The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "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."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

How British Spies Used a Cupcake Recipe to Stop Terrorists

iStock.com/400tmax
iStock.com/400tmax

In 2011, Arabian Peninsula-based Al-Qaeda members published a 67-page English-language magazine called Inspire in an attempt to recruit new terrorists. Instead, they might have inspired a new generation of bakers.

In the United States and United Kingdom, intelligence agencies knew the magazine was being launched well in advance. The also knew the magazine would be digital-only and could be downloaded as a PDF by anybody with an internet connection. For months, the U.S. Cyber Command planned on attacking the publication's release, crippling it with a hail of computer viruses. "The packaging of this magazine may be slick," one counterterrorism official said, "but the contents are as vile as the authors."

Their plans, however, were blocked by the CIA, which asserted that targeting the magazine "would expose sources and methods and disrupt an important source of intelligence," according to The Telegraph. So as progress halted in the U.S., British agents cooked up their own plans.

It involved treats.

At the time of the magazine's launch, the UK Government Communications Headquarters and the Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, successfully hacked the computers distributing the mag and tinkered with the text. They removed articles about Osama bin Laden and deleted a story called "What to expect in Jihad." Elsewhere, they destroyed the text by inserting garbled computer code.

One sabotaged story was an article by "The AQ Chef" called "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom," which explained how to make a pipe bomb with simple ingredients that included sugar. The new code, however, contained a sweet recipe of a different kind.

Instead of the bomb-making instructions, the article contained code leading to an article called "The Best Cupcakes in America," hosted by the Ellen DeGeneres Show website [PDF]. The page featured recipes for "sweet-toothed hipsters" and instructions for mojito-flavored cupcakes "made of white rum cake and draped in vanilla buttercream" (plus Rocky Road and Caramel Apple varieties!).

Two weeks later, the magazine's editors found the errors and fixed the edition—but, presumably, not until some bad guys discovered that "the little cupcake is big again."

10 Shocking Facts About The Black Dahlia, Hollywood’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder

In TNT’s new mystery series I Am the Night, a teen (India Eisley) and a disgraced journalist (Chris Pine) get caught up in the case of the Black Dahlia—the most notorious unsolved murder in Hollywood history.

The case has been a matter of public fascination since 1947, when aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead and dismembered in southern Los Angeles. To this day, no one knows who killed the 22-year-old who came to be known as the Black Dahlia, but that certainly hasn’t stopped them from speculating. Here are 10 things we know about the cold case, based on accounts from local newspapers, the FBI, and the son of a primary suspect.

1. A mother and her toddler found Elizabeth Short's body.

On the morning of January 15, 1947, Betty Bersinger was pushing her 3-year-old daughter Anne in a stroller down the sidewalk, heading to a shoe repair shop. She paused when she noticed what she thought was a mannequin lying in the grass. But as she looked closer, she discovered it was something much more alarming: a mutilated corpse. Bersinger grabbed Anne and ran to a nearby house, where she used the telephone to call the police. Authorities arrived on the scene just a few minutes later, kick-starting what would become a years-long investigation (that many people are still trying to solve).

2. There was no blood found at the scene.

The naked body Bersinger discovered was in horrifying condition. In addition to being cut completely in half at the waist, and having her intestines removed, Short's mouth had been slashed from ear-to-ear, giving her face a ghastly, semi-smiling appearance known as a Glasgow Smile. Her body had also been washed clean before it was left to be found. Despite the severe mutilation, there was no blood at the scene, leading police to conclude that the young woman had been murdered somewhere else, drained of blood, then cleaned before the killer dumped her body.

3. The FBI identified Short with fingerprints and a proto fax machine.

In order to identify the body, the Los Angeles Police Department pulled fingerprints off the corpse, which it then sent to the FBI through a device called a Soundphoto (a forerunner to the fax machine). About an hour later, the FBI got a hit and was able to identify the victim as 22-year-old Elizabeth Short. Short's fingerprints had been entered into the system twice before: once when she applied to work in the commissary of a U.S. Army base and once when she was arrested in Santa Barbara, California on September 23, 1943 for underage drinking.

4. The Black Dahlia nickname has murky origins.

Police bulletin distributed by the Los Angeles Police Department, accessed on the official website for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation
City of Los Angeles Police Department // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of competing theories about who exactly coined Short’s infamous moniker. Some say it was a media invention, while others claim Short’s friends had nicknamed her "Black Dahlia." But most accounts pin the inspiration on a film noir written by Raymond Chandler that hit theaters one year before the murder: The Blue Dahlia, starring Veronica Lake. Why the switch from “blue” to “black”? The FBI cites a rumor that Short wore lots of black clothing, but some reports point to her dark hair color instead.

5. Some linked the case to the Cleveland Torso Murders.

When Short’s death became national news, police officers in Cleveland felt an awful sense of déjà vu. Between 1934 and 1938, a serial killer had terrorized their city, claiming 12 victims—all of whom were grotesquely dismembered. Some theorized that the Ohio serial killer and Short's murderer could be the same person, especially since—like Short's killer—the perpetrator of what came to be known as the Cleveland Torso Murders was never caught.

6. It was also connected to a “Lipstick Murder.”

One month after Short's murder, another woman's body was discovered in Los Angeles—and the circumstances mimicked the Black Dahlia's case in a few ways. It all began with a stranger (in this case, a construction worker) stumbling upon the naked body of a dead woman in the grass. Jeanne French had dark hair like Short’s, and her face was also badly beaten. But this time, there was an unusual message scrawled on her stomach in bright red lipstick: “F**k You B.D.” Just below that were the letters “TEX.” People were quick to link the "B.D." in the gruesome murder to the Black Dahlia, but the police were wary of officially connecting the two. Like Short, French’s murder was never solved.

7. Many people confessed to the crime.

The LAPD had to rule out many suspects in the Black Dahlia investigation, including several people who turned themselves in. Though some sources quote a lower number, the Los Angeles Times puts the tally of false confessions in Short's case at more than 500. The phony claims came from housewives, clergymen, soldiers, drunk ramblers, and, much later, pranksters who weren’t even alive when Short's life was brutally taken.

8. No charges were ever filed.

Copy of Elizabeth Short's death certificate, Los Angeles County
FBI, Los Angeles County // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The FBI files on the Black Dahlia case indicate that many men were held for questioning—and some even took polygraph tests—but ultimately, no one was ever charged with Short’s murder. Still, a few names stand out ...

9. George Hodel is one of the most notorious suspects.

One of those names is George Hodel, a physician who ran a venereal disease clinic in Los Angeles in the 1940s. According to The Guardian, Hodel was on a list of six primary suspects in the Black Dahlia case, and the LAPD even bugged his home during the investigation. But Hodel—who died in 1999—gained more recent notoriety when his son, Steve Hodel, accused him of killing Short in the 2003 bestselling book Black Dahlia Avenger: The True Story.

Steve claims his father’s handwriting matches strange letters the police received, supposedly from the killer. He also uncovered photos of a woman who resembles Short in his father’s personal photo album, and believes Hodel’s medical background would explain the precise, clinical cuts on the body. But some have discounted Steve’s claims since he started linking his father to other infamous unsolved murders, including the Zodiac killings.

I Am the Night, the new TNT miniseries, centers around Hodel as a prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.

10. Others think it was a bellhop.

Another name that's popular among Black Dahlia theorists is Leslie Dillon. He appears in the FBI case files, but gained renewed attention in 2017 when author Piu Eatwell argued his guilt in her book Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Dillon was a bellhop, writer, and mortician’s assistant who seemed to know a surprising amount of details about Short’s murder when the LAPD hauled him in for questioning. He was eventually let go—thanks to a dirty cop, according to Eatwell—but some of the detectives investigating the case never forgot him.

In 2018, Buz Williams—a retired officer with California's Long Beach Police Department and the son of Richard F. Williams, part of the LAPD’s Gangster Squad—told Rolling Stone that “My dad thought Leslie Dillon was the killer," and that other cops suspected that Dillon was, at the very least, an accomplice.

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