On a cold January day in 1830, a somber mood hung over the small Icelandic community of Illugastaðir. Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson stood at the gallows, their fate a grim testament to the harsh realities of Iceland’s past. The chilling double homicide they were charged with committing marked the final public execution in the country’s history, a turning point that symbolized the end of an era defined by severe punishments.

Iceland’s Legacy of Harsh Justice

Iceland’s legal system had a long history of brutality dating back to the Commonwealth era, which began in 930. Outlawry, a sentence that banished individuals and declared them fair game for anyone to kill, was a common punishment for those deemed beyond redemption. Haunting tales like the Gísla Saga Súrssonar recounted the devastating consequences of such decrees.

The post-Reformation period saw a further hardening of the legal landscape, particularly with the introduction of the Stóridómur, a sweeping moral reform act passed in 1564. Records reveal that over 220 people were executed under these evolving laws in the centuries leading up to 1830. Disturbingly, executions often involved barbaric methods like drowning women and beheading men, with some victims facing capital punishment for moral transgressions like childbirth outside of marriage.

The Final Chapter: The Murders at Illugastaðir

Despite the Agnes and Friðrik case being the last public execution, capital punishment remained legal in Iceland until 1928. Interestingly, the Icelandic courts continued to sentence people to death, but the King of Denmark, who held ultimate authority, commuted every single sentence to life imprisonment.

Þórunn Jarla Valdimarsdóttir’s book “The Farm Burns. The Last Execution in Iceland” (Bærinn brennur. Síðasta aftakan á Íslandi) provides valuable insights into the murders. Other sources consulted include the journal Saga, Vísindavefur Háskóla Íslands (The University of Iceland Science Web), relevant Wikipedia pages, and their cited sources.

For those interested in further reading, we recommend the book Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. An Icelandic film, titled Agnes, was released in 1995, about the murders. It is embellished as movies are but is somewhat close to the truth.

A Grisly Relic: The Execution Block

The National Museum of Iceland displays the very execution block and axe used in this final public execution. This oak block, once part of a ship’s beam, stands as a chilling reminder of a bygone era. For the execution, the block was draped in red cloth.

The museum also houses the new executioner’s axe, procured specifically for this occasion; its blade was never used again. Two large cracks and a smaller one mar the side of the block, possibly caused by the executioner’s forceful blows. The story goes that it took two men to pull the axe free after Friðrik’s execution, suggesting the deep impact of the strikes.

The Key Players in the Tragedy

  • Natan Ketilsson (1792-1828): A self-taught healer with a controversial reputation, Natan was known for his medical skills and poetic talent. However, his arrogance, dishonesty, and womanizing ways tarnished his image. Locals considered him a self-proclaimed doctor and even a quack. His violent death at Illugastaðir marked the end of an era.
  • Pétur Jónsson (1791-1828): Little is known about Pétur, also known as “sheep-killer,” other than being a farmer who met his demise alongside Natan.
  • Friðrik Sigurðsson (1810-1830): Described as quick-tempered and courageous, Friðrik’s character was shaped by a possibly unhealthy bond with his indulgent mother. Court records depict him as cruel to animals and lacking respect for authority.
  • Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795-1830): Intelligent and eloquent, Agnes worked as a servant at Geitaskarð, where she met Natan. Drawn to each other, they planned for Agnes to become Natan’s housekeeper and wife. However, upon arrival at Illugastaðir, she discovered Natan had chosen a younger woman for the role.
  • Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir (1811-1839): Court records reveal a romantic relationship between Sigríður and Natan. Authorities suspected her of aiding in the theft of Natan’s belongings. Sympathetic judges viewed her as a less active participant, ultimately changing her death sentence to imprisonment, where she died in 1839.

Who was Natan Ketilsson?

Hvítserkur is in Vatnsnes, the peninsula Illugastaðir farm was in.

Early Life and Career of Natan Ketilsson

Born in Hólabær in Langidalur, Natan was the son of Ketill Eyjólfsson and Guðrún Hallsdóttir. After his father’s death in 1802, he was raised by relatives. Natan moved to Copenhagen to study medicine, but his plans fell through. Returning to Iceland with some medical knowledge, he gained a reputation for his cleverness in medicine, charging high fees to the wealthy while treating the poor at lower rates.

Natan was admired for his skills and charisma, yet many questioned his methods and behaviour. Known for his poetic talent, he contributed to local culture but faced allegations of dishonesty and reckless behaviour, leading to a sentence of 15 lashes for theft. On January 10, 1825, his legal troubles escalated when the higher court condemned him for insolence and arrogance. The presiding judge, Jón Espólín, cursed him in a scathing verse.

Natan Was a Controversial Figure

Natan’s personal life was as turbulent as his public one. A notorious womanizer, he fathered several children with different women. His most notable affair was with Rósa Guðmundsdóttir, known as Vatnsenda-Rósa. Despite his commitment to her, Natan abruptly ends their relationship with a letter, though only her poetic reply survives. Her most famous poem, Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, was used in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

On the evening of Thursday, March 13, Natan returned from Geitaskarð, cheerful after enjoying milk and brennivín. That night, he and Pétur settled into their beds, with Sigríður planning to sleep beside Natan and Agnes choosing to sleep in the barn.

Who was Friðrik Sigurðsson?

His bond with his mother was strong, possibly almost pathological, as she indulged his misbehaviour. His father was not much better. They described Friðrik as having an elongated face, freckles, a thick nose, blue eyes, and dark brown cropped hair. He was quick-tempered and courageous, qualities considered manly.

Icelandic Turf house like people lived in. Photo: Villy Fink Isaksen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

During one of the court interrogations, Eggert Jónsson, the district commissioner at Þernumýri, testified that he knew little about the Katadalur family except for their bad reputation for irreligiosity and Friðrik’s reputation for cruelty to animals and dishonesty. 

This paints Friðrik as a typical sociopath who enjoyed tormenting defenceless beings from a young age. More accounts mention Friðrik’s cruelty towards animals during these interrogations. Jón, his paternal uncle, stated that from the start, Friðrik was dishonest in both words and actions, disobedient to his parents, and cruel to animals.

Who was Agnes Magnúsdóttir?

Agnes Magnúsdóttir was often described as intelligent, eloquent, and talented. Opinions on her appearance varied; one source described her as “not pretty,” while another portrayed her as dignified and charming. In her thirties, Agnes worked as a servant at Geitaskarð, where she met Natan Ketilsson.

They instantly felt drawn to each other and, soon after, assigned Agnes to work at Illugastaðir, where she hoped to become Natan’s housekeeper and wife. However, upon arriving, she found that Natan had chosen sixteen-year-old Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir as his housekeeper instead.

Agnes likely hoped that Sigríður would choose Friðrik Sigurðsson, another admirer, leaving Natan available for herself. Unfortunately for her, things did not unfold as she wished.

Who was Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir?

Court records from the Illugastaðir murders, theft, and arson reveal the romantic relationship between Natan and Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir. Authorities were eager to uncover all details about the theft of Natan’s belongings. Settling the estate required finding hidden or destroyed items for restitution.

Traditional upphlutur, a standard Icelandic bodice, with gold lace hooks. Photo: The Icelandic Handicraft Association.

Sigríður mentioned silver lace hooks promised to her by Natan, which she took without Friðrik’s knowledge after the murders. She attached the hooks to her bodice with the district commissioner’s and his wife’s knowledge. Agnes fled to Stapakot to report the arson, claiming innocence, while Sigríður went there the next day with Natan’s daughter Þóranna and Rósa. Friðrik sought shelter in Tungukot.

Sigríður, considered more attractive than Agnes, was slimmer, shorter, fair-skinned, somewhat saddle-nosed, light blue-eyed, and had bright hair. After Friðrik confided his desire to kill Natan and take his gold, she struggled internally, having been intimate with Natan and stayed with him for a second year.

Agnes and Sigríður had different upbringings. Sigríður’s father died before her birth, but she enjoyed being the youngest in a large family. Her mother quickly remarried and started a new household. In contrast, Agnes was an unattractive illegitimate child and a pauper, still a maid at nearly forty, while Sigríður was a young teenager. The judges were sympathetic to Sigríður, seeing her as a less active participant in the murders. They changed her death sentence to imprisonment in the Copenhagen House of Correction, where she lived in miserable conditions until she died in 1839.

Friðrik’s Testimony of the Murders

Vatnsnes. Photo: Pe_Wu

On March 13, Friðrik feigned a visit to Tungukot but arrived at Illugastaðir at dusk. He met Agnes and Sigríður in the barn, who informed him that Natan and Pétur were asleep. Despite Friðrik’s offer to cancel the plan due to Pétur’s presence, the women insisted he proceed.

Agnes suggested using a hammer to subdue both men. Sigríður fetched it, and they moved to the sleeping quarters with Þóranna, Natan’s daughter. In the dark, Agnes positioned herself by the window near Natan’s bed as Friðrik struck Pétur, silencing him. Agnes then handed the child to Sigríður.

Friðrik attacked Natan, who woke up thinking Pétur was attacking him. Friðrik knocked Natan out with the hammer. Agnes fetched a light but found Natan regaining consciousness. Panicking, she dropped the light. Friðrik then repeatedly stabbed both Natan and Pétur until they were dead.

Sigríður’s Testimony of the Murders

Sigríður’s version differs slightly. That evening, Natan and Pétur were in bed. Sigríður planned to sleep with Natan, while Pétur was to sleep in Agnes’s bed, with Agnes in the barn. Friðrik arrived and told Agnes and Sigríður he was there to kill Natan and Pétur. According to Sigríður, Friðrik argued it was a lesser sin to kill Pétur, a known criminal. The women promised to remain silent but refused to assist.

Friðrik went inside, followed by Agnes. It was dark, so neither Natan nor Pétur saw Friðrik. Sigríður took Natan’s daughter, Þóranna, from the platform, claiming she wanted to save it. Friðrik struck Pétur several times, then Natan, who cried out and begged for mercy. Friðrik told them both men were dead, ordered Agnes to light a candle, and returned inside. He threw the bodies out of bed and stripped Natan’s bed. Both bodies were covered in blood. Friðrik placed the corpses back in Natan’s bed with Agnes’s help. Sigríður stood by, showing loyalty to Agnes over Friðrik.

Agnes’s Testimony of the Murders

Agnes denied hearing Friðrik speak to Natan while killing him. She heard several blows but didn’t know where they landed. Despite the darkness, Natan saw her by the bed and asked her to take the man, thinking it was Pétur. Later, he begged his cousin Vorm to spare him and promised to pay for everything he had.

Agnes said Sigríður and Friðrik pressured her to bring the light. She insisted her motive was pure hatred towards Natan, with no hope of profit. Friðrik suggested they tie Natan up to make him reveal his money, but both women refused. They feared Natan’s curses and didn’t dare to torture him but were willing to help Friðrik hide the loot.

After setting the bed with the bodies on fire, the room filled with smoke. The smell of burnt flesh, blood, whale blubber, and oil was unbearable. Agnes said she was inside the sleeping quarters most of the time while Friðrik killed the men. Before the light went out, she saw Friðrik stab Natan below the rib cage.

From these accounts, it is obvious that Friðrik painfully and slowly wrung the life out of the men.

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