The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “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 neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

You Can Now Visit the Recreated Cottage of a Famous Unsolved Murder Victim

Joe the Quilter's rebuilt cottage at the Beamish Museum
Joe the Quilter's rebuilt cottage at the Beamish Museum
Beamish Museum, YouTube

Joe the Quilter led a quiet life in the English countryside, where he tended his gooseberry garden and earned something of a reputation as a hermit. Born Joseph Hedley, he had earned his moniker by attaining “a greater proficiency in quilting than any ever known in the north of England,” according to a postcard recently spotlighted by Museum Crush. When he wasn’t at home in Warden, Northumberland, he was traveling around the country selling his homemade quilts, some of which were shipped across the pond to America.

Old Joe was well known, and well-liked. It was quite a shock, then, when he was found murdered in his home.

The quilter was last seen alive on the evening of January 3, 1826. A few days later, when they hadn't heard from him, concerned neighbors broke down his door. They found the walls of his cottage—which had been ransacked—stained with blood. A bloody handprint marked a quilt that was stretched out in a frame. Joe's body was found in the outhouse; his head, face, and neck had been slashed 44 times by a sharp object. He was 76 years old at the time of his death.

“The only possible motive for the crime was considered to have been a hope of securing money, as it was foolishly believed that old Joe was rich, although he was receiving parish relief,” according to an 1891 issue of The Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend.

Although rewards were offered for information leading to an arrest, no one was ever brought to justice, and the event became another one of the country’s unsolved murders. Now, nearly two centuries later, Joe’s story is once again being told thanks to the Beamish Museum, which has rebuilt a version of Joe’s cottage.

Although Joe’s cottage was torn down in 1872, museum staff and community members unearthed some clues about what his humble abode may have looked like during a recent archaeological dig. The model was built with stones from Joe’s original home, and the interior furnished with items similar to ones he once owned. The aforementioned postcard, as well as historic records of an auction that was held to sell Joe’s belongings after his death, aided museum staff in this process.

The cottage, which is now open to the public, is part of the museum’s $13.9 million “Remaking Beamish” project. The museum focuses on Northeastern England’s history, particularly during the key decades of the 1820s, 1900s, and 1940s. The exhibition of Joe’s cottage not only tells the story of his personal history and demise, but also highlights the history of quilting and England's cottage industry boom in the early 1800s.

Museum director Richard Evans told Museum Crush that the “beautifully-crafted, heather-thatched cottage gives us a rare chance to understand what everyday life was like in the Northeast during the early part of the 19th century.” It also brings visitors just a little closer to one of the area's most terrible historical crimes.

[h/t Museum Crush]

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

iStock
iStock

It’s a profession that few people realize exists—until tragedy strikes, and suddenly they have to deal with the unimaginable. That’s when they call a select group of iron-stomached, steel-nerved workers known as trauma scene restoration specialists, biohazard remediation technicians, or simply crime scene cleaners.

Until a few decades ago, the task of cleaning up after a loved one died fell to family and friends, potentially adding trauma on top of an already terrible event. In the 1990s, a small group of companies and entrepreneurs sprang up to tackle the problem, specializing in the removal of blood, fluids, human tissue, and hazardous substances. By 2012 (the last year for which reliable data is available), crime scene cleanup was a $350-million industry in the United States, and included more than 500 companies. Here’s what these hazmat-suited heroes want the world to know about their work.

1. THEY AREN'T LIMITED TO CRIME SCENES.

The phrase crime scene cleanup brings to mind police tape and furrow-browed detectives. In reality, only a fraction of the calls these companies receive—which can come from family members, property managers, hotel owners, or anyone with a dead body on their property—are the result of a major crime. Unattended natural death (i.e., a person who dies alone and isn’t discovered quickly) and suicide are the most common scenarios. Glenn Cox, general manager at Southern Bio-Recovery, which has four locations in the Southeast, says that only about 30 percent of the 60 to 100 death scenes his company handles every year are homicides.

To pay the bills, it's common for companies to supplement with other kinds of biohazard removal, whether that's removing tear gas from a property after it's been used by law enforcement or getting rid of meth labs. Cox says that Southern Bio-Recovery also cleans up hoarding situations and decontaminates homes after viral or bacterial incidents—think MRSA or hepatitis outbreaks.

2. MANY OF THEM ARE EX-MILITARY OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.

Former Marine John Krusenstjerna founded Des Moines-based Iowa CTS Cleaners after serving two tours in Iraq. “Just experiencing things out there left me kind of wondering what happened in these situations back in the United States, who takes care of it,” he tells Mental Floss. Peruse executive bios of many trauma restoration company websites and you’ll find similar military, law enforcement, or paramedic backgrounds. Exposure to death—and the chaos it wreaks on family members—also provides valuable experience in the emotional and physical challenges inherent in cleanup. "Being able to compartmentalize in your mind, to stay focused on the task, to have integrity … all of those are attributes I believe I learned from being a soldier," Cox explains.

3. THEIR TRAINING MIGHT INVOLVE PIG BLOOD.

A bucket of blood
iStock

The certification requirements for crime scene cleaners range from nonexistent to uneven, so most training happens in-house. James Michel, CEO at Bio Recovery—which has 22 branches around the country—says all of his company's employees are taken to a special training facility at their headquarters in New York state. "We stage crime scenes there using organic and non-organic types of fake blood: stage blood, pig blood, all different types. We recreate crime scenes with sheet rock, toilets, tile, and [trainees are] able to break it down. We have decontamination stations that are permanently set up so they can walk in and out of and really grasp how to do this on a day-to-day basis." All in all, Michel says, four weeks of such training are required before their techs are even let out on a crime site.

4. THE DEATH SCENE CAN SPREAD BEYOND THE BODY.

“All of our scenes are chaotic, and there's multiple things to do,” says Nate Berg, founder and president of Scene Clean, based in Osseo, Minnesota. “For example, in a decomposition [when a body has been left undiscovered for a long period], you've got strong odors and you've got all their personal property, which now have absorbed the strong odors.” The work becomes a matter of peeling the layers of contamination—bedding and linens, furniture, carpeting, floorboards, subfloor or sheetrock. And what’s visible to the eye (say, a small bloodstain on a carpet) may actually indicate a large pool underneath.

“A bad day is when we get called to a really bad decomposition or unattended death,” Krusenstjerna says, “and find out they’ve not only decomposed in a kitchen or bathroom but it’s dripping into the basement. We had an apartment building where it went from the third floor to the first floor.”

5. THEIR CLEANING SUPPLIES ARE NEXT-LEVEL.

A gloved hand holding a handsaw
iStock

As you might expect, cleaning up the blood, fluids, and tissue left in the wake of a violent death or long-undiscovered decomposition takes more than bleach and elbow grease. The first step is detection of every spot, splatter, or shard. “We use an indicator similar to hydrogen peroxide, but it’s a much, much stronger version,” Cox says. “When it [comes into] contact with bodily fluids, it foams up and turns a very bright white color. It’s also a very strong disinfectant.”

When dealing with brain matter—which tends to harden to a cement-like consistency—Berg prefers to use an enzyme cleaner that, when absorbed by the tissue, softens it just enough to allow it to be removed with a scraper. For stubborn brain tissue, or fluid that’s seeped into the cracks between floorboards, it might be time to break out the demolition tools: crowbars, weighted hammers, circular saws. It’s also not uncommon for techs to have to dismantle furniture, remove sheetrock, or rip up flooring to get at the contaminants that have seeped in or gotten stuck.

6. THEY CAN MITIGATE THE SMELL ... SORT OF.

A person dressed in personal protective equipment
iStock

There’s nothing like the smell of death. And while some techs get used to the odor, “when a body’s been there for 60 days, in moist air, you walk in and breathe that smell, and you just go, ‘This is going to be a long day,’” Michel says. Every technician wears personal protective equipment (a.k.a. PPE; think lined suits, booties, layers of gloves and respirators) to guard against blood- and air-borne pathogens, but it can be hard to avoid a quick waft now and then. “I don’t care how good you are,” Michel says, “when you twist your head in a certain way and break that [respirator] seal, that smell is coming in the mask.” To cope, and to deodorize the home, techs employ HEPA filters, air scrubbers, ozone machines, and hydroxyl generators—which use concentrated UV light to target and destroy pollutants.

7. THEY HATE SEEING CATS ON-SITE.

A longhaired cat caught mid-yawn or snarl
iStock

That's because cats could mean cat pee. “Cat pee is my fricking nemesis,” Berg says. “Most of the time we have to pull up floors or walls and make physical contact with the cat urine because it crystallizes.” Michel agrees: “When you leave a dog by himself and they [defecate] or urinate, you can clean that for the most part. Cat spray is the hardest odor to remove.”

8. THE TURNOVER RATE IS PRETTY HIGH.

Even the toughest clean-up doesn’t compare to the emotional stress of working with grieving families or glimpsing the violence people inflict upon each other. "We only go to the worst of the worst," Michel explains. He's seen professionals in his office and around the industry turn over at a rapid rate. “We’ve had hundreds of employees come in and out of these doors throughout the years and the psychological toll is extremely difficult. Some of the tough cases, where there’s children involved, there’s a somberness in the office for days.” He says that most employees, and even owners, only last about five or 10 years, max.

9. TECHS OFTEN FUNCTION AS COUNSELORS ...

A woman with glasses with her hand on the shoulder of a younger man
iStock

Because everyone deals with grief differently, a crime scene cleanup tech has to be prepared for every kind of human interaction. Usually, it’s the owner or senior tech who deals with loved ones, and that might mean listening to detailed accounts of the deceased or protecting customers from seeing the worst. “Customers tend to want to tell us the whole story, starting two months back,” Cox says. “They need to vent. I have to talk with them, and sometimes I have to give them a hug and let them know that we’re here to help. We understand their situation and let them know that time heals. This is part of the healing process as well.”

10. ... BUT THEY SOMETIMES NEED HELP THEMSELVES.

Experienced techs and owners talk about the importance of separating their work and home lives. Still, not everyone is gifted with the ability to disengage (and even those who can may find the toll adds up over time). Several of the people we spoke to said their companies provide paid counseling for techs on a confidential, request-by-request basis. "All they have to do is submit a request. We take care of everything," Michel notes.

11. THEY MIGHT BLAST THE RADIO—OR WORK AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE.

A "quiet please" radio sign
iStock

Techs have to find a way to work amid all that emotion. While on site, that might mean keeping things light among themselves. “We have radios in our truck,” Krusenstjerna says. “We bring the radio in the house, to help break up the time. We’ll talk amongst each other, joking about what we saw on TV the night before or what’s funny on Facebook. But the last thing we want, and where we draw the line, is if the family is in the house. Not to sound like we’re gross or gruesome but we’re not going to say, ‘Grab the tooth off the window ledge,’ because we don’t know if they’re sitting there with their ear to the bedroom door. So we’ll be quiet, and use body language and signs and stuff like that.”

12. A CLEAN-UP CAN COST $10,000.

Based on region, type of cleanup, and number of techs, the cost to customers varies wildly, from around $1000 to over $10,000. Generally, the more dispersed the fluids and tissue in the home, or the longer the decomp, the more manpower it will take and the longer the job will be—leading to higher costs. (While insurance and victim compensation will cover some of the cost, at least part of the bill still falls to the customers.) Depending on the number and type of jobs undertaken, owners of crime scene cleanup companies can clear hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, in profit every year. Techs themselves can make anywhere from $25 per hour to over $100 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation for a hazardous materials removal worker hovers around $41,500, but the top 10 percent earn more than $75,000.

13. THE FACT THAT THEY'RE HELPING PEOPLE MAKES IT WORTHWHILE.

A person in a pink sweater, sitting on a couch, holding the hands of an older person
iStock

If there was a common thread in all the conversations we conducted with crime scene cleaners, it was the immense satisfaction they take from their jobs. Despite the smells, the gore, and the grief, these individuals find great reward in the help they’re able to provide to others in their hour of darkness. “When I have a family member who’s just lost a loved one give me that hug—because they could not have done this for themselves—there is no greater satisfaction in my life,” Michel says. “If I were to die tomorrow, that would be one of the greatest things I've ever been a part of. You can't describe in words. The only way I can say is, it's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER