Why do we search so diligently for sorcerers? Hear me, you judges, and I will show you where they are. Rise, attack the Capuchins, Jesuits, and all the members of holy orders. Attack them, they will confess. If any deny, torture them three times, four times, and they’ll confess. [. . .] If you want more, attack the prelates, canons, theologians and they, too, will confess. How can these delicate, gentle men endure something like that?
—Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld, Cautio Criminalis, AD 1631
February 16, AD 1626, Schongau
On the day his father died in great agony, Jakob Kuisl resolved to turn his back forever on his hometown.
It was the coldest February anyone could remember. Yard-long icicles hung from the rooftops, the old beams in the half-timbered houses creaked and groaned from the frost as if they were alive, but nonetheless hundreds of people had gathered along the Marktgasse in Schongau, which led from the city hall down to the town gates. Everyone was heavily wrapped in scarves and furs, the richer wearing warm caps of bear or squirrel skin, while many of the poorer had frostbite on their faces or feet that were wrapped in rags, offering only scanty protection from the cold. Silently, but with beady, eager eyes, the residents of Schongau stared as the small group made its way past from the northern town gate on the wide, slush-covered road toward the execution site. Like hunting dogs that had picked up a scent of blood, the crowd followed the condemned man, the four bored-looking bailiffs with the halberds, and the hangman with his two helpers.
At the head of the procession were Jakob and his father, who kept stumbling and had to catch himself on his tall, almost fourteen-year-old son. As happened so often, the Schongau executioner had been drinking far into the morning hours of the execution date. Several times in recent years his hand had quivered while carrying out a beheading, but it had never been as bad
as it was today. Johannes Kuisl’s face was ashen, he stank of brandy, and he had trouble putting one foot ahead of the other. Jakob was happy his father had to perform only a relatively simple strangulation that day. He and his brother, Bartholomäus, two years younger than himself, could, if necessary, light the fire around the stake.
Jakob cast a furtive glance at the convicted man, who with his torn clothing and battered face looked more like a creature from a dark cave than a human being. In recent years, Hans Leinsamer had lived like an animal, and today he would die like one. Most of the Schongauers had seen the old shepherd one time or another while gathering wood or looking for herbs in the forest. Hans was as dumb as his sheep, bordering on feeble-minded, but until recently was considered harmless. Only the children had been afraid of him when he approached with his toothless grin, muttering as he passed his hand through their hair or handing them a sticky piece of candy. Jakob, too, had met Hans a few times in a clearing while walking through the woods around
Schongau with his two younger siblings, Bartholomäus and Elisabeth. Lisl, who had just turned three, always held her brother’s hand tightly then, while Bartholomäus threw pinecones at Hans until he ran away, whining. Their mother had often warned the three of the homeless tramp, but Jakob always felt pity when he saw him, while the twelve-year-old Bartholomäus wanted nothing more than to string him up from the next tree as a feast for the ravens. Ever since Jakob could remember, animals had been more important to Bartholomäus than people. He would lovingly care for a sick hedgehog, while at the same time Jakob was helping his father break the bones of a man suspected of stealing from the offertory box.
Jakob cast a sad glance at the simple-minded shepherd limping along beside them toward the execution site, tied up like a beast. Hans gaped like a cow at the Schongauers, some of whom jeered and pelted him with snowballs and clumps of dirt. He babbled on, whining and sobbing. Jakob suspected Hans was not even aware of why he had to die that day. It was shortly after Epiphany when eight-year-old Martha, the youngest daughter of the Schongau burgomaster, had come upon the old man while she was sledding in the forest. He had pounced upon her like a wolf, without anyone ever being able to say why. Did he want to play with her? Did the speeding sled frighten him? Martha had screamed like a stuck pig. When the other children came running, he had already taken off her clothes. Finally woodcutters in
the forest heard the cries, seized Hans, and hauled him off to the Schongau dungeon, where, after torture on the rack, he confessed to the most heinous crimes. For many years he’d lived like an animal, copulating with his sheep, and he reportedly confessed he meant to drag Martha into his wagon, rape her, and kill her.
Jakob looked at the mumbling old man and couldn’t imagine how he could have come up with a story like that. And, even less, that there was any truth to it.
In the meantime, they had prepared the execution site outside of town in a large clearing, where, the day before, Jakob and Bartholomäus had gathered a large pile of wood and placed it under the scaffold. A ladder led up to a post in the middle of the scaffold to which the convict was now chained. Out of the corner of his eye, Jakob watched how Bartholomäus admired the execution site, and a feeling of disgust came over him. For the first time, Bartl had been allowed to help his older brother prepare for an execution, and for him it was a great day when Hans was sentenced and the punishment was prescribed. Finally his dream of following in the footsteps of his father and his brother would be realized. Actually, Jakob couldn’t understand why Bartholomäus admired him so much. Sometimes he teased his slow-witted younger brother, and in secret he even despised him, but that didn’t change the fact that Bartl followed him around like a puppy. Bartholomäus watched Jakob when he cleaned up the torture chamber, knotted the ropes used in hangings, or sharpened the hangman’s sword, because once again their father was too drunk to do it. And Jakob knew deep down that some day Bartholomäus would be a better hangman than himself.
Jakob himself had decided years ago not to practice this profession when he grew up, but did he have any choice? Executioners’ sons became executioners if they didn’t want to hire themselves out as knackers working in a slaughterhouse and buying worn-out, old livestock to slaughter in order to sell the meat or hides. By law, the dishonorable vocations were clearly separated from the others. Their only way out was the Great War, which had been raging in the Reich for years and was desperate for soldiers, honorable or not.
“What’s wrong with Father, anyway?” whispered Bartholomäus, who was standing alongside Jakob. The question interrupted Jakob’s thoughts. They were standing close to the wood piled around the stake, and the crowd stared at them in anticipation. With a worried look, Bartholomäus pointed to his father, who, despite the cold, was wiping the sweat from his brow as he struggled to keep his balance. “Our dear father can barely stand on his two feet. Is he perhaps sick?”
Meanwhile, the four burgomasters and other high dignitaries had arrived at the execution site. Along with the court clerk and a few hundred spectators, they for...