When The Hangman’s Daughter was translated from German to English, it was immediately well received by reviewers and found an audience in America. The book, written by newly discovered German author Oliver Pötzsch, offered something different than most historical novels.
The principal protagonist was based on a real-life executioner named Johann Jakob Kuisl. He lived in Schongau, Bavaria, during the 1600s. And even more remarkably, the character was based on the author’s great-great-grandfather. His family was one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners.
“I don’t know when I heard of the Kuisls for the first time,” Pötzsch wrote in his postscript. “I must have been five or six years old when, for the first time, my grandmother gave me a questioning look. It was the same thoughtful look she has to this day when she is busy classifying her entire family, by now consisting of more than 20 descendants, into Kuisls and non-Kuisls.”
She usually did this based on characteristics: an arched nose, athletic build, and an abundant amount of hair. They also had artistic and musical talents, which Pötzsch had exhibited as a scriptwriter for Bavarian television. She noted personality markers as well, ranging from sentimental to sometimes brutal.
How Pötzsch was introduced to his own family history.
But it wasn’t until much later that Pötzsch learned what this all meant. His cousin, Fritz Kuisl, had collected hundreds of pages and records about their shared ancestors. Some of these notes even included pictures, not always of the people but instruments of torture. One of them, Pötzsch recounts, even included an executioner’s sword that had been passed down from one generation to the next.
Those that weren’t executioners were equally mysterious. Many of them were herbalists and healers, a skill set that many executioners shared too. Naturally, with so much information about his family, Pötzsch began to take a keen interest in genealogy.
When his cousin passed, he was allowed into the room where all of their family records were preserved, many dating back to the 1600s. Inside were files and books, sometimes stacked from floor to ceiling, and thousands of index cards with notations of professions, birth dates, and other records.
It was partly from these notes and his own research that Pötzsch wrote his book. He not only wanted to understand his own family more, but also had a desire to show another side of what it really meant to be the town executioner. They had many roles, and despite sometimes being shunned because of their profession, were an extremely important part of their community.
Additional observations from Pötzsch about family histories.
One of the many profound observations Pötzsch made in discovering his own passion for family history and the growing popularity of genealogy was that people were trying to create a simpler place for themselves in an increasingly complex world. Genealogy erases any feelings of being estranged or replaceable because individuals may be finite, but their family legacies live on.
While much of the story is fictional, as Pötzsch clarifies in his book, The Hangman’s Daughter does capture the relationship between an executioner and his community. The story itself is a mystery, but the everyday activities of Schongau (as well as the superstitions of the people who live there) are remarkably accurate.