Even the guilty want peace

 Being buried in consecrated dirt is important to the dead

"Hvítserkur is a 15 m high basalt stack along the eastern shore of the Vatnsnes peninsula, in northwest Iceland. The rock has two holes at the base, which give it the appearance of a dragon who is drinking. The base of the stack has been reinforced with concrete to protect its foundations from the sea. Several species of birds, such as gulls and fulmars, live on at Hvítserkur and its name ("white shirt" in Icelandic") comes from the color of the guano deposited on its rocks." Raymond Ling

The last souls to be beheaded in Iceland received a proper burial thanks to a medium a century later. The request to transfer convicted murderers to sanctified dirt wasn't the only divine experience surrounding the ill fate relationships in this small county in Northern Iceland.

The story I'm about to share is the story as it was told in various news papers and articles. The legal documents that include the individual testimonies tell a different and much more sinister story. It is a story of misplaced love, greed, abuse and rape. 

I will be telling both versions of the story. As I stated in the above paragraph, this blog shares the story as it was publicly shared. 

I will cover the story of the witness testimonies in next week's blog. 

Geitaskarð in 1900. Atom

The winter of 1827,  Natan Ketilsson (1792-1828) met Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1795-1830) from Geitaskarð. He was heading to the farm as a doctor. 

Natan was a highly intellectual man, a man of many traits and an amazing poet. He wasn't interested in working on the farm and instead indulged his mind with all the books he could get his hands on. When he finally did work on the farm, his work was immaculate and extremely well done. 

One day, Natan met a German doctor who invited him to come stay with him while he attended medical school in Denmark. Dirt poor, he could barely afford the travel costs to Copenhagen. Once there, he found out the doctor had moved to Hamburg, so he wrote him a letter to announce his arrival.

After some time, it became obvious the doctor had no plans to write him back. Natan was fortunate enough to meet a pharmacist who offered him a place to stay. The pharmacist died the following winter and Natan was again out of luck. 

The Icelandic students in Copenhagen usually stuck together, so they collected money to cover his travel back home to Iceland. 

The University of Copenhagen. Throughout history, Icelanders have sought to attend this school to further their education. Many of the individuals in my previous blog posts went here. Jacob Surland Fine Art Photographer  

Without a degree or anything to show for his time in Copenhagen, Natan was back home. He wanted to work as a doctor, even though he didn't have the credentials. So he did and he was good at it. The word spread to the nearby farms and he became highly sought after. 

Unfortunately for the farmers, Natan was greedy and often overcharged them for his services, especially those who had money. To those without wealth, he was often quite generous with his services. 

Natan's finances were shady and some even considered him a criminal.  He had previously been whipped after a charge of participating in theft. 

His good looks and charm made him popular with the ladies, something he took great advantage of.  His most famous relationship was with Rósa Guðmundsdóttir (1795-1855) from Vatnsendi. Natan lived at the farm with Rósa and her husband, Ólafur. They didn't show any concern about keeping their relationship secret and is rumored to be the father of three of her children.

Vatnsendi. Kristin

One can say that Natan was born into his dark demise. Before he was born, his mother, Guðrún Halldórsdóttir, had a dream where she saw a man. The man told her to name her son after him. His name was Satan, he said. 

A distraught Guðrún went straight to Rev. Auðun in Blöndudalshólar (Sheriff Blöndal's father) and told him about the dream. The Reverend told her not to read too much into it, that the dream had been nonsense. But Guðrún wasn't about to let evil get away. She wanted her children protected. In 1792, Guðrún gave birth to a baby boy. She asked Rev. Auðun to baptize it with the name Natan.

For a time, Natan stayed with farmer Björn (Mála-Björn) in Brimnes. During his stay there, Natan dreamt that he was running to Hólar in Hjaltadalur and into the cemetery. When he got to the cemetery, he saw an open grave. In one end of the grave, he saw his body and in the other end was his soul. As he stood there staring down at himself, he heard his body say to the soul:

Hvað kann þig stoða hefð og vald,

heims tign og allur sómi,

þá fyrir þín brot skalt greiða gjald

guði á efsta dómi,

veraldar makt er þrotin þá,

þessa skildir í tíma gá,

þenk um að þar að komi.

The poem is a warning of what is to come for Natan. When he meets his maker, he was to pay for his worldly actions which were imbedded in greed and pride. 

This wasn't a poem that Natan had written, but it was the third verse in the psalm Vakna mín sál og virð fyrir þér after the Icelandic poet, Bishop Steinn Jónsson from Hólar.

Natan was haunted by ominous dreams. In another dream he was again standing in a cemetery. This time he was looking down at what appeared to be a corpse. It was disgusting looking as it was black from being burned. There were three insects or reptile-looking creatures crawling on it. They were red. He stood there watching them gnawing on the corpse. A man he didn't recognize stood next to him. Natan asked him whose corpse this was. The man answered, Don't you recognize your own body?

Hólar in Hjaltadalur as it looked in 1890. The church in Natan´s dream. Sarpur.is

Natan's relationship with Rósa ended when he met the multi-talented Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a worker and a talented poet, at Geitaskarð. They took an instant liking to each other and by the time he left, he had hired Agnes as a caretaker on his farm. 

It's assumed that Agnes was under the impression Natan wanted her there was because he loved her other and she was to be his future wife on Illugastaðir. The following spring, she left her position at Geitaskarð to be with Natan and take care of his farm house. 

Geirskarð where Agnes lived when she met Natan. Matthías Þórðarson

By the time Agnes arrived, Natan had already lost interest in her and was on to his next love interest, the 15 year old  Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir (1811-1839) . Sigríður had taken on Agnes' role as the caretaker of the home. 

Agnes was deeply hurt. She wasn't known for her good looks and so far, she hadn't had much luck with love. She thought her luck had finally turned when she met Natan. Although her dream was shattered, she was not about to give up. If she would just be patient, Natan would eventually get bored with Sigríður and come back to her. 

Agnes tried to find ways to distract Sigríður away from him. The 16 year-old  Friðrik Sigurðsson (1810-1830)  from Katadalur was attracted to Sigríður and was hoping for a romantic relationship with her. Agnes saw an opportunity to get Sigríður distracted.

Katadalur is in the middle of this map. It is located between Illugastaðir and Hvítserkur.

Now when Sigríður's attention was on Friðrik, Agnes thought Natan would come running to her. She couldn't have been more wrong. 

No matter how hard Agnes tried, her kindness was reciprocated with harsh words and arrogance. In the end, her love for him turned to hatred. Natan's interest was still on Sigríður. 

This was unfortunate for Sigríður. She was starting to feel that she was stuck living with Natan for the rest of her life. She couldn't stand thinking about being with both him and Friðrik at the same time.  

Agnes' hatred for Natan and his unwillingness to leave Sigríður alone was causing problems for them all. 

Sigríður, Agnes and Friðrik got together to talk about Natan and what to do about him. At this point he had really pushed them over the edge and they saw his death as the best solution. So the planning began.

View from Borgarvirki in Vatnses. Janko Luin

Agnes knew Natan's travel plans. She knew where and when he would be back. The plan was that when Natan arrived at Illugastaðir, Sigríður would watch Natan's 3-year-old daughter, Þóranna Rósa (a daughter he had with Rósa), while Friðrik and Agnes would take care of Natan.

The attack was planned for March 13th, 1828. When Natan arrived at Illugastaðir that day, he wasn't alone. He was accompanied by Pétur Jónsson from Geitaskarð. Pétur was known by the nickname  Fjárdráps-Pétur  or  Pétur the Sheep Killer

Pétur had been charged with killing multiple sheep, but the approval of his sentence hadn't been approved by the king yet.  Pétur  had also had ominous dreams. In one, he had seen three rivers and one of them had a bloodbow (as in rainbow of blood) coming out of it.

Jón from Stapar was there waiting for him when got home. He was Natan's friend and had come to pay him a visit. 

When Jón finally left, Natan kept him company. Friðrik was hiding nearby and was starting to panic. He was worried that Natan was going home with Jón to Stapar. Before long, Natan turned around and walked back to Illugastaðir. 

Illugastaðir in Vatnsnes rebuilt. The turf house Natan lived in was burned to the ground.  Björn P. Blöndal

Natan had to go back to cook medications for his patients. Pétur the Sheep Killer was to take the meds to them in the morning.

After cooking and prepping the meds, Natan and Pétur got ready for bed. There was only one bed, so they slept at opposite ends. Before long, the men were sound asleep.

Agnes signaled Friðrik who came running over to her. She told him that Pétur was there too. Friðrik didn't like the idea of killing both men and began having second thoughts. Desperate, Agnes wasn't in the mood for second thoughts and talked him back into it. It was now or never. It had to be done that night, she told him. 

Agnes handed Friðrik a large hammer and a sharp knife. She had a sharp knife for herself, too. The two of them tiptoed over to the bed where the men lied sleeping. Friðrik lifted his hammer and drove it into Pétur's head, killing him. 

Natan woke up, groggy and confused he was having a hard time realizing what was happening. When he saw Agnes and Friðrik, he asked them to light the lamp. Instead Friðrik attacked him with a hammer. Realizing what was happening, Natan threw his arm up, softening the blow to his head. 

The bedroom and the place where people enjoyed their hobbies and inside work. This room was called 'baðstofa'.  Upper-left:   Postcard , Upper-right:  Sarpur.is , Bottom:  Johannes Klein

Natan struggled out of bed desperately trying to save himself. The encounter with the hammer had broken his arm. Natan realized what was happening and begged for his life and offered up all his valuables.

Agnes didn't trust his promises. They began stabbing him as he continued crawling out of bed and fell down to the floor. Natan wasn't moving. Thinking he was dead, Agnes and Friðrik began walking away. Suddenly, they heard sounds coming from Natan. They turned around and saw him struggling to move and rumbling incoherently. They turned around and stabbed him repeatedly, making sure he was truly dead.

To conceal the murders, they rubbed whale fat (omega oil or lýsi) on the bodies and the bedframe. Before hurrying out of the farmhouse, they took with them anything that was of value to them. Once they had secured themselves the stolen goods, they lit the bed and the bodies on fire.

Sigríður had been outside the farmhouse keeping the girl safe. Natan's cries were so loud that his daughter could clearly hear them. Worried about her father, she asked Sigríður if he was OK. Sigríður looked at the girl and told her not to worry, the men were just slaughtering rams.  

What's left of Natan's workshop on Illugastaðir.  Pan MacMillan

With the farmhouse in flames, it was time for the next part of the plan. Agnes ran down to the nearby farm, Stapar. The farmer there was Jón Sigurðsson, the same man who had visited Natan the day before. Agnes, trying to sound as terrified as she could, told Jón that Illugastaðir was in flames with Natan and Pétur dead inside. 

Instead of leaving her story there, she began to explain what had happen. Natan had been making medicine and the fire got out of control, burning the two men inside. To cast any suspicion away from her, she continued her story explaining that the sheep herder, Daníel, and all the sheep were missing. 

Jón was quick to gather all the men he could and rushed over to Illugastaðir. When he got there, the farm had already burned to the ground. 

Illugastaðir. The old farmhouse that Natan lived in had burned to the ground.  Sarpur.is

He searched through the rubble and found the severe burned bodies of Natan and Pétur. One of Natan's legs had burned completely off. While looking around, Jón found their clothes. He picked them up and realized they were soaked in blood. 

Jón knew this wasn't just an accidental fire. It wasn't just the bloodied clothes that made him think that. When he examined the burned bodies, he noticed they were covered in knife wounds. Jón didn't tell anybody about his suspicions. Instead he got up on his horse and immediately rode east to Vatnsdalur to find Sheriff Blöndal.

Vatnsdalur farm. Unknown

When Jón got to Vatnsdalur, he told Sheriff Blöndal everything from when Agnes arrived at his farm to the bloodied clothes and stabbed bodies. The sheriff told Jón to bring Agnes and Sigríður in for questioning. 

Sheriff Björn Blöndal lived in Hvammur farm.  Haraldur Lárusson Blöndal

Jón rode back. When he found the women, he didn't cast any doubt of their involvement in the deaths. There are laws and when murder takes place, the surviving parties must be questioned, he explained to them. 

The women agreed to go with him. On the way back to see the sheriff, the women wanted to stop at Katadalur farm where Friðrik lived. Not knowing about Friðrik's involvement, Jón saw no good reason to stop, so they rode right passed the farm. Agnes became furious and difficult to deal with. She was so out of control that Jón wasn't able to bring the women all the way to the Sheriff. 

Instead, Jón brought them to Þverá in Vesturhóp and interviewed them there. He accused them of murdering Natan and Pétur. Agnes argued and denied all involvement, but Sigríður couldn't keep it together and admitted guilt. She told him that the two of them and Friðrik had been behind this horrific crime. 

Þverá farms in Vesturhóp.  Þorsteinn Jósepsson

Once Agnes and Sigríður were taken into custody, the sheriff left to pick up Friðrik. He sent three men ahead of him to his farm Katadalur. Once the men arrived, the people at the farm house invited them inside. The men kindly refused, saying they weren't staying long and sat down on both sides of the door.

When the Sheriff arrived, he was greeted by Friðrik's father, Sigurður. The sheriff asked him for his son's whereabout, but Sigurður didn't know, nor did he know when he would be back. The sheriff wasn't giving up that easy and told Sigurður to get his son to come back to the house.

Sigurður left to find his son, but soon returned without him. He hadn't been able to find him anywhere.  The sheriff wasn't easily fooled. He told his men to search the area. It didn't take them long until they found Friðrik behind a stack of fire wood. 

Taking on the role of cluelessness, Friðrik smiled and gladly went with them over to talk to the Sheriff. With a big smile on his face and an easy-going attitude, he greeted the Sheriff.  I can't kiss you Friðrik, said the Sheriff. Friðrik was about to greet the sheriff with a kiss as was the habit in those days. He wasn't there for pleasantries and small talk. He was there to arrest Friðrik.

Katadalur where Friðrik lived with his family. North Wind

All three guilty parties were kept separated to avoid communication between them. Friðrik was taken straight to Þingeyri, Sigríður was held at Miðhópur and Agnes first at Stóru-Borg first and then at Kornsá.

They were all gathered for the trial. Present in the court room was Þorbjörg, Friðrik's mother. Her presence was hard to ignore as she had the tendency of passing out during the hearings. The Sheriff suspected it was all an act. In order to test his theory, next time she passed out, he put a light up against her eyes. Sure enough, she couldn't ignore the light and reacted to it exactly as he expected. 

When the sheriff confronted her about it, some new information came to light. It turned out that she had been the one to encourage her son to kill Natan. Daníel the sheep-tender had been in cahoots with them. They had an agreement that he was not to bring sheep home that evening.

Left: The remains from the burned down farm house,  Illugastaðir, where the murders took place. Right: The beheading location on Þrístapar. The flat part next to the triangular stone where the beheading to place, is where their coffins were dug up and removed.  Lesbók Morgunblaðsins

On July 2nd, 1829, Sheriff Blöndal condemned all three to death. They were to be beheaded and their heads put on poles. Þorbjörg, Friðrik's mother was sentenced to five years of slave labor. Daníel was sent to a  correction facility in Copenhagen  for four years. The king changed Sigríður's sentence from death to lifelong slave labor in Denmark.

The beheading was to take place on January 12, 1830.

When the word spread about the beheading, people from all corners of the country traveled to Sveinsstaðir in Þing to watch the horrific event. In all, about 150 men showed up. The men weren't exactly there on their own free will. The Sheriff had demanded that at least one man from each household in the county would to be present.

Left: The old farm on Sveinsstaðir. Right: Sveinsstaðir today.  Húnavaka

As they stood waiting, Friðrik and the men accompanying him appeared from below the Þing. They were singing psalms loud and clear, including Friðrik. The road from Þingeyri was long enough that he sang the song three times in a row. By his side were a guard, Rev. Jóhann Tómasson from Tjörn and Rev. Gísli Gíslason from Vesturhópshól. 

The axe and the block was sent to Iceland from Copenhagen. The block was made from oak with a dent to fit the chin of the accused. They struggled to find an executioner, so they asked Natan's brother, Guðmundur Ketilsson, to be the executioner. He got paid 60 Rbd (ríkisbankadalur or State Bank Dollar) for the job. He called it blood money and donated the money to his county's poverty fund.

The execution platform was stacked with turf and stones. A red cloth was brought to cover the platform and the block during the ceremony. A fence was made out of wood and put around the platform. On the platform stood Natan's brother with a shiny axe in his hand.

Natan's brother.  Bubbi Morthens

Friðrik wasn't led straight to the axe. He was ceremoniously pranced around with prayers, warnings, songs and blessings for the road to the beyond. At the end of the ceremony, Friðrik stood next to the axe and spoke a few words to the crowd. Drottinn Jesú, meðtak þú minn anda!, (My Lord Jesus, receive my spirit), he called out. Then he put his head down with his chin on the chopping block and said, Ó minn Jesú, ég legst á þín náðarbrjóst! (Oh my Jesus, I lay down on thy bosom of grace). The sheriff advised the onlookers to turn their heads around.

He signaled Guðmundur Ketilsson, the executioner. Natan's brother let the axe fall down on Friðrik's head. The head rolled off the chopping block with blood spitting out of the throat from the body left behind. 

Execution block used on Vatnsdalshólar in Vatnsdalur.   Sarpur.is
The block and the axe used in the execution of Agnes and Friðrik on January 12th, 1830. It was the last execution ever to occur in Iceland.  New places old cases

Sheriff Blöndal made sure that those know to have criminal behaviors got front row so they could see with their own eyes how the heads roll when separated from the body with a sharp axe. 

The place of execution.  Morgunblaðið
Þristapar.  Glaumbær.is

A short distance away, a few men from Vatnsdalur were waiting with Agnes. They didn't want Agnes to witness the beheading of Friðrik. Among the men with her was Rev. Þorvarður Jónasson from Breiðabólsstaður. The men sang psalms for her too, but she didn't sing with them, nor did it calm her down. 

In order to calm her down, the men gave her brennivín (spirits) for her nerves. The ritual-attempt failed as Agnes was utterly besides herself. They had to cut the ceremony short and march her straight up on to the chopping block. Agnes was completely out of control. The official broke down and was unable to follow through with the job. The priest from Breiðabólsstaður who was supposed to send her off to the next life with a prayer passed out. They gave him brennivín (spirits) to strengthen him.

Breiðabólsstaður.  Þorsteinn Jósepsson

After the beheadings, the headless bodies were put in coffins that Björn Ólsen had made. They then buried them north of the beheading point and facing south. The heads were put on stakes and stuck into the ground. There they stayed as a horrifying sight in hope to send a message to any future criminals. 

Guðrún Runólfsdóttir, housewife on Þingeyri didn't like the sight of the heads on a stick. After all, Friðrik had been staying at her farmhouse during the questioning and interaction with him would have been inevitable. 

The night after the execution she sent her worker in secret to take the heads down off the spikes and move them to Þingeyri cemetery and bury them. 

The day after the heads disappeared. The worker hadn't felt like taking them all the way to the cemetery, so he buried them nearby. He figured nobody would know and he wasn't going to tell anybody either. 

Vatnsdalur. On the right hand side are the Vatnsdalshólar. On one of them was the place of execution. Finnur Malmquist  

A century later, in 1932 Sesselja Guðmundsdóttir on Bergþórugata in Reykjavík was to breathe life into this case again. Her father was from Vatnsnes, so she had some ancestral ties to the place. 

Tjörn in Vatnsnes.  Sarpur.is

Sesselja had some supernatural abilities, but kept them secret. One day she was being sought after from beyond the veil via automatic writing. The dead person writing through her was Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

The message Agnes wrote through Sesselja was that her and Friðrik's remains would be dug up and buried in sanctified dirt in the cemetery in Tjörn in Vatnsnes. There was also to be held a prayer meeting at the place of the murder on Illugastaðir.

Bergþórugata 33 in Reykjavík where Sesselja lived. Borgarsögusafn
Bergþórugata 33 is where the orange circle on the right is, slightly north-east of Hallgrimskirkja. GoogleMaps

Sesselja was very reluctant to tell anybody about this and kept it to herself for a time. Eventually she realized that she needed to confide in someone and turned to the spiritists in Reykjavík for advice.

After sharing the matter with them, she told bishop Jón Helgason. He approved of the message and agreed to have the bodies moved to sanctified dirt in the cemetery. On Sunday, June 17th, 1934, the bones were moved to Tjarnarkirkja in Vatnsnes. 

Guðmundur Sigurjónsson (1883-1967) from Hofdalur went north to Húnavatnssýsla to take care of the digging up of and the transfer of the remains that were to be buried in the cemetery. 

Guðmundur Sigurjónsson from Hofdalur was a famous Iceland wrestler. He wrestled in the 1908 Olympics in London. He was a devout member of the Good Templars and a spiritist.  Unfortunately, some remember him only as the man who in 1924 was charged with 8 months in betrunarhúsavist (betterment housing), or prison, for homosexual acts. The law used to was written in 1869, Clause §178 “Unnatural forms of sexual intercourse are punishable by a term in prison.”  (something to that effect). The doctors Guðmundur Thoroddsen and Guðmundur Björnsson criticized the charge, claiming it was out of date. They argued that in the present day standards, he had not committed any crimes. The charge was lowered to three months.  samkynhneigd.is

Agnes had described to Sesselja exactly where and when they were to be buried: 

High summer sun (21. June 1934), westward, seen from the execution spot and near it. Agnes told her that their heads were not buried at Þingeyri cemetery like everyone said they were. She told her that the worker had buried the heads at the place of the execution and described exactly where. The worker had been in such a hurry that instead of taking her head off the stake,  he had broken the stake and the broken piece was still in her skull. 

Digging up the skulls.  Lesbók Morgunblaðsins

Sesselja told all this to Guðmundur Sigurjónsson from Hofdalur. She wanted him to go talk to farmer Magnús on Sveinsstaðir. Þrístapar were, after all, on his land. Magnús was also the district administrative officer, so it was natural to talk to him. When Guðmundur told him the story, he was slow to believe it, especially the part about the skulls. 

Guðmundur, Magnús and his son, Ólafur, went to the place where Sesselja said the heads were buried. There they found the coffins and the skulls buried nearby. In one of the skulls was a 10 cm long piece of wood. The skulls were better preserved than the bodies. Sesselja had explained all this to them, adding that it was probably because the dirt road had been much more compacted.

The bones were put in a box and moved to Tjörn in Vatnsnes where they were buried. A few days later they held a prayer meeting at Illugastaðir. This was all done somewhat in secret, since many didn't agree with the decision to give them proper burial. Bishop Jón felt it was better to have a prayer meeting in silence.

Tjarnarkirkja in Vatnses where Friðrik and Agnes were buried.  Jóna Þórunn

Friðrik and Agnes' graves.  Morgunblaðið
Friðrik's and Agnes'grave.  Gísli Gestsson  

Some items were found in the ground after the bodies were dug up. It was obvious that Agnes had on her best clothes. A man from Blönduós found a jaw in the grave a year later and figured it was Friðrik's. He kept it for years in his bedroom, usually either in a drawer or under his pillow. These items can now be found at Þjóðminjasafn .

It wasn't just Agnes who had a message for the living. Natan, also, had something he wanted to convey to the world after his death. 

Rev. Auðun's friend in Reykjavík was visiting a friend who was known all across Iceland. At the house was a young girl performing automatic writing. Suddenly she wrote the name of a man who lived out in the country and who they all knew. Right after, she wrote: He was coming to us right in that moment.

The reason for his death which were awful and unexpected, she continued writing. The women were confused, because as far as they knew, the man was alive and well in great health. They didn't dare tell this to anyone. 

The day after the séance, the news about the man's horrible death was announced. Not even the man's family had heard of his death when the medium wrote about it.


1.Katadalur; 2.Strönd (Strandarkirkja); 3.Illugastaðir; 4.Stapar. Vatnsdalur is right below the 711 label on the right (above 5).  GoogleMaps

A sign by Illugastaðir farm. Jennifer Boyer

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