“Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions. Everything you have heard told, everything you have read returns to your mind, as if you were being transported, not toward heaven, but toward hell. Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him ... These things I know, Ubertino; I also have belonged to those groups of men who believe they can produce the truth with white-hot iron. Well, let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Bavarian town of Schongau already has a multitude of problems: an ongoing trade war with the Augsburgers, a fiery controversy over building a leper house, and the ever present fears of plague and witchcraft. It is 1659, but just seventy years previously over 60 women were burned at the stake for witchcraft. When a young boy is pulled from the river, bludgeoned to death, bearing the mark of witchcraft on his back the superstitious fears explode into full throated cries for immediate pitchfork and torch vengeance.
The easy target is the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, who not only has birthed most of the towns children, taking money away from local doctors, but also has offered cures for coughs, rashes, and pains with mystifyingly good results. Like most witch hunts that I’ve read about the women who actually end up being accused usually are under suspicion for reasons more to do with petty jealousy, revenge, or the fact that the women have accumulated knowledge of the medical arts that generally supersede the knowledge of the local trained medical profession.
An unlikely man stands between Martha Stechlin and death by mob, the hangman Jakob Kuisl. He comes from a long line of ancestors who all provided this service for the state. Besides executions as part of his service to the community he also tortures, removes dead animals, provides treatment for various ailments, and in the case of this story he also with the help of a calming smoking pipe, filled with this wonderful intoxicating weed from the New World, investigates the circumstances surrounding this accusation of witchcraft.
As more children show up dead bearing the same marks of witchcraft on their back, and with numerous sightings of a man with a skeletal hand that could only be the devil, Jakob finds himself in a desperate race to find out who is really behind the death of the children before he has to break Martha under torture. To gain time he gave Martha a potion that relieves some of the pain from the thumbscrews.
He keeps assuring her not to not give up and confess to something he knows she hasn’t done. Unfortunately even though Jakob of the 17th century knows that anyone can be made to confess to anything under the proper torture techniques. As recently as the past presidential administration in the United States torture was still in use, even crowed about the success level of such "enhanced interrogation techniques" by the Vice President to the press.“You give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders."
(Larry King Live, May 11, 2009)”
― Jesse Ventura
Jakob has one ally, a young doctor named Simon Fronwieser who started spending a lot of time at the Kuisl household when he found that the hangman had books that were not only expensive, but in some cases had been banned from circulation. He had books by Dioscorides, Scultetus, Pare, Bartisch, and Paracelsus. Young Simon may have come for the books, but he stayed for time with the beautiful Magdalena Kuisl, the hangman’s daughter. One hangup for any future between the two young lovebirds is that offspring of the unclean profession of the hangman must marry in their own family. In fact much to her chagrin Magdalena is engaged to marry a cousin, a rather unappealing creature with a bovine appearance from a nearby town. Is the Devil loose in Schongau?
The characters of Jakob and Simon added so much additional enjoyment for me while reading this book. They are learned, inquisitive men who understand the world is not black and white, but a rainbow of shades of gray. What an interest concept to have a man such as Jakob that decides that despite his misgivings about the inhumane aspects of torture realizes he best serves his community by remaining in a profession he loathes to insure that justice is properly meted out to those that deserve it, and compassion in the form of pain killing potions can be dispensed to those he has no chance to save from injustice.
I liked this book much more than I expected. Potzsch sprinkles in enough aspects of 17th century Bavarian society to give the reader a feel for the place, but he does not weigh the text down with too much historical detail. Personally I like my books with as much weight as a writer wants to throw at me, but in this case he has successfully created a historical murder mystery that is compulsively readable. To make the book more interesting Mr. Potzsch is actually descended from the Kuisl family who were in fact hangmen. Now the first reaction one might have to learning they are descended from such a scourged profession might be to feel a bit disgusted, but after the initial nausea passes think of the fascination in researching such a genealogy. I’m pleasantly surprised and look forward to reading the other two entries in this series.