On 12 January 1830, within the beautiful and peaceful backdrop that is Iceland, one after the other 33-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir and 17-year-old Fridrik Sigurdsson were told to go to their knees and place their heads on an execution block which rested on a purpose made soil mound. When they did so they were beheaded by an axe, specially brought in from Denmark and swung by the hands of the brother of their murder victim. Watched by a man from each household on the Island, their severed heads were then placed on sticks and paraded for all to see. This double execution was the first time capital punishment had been carried out on Icelandic soil in 40 years, and it would be the last.
“The lifeless heads were then set upon two stakes at the site of execution, and their bodies put in two coffins of untreated boards, and buried before the men were dismissed.” – Hannah Kent, Burial Rites
Two years earlier a fire had ripped through a farmhouse in Illugastaðir, North Iceland. The farm was home to Natan Ketilsson a self-trained doctor, and his guest Petur Jonsson. On 14 March 1828, the maid servant to Ketilsson, Agnes Magnusdottir, appeared at the door of a neighbouring property shouting that the farmhouse was on fire and both Ketilsson and Jonsson were trapped inside. The islanders rallied around and the fire was extinguished but they did not find the bodies of two men who had been killed by fire and smoke. They found both Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson had been murdered, stabbed multiple times before the fire had started. Attention turned to the woman who had alerted people to the fire, Agnes Magnusdottir.
Executed Today writes that Magnusdottir had been Ketilsson’s housekeeper and his lover. Ketilsson, however, had a wandering eye and was known as a womanizer. He had turned his attention to his second maid, 16-year-old Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, something the young Fridrik Sigurdsson, who also had eyes for Sigridur, did not approve of. It is this perceived love triangle that is widely believed to have been the cause of the events on that March night in 1828.
Agnes Magnusdottir was believed to have been the mastermind behind the ghastly plan to murder and rob her employer and his guest, persuading Sigurdsson to work with her. This double murder was shocking enough for the Icelandic people, but for it to have been orchestrated by a young woman sent shockwaves across the Island.
Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson were both charged with double murder and sentenced to death. Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, also implicated in the crime, after originally being sentenced to death, had her sentence changed to the equivalent of life in prison.
Australian Hannah Kent, the author of the international best-selling book “Burial Rites”, a fictional recreation of the true story of this crime that has won multiple awards including The Indie Awards Debut Fiction of the Year 2014 and The ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year 2014, highlighted how “she was so often represented as nothing but a monster,” when discussing her research into Agnes Magnusdottir. “There was never any mention of the reasons why she might have ended up in this tragic situation,” she said in an interview with The Bookseller. “It’s that old dichotomy of women either being angels or monsters.”
“No one cared about the motivations behind the murders – that wouldn’t happen in a modern court.”
Almost 100 years after the executions of Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, the death penalty was abolished in Iceland. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir and this double murder has become legendary through the publication of numerous books and documentaries all featuring the callous acts carried out by an ‘evil’ 33-year-old woman many considered to simply be a ‘monster’. Hannah Kent’s book focuses on the life of Magnusdottir, especially during the period before she was executed. Iceland, at that time, had no prisons and rather than send her off the island to Denmark or Norway she was sent to an isolated farmhouse with the farm owners keeping watch over her.
In early September 2017, a mock courtroom was created in the community centre in Hvammstangi, a village, the IB Times reports, near where the two men were murdered. Here, using original documents from the case investigation in 1828, the case was retried with the aim of uncovering the motive of Magnusdottir and her accomplices. Suggestions that Magnusdottir and the other young maid Sigridur Gudmundsdottir may have been abused by Ketilsson have been considered with the underlying thoughts that this abuse may have prompted two desperate young women to kill.
Kent writes that the mock retrial was arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society using modern laws and applying modern-day procedures to the case. The outcome, determined by a three-judge panel, was a sentence of 14 years in prison for Agnes Magnusdottir and not the death penalty.
This month it was revealed by Variety that Kent’s book will be made into a feature film with Jennifer Lawrence starring as Agnes Magnusdottir. A historic Icelandic double murder which has stayed with the people of Iceland and captured the curiosity of people all over the world will be brought to life on the big screen. Agnes Magnusdottir was beheaded two years after being charged with murder, becoming the last woman to ever be executed in Iceland. Her story and her crime have lived on and it is one Icelanders will never forget.