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.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

The Sea Waif: A Murder on the Ocean and the Little Girl Who Stayed Alive

iStock.com/jaminwell
iStock.com/jaminwell

It began with a man in a boat and a little girl in a raft. On November 13, 1961, the tanker Gulf Lion was plying the waters of the Northwest Providence Channel in the Bahamas when it crossed paths with a small dinghy towing a life raft. The man in the dinghy shouted up to an officer on the tanker, identifying himself as Julian Harvey, captain of the ketch Bluebelle. The little girl in the raft, he said, was Terry Jo Duperrault, and she was dead.

Harvey, a handsome war hero and charter boat captain, was hauled aboard the tanker, where he told his harrowing tale. He'd been taking the Duperrault family of Green Bay, Wisconsin, back to Florida after a week-long cruise through the Bahamas on the Bluebelle when a squall struck in the middle of the previous night. It damaged the yacht's mainmast so badly the post plunged straight through the cabin and hull of the boat, taking another mast with it and rupturing gas lines in the engine room, which caused a fire to break out. Harvey said his passengers—the five-member Duperrault family and his own wife, Mary Dene—were either caught in the felled rigging or jumped overboard as the Bluebelle went down.

It was the same story he'd tell Coast Guard investigators three days later in even greater detail; he described emptying two fire extinguishers onto the flames with little effect and, once in the dinghy, how he shouted over and over into the squall, trying to locate the other passengers. When he did spot little Terry Jo, she was floating face down in the water in her life jacket, already dead.

It was a horrific tale, to be sure. There was just one problem: At the very moment Harvey was telling his story to the crew of the Gulf Lion, the real Terry Jo was clinging to a small life raft several miles away, slowly withering under a murderous tropical sun.

 

Terry Jo was in many ways your average 11-year-old girl. In the 2010 book Alone: Orphaned on the Ocean, co-authored by psychologist Richard D. Logan and Terry Jo (who now goes by Tere Fassbender), the authors describe a pretty blonde girl who loved animals and her family and enjoyed spending time in the wooded areas around her home in Green Bay, pretending to be Tarzan swinging through the forest. In fact, up until November 12, 1961, her life was the very model of mid-century, middle-class bliss.

The week on the Bluebelle had been a trial run for a months-long, round-the-world voyage Terry Jo's father, Dr. Arthur Duperrault, had planned for the family. The Duperrault patriarch was an accomplished sailor in his own right, having frequently traversed the waters of Green Bay. But he was looking for something more ambitious for his family, which included his wife, Jean, their 14-year-old son, Brian, and daughters Rene, aged 7, and Terry Jo. So he packed them in the car and drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he chartered the ketch Bluebelle from owner Harold Pegg, destination: The Bahamas. Their captain and tour guide would be Julian Harvey, accompanied by his sixth wife, Mary Dene.

Terry Jo had spent the week in the Bahamas snorkeling and spearfishing through crystal waters, exploring tiny, uninhabited islands, and dining on fresh seafood with locals. The vacation seemed like it would be one to remember, even if it was just a prelude to a grander adventure.

As the Bluebelle began its return journey to Florida on Sunday night, November 12, Terry Jo descended into the small cabin she shared with her sister below deck. The rest of the family—including Rene—stayed in the cockpit, the children napping, the adults, including Harvey and his wife, savoring the last dregs of their vacation. At around 11 p.m., something startled Terry Jo from her sleep.

"Help, Daddy, help!"

It was her brother, Brian, screaming. There were sounds of running and stamping. Paralyzed with fear, Terry Jo stayed in her bed for many minutes, finally working up the courage to get out of her berth to see what was happening. What she found just outside the door would be enough to sink the most hardened heart: her mother and brother lying dead, in a pool of blood. As she descended into shock, Terry Jo ascended to the deck, where the lights on the boat illuminated the figure of Julian Harvey walking toward her.

"What happened?" she asked. Harvey angrily shoved her back down the companionway, but the brief exchange had given Terry Jo enough time to notice that nothing else was amiss on the boat: no downed rigging, no splintered masts. Even the weather was calm. Later in life, an interview under sodium amytal would prompt Terry Jo to remember seeing blood and a knife on deck, but in that moment, there was too much to keep track of.

Blue waves and bubbles
iStock.com/borchee

Terry Jo returned to the cabin, where she huddled in her bed. She heard the sounds of sloshing water, and soon, oily bilge water began to creep into her room. Suddenly, Harvey's frame filled up the doorway. He stood for a long time looking at her with what seemed to be a rifle in his hands, while she shrunk against the wall and held her breath. After an agonizing moment, he turned and ascended to the deck. The little girl remained frozen until the water crested the bunk. The Bluebelle was sinking.

As she waded through the foul water quickly filling the cabin, Terry Jo must have prayed she wouldn't bump into what would now be the floating bodies of her mother and brother. Back up on deck, she saw that Harvey had launched the dinghy and life raft, and shouted to him, "Is the ship sinking?" He confirmed it was and shoved the line holding the dinghy into her hands, but it slipped through. When he realized his escape vehicle was drifting away, he dove into the sea, leaving the girl alone to die in the dark on the rapidly capsizing sailboat.

 

Nearly everyone who heard Julian Harvey's story found something off about it. Some crew members of the ship that picked him up found him far too calm and collected for someone who just lost his wife and an entire family of clients and nearly escaped death. The Bluebelle's owner, Harold Pegg, found Harvey's account of the mast failure preposterous, given that the ketch had been recently inspected and cleared. Even Harvey's old friend James Boozer, who heard multiple, varying iterations of Harvey's story, felt there were holes.

Anyone with a birds-eye-view of Julian Harvey's life would have found a few other elements not in his favor. While it was true that Harvey was a skilled WWII bomber pilot, served in the Korean War, and even managed to pull off a dangerous test flight of a modified B-24 bomber, peers in the military periodically noted his propensity for ditching missions due to "engine failure." By the end of his career in the military, even his supporters noted his nerves were shot—a fact apparently made clear by the worsening of a facial tic and stutter.

Anchored sailboat in blue waters, view from drone 
iStock.com/mbbirdy

Then there were the wives. Mary Dene Jordan was the sixth, and until her, Harvey had a habit of wooing, rapidly marrying, and then abruptly dumping his partners, usually with a cursory "I don't love you anymore." His affairs were legend at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, where Harvey was stationed with his second (or possibly third) wife Joan in 1949. They'd soon turn darker. One rainy night, Harvey was driving his wife and mother-in-law back from the movies when, as he described it, his car swerved on a bridge and rolled over the side into the bayou below. The car sank, and Harvey alone survived. As bystanders dove into the water to look for Mrs. Harvey and her mother, the pilot calmly described, perhaps even boasted, about how he'd been able to escape the car while it was mid-air. Not only did evidence at the scene point to that not being the case, but it was apparent that Harvey had made no attempt to save his relatives. Nor did he seem overly broken up about their deaths. He soon cashed in his wife's life insurance policy.

Finally, the Bluebelle wasn't the first boat to sink under Harvey's watch. Twice before Harvey had filed insurance claims for destroyed boats. Both cases, while suspicious, were decided in his favor. Later, friends would admit that in the first wreck, Harvey had probably steered the boat into an obstacle on purpose, and in the case of the second, had flat-out admitted to setting his vessel on fire.

But Harvey's history was largely unknown to the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed him three days post-rescue. He repeated what was broadly the same story he told the crew of the Gulf Lion, but under the questioning of investigators, holes began to appear.

For one, the idea of a mast plunging straight through the deck of a sailboat was unlikely; masts broken by squall winds tilt over, rather than fall straight down. Harvey asserted that after the mast failure, he had asked Dr. Duperrault to steer the Bluebelle while he went to find cable cutters to cut through the downed rigging. As the fire broke out in the engine room and spread up through the cockpit, the course he'd asked Duperrault to follow—into the wind—actually began fanning the flames. Yet, he insisted, Duperrault kept steering in the same direction—an inconceivable move for any person of common sense, let alone a Navy veteran and experienced sailor like Arthur Duperrault.

There was also the fact that no one at the lighthouse on a nearby island saw a fire at sea that night, nor did Harvey try to make it over to that island after he found the body of who he thought was Terry Jo, but was actually 7-year-old Rene, and placed it on the raft. Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, Harvey, the sailboat captain, admitted that at no point during his hours of drifting did he think to look for the flares that were in the dinghy's emergency kit.

In the long run, Harvey's dark history and tortured tale wouldn’t much matter. Just as he was wrapping up his testimony for investigators, a captain of the Coast Guard rushed into the room. In a scene out of a police procedural, he broke the news: They'd found a survivor.

 

Terry Jo had been on the ocean for three and a half days when she was picked up by a Greek freighter. By then, she was hours from death, if not closer—severely dehydrated, badly sunburned, mostly unconscious. The fact that she was alive at all—that she'd managed to find, launch, and hold on to a small cork-and-rope life raft as the Bluebelle sank; that she hadn't fallen off or been attacked by a predator; that she was even able to give her name to the crew of the ship that found her despite her body largely shutting down—it was all a miracle.

Within a month, the image of her tiny frame surrounded by a vast blue expanse, captured by a crewman with a camera on the ship that found her, would be familiar to readers of LIFE magazine the world over; Terry Jo's photo and story was featured in a spread alongside news of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea. By then, she'd be home with her aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandmother in Wisconsin, trying to achieve some kind of normalcy. It would be decades, however, before she'd talk about what happened to anyone other than the Coast Guard investigators who interviewed her in her Miami hospital room.

Motel entrance at night
iStock.com/ImageegamI

"Oh, my God!" is what Harvey said when he found out about Terry Jo's rescue. After a few moments regaining his composure, he commented on how wonderful the news was and then abruptly exited the room, leaving puzzled investigators in his wake.

The next day, the manager at the Sandman Motel in Miami called the police after the maid smelled something funny in the bathroom of Room 17 and couldn’t get the door open. Behind the door was the corpse of Julian Harvey, handsome as ever but covered in self-inflicted slash wounds. He'd left a note addressed to his friend James Boozer: "I'm a nervous wreck and just can't continue. I'm going out now. I guess I either don't like life or don't know what to do with it." The message also arranged for the adoption of Harvey's son, and requested that Harvey's body be buried at sea.

After two interviews, in which her story never deviated, the Coast Guard came to accept Terry Jo's version of events that night on the Bluebelle. In his book on the incident, Richard D. Logan theorized that Harvey had murdered his wife in their cabin on the Bluebelle that night, possibly for insurance money, and intended to tell the Duperraults she'd fallen overboard. She'd put up more of a fight than he expected, alerting Dr. Duperrault, who went to investigate. Harvey stabbed Duperrault with the knife that Terry Jo would later remember seeing on the deck, then killed Mrs. Duperrault and Brian. Little Rene most likely drowned, although it has never been made clear whether she fell, was thrown overboard, or was forcibly held under by Harvey before he dragged her into the lifeboat tied to his dinghy.

Terry Jo received support from all over the world after her story broke. She went on to live a full life; she fell in love, had children and grandchildren, moved around, and found work she loved with Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources as a Water Management Specialist. Call it ironic, call it fate, but Terry found her life's mission protecting bodies of water. In the afterword of the book she co-authored with Logan, she wrote:

What I want to stress to all who read this book is never give up, always have hope, and try to look on the bright side of things. Be positive, be trusting, and try to go with the flow; have compassion, give of yourself to those in need, and be loving and kind. I believe that what you give comes back to you.

Julian Harvey was buried at sea per his wishes.

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