YRSA SIGURDARDOTTIR – Crime and Punishment in Iceland

Capitol punishment is most definitely a hot button issue in the United States.  Many states have capitol punishment as a means in which to punish those whose crimes are an affront to society as a whole.  Other states, although capitol punishment is allowed as decided by the United States Supreme Court, do not have it as an option as decided by the residents of that state.  It is generally agreed that the death penalty does not deter crime.  As an aside, six of the nine justices are Roman Catholic.  At no point has it been suggested that any of their votes are a reflexion of the teachings of the Church.  The job of the Supreme Court is to determine whether an issue that makes it to the court is legal in light of the Constitution.

In June, 2010, Yrsa Sigurdardottir wrote about capitol punishment in her native Iceland.  The imposition of the death penalty doesn’t rest easy on the consciences of most people no matter what the country.

Agnes and Friðrik

I am not a fan of capital punishment although I am not completely blind to the reasoning of those who agree with it. Thankfully this is very seldom in the forefront of public discussion here as we have no such punishment in our judicial system. It is only brought to our attention when extreme cases catch the media’s eyes, when obvious horrors of justice are about to take place. This usually involves scheduled executions of persons of diminished mental capacity, young offenders, people who consistently maintain their innocence or those who are trying to amend their antisocial ways and have repented. We also hear of executions in countries where trials are a mirage at best and the accused has no opportunity of appealing their sentence which might even be carried out before the person has had the time to register what has happened. This is disgusting and I cannot imagine that many condone such a process. On the opposing side, many crimes are horrid and merciless and at times I am sure it would seem justified to show no mercy to those who have none to spare. I am also sure that more guilty people are executed through the various justice systems of the world than innocent, but still. The inconsistency of death sentences will continue to fuel my dislike of them, not only are the wrong people at times executed but the sentence is not meted out equally, one’s social standing, political beliefs or luck in choosing a defense lawyer most often plays a role, which is completely unacceptable.
The last executions conducted in Iceland took place in 1830 although capital punishment was not removed from our criminal code until 1928. Trailing the line of hapless souls deemed to make the world a better place by losing their lives were a woman of 33 named Agnes and a young man of 18 named Friðrik. A third accomplice, a 16 year old girl named Sigríður had also been sentenced to death but was pardoned by the Danish king and made serve life under hard labor in a prison camp in Denmark as she was perceived as being “simple”.
The crime was murder, double at that. Friðrik killed a farmer named Natan who employed both Agnes and Sigríður, for the purpose of robbing him, as well as ending the life of a man visiting Natan. Friðrik then set the farmhouse on fire to make the deaths look like an accident, but multiple stab wounds on the charred bodies were his undoing. Agnes and Sigríður aided in the murders by hiding Friðrik in a barn until nightfall and Agnes also conspired in the whole scenario. It is considered highly likely that she planted the idea in Friðrik’s mind and egged him on, thus being the instigator of the murders. She had been Natan’s lover until his attention shifted to the younger Sigríður – whom Friðrik loved. A complicated love circumstance, involving sad people from the lower echelons of life at the time.

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

At the time anyone sentenced to death was usually sent abroad to be executed and no one had been executed on Icelandic soil for 40 years. The Icelandic people were not fond of executions and preferred them conducted out of sight. But two things contributed to the process being carried out here in the case of Agnes and Friðrik. For one it was a lot cheaper not to have to send the pair by boat to Denmark or Norway and secondly, local authorities believed crime on the rise and they wanted to set an example. To make sure people would sit up and notice, every farmer in the area was obliged to show up or send a representative in his place. As a result one hundred and fifty people witnessed the act which is a very high number considering the sparsely populated area where the events occurred. An execution block was erected and this included a man-made mound that still exists, the added elevation ensuring everyone present had a good view. The execution block itself had to be imported from Denmark, as did the axe as neither was available within the country. Once everything was set up, Agnes and Friðrik were led up on to the mound and their heads unceremoniously chopped off by the brother of the murdered Natan. No one wanted to act as executioner and it even required a lot of persuasion to get the next of kin to brand the axe.
To get the most out of the example being set, the heads of Agnes and Friðrik were then poised on stakes placed prominently for all to see. It is unclear how long they were to stand there as there was no tradition to go by. However, this never became an issue as the heads were stolen the very same night of the execution. The unconfirmed story goes that a warmhearted woman from one of the few large estates in the district had one of her farmhands remove the heads when darkness had fallen and bury them secretly in a nearby graveyard. This last bit became part of what everyone believed true although the records of the time only mention: “The heads disappeared during the night”.
Now fast forward 102 years to 1932. A woman named Sesselja from Reykjavík begins to experience involuntary writing involving messages from Agnes, instructing her to find the bodies and the heads, dig them out and provide her and Friðrik a proper burial in hallowed ground. The locations of the caskets containing the bodies and the location of the heads were provided, as was a description of a piece of wood from the stake lodged in Agnes’ skull. According to the messages the heads were not in the graveyard at all as everyone believed. The writing stated that the farmhand had not wanted to carry the heads the full distance to the cemetery and that he had instead buried them near the stakes. For two years the woman was besieged with this weird note taking before finally overcoming her reluctance to make a fool of herself and going to the police. The church became involved and a team was sent north to search for the caskets and the heads which incredibly enough were exactly where the written notes described. In addition, Agnes’ skull was pierced through the crown with a 10 cm long piece of wood as the messages had mentioned. But through this strange channel, Anges and Friðrik ended up receiving their proper burial.
One of the many sad facts of this story is the one regarding the fancy brooch found in the casket containing Agnes’ bones. This type of brooch was used at the time as a button in the traditional dressy female clothing, showing that Agnes dressed up for the occasion of her own execution. Makes me wonder what I or anyone else would do under the same circumstances. Not that today’s executed prisoners are allowed this last attempt at dignity.
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One Response to YRSA SIGURDARDOTTIR – Crime and Punishment in Iceland

  1. ricoh4 says:

    Very interesting article as I am finishing Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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