20. An Icelandic Executioner’s Axe

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

This axe can now be found at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. It was used on 12 January 1830, to execute Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a maid, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmhand, for their role in the murders of ‘womanizer’, Natan Ketilsson, and Pétur Jónsson, an unfortunate bystanding victim. The crime took place in 1828 at Natan’s farm, Illugastaðir, where they lived and worked.[1] This was the last execution to be carried out on Icelandic soil. Although, Iceland did not abolish capital punishment until 1928.[2]

Executions were not a common occurrence in Iceland. The penultimate execution took place forty years earlier, in 1790.[3] This infrequency was, in part, due to the fact that Icelandic felons were often sent to Denmark. Iceland had been under Danish rule since 1380. It has been suggested that due to Icelanders’ dislike of public capital punishment, it was often difficult to find an executioner.[4] This was not the case for Agnes and Friðrik; they were executed with this axe by Gudmundur Ketilsson, the brother of Natan. The magistrate’s book reports that Gudmundur worked ‘with dexterity and fearlessness’. Friðrik went first, his ‘head was taken off with one blow of the axe.’ Following this, Agnes was fetched to face the same fate.[5]


[1] National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik; https://icelandroadguide.com/items/thristapar/; H. Kent, Burial rites, (Sydney, 2013); A. Agnarsdóttir, ‘The Danish empire: The special case of Iceland’, Europe and its empires (2008) pp.59-84; R. Seidemann and E. Seidemann, ‘A grave discovery: Iceland’s dual burial places of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friđrik Sigurđsson’, AGS Quarterly, 43-44 (2020), pp.22-26.

[2] https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/192000/eur010011992en.pdf

[3] https://www.visindavefur.is/svar.php?id=56617

[4] https://www.foyles.co.uk/hannah-kent

[5] B. Blondal, R. Olsen, A. Arnason, From the Magistrate’s Book of Hunavatn District, 1830, quoted in the epilogue Kent, Burial Rites.

Image: ‘Axe used in the execution of Agnes Magnúsdóttir and Friðrik Sigurðsson’, held at the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavík; author’s own photograph.

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