Tough justice, 1830-style by Quentin Bates

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You’d hardly notice it if you didn’t know the place was there. It’s a hillock not far from the main road that twists through the north of Iceland and most people hurtle past at the most respectable pace they can manage.

The hillock may look natural enough, it’s actually man-made, and it can still give you a chill even on a warm summer’s day. It’s the site of the last public execution held in Iceland when Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson were beheaded by the brother of their victim, watched by a crowd of 150 farmers from the district or their representatives, all ordered by the Sherriff to attend. The conviction of a third person, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, was commuted to what was essentially hard labour for the rest of her short life until she died on the Danish island of Bornholm a few years later.

Although all this happened 180 years ago, it’s still fresh in the minds of Icelanders and the events of 1830 really are almost the stuff of fiction, but without a happy ending in sight for anyone. There are plenty of facts, but a good few details are tantalisingly just out of reach. Before the age of photography, we have no idea what these people looked like, although Agnes is thought to have been a good-looking woman, as well as clever and articulate.

Behind the double execution that would have been seen as brutal today even by the standards of countries that still have and exercise the death penalty, there was a double murder and a tale of jealousy and a complex love triangle.

During a spring night in 1828, Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the housekeeper at the Illugastaðir farm in the north of Iceland woke the household at a neighbouring farm. Illugastaðir was in flames, and the farmer, Natan Ketilsson and a visitor, Pétur Jónsson, were inside. Once the fire had been doused too quickly for the evidence to be destroyed, it was clear enough that the two men had been stabbed before the blaze started.

33-year old Agnes hadn’t been particularly lucky in love and it seems there had been a strong attraction between her and Natan Ketilsson. She agreed to become his housekeeper and moved to the farm under the conditions normal at the time that made it illegal to be on the move. People had to bind themselves to a work at a particular place for the coming year, with a scant few days to search for or negotiate a new position.

Natan was an odd character, with a reputation as something of a healer and also known for unscrupulous dealings that had even led to his being whipped for theft in his younger days.

But the arrangement with Agnes didn’t work out as she had hoped. Natan had a reputation as a ladies’ man, with numerous illegitimate children and the scandal of having carried on an open affair with the remarkable Rósa the Poet (Skáld-Rósa), the wife of a neighbouring farmer who bore him a son and a daughter. Having ended his affair with Rósa, instead of devoting himself to the new housekeeper’s charms, Natan’s eyes strayed to the 16-year old housegirl, Sigríður, who was also desired by a local farmer’s boy, the 19-year old Friðrik, extending an already awkward love triangle.

When the bodies of the two men were recovered from the burned farmhouse, suspicion fell on Agnes and Sigríður, and while Friðrik denied having stabbed the two men, he later confessed to the priest that he had killed them in their sleep and that the idea had formed in his mind over a long period.

There isn’t a lot to go on. But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbours. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller. Following the murders, the suspects were all held at farms in the area and had no choice but to live and work alongside everyone else.

The verdict came at a time when justice in Iceland was at a crossroads. Death penalties for sorcery and sexual misdemeanours, especially for women, still belonged to the recent past. But in 1830 there hadn’t been an execution in Iceland for the best part of forty years, since a woman called Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir was executed in 1790 for secretly bearing a child. A criminal undertook wield the axe in return for his own flogging being rescinded. Fifteen years after that a man was sent to Norway for execution when nobody in Iceland would take on the executioner’s role.

There was clearly a perception that there was a good deal of lawlessness at the time and that an example needed to be made of Agnes and Friðrik. The victim’s brother, Guðmundur Ketilsson, was eventually persuaded to perform the deed, although both the axe and the block had to be ordered and brought to Iceland from overseas.

By all accounts, he did a workmanlike job of it before a crowd on a January day in 1830, albeit under duress. The sixty silver dollars he was paid for his part in the execution he scathingly described as ‘blood money’ and paid into the parish poor box. The heads of Agnes and Friðrik were displayed on posts, their faces turned to face the road as an awful warning to others.

But that night the heads disappeared and the legend has it that a warm-hearted farmer’s wife persuaded one of her workmen to take the heads under cover of darkness and bury them secretly in consecrated ground.

This is where the tale goes from tragic to spooky. A hundred years later a woman in Reykjavík with her own links to the Vatnsnes area where the crime had taken place started to receive spirit messages. These were believed to have come from Agnes herself, describing where the two heads had been buried ‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound. The headless bodies had been buried not far away, and the two skulls were found precisely as described, down to the broken splinters of wood from the post it had been displayed on still running through Agnes’s skull.

Today Agnes and Friðrik lie not far from where their crime took place in a modest grave in the churchyard at Tjörn. The decoration from Agnes’s clothing, showing that she had dressed in her finest for final moments, was found among her bones and is now in Iceland’s national museum as a poignant reminder of how merciless justice was, along with the museum’s other exhibits – the block and the axe that were sent specially to Iceland and used just once.

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Quentin Bates
3 comments on “Tough justice, 1830-style by Quentin Bates
  1. This is very interesting to read about. Natan Ketilsson is an ancestor of mine. I have heard stories of his murder and this was very interesting to read and clear up some of the things I was told.

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