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.
If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.
According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)
[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.
Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875
It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.
And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …
The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)
One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.
Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)
In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)
This date in 1569, Orthodox Metropolitan Philip II of Moscow was martyred for his opposition to Ivan the Terrible.
He was elevated in 1566 as Russia’s top prelate* by that same Ivan, who soon regretted and then raged at his selection when Philip righteously withheld the church’s blessing from the tyrant in the midst of Ivan’s Oprichnina bloodbath.
That was in Lent of 1568. Before the year was out Ivan, who did not fear to bully churchmen, had forced Philip’s deposition and had him immured in a Tver monastery.
Safely out of the way there, the tsar’s fell henchman Malyuta Skuratov arrived two days before Christmas of 1569 pretending to bear a message. “My friend, do what you have come to do,” the monk replied. Skuratov strangled him to death.
Here comes trouble: Metropolitan Philip in prayer as his executioner arrives. (By Aleksandr Nikanorovich Novoskoltsev, 1880s.) For a more mannered and less violent interpretation of the same scene, try this number by Nikolai Nevrev
The Russian Orthodox Church observes this saint’s feast date on January 9. His relics are enshrined today at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral.
* Moscow did not become a patriarchate until 1589, so Philip did not bear that title.
From the Monroeville (Ala.) Monroe Journal reported on Christmas Day 1925:
For the second time within a period of forty years, Monroe County has had a legal execution for the commission of crime. Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, on Friday, December 19, expiated on the gallows under the sentence of the court the murder of Mr. William H. Northrup.
Morbid curiosity drew a large crowd to town on the fateful day, but few were admitted within the prison walls, while those outside could catch but an occasional word that fell from the lips of the accused men and realize only in imagination the gruesome task that fell to the lot of Sheriff Russell and his assistants.
Both negroes made statements on the gallows, the older man protesting his innocence of any complicity in the crime. The younger made full confession, asserting that he alone was responsible and that his punishment was just. The Journal spares its readers the frightful details of the execution. Let us hope that there may never again be occasion for a similar sentence of law.
This story arrives to us via Kerry Madden’s Harper Lee: Up Close, a biography of the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird … and it is noteworthy in that context because Frank Ezell and Brown Ezell, father and son, were defended in this case by 29-year-old lawyer A.C. Lee: Harper Lee‘s father.
The future author would not be born until 1926, but this traumatizing event still troubled her father years later: it was his first criminal case, and his last. As another biographer, Charles Shields, remarked, “[T]his was fairly typical of the time. This method of doing business in the courts was informally called ‘Negro Law,’ which means that you get a young, inexperienced white attorney to practice on some hapless black client. Some of those trials took as little as half an hour.”
The family memory of the father’s futile defense, combined with Harper Lee’s own firsthand experience of a troubling miscarriage of justice, were influences that she channeled into To Kill a Mockingbird, modeling the heroic defense attorney Atticus Finch on her own father.
“Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”
Jack Hall, chimney sweep turned robber turned folk song antihero, hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1707, along with five other men.
Two of those others, Richard Low and Stephen Bunch, were Hall’s accomplices and co-defendants for burgling the home of a Captain John Guyon on a dark November night. They took “a blue Cloth Wastcoat, a pair of Cloth Breeches, 3 Suits of Lac’d Head-cloaths, four Yards of yellow Ribbon, four Yards of green Ribbon, two Silver Spoons, and a Dram Cup.”
It was only the latest in a string of raids that must have earned them some kind of reputation, for at their execution the Ordinary of Newgate, Paul Lorrain, pressed Hall “Whether (as ’twas reported by some) he had made a Contract with the Prince of Darkness, for a set time to act his Villanies in; he answer’d, He never did, nor said any such thing.”
The devil paid dividends into the afterlife by giving surprisingly long legs to a tributary folk ballad* which survives into the present as “Sam Hall”. Some (not all) of this song’s many latter-day versions reference Jack/Sam’s first legitimate occupation, chimney-sweeping: as a boy, Hall had been sold into a indenture as a “climbing boy”.**
* This song’s passage from its source of tunes dating to the 16th century English church into a delta of variant versions in the 19th and 20th century is traced by Bertrand H. Bronson in “Samuel Hall’s Family Tree” (California Folklore Quarterly, Jan. 1942).
** The horrifying use of small children to shimmy, near-naked, up asphyxiating chimneys a-soot scrubbing persisted deep into the 19th century. William Blake paid heartbreaking poetic tribute to chimney-climbing boys, and in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, young Oliver is nearly given as an apprentice to a vicious chimney sweep named Mr. Gamfield — the avoidance of which “was the critical moment of Oliver’s fate.”
On this date in 1915, a mob visited Cordella Stevenson’s cabin, dragged her out, and lynched her.
The good citizens of Columbus, Mississippi, found her body the next day, hanging from a tree limb. The site of her lynching was only 50 yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and rail passengers who came in and out of the city that day saw her corpse thus displayed. She had been “maltreated” (that is, raped) and stripped naked before being strung up.
Several months before, Gabe Frank, a local white man, lost his barn to fire. Although there was no direct evidence to implicate him and he had not been seen in the area for months prior to the fire, Cordella and Arch Stevenson’s son came under suspicion of arson.
The parents were respectable people who had worked for the same white employer for over a decade, but the son had a “worthless” reputation. Frank tried tracking the young man with bloodhounds, but was unsuccessful. The local police arrested Cordella and kept her locked up for several days, hoping she might know something of her son’s whereabouts, but they eventually released her without charge.
The Stevensons thought or hoped that would be the end of the matter.
Arch and Cordella had already gone to bed that Wednesday night in December when, at about 10:00 p.m., they heard someone pounding on their door. Before they could get to the door to answer it, the vigilantes had broken it down. They seized Cordella, pointed their rifles at Arch, and threatened to shoot him if he moved. At some point he managed to flee, bullets whizzing miraculously past him in the dark, and he ran to town for help. Arch knew what was good for him; after reporting what happened to the authorities, he fled the area for parts unknown. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the night, the mob fell on his wife.
Sheriff Bell telephoned to Justice of the Peace McKellar to hold an inquest. He was out of town and did not return until Thursday night. As a result, the naked body was left hanging in view of the “morbid” crowd that came to see it until Friday morning when it was cut down and the inquest was held. That inquest jury returned a verdict that Cordella Stevenson came to her death at the hands of persons unknown.
The Chicago Defender, a (still-extant) black newspaper noted for its accurate reporting of Jim Crow era violence, bitterly editorialized, “This these southern culprits did. No law below the Mason and Dixon line that would cause them to fear. No officer in the police department that would dare to do his duty. No man in the government circles in Washington that has enough backbone to enforce the Constitution of the United States. This mob knew and they went on with their ghastly work.”
A century later, Cordella Stevenson’s ghastly death has still not been forgotten. In 2013, a poem for her, titled “What the Dark Said”, was published in the collection Ain’t No Grave, by Tennessee poet TJ Jarrett.
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.
On this date in 1659, an Irish adventurer named Don Guillen Lombardo went to the stake in Mexico City as a heretic — en route to a destiny as a romantic swordsman
William Lamport was born in Wexford, by blood the descendant of English aristocracy and by conviction kin to Ireland’s Gaelic resistance to English incursion. His grandfather Patrick fought for Irish rebels at the Battle of Kinsale.
This was years before Lamport’s own birth but the youth must have been a chip off the old block: by the 1620s, as a student, William got himself run out of London for his aggressive Catholic proselytizing. Or at least, this is what William would say of himself: for his early years, we have mostly just his own word to go by.
Lamport took exile in Spain and there found his niche as a soldier and ladies’ man under a Hispanicized name: “Guillen Lombardo de Guzman” — that last nombre taken in tribute to his patron, the Count of Olivares. Guillen Lombardo de Guzman was a considerable enough figure in the Spanish court to have his portrait painted by Rubens.
These were formative years for the young man, but the crucial formative events we can only guess at: how did his thought evolve to the seditious or heretical form that set him against the Inquisition? Why did he cross the Atlantic to New Spain with the Marques of Villena in his late twenties?
This undergraduate thesis (pdf) tries to unravel the mystery of the man. What we know is that he was denounced to the Inquisition in October 1642 after attempting to enlist a friend in a subversive plot. The records here come via the Inquisition and are colored accordingly, but they indicate that Don Guillen aspired to cleave off New Spain with himself as the king of a radically egalitarian new state that would abolish all race and caste divisions. Among the papers he prepared for this visionary future was the first known declaration of independence in the Indies.
He spent the next 17 years in dungeons — less a few days when he escaped prison on the morrow of Christmas in 1650 and quixotically proceeded to nail up revolutionary manifestos on the cathedral door and around town denouncing the Inquisition. He was quickly recaptured, having now assumed the character of a determined rebel against powers both spiritual and temporal and consigned to an auto de fe in Mexico City’s main square. He was supposed to burn alive, but is supposed to have effected a cleverly merciful self-strangulation on the iron collar that staked him to his pyre.
On this date in 1829, the Slovak outlaw Matej Tatarka was hanged.
Tatarka — and most information about this character is in Slovak, as the links in the post will attest — was a brigand whose gang haunted the rugged wilds of the Tatras mountains straddling present-day northern Slovakia and southern Poland.
That was in the 1820s, a period when economic and political development in Europe were driving outlaws off the lands and into the wistful literature of a Romantic age. To consider an analogue: it was Ainsworth‘s 1834 novel Rookwood that elevated into myth the criminal career of Dick Turpin — a bandit who had hanged back in 1739.
Tatarka might have been the impetus for Slovakia’s simultaneous-to-Ainsworth recovery of its own hundred years’ dead knight of the road, Juraj Janosik.
Tatarka flashed into the emerging Slovak national consciousness in early 1829, when he escaped prison. Recaptured months later, the Habsburg empire’s sentence and execution of such a quaint figure could not fail to attract the interest of Slovak romanticists like Belopotcky, who helped circulate the fellow among artists by including Tatarka in his almanacs of Slovakian events.
* Kral’s Vignettes of Janosik in turn influenced his contemporary Jan Botto, whose Song of Janosik is 19th century literature’s definitive elegy for the bygone social bandit — concluding (with thanks to Sonechka for the translation)
When they hang me, the rain will mourn me
The moon and stars will shine for me
The winds will murmur over me, and the Tatras will resound with,
“Flown are thy golden days!”
Once they’d fixed on Tatarka’s predecessor, these Slovak writers couldn’t get enough; here’s Botto’s Death of Janosik in a dramatic reading: