Illugastaðir farm can be found on the west side of the Vatnsnes Peninsula. The area has truly stunning views of the eastern Westfjord coastline and is blessed with gorgeous hiking trails, fields of nesting birds and seal colonies. It is an area of sublime beauty; a beauty that could easily distract from the farm’s infamous, yet fascinating, place in Icelandic history.
Photo above by Jene Yeo
Natan Ketilsson (1792 - 1828) was the original resident of Illugastaðir. An Icelandic tail-doctor (self-educated), Natan had spent his formative years practising medicine in Copenhagen. Upon his return to Iceland in 1824, Natan chose to settle at a small farmstead in Skagafjörður fjord, where he lived for four years.
It was well known amongst the local population that Natan was something of a lothario. Not only was he married, but he also partook in affairs with numerous women, most famous of whom was Rósa Guðmundsdóttir, a controversial Icelandic poet. He was also intimately involved with Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a servant girl on his farmstead. This final erotic temptation would be his undoing.
On March 14th, 1828, Agnes Magnúsdóttir and her companion, Friðrik Sigurðsson, set about putting a wicked and preconceived plan into practice. Hoping to rob Natan of his livelihood, they murdered him and his shepherd, Pétur Jónsson, whilst the men slept in their beds. Hoping to hide all evidence of their crime, the pair set about burning down the house, alerting neighbours deceptively that Natan and Pétur were trapped inside. Once the fire was extinguished, townsfolk quickly discovered the bodies had multiple stab wounds between them. It wasn’t long until suspicion fell to the killers, as well as to Natan’s former grain girl (and Friðrik’s teenage lover) Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir.
Sigríður was imprisoned for life on the verdict that she had pre-knowledge of the crime. Both Agnes and Friðrik were sentenced to death. On January 12th, 1830, the pair was led to the isolated valley of Vatnsdalur, at Þrístapar. They were both beheaded for their crimes, marking the last public execution in Iceland’s history. Their bodies were quickly disposed of, their heads placed on spikes outside of the settlement, before being buried back at Þrístapar. Today, their heads are buried at a church called Tjörn, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula.
Why the heads were buried, unearthed, and buried again is a macabre story in itself. In 1932, a local Reykjavik woman claiming psychic abilities put forward the case that she had been visited by the spirit of Agnes Magnúsdóttir. According to the story, Agnes told the psychic she wished for her's and Friðrik’s head to be buried at the church in Tjörn. With the psychics’ instructions, the heads were unearthed at Þrístapar (with the spikes still embedded) and taken to Tjörn for reburial.
The execution site itself can be located from the Ring Road in the North of Iceland. A small monument marks the exact spot of the beheading. The tombstones of Agnes and Fridrik can also still be found at Tjörn, while the remnants of Natan Ketilsson’s 19th-century workshop can still be visited at Illugastaðir. The Illugastaðir murders have been immortalised in literature and cinema. The 2003 novel Burial Rites, written by Hannah Kent, goes into great detail breaking down the ruthless law and order in last century Iceland. The harrowing 1995 Icelandic film Agnes also derives its main inspiration from the Illugastaðir murders.