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.
Despite (or because of) its strict sharia mores, Saudi Arabia has developed a national appetite for mind-altering substances. It’s an epidemic that the kingdom’s busy headsmen have been detailed to address on the supply side, although of course the treatment for foreign gofers like Sayed differs markedly from that of the many drug-addled royals who enjoy the product.
“Most of our shit originates in Afghanistan,” a Saudi drug dealer told Vice in 2013. “It’s a long chain of selling that starts with nomads in Afghani fields. They grow it, then it gets hidden between crates away from the mutawa [the religious police -ed.] and goes from seller to seller like a spider web.”
For hashish as well as heroin sourced to Afghanistan, Pakistani couriers play an essential role in that web — even if they are eminently disposable individually. They have had a growing prominence in Saudi Arabia’s frequent execution bulletins: Sayed was the 12th Pakistani drug mule executed in Saudi Arabia in a two-month span at the end of 2014; there have been (and continue to be) many more since.
However, for the matter at hand the relevant fact about Christina was her lineage: she was the daughter of the great Lutheran king Gustavus Adolphus, whose father had expelled the Catholic king, Sigismund Vasa. The Vasas still ruled Poland and gazed rivalrously across the Baltic dreaming of a return of their Nordic estates — and became a natural focal point for schemers in Sweden.
One such schemer was a brilliant and cantankerous historian, Johannes Messenius, who was father and grandfather of the men whose eventual execution occasions this post. After serving Sigismund Vasa’s Polish court some years, this most senior Messenius returned in 1608 to Sweden for career reasons, pretending an expedient Lutheran conversion into the bargain. But the quarrelsome intellectual “could hardly breathe except in an atmosphere of strife” (per this public domain volume) and after making himself unwelcome at a university continued picking fights at the Stockholm archives until
he was accused of carrying on a traitorous correspondence with the Polish Vasas, in which he urged them to attack Sweden. It does not appear that the proofs of this treason are now in existence, but its probability has been shown by a letter from Messenius, in which he owned his undiminished attachment to the Roman Church, and said that he only conformed to the Lutheran rites outwardly and by compulsion.
Gustavus Adolphus had him clapped the dungeons of an Arctic fortress which is where his son Arnold Johan Messenius (English Wikipedia entry | Swedish) grew up — understandably absorbing the grudges of his frostbitten hereditary imprisonment, until he was ripped away to a Lutheran education against which he sturdily rebelled by killing a classmate and fleeing into exile. By the time he was all of 17 he had been re-taken and locked away as a Polish agent in his own right. He’d be 33 before he regained liberty.
The liberal Christina and Count Per Brahe the Younger attempted in the 1640s to atone for Arnold Johan’s mistreatment by detailing him for a (successful) mission to Poland to retrieve his father’s magnum opus, a history of Sweden all the way back to Noah’s flood that the late father had written in prison and taken pleasure in denying to his jailers.
But Arnold Johan’s subsequent reintroduction into polite society as a nobleman with a state pension to continue the father’s histories just didn’t come with a happy ending. The boy had his father’s knack for playing both sides of the Baltic, but less so his craft with a quill: Arnold’s Swedish commission to write some histories of his own foundered on the prospective scribe’s authorial torpor. Meanwhile,
Messenius was neither softened by adversity nor improved by prosperity. He was harsh to his inferiors, insolent to his equals, and ungrateful to his benefactress. The peasants on his estate complained of his injustice and cruelty, and he was on bad terms with all his neighbours. He resisted some just claims of his own sister’s, and … a judgment given against him, Christina obliged him to make restitution to his sister. From that time he became an agitator against the government.
Now “the elder Messenius invented the most absurd and contradictory accusations against the Queen and her Ministers, which were exaggerated by the heated imagination of his son,” Arnold Messenius, our source avers, and the boy bursting with the family bile proceed to circulate “a virulent squib against the queen and the nobility, and, in the frankest language invited the heir to the throne to place himself at the head of a rebellion.” This is the so-called “Messenian conspiracy,” after the surname of father and son who both soon found themselves under Christina’s personal interrogation for this incitement, the father first denying any part in the affair and subsequently claiming the letter as his own inspiration in an apparent effort to shield the boy.
Humane Christina was rigorous with this third-generation treason, and had both beheaded without delay — although she also confined the punishment to these two rather than others they accused of collaborating on a general rising.
For her part, Christina by this time had grown weary of rule and interested in Roman Catholicism to which she perceived she could not convert without splinterizing her kingdom. She had already set in motion her own abdication, which she effected in 1654. Christina would play out the string in Rome, as the guest of the papacy and the friend of intellectuals, artists and eccentrics — while that heir the Messenians had sought to incite peacably ascended to her place as Charles X Gustav.
Mughal prince Murad Bakhsh, the youngest son of Taj Mahal builder Shah Jahan, was executed on December 14, 1661.*
There’s blood in the stones … (cc) image from Vil Sandi.
Despite writing into stone a love to transcend time, Shah Jahan had the monarchy’s eternal managerial challenge: succession.
This ought not have surprised him. Jahan himself had been a third son, who took his own power by rebellion and clinched it by fratricide. And through the empress to whom Jahan would dedicate the Taj, Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan had four sons who all thought they like their illustrious dad deserved the helm of the wealthy Mughal state.
In descending order of age, those rivalrous brthers were: Dara Shikoh,** Shuja, Aurangzeb, and our man Muhammad Murad Bakhsh. As we open the scene, each governs a portion of the father’s empire; by the end of this post, Aurangzeb will be emperor — his reign to span nearly a half-century — and his brothers will be all be dead.
The oldest boys had the first go, with Dara Shikoh’s power as the officially designated regent of the incapacitated Jahan challenged quickly by Shuja, who was governor of Bengal. Shuja decared himself emperor and marched on Dara Shikoh, who turned little brother aside.
The two were soon forced to come to terms with one another as the younger brothers, Aurangzeb and Murad, had combined their own forces — and the youth had their say in May 1658, smashing Dara Shikoh at the Battle of Samugarh. Murad is credited in this watershed battle with a decisive charge, personally slaying the enemy second-in-command using a composite bow. This fight made Aurangzeb emperor; Dara fled for Afghanistan but was caught and killed a few months later. (Shah Jahan, still living, was confined comfortably but sorrowfully by Aurangzeb.) In January of 1659, Aurangzeb put down Shuja’s challenge at the Batte of Khajwa.
Having wagered the Peacock Throne in battle twice for the honor of supplanting his elders, Aurangzeb had a more expedient solution to sweep away his last potential rival.
On arriving at Muttra (Mathura) Aurangzeb threw off the veil that he had worn with Murad. That brave but savage Prince was arrested while suffering from the effects of a carouse, and sent in all secrecy, a prisoner, to Dehli, where he was confined in the Salimgarh, a fort near the palace.
Murad would be put to death a couple of years later via the instrument of a murder charge supplied by the family of a courtier whom Murad had previously killed.
* The equivalent date on the Julian calendar, December 4, is also sometimes reported.
** The name means “as magnificent as Darius,” which is the sort of conceit destined to set a body up for disappointment.
On this date in 1683 the English politician and philosopher Algernon Sidney (or Sydney) was beheaded to uphold (so he conceived it) “the common rights of mankind, the laws of this land, and the true Protestant religion, against corrupt principles, arbitrary power, and Popery.”
He was one of the 17th century’s great philosophers of republicanism, and his Discourses Concerning Government was more influential in his lifetime than the work of his contemporary (and fellow-Whig*) John Locke.
Although the pen might be mightier than the sword, Sydney himself did not eschew the more literal form of combat and entered a triumphant battlefield for the Roundheads at Marston Moor. But despite penning a strong defense of assassinating despots,** Sidney’s disapproval of the proceedings against King Charles I — a trial at which Sidney, now a parliamentarian, sat as a commissioner — kept him free of the whiff of regicide.
The Republic that prevailed after King Charles’s scaffold, and in which he continued as an MP, was the closest thing Sidney would experience to the political order his writings expounded. When Parliament was forcibly disbanded in 1653 to give over to Cromwell’s rule, Sidney (like his friend and mentor Henry Vane) would not quit the legislature until General Harrison physically seized him. He sorely provoked the interregnum state thereafter by staging a pointed performance of that tyrannicidal play, Julius Caesar … starring himself as Brutus.
Away on the continent when the monarchy was restored in 1660, Sidney would not lay eyes on native soil again until 1677, when he secured a royal mulligan that also spared him the fruits of various plots he had cogitated while in exile to re-depose the Stuarts with the aid of France or the Netherlands. But he returned as one of the leading men of a Whig faction that increasingly courted the ire of the crown and from whose machinations the arch-republican was in no way dissuaded.
Sidney’s prosecution as a party to the Rye House Plot to murder King Charles II helped to earn the new Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys his reputation as a notorious hanging judge: promoted to the post weeks earlier as a reward for his prosecution of Sidney’s alleged conspirator Lord Russell, Jeffreys stacked the trial against the defendant leading Sidney to issue from the scaffold a lengthy disquisition on the iniquities of the court. (Notably, Jeffreys circumvented a standard requiring two witnesses to prove treason by ruling that Jeffreys’ own writings made their author a “second witness”.)
* Locke had no appetite for the noble martyrdom act pulled by the likes of Sidney and Lord Russell. He fled to the Netherlands during the Rye House Plot crackdown, only returning to England with the Glorious Revolution.
Honour and riches are justly heaped upon the heads of those who rightly perform their duty [of tyrannicide], because the difficulty as well as the excellency of the work is great. It requires courage, experience, industry, fidelity, and wisdom. “The good shepherd,” says our Saviour, “lays down his life for his sheep.” The hireling, who flies in time of danger, is represented under an ill character; but he that sets himself to destroy his flock, is a wolf. His authority is incompatible with their subsistence. And whoever disapproves tumults, seditions, or war, by which he may be removed from it, if gentler means are ineffectual, subverts the foundation of all law, exalts the fury of one man to the destruction of a nation, and giving an irresistible power to the most abominable iniquity, exposes all that are good to be destroyed, and virtue to be utterly extinguished.
Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.
-Sir Walter Scott
On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.
Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.
On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.
Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.
This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.
Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.
After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡
* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” saidThrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.
** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.
† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.
‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.
The milestone subject’s name was Johan Alfred Ander, a failed hotelier and petty thief who, on January 5 of 1910, robbed a currency exchange outfit and in the process beat the clerk to death with a steelyard balance. As Ander had been casing his target from a nearby hotel whose own staff had grown suspicious of him, it didn’t take long to connect criminal to crime. An ample supply of incriminating booty in Ander’s possession (e.g., the beaten clerk’s wallet) confirmed the link.
Executions were already disappearing in Sweden at this point; by 1910, it had been a decade since the most recent one, ferry spree killer John Filip Nordlund. On the other hand, Sweden clearly anticipated repeat performances in the future because in the meantime it had ordered a guillotine. (Nordlund’s beheading was done by hand, by Albert Gustaf Dahlman, who also executed our man Ander.)
Ander never copped to the murder and refused to appeal for royal clemency.* Whether it was the savagery of the crime or the pride of its author, he was found a worthy candidate to interrupt the hiatus.
On this date in 1803, Flemish outlaw Ludovicus Baekelandt was guillotined at Bruges with about 20 of his gang.
Deserting the army of the conquering French, Baekelandt set up as a bandit preying the deep spruce forests of the Vrijbos, eventually attaining leadership of a gang more than 30 strong.
Baekelandt is one of those whom popular memory and national sentiment (resentful here of the French occupation) has elevated into huggable social banditry. But the evidence remaining us testifies to little but a garden-variety brigand whose offenses were in no way confined to property crimes.
The gang was rounded up in 1802 and the Bruges court heard testimony from more than 100 witnesses, eventually dooming 21 men and three women to death for a litany of murders and robberies.
Almost all the information about Baekelandt available online is in Dutch; if that tongue is in your toolkit, gentle reader, this public-domain book is sure to level you up on Ludovicus Baekelandt and friends.
The young Pietro was able enough to establish himself as an envoy to the imperial court, and ambitious enough to conceive it the platform from which he would redeem the fortunes of Lucca and Fatinelli alike.
Complicit with his friend Captain Giambattista Bazzicalupo di Chiavari, Fatinelli pltted to do away with some of the principal families whom Fatinelli detested, as they represented the merchant oligarchy that spurned his more ancient and noble family.
News of the plot came to the ears of the Lucchese government when Fatinelli unadvisedly mentioned his intentions to Count Agostino Lando, an opprtunistic nobleman from Piacenza, while the two were residing in Venice.
You can’t trust Lando.
Thinking to make some profit at no risk to himself, Lando secretly informed the Lucchese of Fatinelli’s intentions. The signoria acted with utmost secrecy and was able to seize the unsuspecting Bazzicalup di Chiavari while he was reconnoitring in Lucca. They put him to the torture and he cnfessed and revealed the details of the plot, after which he was summarily executed. [August 25, 1542 -ed.]
As Fatinelli resided at the imperial court and had powerful prtoectors, the Lucchesi had a difficult time extraditing him. It took all their powers of persuasion to prove to the emperor that Fatinelli was a traitr. Eventually convinced, Charles V handed Fatinelli over to the Lucchesi, who tried him and publicly executed him after he apologized to the citizens of Lucca. The emperor insisted that, as a last favour, the young man be given the name of his denouncer, as a reward for having repented and admitted his guilt.
Though Fatinelli was defeated, the disaffection with his native city-state proved far deeper-seated than his own person. Just four years after Fatinelli’s hot head fell on the scaffold, another Lucchese nobleman attempted an even more daring revolution.
Hugh Cahun had been in Scotland since probably 1565, in the service of a unit commanded by his older brother William. It was one of three Scottish cavalry commands in Sweden at this time; French and German troops too joined the polyglot coalition.*
In the summer of 1573, Cahun caught wind of recruitment among these foreign auxiliaries for a plot to depose the Swedish King John III in favor of his imprisoned predecessor Erik XIV. Cahun reported the plot, but he didn’t know enough about it to make it stick to someone else — so perversely, he himself became the one suspected of seditious design.
King John appears by his vacillation not to have been all that convinced of the turn justice had taken in this case, twice reprieving Cahun and ultimately sparing him the horrors of the breaking-wheel for a simple beheading — sort of the early modern equivalent of the calculating modern governor who, faced with compelling evidence of innocence, consents to send a condemned man to a dungeon for the rest of his life instead of letting the law take its course. (There’s an account of the back-and-forth run-up to Cahun’s execution in this public domain book, provided you’re packing your Swedish proficiency.)
He would have cause to regret his severity soon enough: in the months to come, it would emerge that the plot was actually being spearheaded by a French loyalist of Erik named Charles de Mornay, who would himself be executed the following September.