Illugastaðir farm the scene of a brutal crime in Burial rites

  • Illugastaðir, a scene of a crime in the early nineteenth century. Photo by: ©MICHAEL LEVY - INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER
Dec 22 2017

Photo of Illugastaðir by ©MICHAEL LEVY - INTERNATIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER

Illugastaðir farm on the west shore of Vatnsnes Peninsula in the North Region in Iceland is probably best known among tourists for its seal colony.  It is an inseparable part of the Vatnsnes Peninsula scenic drive and a place you don't want to miss. At the farm, you can spend time in the seal watching hut and enjoy the excellent facilities provided to experience the daily life of seals and birds in their natural environment.  You can also enjoy the magnificent view to Strandir, the east shore of the Westfjords and the mountains on the Vatnsnes Peninsula.  It is a beautiful place to visit and pleasant place to enjoy peaceful nature. But the farm also has a very dark and shocking history from the 19th century.

A scene of a crime in the early nineteenth century

In 1828 a quack named Natan Ketilsson lived at the farm Illugastaðir with three other people.  Pétur Jónsson a convict, a fifteen year old female named Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir who allegedly was the housekeeper and Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was a maid and worked for Natan at the farm.  In addition to calling himself a doctor, Natan Ketilsson was a renowned womanizer, a dodger and a poet with an enormous ego.  Agnes who was 32 years old at the time came from a deprived background but was a charming woman.  She was attracted to Natan and had dreams of becoming his wife and the mistress at the farm.  Dreams that collapsed when the very young Sigríður was made housekeeper and as it appears, Natans choice to share a bed. As her dreams transformed into hatred, she teamed up with a young man from a nearby farm who had a crush on Sigríður, the very young housekeeper. His name was Friðrik Sigurðsson, and he also wanted to get his hands on possessions and wealth that he believed belonged to Natan. They were joined in their emotions of dislike, greed, and jealousy directed towards Natna and the atmosphere at the farm became toxic.  And finally, the hatred escalated to a point where they decided to murder Natan and also Petur, the convict.  One dark winter night in March of 1828 Friðirk came to the farm and hid with the help of Agnes and Sigríður until both men had gone to bed.  At that point, Friðrik took a hammer, walked to Natans bed and smashed it into his head and repeated the heinous act at Peters bed, stabbed them both multiple times, and with help from Agnes and Sigríður, poured cod liver oil over the bodies and set fire to the farm. It was a brutal and calculated murder. And to make things even worse Agnes, Sigríður, and Firðrik stole everything of value they could put their hand on before fleeing the scene.

The aftermath trial and execution

Unfortunately for the killer trio, the bodies of Natan and Petur didn't burn to ashes as the fire was not as destructive as intended. It was apparent that both men had smashed heads and multiple stab wounds in addition to bloodsheds around the bodies. Obviously not inflicted on them by the fire. Soon after that the three people were arrested and accused of murdering the Natan and Petur. The case and the trial received enormous attention in this small country with its tiny population. Murders were rare let alone such cruel slaughtering by smashing the heads, multiple stabbing, and burning of the bodies. The trial is well documented and has ever since caught the attention and imagination of writers and filmmakers as well as the general public.  It is a true story that is stranger than fiction. At the end of the trial, Friðrik and Agnes were sentenced to death and to be executed by beheading.  The execution took place at Þrístapar on January 12th, 1830 near the main road, the Ring Road, and all farmers in the administrative district were obligated to attend. In a tiny community mainly composed of regular farmers and ordinary people, authorities had difficulty finding an executioner. In the end, the victim's brother Guðmundur Ketilsson was forced to take on the task of beheading two people. The axe and the execution block were sent from Copenhagen as Iceland was at the time part of the Danmark. Both items now kept at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavík. After the execution, the heads of Friðrik and Agnes were put on a stick near the roadside for anyone to see as their faces turned towards the road.  Their bodies were buried nearby, outside a cemetery in a unholy ground. Although the crime was horrible many were even more horrified by this act of immorality by authorities and the heads disappear soon after the execution one night and no one knew what became of the heads, or so most people thought. For decades this case set a mark on the community and the whole country.

The spiritual and ghostly part

As time passed the story and the memory of this horrible crime and the aftermath faded in the community although never disappeared. More than a century later an older woman living in the city center in Reykjavík with spiritual abilities started to receive messages from the other side.  The woman herself with roots to Vatnsnes Peninsula soon understood that Agnes was contacting her asking for religious justice and begging for a grave for her remains to be buried in a cemetery and to be blessed in holy ground. She also asked for her and Friðriks bodies and heads to be jointed in the grave. As no one knew where the heads were, she gave the woman the exact spot, not far from the bodies near the execution place. As the bishop of Iceland accepted to dig up the graves, the bodies were taken to a cemetery and blessed. Oddly the heads were found at the exact location Agnes hand pointed out more than a century after her execution. 

Burial rites  and a film directed by Luca Guadagniono starring Jennifer Lawrence as Agnes

Burial Rites is a novel written by Hannah Kent inspired by this story.  The novel focuses on Agnes and the time she waits for her execution.  The book was published in 2013 and is a bestseller and has been translated into many languages.  It is soon to be filmed and directed by Luca Guadagniono and Jennifer Lawrence has accepted to play the role of Agnes.  Apparently the plan is to film at Vatnsnes, and sure enough, Illugastaðir farm will be at the center.  This story and the farm is one of many examples where landscape and history mingle in Iceland.

Nearby places

Borgarvirki - Kolugljúfur - Hvítserkur - Hvammstangi town - Vatnsdalur - Blönduós town - Kálfshamarsvík