Iceland spellbound by retrial of notorious murder case – from 1828
The case has sparked endless speculation, a feature film and a pop song, while the 10th book in Icelandic about the murders is set to be published and a documentary is in production
Residents on Iceland’s remote farm of Stapakot were jolted awake on March 14, 1828, when a maid from a neighbouring property burst in to tell them that a fire was raging and two men were trapped inside. It was a lie.
The men were already dead – clubbed with a hammer and stabbed 12 times before the house was set ablaze with shark oil.
Despite the years, it’s a crime that Icelanders have never forgotten, since the convicted killers were the last people ever executed on this North Atlantic island nation. On Saturday, the crime will be analysed by a mock court that will once again weigh the evidence.
The retrial, conducted under modern rules before a three-judge panel, may shed light on the motivation for the slayings, the fairness of the original proceeding, and whether the two maids – Agnes Magnusdottir and Sigridur Gudmundsdottir – had been abused by the man they eventually killed.
The case has sparked endless speculation, a feature film and a pop song. The 10th book in Icelandic about the murders is set to be published and a documentary is in production. Seats for the retrial have long been sold out. It will be held at the community centre in Hvammstangi, a northwestern village near the murder scene.
The handwritten court records from the 1828 case are carefully preserved in the National Library.
One of the judges – David Thor, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights – said the original trial nearly 200 years ago did not address the motivation for the killings. It’s not clear why they killed Natan Ketilsson, a self-taught doctor, and his guest.
“No one cared about the motivation behind the murders – that wouldn’t happen in a modern court,” he said. “Today we would try to understand the motivation behind the murders and particularly how the two women, who had no other place to live, were treated by their master.”
The two maids said the act was masterminded by Fridrik Sigurdsson, a 17-year-old who held a grudge against Ketilsson. He and Magnusdottir, 32, were put to death for their role in the killings. The other maid, a 16-year-old, was sentenced to life in prison in Denmark.
The case highlights differing attitudes toward capital punishment. In modern Iceland, the usual prison sentence for murder is 16 years or less. But in 1828, officials successfully argued for the death penalty, which had not been imposed in decades.
An axe was imported from Denmark to carry out the penalty and the brother of one of the victims was chosen as executioner.
Every farm was instructed to send a male representative to witness the event and afterward the decapitated heads were jammed onto a stick for public viewing.
Australian Author Hannah Kent achieved international success with her debut novel Burial Rites, which depicts the crime through the eyes of Magnusdottir, who was convicted of killing the two men and burning their bodies.
Kent, who said the case is still constantly in her thoughts, hopes the retrial may provide some insight.
“If the murders really were premeditated, I would want to know if something went wrong or if maybe this all happened more in the moment,” she said. “Because to me, it has always seemed like a particularly clumsy murder.”
She said readers have often asked her what the outcome of the case would be if it were tried under today’s rules.
“I have never really been able to give them an answer until now,” she said.