Archive for January, 2017

1876: Marshall Crain, Bloody Williamson killer

Add comment January 21st, 2017 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”

Marshall Crain, convicted of murder, hanging, Illinois.
Executed January 21, 1876

Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.

The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”

(Williamson County, Illinois has an impressively vast catalogue of highlight-reel violence to its history; there’s more about the Great Vendetta and other skeletons in Williamson’s closet in Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1905: John Johnson

Add comment January 20th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1905, John Johnson was hanged for the murder of Patrolman Dennis Fitzgerald of the Chicago Police Department.

On September 26, 1903, Johnson and another man, Louis Tedford, were being drunk and disorderly near the corner of 44th Street and Indiana Avenue. Fitzgerald told them to move along. In response, the two men beat him to a pulp and shot him with his own gun.

Fitzgerald was a strong man and he lingered for four months before he died on January 20, 1904. Authorities determined his death was a direct result of his wounds. He was buried in Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery.

As for the two offenders, both were convicted of murder, but Tedford got off relatively easily with a fourteen-year sentence. The jury determined Johnson was the one most responsible for the officer’s death, and so he paid for it with his life, a year to the day after Fitzgerald died. “Please hurry things along,” were his last words.

It was a busy day with the rope around North America.


Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, Jan 21, 1905


Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Jan. 21, 1905

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Illinois,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1735: Alice Riley, Savannah ghost

Add comment January 19th, 2017 Headsman

Savannah’s Wright Square got its haunt (and concomitant reputation as “the hanging square”) on this date in 1735 when domestic servant Alice Riley was executed for murdering her vicious master William Wise.

Illustration from the vignette in Historic Haunts of Savannah

The Irish import with a truly misfortunate indenture to a tyrannical farmer with a predilection for using his fists, Riley and a fellow-servant named Richard White snapped at the abuse one day the previous March and stuffed Wise’s head in a bucket of water until he drowned.

As best this writer can discern, much of what else is said on various Riley biographies appears to be embroidery and conjecture; the circumstances invite the most lurid of inferences but we don’t really know much about the relationships among the two killers and their victim.

Whatever the case, other Savannah grandees thought little enough of Wise — but they also all had help of their own who ought not get any funny ideas from the example. The couple was tracked down and prosecuted, although Alice extended her lease on life by pleading her belly. A few weeks after delivering a little boy whom she named James, Alice Riley was hauled to Wright Square (then known as Percival Square) and publicly hanged as she protested her innocence and begged to see her child. The gibbet brandished her remains at passing servants there for three full days.

Although they finally took down the corpse, her spirit has never been at peace. Riley’s specter allegedly still appears around Wright Square as a frantic woman who accosts passersby about her lost child.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Georgia,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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1573: Gilles Garnier, loup-garou

Add comment January 18th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1573, Gilles Garnier was burned at the stake as a lycanthrope.


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Werewolf, or the Cannibal by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509)

The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.

As kitsch as it becomes for us in modernity, it is not difficult to discern in the werewolf legend the shadow of a truly terrifying era when predatory wolves and predatory men alike prowled the dangerous byways in Europe, especially France.

And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.

Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.

Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?

Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.

Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.

His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)

His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.

Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?

Or might we allow with Montague Summers the genuine historicity of the monster?

As Nabuchodonosor was so punished by God, so Heaven may also well have permitted Gilles Garnier and the sorcerers of Savoy owing to their vile appetites and their lust for human flesh to have become wolves, losing human form.

From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)

If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.

* An occasional Executed Today guest blogger, through the magic of public domain.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Murder,Public Executions,Serial Killers,The Supernatural,Torture

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1959: Jose Cipriano Rodriguez

Add comment January 17th, 2017 Headsman

UPI photographer Andrew Lopez won the Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of Jose Cipriano Rodriguez, a corporal of the deposed Batista dictatorship, going to his firing squad execution in the bloody first weeks of Cuba’s revolutionary conquest. Rodriguez had been found guilty of two murders by a snap tribunal that same day.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers

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2014: Dennis McGuire, Ohio botch

Add comment January 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 2014, Ohio very clumsily executed Dennis McGuire for raping and stabbing to death an eight-months pregnant woman in 1989.

For no reason better than chance, McGuire‘s was the execution scheduled to arrive when Ohio bowed to the growing scarcity of lethal injection drugs by innovating a new kill-cocktail comprising midazolam, a sedative, and hydromorphone, a painkiller.

McGuire’s attorneys fought this procedure on the plausible (quite plausible, as we will see) grounds that using an execution as a vehicle for nonconsensual human medical experimentation was liable to end badly.

It did. A Dayton Daily News staff reporter who attended the execution gave the disturbint account

Prison officials say the drugs — a combination never before used in an execution — were delivered at 10:28 a.m.

His daughter cried uncontrollably.

McGuire waved with his wrist, his body strapped down to the table. Then he suddenly yelled out “I love you. I love you,” before his head lay back, his eyes rolled back in his head and he appeared to fall asleep at 10:29 a.m.

Minutes went by without McGuire moving, his family cried as the priest patted them on the back and attempted to console them.

“Oh my god,” his daughter [Amber McGuire] said.

“Don’t watch,” [wife] Missie McGuire said.

At 10:35 a.m. I first noticed McGuire convulse, then gasp. He snorted for air — a sound like a violent snore, a guttural inhale — and then sat still. Then gasped again. Sometimes his mouth just opened soundlessly. At 10:39 a.m. he snorted so loud his daughter covered her ears.

His family cried. “How could this go on for so long?” one of them asked. There was some discussion with the priest that accompanied them saying they thought it would only take five minutes.

(Here’s another (more heavily editorializing) eyewitness account of the event, by McGuire’s priest.)

Predictably, more lawsuits followed, cases that are still working their way through the courts. Just two weeks ago as of this writing, a federal suit filed on behalf of Ohio’s other death row inmates brought a member of Dennis McGuire’s execution team to the stand. Behind an anonymizing cardboard screen, “Team Member No. 10” characterized the McGuire execution as unlike any of the others he had worked, and said that he “was wondering what was going on” as the prisoner heaved and choked his way to death.

As a result, McGuire’s execution remains as of this writing the most recent execution conducted in one of the largest Republican-dominated states in the U.S. — even though Ohio was setting up in the 2000s as the Texas of the North.

The blockage is sure to be a temporary one. Ohio has announced plans to resume executions in 2017 with its new drug cocktail, plus a backup set of other drugs to reverse the first drugs if things go wrong.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lethal Injection,Murder,Ohio,Rape,Ripped from the Headlines,USA

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1648: Francis Ferdinand de Capillas, protomartyr of China

3 comments January 15th, 2017 Headsman

January 15 is the feast date, and the 1648 execution date, of the Catholic protomartyr of China — St. Francis Ferdinand de Capillas.

The pride of a tiny Castilian hamlet, de Capillas was a Dominican who got his start saving souls proselytizing in the Philippines, where Spain did a robust trade.

In 1642, he joined other Dominican friars on a mission out of Fu’an in the south of China. Spain and Portugal had made steady inroads* for Christianity in the peninsular locale of Macau over the preceding decades but de Capillas’s was a mission to make converts in the mainland. There, things could, and did, get trickier.

Their mission coincided with the collapse of the guardedly friendly Ming dynasty. Seen from the long-run perspective — you know, the one in which we’re all dead — this dynastic transition would widen the field for missionary work under new regimes that would be largely amenable to Christian preaching until the 18th century. But in the short term, it was de Capillas who was dead, because the remnants of the defeated Ming and their dead-end emperor fell back into their area as the rump Southern Ming dynasty — and the province became a war zone.

Christians were not alone among the populations caught perilously between the rival sovereigns, where wrong-footing one’s allegiance was liable to be worth your life. In the mid-1640s, Christians and Ming got on favorable terms: not so much an alliance as an affiliation.

These contacts cultivated between Christians and court came a-cropper in the war. After the Qing conquered Fu’an, a counterattack by the Southern Ming besieged the city in late 1647. The Qing were going to win the larger struggle, but at that moment, they were going to lose Fuan — and by Eugenio Menegon’s telling in Ancestors, Virgins, and Friars: Christianity as a Local Religion in Late Imperial China,

military leader of the Qing camp captured a loyalist soldier, he extorted the names of the Fuan citizens who were collaborating with [the Ming commander] Liu. Among the best known were [Chinese convert Christians] Miao Shixiang, Guo Bangyong, and Chen Wanzhong. Other Christians also sided with Liu. This leak provoked retaliation against relatives and friends of the loyalists still inside the besieged town. Among the victims was the Dominican Capillas. He was taken from prison, accused of being one of the leaders of the Christians and connected to the [Ming] loyalists, and executed in mid-January 1648.

This association did not go well for any of those involved; Liu did not survive the year, forced to commit suicide under a later Qing invasion, circumstances that also saw Miao Shixiang and Guo Bangyong themselves put to summary death.

* Kaijian Tang estimates 40,000 Christians in Macau by 1644. (Setting Off from Macau: Essays on Jesuit History During the Ming and Qing Dynasties)

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Milestones,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1884: Not Crow Dog, saved by an ex parte

Add comment January 14th, 2017 Headsman

January 14 was supposed to be the hanging day in 1884 for the Sioux Crow Dog — but instead of being executed he was busy making caselaw.

A sub-chief of the Brule Lakota, Crow Dog on August 5, 1881, met — intentionally? — the tribal chief Spotted Tail on a road in the Rosebud Reservation and shot him dead with a rifle.

The killing was adjudicated the very next day within the Brule community, at a council where the killer and the survivors of his victim agreed together on the appropriate compensation, and paid up.* But the U.S. Indian agent on the scene also arrested Crow Dog a few days later, and had him tried for murder in a non-Indian court in the the frontier town of Deadwood.

Sidney Harring, who would expand this review to book length with Crow Dog’s Murder: American Indian Sovereignty, Tribal Law, and United States Law in the Nineteenth Century, argued in a 1988/1989 paper** that the needless white court’s trial was staged from the outset as a test case by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, angling for new legal tools to break the doctrine of tribal sovereignty which dated back to Worcester v. Georgia (1832). Although that anti-sovereignty cause would suffer a tactical setback in this case, it would very soon carry the day.

Condemned to death early in 1882, Crow Dog had various appeals, respites, and delaying actions that stretched the case out for nearly two years until the U.S. Supreme Court at last stepped in ahead of a scheduled January 14, 1884 execution to adjudicate the question of whether a murder within a tribe, on that tribe’s own reservation, was within the proper jurisdiction of non-Indian courts like the one that tried Crow Dog. Its Ex parte Crow Dog resoundingly answered in the negative, a milestone in the legal framework around Indian sovereignty in the U.S. To execute Crow Dog under the white court’s verdict, the justices ruled, would require Anglo law to be

extended over aliens and strangers; over the members of a community, separated by race, by tradition, by the instincts of a free though savage life, from the authority and power which seeks to impose upon them the restraints of an external and unknown code, and to subject them to the responsibilities of civil conduct, according to rules and penalties of which they could have no previous warning; which judges them by a standard made by others, and not for them, which takes no account of the conditions which should except them from its exactions, and makes no allowance for their inability to understand it. It tries them not by their peers, nor by the customs of their people, nor the law of their land, but by superiors of a different race, according to the law of a social state of which they have an imperfect conception and which is opposed to the traditions of their history, to the habits of their lives, to the strongest prejudices of their savage nature; one which measures the red man’s revenge by the maxims of the white man’s morality.

The legal doctrine at work here holds that although conquered, native tribes still possess internal sovereignty. And with Ex parte Crow Dog it became clear and settled American jurisprudence that one attribute of that remaining sovereignty was plenary — that is, absolute — power over purely internal affairs.

At least, for a year.

White America was discomfited by the abrogation of its morality-maxims over the revengeful red man, and the situation invited moral panic around any malfeasance in Indian country. The Washington D.C. Evening Star would complain months later (June 5, 1884) that Ex parte Crow Dog “has had the effect of creating the idea among the Indians that there is no law to punish an Indian for a crime committed on a reservation.” And the Supreme Court itself had slyly noted that it was obliged to make such rulings absent “a clear expression of the intention of Congress” to take a bite out of Indian sovereignty — an intent “that we have not been able to find.”

So in 1885, the U.S. Congress decided to express that intent and voted the Major Crimes Act placing Indians under federal, not tribal, jurisdiction for seven major types of crimes — including, of course, murder. “We all feel that an Indian, when he commits a crime, should be recognized as a criminal,” Michigan Congressman Byron Cutcheon urged on the legislation’s behalf. “It is an infamy upon our civilization, a disgrace to this nation, that there should be anywhere within its boundaries a body of people who can, with absolute impunity, commit the crime of murder, there being no tribunal before which they can be brought for punishment.”

This briefest interim between Ex parte Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act was in a sense the high water mark for tribal sovereignty. Following the Major Crimes bill, white politicians began almost systematically reaching onto the reservations to legislate, picking away at tribal sovereignty until another much more infamous case, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock, disastrously declared that plenary power now resided in Congress.

Crow Dog went on to become a major figure in the ghost dance movement. Present-day American Indian Movement activist Leonard Crow Dog is a descendant; he’s written a book connecting back to his famous ancestor called Crow Dog: Four Generations of Sioux Medicine Men. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s Sinte Gleska University is named for Spotted Tail.

* The price was $600, eight horses, and a blanket.

** Sidney Harring in “Crow Dog’s Case: A Chapter in the Legal History of Tribal Sovereignty,” American Indian Law Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (1988/1989) — also the source of the preceding footnote.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,South Dakota,U.S. Federal,USA

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1973: Lt. Col. Mohamed Amekrane, no asylum

Add comment January 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1973, Morocco shot 11 officers for a regicidal mutiny.

Amekrane (left) with the coup’s leading spirit, Mohamed Oufkir

Their deaths were the consequence of the near-miss bid to bring down Morocco’s King Hassan II by bringing down his airplane, a plot to which Lt. Col. Mohamed Amekrane, the commander of the air base that launched fighters against the king’s convoy, was utterly pivotal. It’s no surprise that he’d be in the way of the royal revenge domestically after this incident; more surprising and controversial was the role the British would play in dooming the man.

As he discovered that the king’s passenger plane had somehow escaped the predations of his F-5s, Amekrane (it’s also sometimes spelled Amokrane) alertly requisitioned a helicopter and fled with another officer to British soil at nearby Gibraltar, where they requested asylum on Aug. 16.

This put Westminster in an awkward situation: repatriate the men to sure execution, or give refuge to the would-be assassins of a friendly head of state.* Still more was it a procedural twilight, where the power of bureaucratic discretion prevailed by declaring the form of the law in ambiguous circumstances.

After a flurry of consultations “at ministerial level” that also weighed “the possibility of repercussions with other governments,” (London Times, Aug. 18, 1972) the Heath government classified the fugitives as refugee illegal aliens and repatriated them within days, lamely explaining that Gibraltar, a small place, didn’t have much room for asylum claimants. And once they were fitted with the “illegal alien” hat it was simple: “they were returned to Morocco because that was the place from which they came.” (the Times, Aug. 19) Application, rejection, and deportation all took place within a mere 15 hours, purposefully too fast for anyone to get wind of what was happening or to mobilize resources in support of the Moroccans.

London’s legal chicanery drew a discomfited response from some other elites as well as members of the public or at least those with a propensity towards letters to the editor in the early 1970s. Parliamentarian Ivor Richard fumed that “there was surely no necessity in international law or in humanity deliberately to have sent them back to what appears to be their deaths.”

The Times would editorialize in that same Aug. 19, 1972 edition against the “haste and informality in the procedure which contradict Britain’s long tradition of care in such cases” — noting the irony that

the absence of an extradition treaty [might have been thought] would make it more difficult for the Moroccan authorities to reach out to fugitive offenders on British soil. In fact it has made it easier for them … because of British ministers’ willingness to use the power to deport aliens whose presence is judged undesirable in such a way as to achieve the result of extradition. And the exercise of that power is not subject to the same safeguards.

Amekrane had no safeguards at all once he was back in Moroccan hands. That November, he was condemned to die along with his companion on the Gibraltar caper Lt. Lyazid Midoaui, plus nine other members of the Moroccan Air Force complicit in the coup attempt; the whole batch was executed together on this date at a prison in Kenitra.

But in Britain his case outlived the fusillade. For the overhasty asylum refusal, Amekrane’s widow filed suit against the UK in a European Commission of Human Rights court, eventually winning a £37,500 settlement.

* The relations between the states in question went beyond mere chumminess: Franco’s Spain was maintaining a blockade against Gibraltar, in consequence of which the imperial outpost was heavily supplied by and from Morocco. The men’s lives were sold, so critics carped, for “lettuces.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibraltar,History,Mass Executions,Morocco,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1830: Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson, Iceland’s last executions

Add comment January 12th, 2017 Headsman

Iceland last used the death penalty on January 12, 1830 with the beheading of farm servants Agnes Magnusdottir and Fridrik Sigurdsson.

Only threadbare details survive to posterity about their crime: one night in 1828, Agnes roused a neighboring farm to give the alarm that Natan Ketilsson’s farmhouse, where she worked, was afire. Neighbors were able to quench the blaze quickly enough to realize that Ketilsson himself had not died because he was trapped in the flame — but because he had been stabbed to death, along with another man known as a criminal, Petur Jonsson.

Agnes, 33, and teenager Fridrik were arrested for murder and eventually beheaded on a desolate hill on the frozen northern coast where a mossed-over stone still silently marks the spot.*


(cc) photo taken by Jennifer Boyer on the walking path to be found at the site of crime.

Why were these men killed? The trial record attributes it to Fridrik’s “hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal,” which are answers that ask their own questions. If the stones remember, they aren’t telling and in the scantiness of documentation the job has fallen to literature instead, for there is something to be said for an mysterious double murder in the ashes of a half-burned farm and the novelty of a woman being the very last human to have her head chopped off in Iceland. (On execution day, Fridrik went first.)

Agnes was Natan’s lover, but the farmer had a reputation for womanizing and, so all suspect, eyes for Fridrik’s young girlfriend;** the inference of a jealous domestic psychodrama cast on the fringe of the Arctic Sea, of chilly twilit tables gathering furtive eyes above with wandering hands below, seems hard to resist. One of Natan’s other paramours was the poet Skald-Rosa, who addressed an anguished quatrain to Agnes in the weeks after the murder, helping to fix the latter’s place in national lore as the wicked moving spirit behind the whole disaster.

Don’t be surprised by the sorrow in my eyes
Nor at the bitter pangs of pain that I feel:
For you have stolen with your scheming he who gave my life meaning,
And thrown your life to the Devil to deal.

And then there was the strange coda, while verdicts were sent to Denmark for confirmation,† of the condemned simply living and working among the community waiting to execute them. Nineteenth century rural Iceland was a little short on jail cells and surplus provisions.

After studying on an exchange program in Iceland, Australian Hannah Kent found this speculative environment a rich source for her well-received first novel, Burial Rites. (There’s a lengthy and interesting podcast interview with her by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation here.)

Kent’s drama has made headway in Hollywood, with Jennifer Lawrence said to be keen on playing the tragic lead; if it someday does hit the silver screen, however, it won’t even be the first on its subject matter — witness the 1995 film Agnes.


As of this writing, the full movie can also be searched on YouTube…

The criminals Fridrik Sigurdsson and Agnes Magnusdottir were today moved out of custody to the place of execution, and following them to the execution site were the priests Reverend Tomasson and Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, an assistant priest. The criminals had wished that the latter two help them prepare for their deaths. After the priest Johann Tomasson completed a speech of admonition to the convict Fridrik Sigurdsson, Fridrik’s head was taken off with one blow of the axe. The farmer Gudmundur Ketilsson,‡ who had been ordered to be executioner, committed the work that he had been asked to do with dexterity and fearlessness. The criminal Agnes Magnusdottir, who, while this was taking place, had been kept at a remote station where she could not see the site of execution, was then fetched. After the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson had appropriately prepared her for death, the same executioner cut off her head, and with the same craftsmanship as before. 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. While the deed took place, and there until it was finished, everything was appropriately quiet and well-ordered, and it was concluded by a short address by Reverend Magnus Arnason to those that were there.

Actum ut supra.

B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason
(From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830 — as quoted in the epilogue of Kent’s Burial Rites)

* The milestone murderers, or at least their heads, rest in Tjörn.

** This young woman, Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, was condemned to death with the other two but got to keep her head in the end.

† Iceland did not become independent of Denmark until 1944.

‡ The victim’s brother was the executioner.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Iceland,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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