Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Agnes and Friðrik

I am not a fan of capital punishment although I am not completely blind to the reasoning of those who agree with it. Thankfully this is very seldom in the forefront of public discussion here as we have no such punishment in our judicial system. It is only brought to our attention when extreme cases catch the media’s eyes, when obvious horrors of justice are about to take place. This usually involves scheduled executions of persons of diminished mental capacity, young offenders, people who consistently maintain their innocence or those who are trying to amend their antisocial ways and have repented. We also hear of executions in countries where trials are a mirage at best and the accused has no opportunity of appealing their sentence which might even be carried out before the person has had the time to register what has happened. This is disgusting and I cannot imagine that many condone such a process. On the opposing side, many crimes are horrid and merciless and at times I am sure it would seem justified to show no mercy to those who have none to spare. I am also sure that more guilty people are executed through the various justice systems of the world than innocent, but still. The inconsistency of death sentences will continue to fuel my dislike of them, not only are the wrong people at times executed but the sentence is not meted out equally, one’s social standing, political beliefs or luck in choosing a defense lawyer most often plays a role, which is completely unacceptable.

The last executions conducted in Iceland took place in 1830 although capital punishment was not removed from our criminal code until 1928. Trailing the line of hapless souls deemed to make the world a better place by losing their lives were a woman of 33 named Agnes and a young man of 18 named Friðrik. A third accomplice, a 16 year old girl named Sigríður had also been sentenced to death but was pardoned by the Danish king and made serve life under hard labor in a prison camp in Denmark as she was perceived as being “simple”.

The crime was murder, double at that. Friðrik killed a farmer named Natan who employed both Agnes and Sigríður, for the purpose of robbing him, as well as ending the life of a man visiting Natan. Friðrik then set the farmhouse on fire to make the deaths look like an accident, but multiple stab wounds on the charred bodies were his undoing. Agnes and Sigríður aided in the murders by hiding Friðrik in a barn until nightfall and Agnes also conspired in the whole scenario. It is considered highly likely that she planted the idea in Friðrik’s mind and egged him on, thus being the instigator of the murders. She had been Natan’s lover until his attention shifted to the younger Sigríður – whom Friðrik loved. A complicated love circumstance, involving sad people from the lower echelons of life at the time.

There are countless executions of less deserving culprits than Agnes and Friðrik in our history. Despite this their plight has lived with us, because of the way the execution was conducted and later occurrences which further fuelled interest in the story. I will attempt to briefly explain both.

At the time anyone sentenced to death was usually sent abroad to be executed and no one had been executed on Icelandic soil for 40 years. The Icelandic people were not fond of executions and preferred them conducted out of sight. But two things contributed to the process being carried out here in the case of Agnes and Friðrik. For one it was a lot cheaper not to have to send the pair by boat to Denmark or Norway and secondly, local authorities believed crime on the rise and they wanted to set an example. To make sure people would sit up and notice, every farmer in the area was obliged to show up or send a representative in his place. As a result one hundred and fifty people witnessed the act which is a very high number considering the sparsely populated area where the events occurred. An execution block was erected and this included a man-made mound that still exists, the added elevation ensuring everyone present had a good view. The execution block itself had to be imported from Denmark, as did the axe as neither was available within the country. Once everything was set up, Agnes and Friðrik were led up on to the mound and their heads unceremoniously chopped off by the brother of the murdered Natan. No one wanted to act as executioner and it even required a lot of persuasion to get the next of kin to brand the axe.

To get the most out of the example being set, the heads of Agnes and Friðrik were then poised on stakes placed prominently for all to see. It is unclear how long they were to stand there as there was no tradition to go by. However, this never became an issue as the heads were stolen the very same night of the execution. The unconfirmed story goes that a warmhearted woman from one of the few large estates in the district had one of her farmhands remove the heads when darkness had fallen and bury them secretly in a nearby graveyard. This last bit became part of what everyone believed true although the records of the time only mention: “The heads disappeared during the night”.

Now fast forward 102 years to 1932. A woman named Sesselja from Reykjavík begins to experience involuntary writing involving messages from Agnes, instructing her to find the bodies and the heads, dig them out and provide her and Friðrik a proper burial in hallowed ground. The locations of the caskets containing the bodies and the location of the heads were provided, as was a description of a piece of wood from the stake lodged in Agnes’ skull. According to the messages the heads were not in the graveyard at all as everyone believed. The writing stated that the farmhand had not wanted to carry the heads the full distance to the cemetery and that he had instead buried them near the stakes. For two years the woman was besieged with this weird note taking before finally overcoming her reluctance to make a fool of herself and going to the police. The church became involved and a team was sent north to search for the caskets and the heads which incredibly enough were exactly where the written notes described. In addition, Agnes’ skull was pierced through the crown with a 10 cm long piece of wood as the messages had mentioned. But through this strange channel, Anges and Friðrik ended up receiving their proper burial.

One of the many sad facts of this story is the one regarding the fancy brooch found in the casket containing Agnes’ bones. This type of brooch was used at the time as a button in the traditional dressy female clothing, showing that Agnes dressed up for the occasion of her own execution. Makes me wonder what I or anyone else would do under the same circumstances. Not that today’s executed prisoners are allowed this last attempt at dignity.

Yrsa - Wednesday

P.S. We did not come close to winning Eurovision and it has now been agreed that this is because we sang in English. This is not a mistake we will repeat. Another follow up on previous posts regards the municipal elections of Saturday: The Best Party is now officially the largest political party in Reykjavík and our new mayor will be comedian Jón Gnarr, guaranteeing interesting times ahead.

Today (Thursday 03 June) all Icelanders have been asked to spread via e-mail or other means the below video made by our Tourist Board. It is supposed to entice people to visit (by all means do) as the eruption has had a very negative impact on our tourism industry. Beign a loyal citizen I cannot resist the temptation to post it - it would be interesting to hear what you think of it as opinions here are mixed.

Inspired by Iceland Video from Inspired By Iceland on Vimeo.


  1. Yrsa - The video is very clever and catchy. It presents old and new and the music makes the old seem new. The country is beautiful and modern, a big deal to the demographic it seems aimed at. The music and the dancing will clearly appeal to the young and that is a good thing. It might even teach young Americans that there is more to Iceland than Bjork. (My daughter made me go to the movie in which her future proves to be limited. She was enthused; I was not). The video would appeal to my children.

    The death penalty issue is a hot topic in the US. I am opposed under all conditions, except that sometimes there are those killings that almost demand blood for blood. Two high school boys in New Hampshire killed a woman and critically injured her teenage daughter. Motive: they wanted to know what killing a person was like. Why these two victims: they were home. The other houses in the area were unoccupied when the boys were ready to try their experiment. Happily, for the boys, they have continued their education in jail and are on track to graduate from high school at the same time as their class. There is some debate as to whether their pictures should be included in the year book.

    New Hampshire is a death penalty state. It has not been imposed since 1939. There is one person on "death row", sentenced to death because of the commission of "capitol murder". In his case, he killed a police officer who was on duty at the time of his death. Other murders that are considered capitol are murders committed during/before/after a kidnapping, a contract killing, or a murder during a sexual assault.

    These two kids haven't been tried yet. They are young and there hasn't been any clear information on whether sexual assault was part of the crime. On the other hand, it doesn't seem likely that they are candidates for successful rehabilitation.

    Capitol punishment is legal in the United States but the individual states are not required to apply it. In Massachusetts, there have been a couple of attempts to re-instate capitol punishment but it has been defeated by voter. New Hampshire does have the death penalty but it doesn't have a death chamber. If they tried to move their lone death row inmate to a state with a death chamber, it would likely be labeled cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the Constitution, so he is likely to sit on death row for the rest of his life.


  2. Hi Beth - I'm happy to hear you thought the vidoe was ok. It remains to be seen if it will save the day regarding tourism here but it can't hurt.

    I am also relieved to read you explanation regarding the death penalties, they certainly seem a lot less common than one would have assumed and it is promising that the execution option is some States not used altough it is available to the courts. Hindsight via history books shows that we humans are on our way, a bit slowly but moving forward nonetheless.

    best wishes yrsa

  3. Yrsa

    I loved the video. I'm trying to imagine a Tourist Board here in the states coming up with something like that. I hope it brings Iceland many, many tourists.


  4. "The Icelandic people were not fond of executions and preferred them conducted out of sight."

    Hmm, but do Icelanders enjoy being made fun of?

    With respect to today's condemned being denied the dignity of their own clothing and ornaments, one of my periodic "crime song" posts concerns a folk song about a prisoner so determined to die with dignity that he'll break his celebrated fiddle rather than let anyone else play it.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  5. Hi Jacquie - glad you liked it. Here we worry that we appear too happy in it - like we are desperately trying to seem OK with everything. Personally I think it doesn't come across that way and that it showcases some of the best things to do here in a fun way.

    Hi Peter - no worries about the making fun of bit. This is part of our humour here, i.e. to make fun of ourselves. It sure beats others poking in a jab. But really, this is the norm and I am not a lone crusader in this respect or had I even thought that I might come across to the readers of the blog as unsympathetic to my countrymen or above it all (or something to that effect). I guess this style of social commentary is common here in part because it is helpful in pointing out errors in our environment in a smiling way as it is very difficult to be a harsh critic in a country where almost everyone knows or is connected to each other.

    Finally, I loved the song but unfortunately I had a hard time understanding the lyrics. Is the singer Irish and is it about someone about to be executed?


  6. Yrsa, anyone not from Scotland will have trouble penetrating Hamish Imlach's accent. Funny you should ask if the singer was Irish. An Irish reader of my blog had as much trouble with the accent as you did.

    Here's a brief article about Jamie MacPherson, the man who inspired the song and may have composed its earliest version. It includes lyrics, though with more verses than the one you heard and with verses in different order.

    The singer is to be executed at 4 o'clock, and he is relating the story of his betrayal and singing his farewell to the world. His reprieve is on the way, but the town officials are so eager to be rid of him that they set the clock fifteen minutes head so they can execute him before it arrives.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"