poor sinner. Whispers and murmurs filled the air; some crossed themselves, others mumbled a brief prayer. High up in the belfry a bell began to ring: a high-pitched shrill note that the wind picked up and carried across the town. Now the jeering stopped and the bell was the only sound that broke the silence. Elisabeth Clement had been one of them. Now the crowd gazed at her—a wild, captured beast.
Johannes Kuisl lifted the trembling girl onto the wagon. Again, he whispered something in her ear. Then he handed her a vial. When Elisabeth hesitated, he suddenly seized her head, pulled it back and dripped the liquid into her mouth. It all happened so quickly that only a few bystanders realized what was going on. Elisabeth’s eyes glazed over. She crawled into a corner of the wagon and curled up. She was now breathing more quietly and was no longer trembling. Schongauers knew about Kuisl’s potion. It was a kindness, however, that he didn’t extend to all those who were condemned. Peter Hausmeir, a murderer who had also robbed the church offertory box, had felt every single blow when Kuisl smashed his bones ten years ago. He had been broken on the wheel, and he screamed the whole time, until the executioner finally shattered his cervical vertebrae.
Usually those condemned to death had to walk to the site of their execution, or they were wrapped in an animal skin and dragged behind a horse. But the hangman knew from experience that a condemned child murderess would not ordinarily be able to walk there by herself. These women would receive three liters of wine on their last day to calm them, and his potion did the rest. Most of the time, the girls were half-conscious lambs who had to be almost carried to the slaughter. That’s why Johannes Kuisl preferred using the wagon. Also, its tailboard prevented certain folk from dealing the poor sinner an extra blow on her way to eternity.
Now the hangman himself was holding the reins, and his son Jakob was walking alongside. The gaping crowd thronged around the vehicle so that they could barely move forward. Meanwhile, a Franciscan friar had climbed up next to the condemned woman and said the rosary at her side. Slowly the wagon passed the Ballenhaus and creaked to a halt north of the building. Jakob recognized the blacksmith from the Hennengasse who was already waiting with his brazier. He pumped the bellows with his sinewy, callused hands to blow air into the coals, and the pincers glowed as red as fresh blood.
The two bailiffs pulled Elisabeth up. She was as limp as a puppet, and her eyes stared into space. When the hangman pinched the girl’s right upper arm with the pincers, she screamed, shrilly and sharply, then seemed to drop off into another world. There was smoke and a hissing noise and Jakob smelled the odor of burned flesh. His father had told him what the procedure was, yet he had to fight an urge to vomit.
Three more times, at each corner of the Ballenhaus, the wagon stopped and the procedure was repeated. Elisabeth’s left arm was pinched, then her left breast, and then her right breast. Owing to the potion, however, the pain was bearable.
Elisabeth began to hum a nursery rhyme and smiled as she stroked her belly. “Sleep, baby, sleep . . . ”
They left Schongau through the Hof Gate and followed the Altenstadt Road. Soon the execution site appeared in the distance. It was a grassy field with patches of bare soil situated between farmland and the edge of the forest. The whole of Schongau and the neighboring villages, it seemed, was assembled here with benches and chairs brought in for the aldermen. The commoners were standing in the back, passing the time gossiping and snacking. The execution site was in the middle of the field: a masonry structure seven feet tall with wooden stairs leading to the top.
As the wagon approached the site, the crowd parted and everyone tried to catch a glimpse of the child murderess curled up on the bed of the wagon.
“Make her get up! Up! Up with her! Hey, hangman, show her to us!”
The crowd was obviously annoyed. Many had been waiting since the morning, and now they didn’t even get to see the criminal. Some of the onlookers began hurling rocks and rotten fruit. A Franciscan ducked to protect his brown habit, but several apples hit him in the back. The bailiffs tried to push back the people who were crowding in on the wagon from all sides, as if to swallow it up along with its passengers.
Calmly Johannes Kuisl steered the wagon to the platform. There the aldermen were waiting together with Michael Hirschmann, the Elector’s secretary. He was the representative of the Prince-Elector, and as such he had pronounced the death sentence over the girl two weeks ago. Now he looked deep into her eyes once more. The old man had known Elisabeth since she was a child.
“My, my, Lisl, what have you done?”
“Nothin’. I’ve done nothin’, Your Excellency.” Elisabeth looked at the bailiff from eyes that were already dead and kept stroking her belly.
“Our good Lord alone knows that,” murmured Hirschmann.
The bailiff nodded and then the executioner led the murderess up the eight steps to the scaffold. Jakob followed. Twice Elisabeth tripped, then she took her last step. Another Franciscan friar and the town crier were waiting on the platform. Jakob surveyed the meadow below and saw hundreds of curious faces; their mouths and eyes were wide open. The aldermen had taken their seats and in the town the bell was pealing the death knell. The air was filled with the tension of expectation.
Gently, the hangman pushed Elisabeth Clement down on her knees. Then he blindfolded her with one of the linen cloths he had brought. She shivered slightly and murmured a prayer.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women . . . ”
The town crier cleared his throat, then he proclaimed the death sentence one more time. Jakob perceived his voice only as a distant murmur.
“ . . . that thou shalt turn to God with all thy heart and thus obtain a blessed and peaceful death . . . ”
His father poked him in the side.
“You’ve got to hold her for me,” he whispered as softly as possible so as not to interrupt the reading.
“You’ve got to hold her shoulders and her head up, so that I hit the mark. Just take a look at Lisl—she’s just going to tip over otherwise.”
And in fact, the woman’s body was slowly sagging forward. Jakob was confused. It had been his understanding that he was merely to watch the execution. His father had never mentioned helping. But now there was no time for hesitation. Jakob grabbed Elisabeth Clement’s stubbly hair and pulled her head upward. She whimpered. The hangman’s son felt his fingers damp with sweat. He held his arm out to make room for his father’s sword.
The trick was to strike precisely between two of the cervical vertebrae with a single blow of the sword dealt with both hands. Just a twinkling of an eye, a breath of air, and the matter would be over and done with. Over and done with, that is, if the job was done properly.
“May God have mercy on your soul . . . ”
The town crier was finished. He produced a thin, black wooden rod, held it over Elisabeth Clement, and snapped it in two. The sharp sound of the breaking wood was audible all over the meadow.
The Elector’s secretary nodded to Johannes Kuisl. The hangman lifted his sword and took a swing.
At this very moment Jakob felt how the girl’s hair slipped from his sweaty fingers. Just a moment before he had been holding up Elisabeth Clement’s head, but now she fell forward like a sack of flour. He saw his father’s sword whiz by, but instead of striking her neck it hit her head at about ear level. Elisabeth Clement writhed about on the platform, screaming like an animal impaled on a stake, and there was a deep gash in her temple. In a pool of blood Jakob glimpsed part of an ear.
Her blindfold had fallen off and, her eyes wide with fear, she looked up at the executioner, who stood over her with raised sword. The crowd groaned in unison and Jakob felt a gagging sensation in his throat.
His father pushed him aside and swung again with the sword, but Elisabeth Clement rolled to the side when she saw the sword coming down. This time the blade struck her shoulder and cut deep into the nape of her neck. Blood spurted from the wound and splattered the hangman, his helper, and the horrified Franciscan.
On all fours, Elisabeth Clement crawled to the edge of the platform. Most Schongauers gazed at the spectacle in horror, but others shouted their disapproval and began pelting the hangman with rocks. People didn’t like to see the man bungling the job.
Johannes Kuisl wanted to put an end to that. He stepped up to the groaning woman and took yet another swing. This time he struck her right between the third and fourth vertebrae, and the groaning stopped at once. But her head wouldn’t come off—it was still connected by tendons and flesh, and it took a fourth blow to sever it from the body.
It rolled over the wooden planks and came to rest right in front of Jakob. He started to faint; his stomach churned, then he dropped to his knees and threw up the watery beer and oatmeal he’d had for breakfast that morning. He retched and retched until nothing would come but green bile. As through a veil he heard the screaming of the people, the railing of the aldermen and his father’s heavy panting next to him.
Sleep, baby, sleep . . .
Just before he mercifully blacked out, Jakob Kuisl made a decision. Never would he follow in his father’s footsteps; never in his life would he become a hangman.
Then he dropped headlong into the pool of blood.