Cleaning Up The Countryside By Killing Vagrants: Iceland's History Of Executions - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Cleaning Up The Countryside By Killing Vagrants: Iceland’s History Of Executions

Published October 11, 2019

Photo by
Art Bicnick

In 1550, when the King of Denmark took over the right to administer justice from the Catholic Church and added capital punishment to the Icelandic legal code, a wave of executions swept over the country. By 1830, when the last execution took place in Iceland, local authorities had sentenced 248 people to death for various offenses.

The price of vagrancy

Some were executed for serious crimes like murder. The best known is Axlar-Björn, the only serial killer in Icelandic history, who was executed in 1596. Axlar-Björn is believed to have murdered at least 18 people on Snæfellsnes peninsula, primarily unsuspecting travellers.

Others were burned at the stake for witchcraft, but the vast majority of the victims appear to have been homeless people who lived a life of vagrancy, poor farm hands, and women who had violated morality laws and thus defied the strict social system.

“The people who were executed were nearly always from the bottom rungs of society—poor and powerless people who either stood outside the agrarian class system or from its very lowest classes.”

The full scale and nature of these executions is only now coming into light as archaeologists at the University of Iceland are systematically piecing together this grim and brutal chapter of Icelandic history. The research project, ‘Cairns of the Dead,’ is led by Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, a professor of archaeology, who heads a team of students who have been combing through sources and mapping the executions. The full findings will not be made public for at least a year, as the research is ongoing.

Filling a gap

The most important contribution of Steinunn’s research is that it has deepened our understanding of the role of executions in how the old Icelandic agrarian society maintained social control.

Historians have oft focused primarily on select categories of executions, Sigrún Hannesdóttir (shown above), one of the students working with Steinunn, explains, such as, “people burned by the stake for witchcraft and women who were drowned for infanticide.” That said, others have been swept to the side. “Famous and tragic individual cases have also received scholarly attention. Meanwhile, other types of executions, including the largest group of executions—vagrants who were executed for theft—have been largely ignored,” she says.

Executions as social control

“There was clearly an element of social control involved,” Sigrún emphasis. “The people who were executed were nearly always from the bottom rungs of society—poor and powerless people who either stood outside the agrarian class system or were from its very lowest classes. We can find only one person [executed] from the upper layers of society, a communal overseer who was burned for witchcraft. The rest were vagrants, farmhands who owned nothing but the clothes on their backs, and poor working-class women, who appear to have been seemed nearly worthless to the powers in society.”

These poor and powerless victims of royal authority wielded by the Icelandic landowners, were executed for violations of the moral codes, infanticide, hiding the birth of a child, having sexual relations with someone too closely related, theft and vagrancy.

“The executions at parliament in Þingvellir were public spectacles. The bodies were hung for display from the cliffs of the Almannagjá gorge, with heads left on pikes in the case of beheadings.”

Iceland was a poor agrarian society at that time where a cold summer or a hard winter could easily result in famine and death. Subsequently, the right to marry and form a family was tied to land ownership, ensuring that poor people would not have children that they could not support. The authorities acted aggressively when enforcing these laws, and therefore, poor people who nonetheless had children and resorted to infanticide to cover up their crime were made examples of.

Þingvellir’s gruesome past

In the Öxará river in Þingvellir National Park lies Drekkingarhylur (“Drowning cove”), where women were drowned and several other places whose names point to executions, including, Brennugjá, (“Burning gorge”), a lava gorge to the north of the famous Silra.

“The executions at parliament in Þingvellir were public spectacles,” Sigrún says. “The bodies were hung for display from the cliffs of the Almannagjá gorge, with heads left on pikes in the case of beheadings. The remains were then buried in unmarked graves in the lava fields. We know of 65 executions at Þingvellir, a quarter of the total number of people executed in Iceland.”

The homeless “solution”

The single largest type of executions were hangings of homeless people. Out of the 248 known executions, 76 were vagrants who were hanged for theft. The rulings often make comments about the character of these people. Men—who were forced to live as vagrants in the harsh Icelandic landscape, exposed to the brutal elements, usually due to poverty—were viewed as a threat by a society.

“They are described as lazy or thriftless,” Sigrún notes. “The assumption was clearly that their life of vagrancy was a choice of convenience or that they lacked the moral fibre to do honest work. Vagrants who killed sheep for food or stole butter from farms were executed without mercy and as a warning to others, including people who might be inclined to assist them.” The local population was required to witness executions and farmers were conscripted to participate as guards.

The great social cleansing

There was a spike in executions for theft between 1697 and 1704, which seems to be connected to the first official census taken in Iceland in 1703. “This wave is striking and can only be described as social cleansing,” Sigrún explains. “There had been a number of bad years in the second half of the 17th century, and we find frequent complaints in correspondence and court rulings about vagrants and beggars roaming the countryside. At this time, the King sent letters to his officials in Iceland, requesting vagrants be rounded up and sent to Copenhagen, where they would be conscripted to the Navy, but when it came time for the census of 1703, local sheriffs and communal overseers around the country seem to have taken a harder line on vagrancy.”

Royal officials who showed toughness on vagrancy were praised, but this application of royal power was not just cruel, it was also capricious, Sigrún points out. “Looking at the rulings, it appears that the application of the law was very haphazard. The scholars Árni Magnússon and Páll Vídalín, who were at this time rescuing the Icelandic Sagas by collecting manuscripts from farmers while compiling the first comprehensive land registry of Iceland undertaken in conjunction with the census, complained that royal sheriffs didn’t know the laws they were applying and failed to offer legal rationale for verdicts.”

“We suspect there are some previously unknown cases hiding in the records of local magistrates in East Iceland”

A past forgotten no more

Over the years, the dark history of the class component of public executions in Iceland was largely forgotten and ignored by historians; the stories of executions and the people killed in them retreated into myths and folktales.

But now, this is changing. The story of the last execution in Iceland, which took place in 1830, is currently being made into a movie called ‘Burial Rites,’ featuring Jennifer Lawrence. The research team at the University of Iceland also expects to continue to add to our knowledge of this dark past.

“There is a lot of work yet to be done,” Sigrún says. In the course of their research the team has combed through the rulings of Alþingi and the court at Þingvellir, as well as the annals identifying nearly a dozen previously unknown executions. She suspects with increased research, more will be added.

Sigrún also points out that, according to current research, very few executions took place in the Eastfjords. This seems fishy. “We suspect there are some previously unknown cases hiding in the records of local magistrates in East Iceland,” she explains.

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