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Haunted house in the middle of the city

A monster-looking ghost haunts a man living in Reykjavik city center. How does he know whether it's real or a prank?

Tjörnin (The Pond) in Reykjavík.  Bernd Thaller

Smack in the middle of the 18th century Reykjavik city was a cluster of turf houses and factories. These structures belonged to Sheriff Skúli Magnusson's corporation called Hið Íslenska Hlutafélag (The Icelandic Corporation). It was established in 1751 by Icelandic politicians wanting to boost the economy. 

In January 1752, the Danish king approved of the corporation and the name was changed. It was now under the Danish name,  Det Privilegerte Islandske Interessentskab or PII . Eventually it became known under the name Inréttingarnar . Among the buildings was one of Reykjavik's most famous haunted houses: Brúnsbær.

Map from 1787. In the yellow top portion is the factory village. The house labeled "a" was the church. South of the church was the location of Brúnsbær. The right side of  the map is Tjörnin (The Pond) which is seen in the cover photo of this post. Borgarsögusafn

Brúnsbær was originally called Bödkerværelse or Viktualiehus which are Danish names. The names point towards the house being a cooper apartment and a food storage for the factories. When the factory housing was sold, Christine Bruun purchased it in 1791. This is when it received its name, Brúnsbær (Bruun's Place), after her. Her husband was Sigvard Bruun. 

Sigvard Bruun was sent to Iceland in 1785 to be the jail warden in Arnarhóll. The jail was built in the years 1761 to 1771 and was considered an awful place to be locked up. The prisoners were starving and suffered great hardships. 

Bruun or Brúnn as the Icelanders called him, was considered the worst kind of human being and a brutal warden. Although he only served his position for two years, he was remembered as the worst of all the wardens. 

The hardships weren't just the doings of Mr. Bruun, nor was it just the prisoners who suffered. When Bruun became the warden, Iceland was experiencing what could be considered its most miserable time in history. 

After the eruption of  Lakagígar  (Laki) in 1783-1784 many people had died from this natural disaster. The soil became contaminated destroying crops and killing 50% of Iceland's livestock. 

This had a devastating affect on their farming, resulting in families losing their farms and becoming homeless. Severe famine spread throughout the country causing starvation to the point of death for many. In fact, about 25% of the population died as a result of the famine.

The central fissure of the volcano, Laki. The 1783 eruption shot out 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, causing crop failures all over Europe and potentially played a role in droughts in North Africa and India. The eruption began on June 8th, 1783 and lasted until February 7th, 1784.   Chmee2/Valtameri

Half of the prisoners on Arnarhóll died in 1785. Mr. Bruun was known for his neglect and violence which didn't help the survival rate of the starving prisoners. The prisoners despised him and rumors have it that Mr. Bruun was a sadist. 

Back then it was a custom  to mistreat the prisoners, both in Iceland and abroad. The fact that his treatment of them became infamous was a sign that he stood out among the other brutal wardens. 

Although Mr. Bruun was married, he was known to be quite the womanizer. When he lusted after a young woman, it didn't matter to him whether she was willing or not. The rumors had it that one of the female prisoners became pregnant with his child. As a reaction, he beat her to death before giving birth.

Another story tells of two prisoners, a man and a woman who fell in love. Mr. Bruun fancied the woman and wanted her to himself. 

To make that happen, he did such a number on the man that he was no longer able to offer himself to any woman. It has been speculated that he cut off his private parts. Shortly after the incident, the prisoner died from the injuries. 

The old jail where Sigvald Bruun was the warden. Today this is the Prime Minister's Office.

Mr. Bruun is said to have killed ca. 60 prisoners in the two year period he was there. To put this in perspective, the prison could hold 60 prisoners at a time. Usually there were 40 prisoners at any given time. I would say that during his two year shift, the likelihood of survival was not great. 

Mr. Bruun died in 1787, two years after he began his job as the warden. One morning, he got out of bed and walked out on the grass in front of Arnarhóll. As he stood there, he saw a horse he didn't recognize. 

Mr. Bruun tried to make it leave and thought it would be helpful to walk behind it. When doing so, he startled the horse and it kicked up its hind legs right into Mr. Bruun's chest. He died from the injuries and the horse took off. 

The horse was never found and no one claimed to have any knowledge of what horse it could have been. Many believed the horse was an unclean spirit sent to kill the warden as a revenge for his evil treatment of the prisoners.

Bankastræti. The jail (Prime Minister's Offices) is seen on the left side. The brick house up the street (left side) is Bankastræti 3. Read about the house in my blog here .


In front of the jail, which today serves as the Prime Minister's Offices.

Many known men had lived in the cooper's house throughout the years. Among them was The Protector of Iceland, Jörgen Jörgensen (1780-1841), the Dog-Day king. He arrived in Iceland for the first time in the beginning of 1809. 

Jörgen was determined to block the power Denmark had over Iceland and reinstate the Althing as soon as Iceland received independence. Jörgen lived there during his stay in Iceland which was until March, 1809.  

Portrait of Jörgen Jörgensen in 1808-1809 by   Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg  (1783–1853)

The house was torn down in 1834 by Hannes Erlendsson from Mel. Hannes then built a timber house on the lot, but kept the name, Brúnsbær. A little over a century later, in 1944, the house was torn down.

Brúnsbær that was built in 1834. It stayed there until 1944 when it was torn down to make room for a much larger building.   Vikan

In 1835,   Stefán Gunnlaugsson was called to be the sheriff in Reykjavik. He moved into Brúnsbær with his family and stayed there until 1838. He moved his family into a brand new home he had built on Amtmannsstígur 1. The house was considered quite beautiful at the time, one of the most attractive ones in the city. The house is still there today and currently serves as a restaurant. 

Besides being well liked and a diligent sheriff, he was known for making Reykjavik more Icelandic . He had his assistant call out on the streets Icelandic tongue belongs in an Icelandic city!  Denmark had a great influence on Iceland back then and many words spoken on the streets were in Danish or of Danish influence.

Amtmannsstígur 1.  Vera de Kok  

In those days, over 150 years ago, there were no street lights. When the moon wasn't visible, the night was black. The only sign of light was the flickering candle lights in the windows. What made Brúnsbær a little spookier than other homes was its close vicinity to the city's only cemetery, Víkur Cemetery.

In 1823 Brúnsbær was the living quarters for several individuals. There was a family of four: Sigmundur Johnsen (Jónsson) carpenter, 44 years old; his wife Birgitta Halldórsdóttir, 28 years old and their two children Lárus 4 and Jóhanna 2. In addition, there were seven single workers living in the house: Ingigerður Magnúsdóttir worker from Njarðvík, 20 years old; Einar Jónasson worker 25 years old;  Kristján Jakobsson  merchant, 25 years old; Hannes Erlendsson  shoemaker, 25 years old;  Sigurður Breiðfjörð  cooper, 25 years old;  Pétur Petersen (Pétursson)  cooper, 27 years old and  Guðmundur Hannesson  worker, 27 years old. 

The highlighted individuals are a part of the following story. All the men were around 30 and enjoyed their liquor very much. 

The poet, Sigurður Breiðfjörð , was born in 1798 in Breiðafjörður. To earn a proper living, he worked as a cooper all over the country and even traveled as far as Greenland for work. He was a bit of a scoundrel. He was penniless and never stayed with the same woman for long. 

In 1826 he moved to Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) and married Sigríður Nikulásdóttir.  He left her and married Kristín Illugadóttir from Snæfellsnes. It was against the law to be married to two women at the same time, so he was charged and sentenced to 20 lashes and high fines. 

He spent his last years in Reykjavík suffering from bad health. Being sick didn't stop his bad behavior and he continued to be incarcerated for various crimes, including writing fake checks. Sigurður died before turning 50 from the measles. 

Sigurður Breiðfjörð (1798-1846). Free book on Sigurður Breiðfjörð. Includes a poem about the experience on p. 218 (262 in online copy)  here .    Sunnanfari

In 1822 Hannes Erlendsson (1789-1869) purchased Brúnsbær and moved in. He was young, a shoemaker by trade and financially stable. He was single at the time, so there was much space in the home. 

Statue of Skúli fógeti overlooking the area where his factories and workers' housing used to be. The gray building in the background is where Brúnsbær used to be.

Guðmundur Hannesson was a worker. He had gotten a job as an executioner. He felt it was somewhat of a prestige and considered himself of authority. His job was for the most part to whip accused men. The job paid well. 

He was paid per lash. for 10-15 lashes he received one dollar, for 2x27 lashes he received 2 dollar, for 3x27 lashes he received 3 dollars. For lynching he received 5 dollars. He had earned himself the nickname fjósarauður (barn red) .  When the practice of lashing ended, he became a chimney sweeper and outhouse cleaner for Reykjavik city. 

Brúnsbær used to be where the gray building on the left is. Photo seen from the opposite angle of the above photo.  Britt-Marie Sohlström

Kristján Jakobsson was from Eyjafjörður. He married the daughter of Henrik Melby (cooper). They had daughters who became known as the Jacobsen's daughters. The daughters moved to Copenhagen where they ran a restaurant. 

Pétur Pétursson , the cooper, was a known to be little bit of a dimwit and quite superstitious. 

Left: Painting by Jón Helgason showing Reykjavík at the turn of 1800.The red arrow is pointing at the worker's villages. Among them was Brúnsbær. Above the turf houses is a large white building. It was the jail on Arnarhóll. The old church (Víkurkirkja) and the cemetery can be seen in this picture.  Torfbæir  Right: Number 4 is Brúnsbær in 1801.  Borgarsögusafn

It was around midnight on December 4th, 1823. All the residents at Brúnshús had gone to bed, except Sigurður, Hannes and Guðmundur. They sat in the kitchen chatting and drinking. Hannes' roommate, Pétur, had gone to bed. 

Pétur was lying awake in his bed when he heard someone fiddling with the window. Hannes walked into the bedroom and asked Pétur if he was messing with the window. He shook his head and asked Sigurður the same question. It wasn't him either. 

They blew it off and went to bed. As they lied there, they could clearly hear someone rustling by the window. This time it was louder and more intense. Pétur turned off the light and rushed over to the window. He saw nothing but the black night.

Pétur went back to bed. This time, the sounds weren't at the window, but right outside the bedroom door. The two young men looked over at the door. Something was howling and scratching at the door. Suddenly there was a loud slam and pounding at the door. 

Pétur was terrified. Hannes got up to check it out. He saw nothing but the darkness in the hallway. He called out into the darkness asking who was there. There was no answer. The men were certain it had to be a ghost or a spirit. 

Then another heavy thud at the door.

Pétur was beyond frightened. He jumped out of bed and picked up his rifle. It wasn't loaded, so he rushed over to the escritoire to get gun powder. While he was loading his rifle, he called out to the ghost threatening to shoot it. The threats didn't work and another heavy knock was heard at the door. Pétur became so scared that he jumped back into the bed. He cradled up and began to cry.

The ghost became all riled up. A strange whale-like sound screamed outside the door. The men looked over at the door and saw a shadow through the keyhole. Pétur was certain this was an otherworldly messenger sent to do them harm. 

They watched the shadow disintegrate through the keyhole. Pétur asked Hannes to go get Sigurður so he could set down the spirit. After all, he was a known magic-poet.

Hannes left to get Sigurður. When they got back, they told Pétur they had seen the horrible monster. He was not to worry, because they were able to drive it out. They also explained to him that if the monster came back, he couldn't shoot it. 

This would only make the monster more powerful. Neither should he attack the ghost and beat it. Pétur believed everything they told him.

Pétur didn't sleep at all that night. He was terrified the monster would come back.  

Photo of Reykjavik. The pond can be seen in the lower right corner. To the north west of the pond was Brúnsbær.

The next day nothing happened, but Pétur was very cautious. When the dark settled in, he was terrified again. This fear intensified when Guðmundur told him he had seen a ghost outside the house. She said she was sent here to kill you , Guðmundur said to Pétur. 

Terrified, Pétur begged Guðmundur, Sigurður, Hannes and Kristján to stay with him that night. He lit two candles in the bedroom, picked up his Passion Hymns and began singing. 

Kristján was outside looking around the house when the men heard a pound at the door. 

Pétur felt brave with so many people with him. He grabbed his rifle and aimed it at the door. He called out to the ghost to get out of there. Kristján came back inside. He had seen a monster crawl away from the house and towards the wool shop nearby. 

Suddenly, the strange noises started up again. The monster pounded on the windows and the door. The poundings continued throughout the night until Sigurður got up and shooed it away. Pétur didn't sleep that night either.

In the morning they gathered together to discuss the matter. Sigurður was certain the ghost was going to kill one or more of them. That evening the hauntings continued and the knocks on the door were so hard that it kept opening with each knock. Things fell off the shelves and the entire house shook. 

Sigurður and Hannes stayed in the bedroom with Pétur protecting him. In between the visitations they told each other ghost stories which made Pétur even more scared. He begged Sigurður to set down the ghost for good. 

Sigurður was willing to try for a pot of brennivín (spirits). Pétur didn't hesitate and agreed right away. The men sat down and drank together. 

Sigurður explained that it wouldn't be easy to set down the ghost and he feared the consequences. He promised to try to save his friends because he cared about them. He made a cut in his flesh and used his blood to write magic letters. Then he and Hannes went into the kitchen, but Kristján stayed with Pétur in the bedroom.

Sounds were heard from the kitchen as if they were being attacked. Then they heard Sigurður ask:

        Where are you from?

The monster answered,

        From east.

Sigurður,

        Who are you looking for?

Monster,  

        Pétur the cooper

Sigurður,

        What do you want with him.

Monster,

        I´m supposed to kill him.

Reykjavik 1868. In the winter it could be a dark and cold place. The pond is seen in the upper right corner.

Sigurður then began chanting and ordered the ghost to meet him at 11:00 p.m. Huffing and puffing, Sigurður and Hannes went back into the bedroom. They told him that the ghost had been made powerful with a raven's heart and a vulture's skin, but it had the mind of a man. They sat down to drink again.

At ten p.m. the door was thrown open, but there was no one there. Sigurður and Hannes went out to see what was going on. They came back inside with Guðmundur with them. They were acting strange and then suddenly they all passed out. Pétur ran to get them some water. The water helped the men wake back up.

At 10:30 p.m. there was another pound at the door. Guðmundur had left the bedroom, but Pétur cast magic curses and spit towards the door. He grabbed his Passion Hymns and rifle. His buddies told him to calm down, but Pétur didn't want to and called out,

Don't you think that I know all about this ghost and how he was created? I heard everything that was said in the kitchen. I heard that the ghost said he was from the east and was going to kill me. He was sent by Jón from Belgsholt, because he doesn't like me. ... I'll pay you five rigsdaler   if you put him down fast, but don't bother doing it if you don't know how to do it.

Then the door flew open and items from around the house were thrown into the bedroom. Sigurður and Hannes ran out into the darkness but Pétur sat alone in the room, terrified beyond belief. He was exhausted as he hadn't slept for a long time. He fled into the bedroom where the family slept. The husband, Sigmundur, jumped up on to his feet. He scolded Pétur for scaring him like that, so Pétur ran back out.


Another loud pound on the window. This time it was so intense that two windows broke. The ruckus and noise was so loud outside. Trying to be brave, Pétur looked outside and saw Sigurður fighting a dark monster. He watched as Sigurður fought it off and chanted magic poems. The monster disappeared into the night.

When they got back inside, Pétur thanked them. They were all so glad the monster was finally gone, that they sang psalms and drank. Pétur took a moment of gratitude and read a prayer out loud.

The ghost didn't come back to Brúnshús. But there was something else bothering Pétur. He had noticed  people were looking at him funny and some even teased him about the hauntings. A man with a bad conscience approached him and told him that the monster was fake. His friends had planned the whole thing just to have fun with him. 

This didn't sit well with Pétur, so on January 3rd, 1824, he wrote the sheriff a letter sharing the whole story of what had happened. Guðmundur the executioner was the actually ghost. He wanted his friends charged for the trickery.

Sheriff Sigurður Thorgrímsen found the whole thing slightly amusing, but told the men to come to court on January 12th. When the time came, they all showed up. During the hearing, Pétur had the chance to stand up in front of his friends and accuse them of deceit.

Unfortunately for Pétur, he had no evidence of their foul play and was forced to take back his accusations. The sheriff then told his friends to pay four  rigsdaler  to the poverty fund in Reykjavík. Pétur had to pay for the court costs. 

The men felt bad for what they had done and to make Pétur feel better, they bought him drinks. Pétur was not going to let the opportunity go to waste and drank as much as he possibly could, something he regretted for a long time afterwards. 

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