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The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch, is about a small town, Schongau, located in Bavaria around 1660. During a time when the plague was blamed on sin, and women were accused of witchcraft simply because they lived on the fringes of society or were old and scorned by their neighbors, this novel is not so much about the hangman's daughter as it is about her father, Jakob Kuisl (the hangman) and Simon Fronwieser, a young doctor educated at a university and a much different kind of physician than his "old-school" father. Jakob's daughter, Magdelena, is important to the story for two reasons. Simon is very much drawn to her romantically. The Kuisl "class" or "clan" of hangmen (who trained their sons as hangmen through generations) was respected but feared in the community. The hangman was tolerated because of his "much-needed skills" (and providing a quick and clean death was a skill), but the man and his family were not welcome among the townspeople. For instance, Magdelena cannot hope to marry a member of the community.
Simon has other ideas, and although Jakob resists, Simon wears him down. Magdelena also has some strange ideas: she doesn't feel she should be isolated because she is the hangman's daughter. She defies social expectations—she does not turn away from Simon's attention, but welcomes and encourages it. Magdelena (who is more a secondary character) is used not only to point out how fear of witchcraft spreads quickly from town-to-town, but that no one (however respectable) is above suspicion. She also becomes central to the story's climax and resolution.
The plot takes off at the start of the story when a boy is found at the river, near death (badly beaten). On his shoulder is a mark that speaks of witchcraft. (It is later discovered, as Jakob and Simon start to investigate, that it is a tattoo.) It does not take long for the rumors to start, and like a flash forest fire, the townspeople are soon standing outside the house of Martha Stechlin (the midwife), ready to take "justice" into their own hands and kill her because she has been seen in the company of the boy...as well as many of the town's "orphans" (some of whom have been taken in by families in the area. Jakob is there to stop the mob, but Martha ends up in the jail: it is, after all, the safest place for her when the story begins. Other children show up dead, and the blame is placed at Martha's feet. Jakob hopes to save her, but is expected, too, to torture a confession from her.
Beneath the panic and death that permeates this village, evil is lurking not in the work of witches, but at the hands of a devil: a man who thinks nothing of killing children (or anyone else in his way). He is a respectable member of the community, and can move throughout society unquestioned. He also employees a deadly "henchman" (a former soldier and his "cohorts") to carry out his wishes.
The tattoo is on other dead children, but means nothing. Some members of the community welcome the idea of the devil's presence to cover their own tracks. In essence, the children (the orphans) were somewhere they should not have been, and they are being killed to keep secrets from going public. At the story's climax, Jakob and Simon have started to sort out the mystery, and Magdelena is kidnapped. The men have become unlikely allies who finally discover Matthias Augustin's involvement. In the end the dectectives are able to save Magdelena and a few of the children, and Martha is released.
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