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.

How to Keep Holiday Packages Safe from 'Porch Pirates'

iStock.com/txking
iStock.com/txking

Despite an increase in easy-to-install surveillance cameras and smart doorbells that monitor home activity, package thefts are on the rise. A 2017 survey from InsuranceQuotes.com found that 25.9 million Americans experienced at least one instance of a delivery going missing from their porch, up from 23.5 million in 2015. Frustrated homeowners have set traps and even left boxes full of dog poop in an effort to dissuade—or at least penalize—these brazen thieves, who have been labeled "porch pirates."

Unfortunately, these porch pirates aren't often caught. Security cameras won't do much good once the package has disappeared. And while giving them a box of feces might feel like vigilante justice, spending the holidays handling poop isn't exactly a win. Fortunately, there are some other ways to practice package theft prevention.

The Kansas City Star imparted some pertinent advice from officials at the United Parcel Service (UPS): Packages should be sent to where recipients are, not to where they are not. For most people, that means finding an alternative to getting packages at home when they're away during the day.

One option is to have deliveries sent to your place of business. If workplace policies prevent that, you might want to ask a neighbor if they can keep an eye out and either stash your item in their home or use a spare key to deposit it inside for you.

Don't trust or know your neighbors? Consider finding a UPS branch that's able to receive packages on your behalf. Items are stored securely at their affiliated locations until you come and pick them up in person. The service has 9000 locations across the country, both mailing centers and third-party channels like grocery stores. The service also has UPS Access Points, which are self-service lockers that remain locked until you arrive to pick up packages. You can search the UPS website to find an Access Point location near you.

If you're expecting packages from the United States Postal Service (USPS), you can open a post office box, though there's typically an annual fee for that service. USPS also offers Informed Delivery, a phone app that tracks your package and notifies you when it's arrived. Informed Delivery allows you to communicate with the carrier to offer directions on the best place to leave the package. They might, for example, be willing to deposit your items in an unlocked garage and then lock the door before leaving.

Amazon has a service with a similar premise. Their Key Smart Lock Kit allows you to control access to your door locks, including granting access to delivery drivers. The catch? The feature isn't available in all areas. Neither is Amazon Locker, which consists of storage lockers where packages can be left, though it's worth a look to see if any are available in your area.

If you've taken measures to protect your purchases but still come home to a missing stack of boxes, you should report the theft to authorities and to the U.S Postal Inspection Service. (UPS encourages you to contact the sender.) The odds of retrieving your items are probably going to be slim, but at least both entities will have data that may help them catch thieves in the future. If you report the item as stolen to Amazon, they may replace it at no cost to you. Another alternative is seeing if your homeowner's insurance covers theft of items around your home's exterior. Your deductible is probably too steep to make a claim of missing socks worthwhile, but a package worth hundreds or thousands of dollars is another story.

[h/t The Kansas City Star]

Revisit Medieval London's Deadliest Crimes With an Interactive Murder Map

Braun and Hogenberg map of London, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572)
Braun and Hogenberg map of London, Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572)
Braun and Hogenberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As a city that's been around for almost 2000 years, London has seen its fair share of violence. Some of those centuries-old murders are still infamous today—Jack the Ripper's, for instance—but many more run-of-the-mill crimes have been long forgotten. A new mapping project from the Violence Research Center at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Criminology, spotted by the BBC, explores almost 150 of these long-forgotten murders.

The Interactive London Medieval Murder Map (which you can view in its full form here) tracks 142 homicide cases recorded in late medieval London from 1300 to 1350, detailing stabbings, assaults, infanticides, and other deadly encounters. They run from routine burglary-gone-wrong situations and street fights between strangers to premeditated (what we would now label first-degree murder) revenge killings and gambling quarrels.

The exhaustive graphic can be sorted by location, year, the gender of the victim, the type of weapon used, and whether the crime scene was in a public or private place. Click on the pins and you can read the details of each case, including the name of the victim, the year, and the story of the crime according to reports from the time. Each is named with a matter-of-fact summary of the crime that reads like a police blotter from centuries past: "carpenter's apprentice axes midnight burglar;" "man stabbed after altercation over tunic;" "boy stabs brewer after theft of women's clothing;" "a deadly fight between members of the fishmonger and the skinner guilds."

You can either view the homicide data overlaid on the Braun and Hogenberg map of London, first published in 1572, or on a map of the city circa 1270 that published by the Historic Towns Trust in 1989. The latter provides a bit better context (and a slightly easier reading experience) in terms of where the churches, streets, and landmarks mentioned in the inquests were.

The locations of the pins on the map represent where the attack occurred, rather than where the victim may have actually expired. Some are rough estimations based on the recorded notes, while others took place in locations that are easy to pinpoint now. For instance, if a specific churchyard was mentioned, the researchers could easily figure out where that would have been on the map, while other reports that mention specific businesses were harder to track down, such as the 1339 murder of Ralph Sarasyn of Twycors, who died "near the gate of the hostel of Sir William Trussel"—a hostel that researchers were unable to pinpoint the exact location of.

To learn more, the full lecture by Manuel Eisner from the project's launch is below.

[h/t BBC]

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