Europe

The 189-year-old double murder case that Iceland never forgot

The Illugastadir farm, where a chilling double murder took place 187 years ago, pictured on September 4, 2017. Source: AP

The murder of two men at a farmhouse in 1828 has riveted Iceland for almost two centuries. It will now be retried in the hopes of uncovering a motive.

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 is being 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.

A memorial on a hill near Hvammstangi village in Iceland, where the last execution in the country took place in 1830.
A memorial on a hill near Hvammstangi village in Iceland, where the last execution in the country took place in 1830.
AP

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.

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 afterwards the decapitated heads were jammed on to a stick for public viewing.

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