Posts filed under 'Denmark'

3rd Century BCE: Grauballe Man

Add comment April 26th, 2020 Headsman

We’ll never have the actual execution date, of course, but April 26 in 1952 was the date that researchers in Jutland hauled out of a peat bog the 3rd century BCE body of Grauballe Man, so spectacularly preserved that his fingerprints could still be taken. His throat slashed, Grauballe Man is thought to have been subjected to either an execution or a ritual sacrifice, and his body dumped into this oxygen-sparse slough so congenial to natural mummification.

The Grauballe Man
By Seamus Heaney

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.


Grauballe Man on display at Denmark’s Moesgaard Museum. (cc) image from Colin.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

These same bogs have yielded other eerily well-preserved time-travelers from antiquity, including Tollund Man (believed to have been hanged in the 4th century BCE) and Elling Woman (believed to have been hanged in the 3rd century BCE). Peat bogs ranging from Ireland and England to Germany and the Low Countries have overall yielded numerous other specimens, ranging up to 10,000 years old — quite a few of them victims of evident violence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Known But To God,Put to the Sword,Uncertain Dates

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1689: Gabriel Milan, Danish West Indies governor

Add comment March 26th, 2020 Headsman

Gabriel Milan, the governor of the Danish West Indies, was beheaded on Copenhagen’s Nytorv Square on this date in 1689.

Born to an emigre family of former Marranos that had resumed open Judaism, Milan (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was a cavalryman turned merchantman married to the daughter of one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish scholars.

Well-connected in the court of Prince George of Denmark, Milan in 1684 was tapped to govern the struggling nascent sugar colony of the Danish West Indies — the islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix that have comprised the U.S. Virgin Islands since Denmark sold the money pits off in 1917.

There he proved to be a pettifogging despot who was noxious to the island’s planters and conspicuous about exploiting his office to fatten his own coffers. His incompetent predecessor, who was only supposed to be sent back to the mother country, Milan instead clapped in a dungeon. Even his brutal treatment of slaves — using impalement for an execution! — shocked peers accustomed to a different spectrum of cruelty.

“I wish for my part that your Excellency could have been here a single day and heard what thundering there has been in the commission, with howling, shouting, and screaming, one against the other,” the official reporter noted. “God be thanked it is over.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Politicians,Public Executions,US Virgin Islands

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1522: Didrik Slagheck

1 comment January 24th, 2020 Headsman

Danish scheming archbishop Didrik Slagheck was burned in Copenhagen on this date in 1522 — sacrificed to his sovereign’s convenience.

Slagheck rolled into Stockholm in 1517 in the train of the papal legate who had been vainly dispatched to calm tempers during the run-up to what became the Swedish War of Liberation.

That’s liberation from Denmark, the effective overlord via the Kalmar Union joining those two countries and Norway besides. In 1520, with ecclesiastical mediation a bust and Sweden restive, the Danish king Christian II invaded. Slagheck made his villainous historical reputation by opportunistically hitching on with the vengeful king, the same king who would execute him in the end.

Things went great for Slagheck at first: he helped queue up the enemies list for the victorious Christian’s demonstrative mass beheading, the Stockholm Massacre. And he got his 30 pieces of krona right away in the form of an archbishopric which had come open along with its former owner’s neck on the occasion of said massacre. Thereafter he commanded troops in the field during the rebellion of Gustav Vasa. By 1521 he’d been kicked upstairs,

promoted to the position of archbishop of Lund, then a Danish see, entering the cathedral at his installation on November 25th with great pageantry and to the sound of martial music. During the same autumn, however, a papal legation in Copenhagen had been investigating what had taken place in Stockholm after the coronation, and five days after his installation as archbishop Slagheck was summoned to give an account of the advice he had given and the manner in which he had acted. Christian II decided to abandon him in an attempt to clear his own reputation, and Slagheck was executed and burnt in Copenhagen on January 24th 1522. (Source)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sweden

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1521: The rebel Ribbings

Add comment December 23rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1521, the Swedish rebel brothers Lindorm and Peder Ribbing were beheaded in Jönköping.

This event fell during the brief reign of the Danish king Christian II over Sweden, notably distinguished by the previous year’s Stockholm Bloodbath. Christian held Sweden only by force of arms and his continual bloody exertions to put down resistance have blackened his name in Swedish annals as “Christian the Tyrant”.

While the Ribbings were merely minor rebels in a country teeming with umbrage, their executions contributed a particularly atrocious (albeit perhaps folklorish) episode to that tyrannous reputation.

Not only the brothers themselves but their children also were put to death … and the story has it that after Lindorm Ribbing’s eldest son lost his head, his five-year-old brother pitiably implored the headsman, “My good man. Please do not stain my shirt as you did my brother’s or my mother will spank me.” Moved to tears, the executioner then discarded his sword and exclaimed, “Never! Sooner shall my own shirt be stained then I would stain yours.” Both he and the little boy then got the chop from a less sentimental swordsman.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Executioners,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Sweden,Treason

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1694: Mette Jensdatter, Viborg infanticide

Add comment August 30th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1694, a young woman died an infanticide in Viborg, Denmark.

Denmark in the 17th century consolidated into an absolute monarchy and with this came a consolidation of the sovereign power of life and death. Once a local office comprising a variety of obligations and prerogatives, the executioner gig became in this period a state-level appointee answering to the governor, and charged with exercising his law enforcement aspect throughout a region.

According to a post formerly at the Viborg Museum site but now consigned to the digital oubliette, executioners so appointed soon began exercising their privileged labor position to gouge prices as well as limbs, eventually requiring (in 1698) a royal edict fixing their fees thusly (all prices are quoted in rigsdalers):*

Beheading with an ax 8 dlr.
Plucking off a hand or a finger 4 dlr.
Nailing up a severed head and hand (pair) 4 dlr.
Hanging 10 dlr.
Dismantling gallows 4 dlr.
Breaking someone on the wheel 14 dlr.
Mounting a broken body on the wheel 7 dlr.
Corpse burial 3 dlr.
Tearing flesh with red-hot tongs (per tear) 2 dlr.
Public whipping 5 dlr.
Burning a person 10 dlr.
Burning condemned books 3 dlr.

Hopefully Viborg was saving its rigsdalers accordingly for in the same era as this list we have — again via the Viborg Museum’s phantom post — a sad instance of a domestic tragedy that is all too familiar in these pages:

On 30 August 1694 was the executioner summoned to execute maid Mette Jensdatter. The story behind was tragic; Mette, who was in the house of Søren Kristensen Høeg in St Michael’s Street, secretly gave birth on the first of August to a boy. On the same day she killed her child and hid the body under the bed. Søren Høeg was classified as the child’s father, but apparently Mette alone was tried and convicted.

Høeg did not escape the opprobrium of his neighbors and his conscience, for a few months later he attempted suicide and in punishment was banished from Viborg.

* I’ve limited the list to the most grisly entries.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Women

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1822: Thomas Thomasen Bisp, skull exhibit

Add comment July 22nd, 2019 Headsman

Thomas Thomasen Bisp, an adulterer who fatally poisoned his wife after he got the hots for his maid, became on this date in 1822 the last person executed in the North Jutland city of Hjørring.

Times being what they were, the torture-spectacle parts of the sentence — like having his offending hand struck off — were remitted; all things equal, we assume that Bisp would have best preferred to keep the one extremity he was still required to sacrifice.

This minor milestone is memorable to visitors of the Vendsyssel Historial Museum, where reposes the killer’s grisly beheaded skull courtesy of its 1900 accidental discovery in the course of some road work.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Sex

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1441: Henrik Reventlow

1 comment June 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1441, North Jutland peasant leader Henrik Reventlow was executed.

Reventlow was a nobleman who came to the fore of a 25,000-strong peasant army in rebellion over rising taxes.

The uprising threatened to derail the months-old reign of the young King Christian III … but he successfully defeated it by adroitly offering some pardons and leaving the remnants to be crushed.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,History,Nobility,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1948: Johannes Rasmussen, Danish Resistance betrayer

Add comment May 13th, 2019 Headsman

Anti-Nazi Danish Resistance turncoat Johannes Rasmussen was shot at Viborg on this date in 1948.

Arrested by the Gestapo in December 1943, Rasmussen (Danish link) broke under torture and informed on his former comrades, but he also extended his collaboration far beyond (more Danish) mere capitulation and became their henchman and collaborator. Rasmussen befriended his captors and working as an interpreter and interrogator until someone from the Resistance shot him in February 1945 and left him bedridden.

Arrested on the day after the German occupation ended, he unsurprisingly got no mercy from the countrymen he had betrayed.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Treason

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1641: Maren Splids, Jutland witch

1 comment November 9th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1641, one of Denmark’s most famous witches suffered at the stake.

Maren Splid, Spliid, or Splids (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) remains a paradigmatic exemplar of the witch-hunt’s terrifying capacity to make magicians of anyone some neighbor might one day accuse. In Splids’s case, the neighbor was a competitor of her prosperous husband, a tailor in the Jutland town of Ribe; the commercial motive obviously suggests itself but one dismisses superstitious folly at one’s peril. Apparently Maren Splids had given him some nasty words a full 13 years before the trouble started and the neighbor nursed the grudge along as if he was carrying a flame for her.

In 1637 this accuser, Didrik by name, denounced our misfortunate principal for bewitching him unto an infernal illness; he even delivered to gobsmacked investigators some strange object that he had vomited up under her spell.

Now, Maren and husband were big enough wheels to defeat this case in Ribe — but the diligent Didrick proceeded to carry the matter all the way to King Christian IV, a supernatural paranoiac in the mold of his witchsniffing contemporary and brother-in-law James VI of Scotland/James I of England.

This sovereign ordered the case re-tried and put it on goodwife Splids to produce no fewer than 15 witnesses to her witchless character. The headsman is not quite certain whether, in a pinch, he could conjure 15 witnesses capable of credibly exonerating him of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping; neither did Splids manage to satisfy the court with a sufficient chorus.

Still supported by her husband, Splids leveraged a right of appeal which initially resulted in the grandees of Ribe overturning the conviction but her enemies were able to kick the appeal to the national government. Tortured in Copenhagen’s Blue Tower, Splids at last cracked and admitted the charges, also implicating several other women,* and was returned to Ribe to burn at the stake.


Marker at Maren Splids Hus in Ribe, which is a tourist attraction. (cc) image by Wolfgang Sauber.

She’s one of Denmark’s best-remembered sorceresses and an emblem of the witching era that saw 22 such prosecutions in Ribe alone from 1572 to 1652. She’s also been latterly reclaimed as an admirable figure — for instance, there was a 1970s feminist magazine called Maren Splids.

* One other woman, Anne Thomasdatter, would be put to death on the basis of Splids’s confession. Several others endured stays in the dungeon.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Famous,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Women

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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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