The Hangman's Daughter

by Oliver Pötzsch

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch The premise of The Hangman's Daughter, that a seventeenth-century executioner might be one of the more compassionate men in town, may be irresistible for readers who like historical mysteries spiced with unconventional characters and just a touch of the gruesome. (I've read much more gruesome mysteries featuring detectives who are not executioners.)

The author is descended from the Kuisl family of Bavaria, a clan of hereditary hangmen. The novel is based on both his extensive research and his understandable wish to endow his forebears with admirable traits. Although the mystery is purely fictional, the executioner and his family are based on real people, and the setting and historical background are realistic.

Jakob Kuisl, Magdalena's father, is not happy about his work, but it actually involves less killing than the profession he took up as a youth rebelling against following in his father's footsteps, that of a soldier in the Thirty Years' War. When no miscreants in Schongau await torture or execution, Kuisl's job includes disposing of the rubbish residents throw into piles by their doorways. He also serves as a healer, being more knowledgeable about the human body than the average physician. As a healer, he is well acquainted with the local midwife. When she is arrested for witchcraft and the murder of a child, Kuisl is convinced of her innocence, a powerful motivation for tracking down the real killer so he doesn't have to execute her.

The research is sound, the portrait of Jakob Kuisl and his family fascinating and the mystery appropriately baffling, although the story sags in the middle; editing some repetitive scenes could have made it sharper and more gripping. The English translation from the original German is somewhat awkward, sprinkling the dialogue with dated twentieth century slang more appropriate to an old Hollywood gangster movie: "Nobody puts one over on me," "big shots," "grub and booze," "bigwigs." Despite these flaws, readers interested in seventeenth-century Germany will find The Hangman's Daughter well worth reading. (2008 in the original German; English translation by Lee Chadeayne 2010, 433 pages, including an Author's Note about the history behind the story)

More about The Hangman's Daughter at Powell's Books or

Other novels featuring executioners:

The Executioner's Heir by Susanne Alleyn (2013), about the early life of Charles Sanson, the chief executioner of Paris in the years leading up to the French Revolution. See review or more info at

The Memoirs of a Prague Executioner by Josef Svátek (1905), about an executioner in Prague during the Thirty Years War. More info

The French Executioner by C.C. Humphreys (2001), about a French executioner who dispatches Anne Boleyn. More info

Nonfiction about executioners:

The Executioners by Robert Christophe (1961), a history of Paris's Sanson family of executioners. More info

The History of Torture and Execution by Jean Kellaway (2000), about methods of execution throughout history into the present day. More info

The Executioner Always Chops Twice by Geoffrey Abbott (2002), a collection of gory details about the bungled executions of history. More info


7 Famous Executioners at

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