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.

The Real Reason Costco Employees Check Receipts at Exits

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If shoppers have one complaint about Costco—the vast discount warehouse chain with a notoriously permissive return policy and speedy checkout lanes—it’s that the employees posted at the exits to take a marker to customers' receipts seem vaguely insulting. Is the premise that everyone is a shoplifter until proven otherwise?

Not exactly. A recent rundown of Costco's policy from The Takeout (via Cheat Sheet) points out that the true motivation of these exit-door sentries isn’t to identify potential thieves. It’s to make sure that Costco isn’t picking the pockets of its customers.

According to employees who have made not-for-attribution comments, Costco is actually examining receipts to make sure a shopper hasn’t been overcharged for their purchases. Someone with three giant bundles of toilet paper in their cart, for example, might have been charged for four. By giving the receipt a cursory glance, the employee can make sure a cashier didn’t inadvertently ring up phantom crates of canned tuna.

Of course, if someone did try to wheel out several big-screen televisions without a receipt, the exit door employee would likely make an issue of it. But they’re not in loss prevention, and the measure isn’t intended to deter thieves. If you do have something in your cart you didn’t pay for, their immediate assumption is that the mistake is almost certainly the result of a cashier not scanning the item.

In fact, hardly any criminals are caught at the door—which isn't to say the store isn't immune to theft. Earlier this year, thieves at a Seattle Costco were busted with armloads of laptops after they barged out of the back entrance. In June, a Costco in Alpharetta, Georgia, was victimized by burglars who smashed the jewelry case at night and made off with $10,000 worth of valuables.

[h/t The Takeout]

8 Dishes Made by Notorious Poisoners

iStock/com/bhofack2
iStock/com/bhofack2

While many poisoners throughout history have stirred their deadly potions and powders into drinks, some of the more culinarily inclined have crafted killer dishes instead. The nurturing image these poisoners often presented—with casseroles and cakes always at the ready—may have even helped distract from their murderous ways.

1. NANNIE DOSS’S APPLE AND PRUNE PIE

Nannie Doss (1905–1965) poisoned as many as 12 family members. She allegedly added poison to both prune cake and an apple-prune pie, soaking the fruit overnight in rat poison. Her reported recipe included sprinkling the top of the crust with sugar when it was fresh from the oven, which probably helped disguise the taste of the poison.

2. ANJETTE LYLES’S BANANA PUDDING

Anjette Donovan Lyles (1925–1977) owned and operated a thriving luncheonette in Macon, Georgia. She was known for simple Southern fare and desserts such as her banana pudding with vanilla wafers (which you can find a recipe for here alongside a selection of her other popular creations). She took frequent breaks from the restaurant to tend to two dying husbands, a mother-in-law, and a daughter, all of whom she killed by adding rat poison to their food—though it's not clear precisely which specific dishes she served them.

3. BLANCHE TAYLOR-MOORE’S PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKE

Milkshake in nostalgic glass with whipped cream and cherry on top
iStock.com/sandoclr

Blanche Taylor-Moore (1933-) dispatched of at least three people in a prolonged and agonizing fashion by repeatedly serving them arsenic-laced meals. She then hindered recovery by bringing digestive-friendly foodstuffs laced with poison (including banana pudding) to their hospital beds. Shakes made with vanilla ice cream, milk, and creamy peanut butter were the favorite of her second husband, the Reverend Dwight Moore, who survived despite reportedly having 100 times the normal levels of arsenic in his system.

4. LYDA SOUTHARD’S APPLE PIE

She sprinkled it with cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg too
And sugared it with arsenic, a tasty devil's brew.
That famous apple pie, which ne'er forgot will be,
And for Lyda Southard's apple pie, men lay them down to die.

Idaho folk song

Lyda Trueblood Southard (1892-1958) and her family are said to have moved from their home in Missouri around 1907 after seeing a photo of a man holding a cantaloupe-sized apple grown near the new town of Twin Falls, Idaho. She put these apples to use in pies ... along with arsenic from boiled flypaper, which she reportedly used to poison four husbands, one daughter, and a brother-in-law [PDF]. Although she proclaimed her innocence to the end, it's rumored that her body was hairless, revealing a prolonged exposure to arsenic.

5. LYDIA SHERMAN’S CLAM CHOWDER

Bowl of clam chowder
iStock.com/MSPhotographic

Lydia Sherman (1824-1878) poisoned three husbands and eight children with milk, oatmeal, and New England clam chowder. The standard Civil War recipe involves salt pork, potatoes, shucked clams or quahogs, and plenty of milk and cream. In Lydia's case, it also involved arsenic, which helped earn her $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash after one inconvenient husband died. She went the easier route with her next husband by simply adding arsenic to his bottle of brandy.

6. DEBORA GREEN'S HAM AND BEANS

When Debora Green's (1951-) marriage dissolved in the summer of 1995, her husband began suffering from mysterious bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although he at first blamed the symptoms on a bug picked up during a recent vacation in Peru, investigators grew suspicious after a fire burned down the family home that fall, killing two of the couple's children. Police looking into the blaze soon discovered that Green had burned down her own home in a rage—and that she been poisoning her husband by putting castor beans in his chicken-salad sandwich and ham and beans. Castor oil is commonly used as a laxative, but when crushed, the beans produce the deadly toxin ricin.

7. LOCUSTA'S MUSHROOMS

An Amanita phalloides in the woods
iStock.com/empire331

The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) loved mushrooms, a fact that the notorious female poisoner Locusta allegedly used to help finish him off. Locusta was acting on the orders of Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's fourth wife, who wanted to clear the path so that her son Nero (from a previous marriage) could ascend to the throne. Historians debate whether the assassination ever really happened, but some report that Locusta added the juice from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides, known as "the destroying angel") to a dish of Claudius's preferred fungi, Amanita caesarea. The details after that vary—a poisoned feather stuck down Claudius's throat or a poison enema may have also been involved—but either way, the death would have been slow and painful.

8. CAROLINE GRILLS’S TEA CAKES

Caroline Grills (1888–1960) was a prolific baker known for bringing home-baked cakes and cookies to tea with relatives. Unfortunately, Grills was lacing her goodies and tea with thallium, a popular rat poison, and may have killed as many as four family members doing so. The symptoms of thallium poisoning often involve fever, delirium, convulsions, and progressive blindness, followed by death.

Still, Grills's sweets were so delicious that even when she was under suspicion of murder, it didn't stop people from consuming them: One relative given some candied ginger couldn't resist trying it and was rewarded with pains in his neck and chest and numbed toes. Grills was eventually arrested and charged with four murders and one attempted murder, but only convicted on one count. Her case was part of a string of thallium poisonings in post-war Australia, with dozens of cases, several high-profile trials, and 10 deaths.

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