The Mysterious Murder Case That's Captivated Iceland for Nearly 200 Years

Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Rock formations at Illugastaðir farm in Iceland.
Jennifer Boyer, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

For centuries, a cluster of small farms near the water on Iceland's Vatnsnes peninsula have eked out an existence among the grassy fields and rocky hills, more or less content to be surviving at the edge of the world. The peninsula is known for a black basalt rock formation that's said to be a petrified troll, and for the colonies of seals that come to sun themselves on the beach.

It's still almost as peaceful—and lonely—as it was the night in March 1828 when Agnes Magnúsdóttir ran from Illugastaðir, the farm where she worked, to the house at Stapakot farm to report a fire. The situation, she said, was dire: Two people were trapped inside the rapidly burning building.

When the rescuers arrived and extinguished the blaze, the scene was even worse than they expected. Inside, they discovered the bodies of Natan Ketilsson, the farm’s owner, and his guest, Pétur Jónsson. Though the two were badly burned, the rescuers could see it wasn't the fire that had caused their deaths: They'd been murdered. The men had been stabbed 12 times and bludgeoned with a hammer before the fire had been set with shark oil.

The authorities quickly arrested both Agnes and Illugastaðir’s other maid, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, as well as a young man named Friðrik Sigurdsson. Although the trio's motives were murky, local gossips suspected the crime had something to do with their romantic entanglements.

DANGEROUS LIAISONS

Agnes was born in northern Iceland on October 27, 1795. Her parents, Ingveldur Rafnsdóttir and Magnús Magnússon, were unmarried farmers; her father quickly left the picture, and at age 6 Agnes was fostered out to a pair of tenant farmers elsewhere in northern Iceland. Little about her early life is known, save that it was steeped in toil and poverty. But everything changed when she met Natan Ketilsson.

Agnes fell head over heels for Natan, a self-taught doctor and herbalist. Though she was his maid, he encouraged her intellect and gave her a glimpse of life beyond poverty and drudgery. The two seem to have had a brief affair, but Natan was in love with Skáld-Rósa, a well-known local poet. Though Rósa was married, her long-standing relationship with Natan was known in the area; the two even had children together. To make matters more complicated, Natan had also recently been intimate with 16-year-old Sigríður.

No one has ever been able to figure out how, exactly, these intertwined passions may have led to murder. Had Agnes grown jealous of Natan's recent attentions to Sigríður? Or had Friðrik? The trial documents focused more on the idea that the group was conspiring to steal from a wealthy landowner, saying that Friðrik "came to commit this evil through hatred of Natan, and a desire to steal." The women named Friðrik as the mastermind of the crime, although they were short on details about why he was to blame.

The few available facts, together with a fear of rebellious servants, encouraged the idea of Agnes as a sort of villainess, and it was enough to condemn her. Author Hannah Kent, who in 2013 wrote a "speculative biography" about Agnes called Burial Rites—soon to be made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence—said in an interview that while translating local documents she found that “words such as 'devil,' 'witch' and 'spider' were frequently used to describe [Agnes]. Where I looked to find something of her life story, or acknowledgement of social or cultural factors that may have contributed to her crime, I found only the belief that she was unequivocally evil—a monster.”

EXECUTION DAY

The church in Tjörn, Iceland, where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried
The church in Tjörn, Iceland where Agnes Magnusdottír is buried.

After a long trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Copenhagen—Iceland was then still under Danish rule—Agnes, 33, and Friðrik, 19, were sentenced to be executed. Sigríður was also sentenced to death, but her punishment was eventually commuted to life in prison, which she would serve in Denmark. The reasons for the commutation aren’t entirely clear, except that by then the public had seized on Agnes as the real evil-doer. Since jail space wasn’t available in rural Iceland, the convicted were sent to local farms to await their fate; Agnes was held at Kornsá, the very same farm where she had lived with a foster family, although by then the house had different inhabitants.

Execution day arrived on January 12, 1830. The beheading was a spectacle: 150 male representatives from all of the district's farms attended, and a special ax was imported from Denmark. Guðmundur Ketilsson, Natan’s brother, carried out the deed in the middle of three hillocks in Húnavatnssýsla; Friðrik went first, then Agnes. It was the last time anyone was executed in Iceland. (You can still see the ax head, and chopping block, at Iceland's National Museum.)

They were forbidden Christian burial rites, and their heads were impaled onto sticks and displayed publicly, facing the road. But the heads wouldn't be there for long: They were stolen within 24 hours of going on display—and would stay missing for close to 100 years.

Sometime around 1930, a local woman who claimed to have been visited by Agnes’s spirit came forward with their location. The identity of the thieves remains a mystery, although legend has it that a kind-hearted housewife felt moved to bury them herself. Bizarrely, the heads were found just where the informant said they would be, “‘in the direction of the setting sun at high summer’ and not far from the execution mound,” according to crime writer Quentin Bates.

The bodies of Agnes and Friðrik, which had been buried near the site of their execution, were reburied with their heads in a churchyard in Tjörn, not far from where Illugastaðir farm once stood.

A NEW CHANCE AT JUSTICE

On September 9, 2017, Agnes got a second day in court. A mock trial arranged by the Icelandic Legal Society retried the case under modern rules, with the result that Agnes was sentenced to 14 years in prison instead of death.

According to David Þór, one of the mock court’s three judges and a real former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, the original trial didn’t attempt to answer why the murders occurred. "No one cared about the motivation behind the murders—that wouldn't happen in a modern court," he told the Associated Press. "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."

Agnes’s story has captivated Iceland for the last 200 years. Was she a woman whose hard-won happiness was being threatened, and she was out for revenge? Or was there something even darker at work? Though the 1828 trial records are preserved in Iceland’s National Library, little evidence remains of Agnes’s life.

“There isn’t a lot to go on,” Bates writes. “But it can be imagined how the relationships between these people had developed and the pressure increased over the course of the dark winter in a farmhouse the size of a small apartment today, and with a healthy walk to reach the nearest neighbors. It’s the stuff of a psychological thriller.”

And indeed, nine books have been written on the subject in Iceland, with a 10th on the way; the murderess is even the subject of an Icelandic pop song. With the renewed interest, the events at Illugastaðir will likely captivate us for years to come—even if we may never know exactly what happened that March evening.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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The 25 Greatest Heist Movies of All Time

Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
Steve McQueen stars in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).
MGM Home Entertainment

In the vast landscape of crime cinema—from movies about murder investigations to small-time crooks to gangster pictures—the heist movie holds a special place in the heart of many fans. There's something about watching all of that planning come together, seeing the often clashing personalities of the characters work side-by-side, and even sometimes laughing or crying as it falls apart, that holds a special fascination. Perhaps because there's a certain satisfaction to seeing all the pieces click into place that more chaotic crime films just can't give you.

In the long history of crime cinema, there have been dozens of heist films ranging in size from small jobs to massive capers, but only a select few stand out as the perfect combination of planning and execution, of character chemistry and filmmaking intricacy. With those factors in mind, we took a look back at the long history of heist films and picked 25 of our very favorites (presented here in chronological order).

1. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Billed as a story of "the city under the city," John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle is the godfather of all modern heist films, and it's easy to see how the various hallmarks of the genre grew out of this gritty, taut caper. It's got a mastermind fresh out of prison, a down-on-his-luck hood looking to turn his life around, and a climactic heist sequence where everything starts to unravel. It's a foundational document in the subgenre, and still holds up as a tense noir masterpiece.

2. Rififi (1955)

After he was blacklisted in his home country, American director Jules Dassin went to France and produced what many people still consider to be the finest heist film ever made. Rififi bears many marks of influence from The Asphalt Jungle, but takes things into more stylized territory, particularly when it comes to the centerpiece heist. It unfolds completely free of dialogue, but the film has set it up so well that the silence is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. It even features the crooks descending on their target from above, something numerous later heist films (including Dassin's Topkapi) would embrace.

3. The Ladykillers (1955)

Part of the appeal of heist films has always been the number of ways in which the plan can go wrong, whether it's in the execution or in the clash of personalities within the gang of criminals. The Ladykillers, one of the most distinctly British crime films ever made, has a bit of both. It features a wickedly iconic performance from Alec Guinness, an essential turn from Peter Sellers, and a final act that devolves in pure impish mayhem when the various crooks all turn on each other as their elderly landlady looks on. (If the title sounds familiar, it might be because Joel and Ethan Coen remade it with Tom Hanks in 2004.)

4. The Killing (1956)

The best heist filmmakers are often the most intricate thinkers, which means it's no surprise that Stanley Kubrick absolutely nailed his turn at the subgenre. The story of a tightly orchestrated racetrack robbery, The Killing unfolds in a somewhat nonlinear style, as Kubrick shows you one character's role, then rewinds the timeline a bit to show you what another character was doing at the exact same time. It's a risky structure, but it pays off spectacularly in Kubrick's hands, and it all builds to one of the most beautifully ironic endings in crime cinema history.

5. Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur is another of those classic '50s heist films that's still influencing the subgenre in a major way today. A sleek, incredibly stylish, and sexy film about an aging gambler who hatches a plan to rob a casino, the film is a masterclass in balancing the intricate setup of the central heist with the often tumultuous lives of its characters. The arc of the title character (Roger Duchesne) in particular builds in a truly spectacular way, until the final minutes are positively quaking with tension.

6. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

If you wanted to make a cool movie in the 1960s, casting Steve McQueen got you halfway to where you wanted to be. The Thomas Crown Affair stars McQueen as a bored millionaire who can basically do whatever he wants with his time, and what he wants is to stage extremely intricate robberies just to see if he can. Then along comes Faye Dunaway, and Crown's plans get just a little more complicated. While John McTiernan's 1999 remake is fun in its own right, it's hard to touch the pure effortless cool of the original.

7. The Italian Job (1969)

Ideally, you want a heist film that can pull out of some kind of spectacular caper setpiece while also making you care about the characters pulling said caper off through some combination of a great script and great chemistry. Some films do one better than the other, but The Italian Job manages to excel at both. Even now, more than 50 years after its release, it stands as one of the funniest films on this list. And while the Mini Cooper car chase remains an iconic piece of heist movie history, the final scene on the bus is almost as impressive.

8. The Sting (1973)

Most heist films are about a group of guys who are going somewhere to get something, whether it's a bank or a casino or a fancy house. The Sting, anchored by the pure magic that is the Paul Newman/Robert Redford team-up, flips that and tells a story about two con artists who make the heist come to them. It's got all the hallmarks of a great heist picture, from the assembly of the team to the planning to the teasing out of the relationship with the target, but it all unfolds with an amusing sense of reversal. By the final scene, you're just as giddy that it all came together as the characters are.

9. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Some heist films spend most of their time setting up the caper, while others prefer to leap into it right at the beginning. No matter where they start, there's usually a clear indication that there was a plan. Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet's white-hot bank robbery picture starring Al Pacino in what is arguably his best performance, makes it clear that the crooks at the center of the story did have a plan. It was just a plan with a whole lot of flaws, and the very human response to how all of those flaws reveal themselves throughout the film makes for one of the most raw displays of empathy in crime cinema history.

10. Blue Collar (1978)

After making a name for himself as a writer with films like Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader chose this story of down-on-their-luck auto workers who plot to rob their union's safe as his directorial debut. It remains, even today, a searing portrait of income inequality, middle class pain, and the way those with power manipulate the powerless into thinking they might be able to get some of their own. Yaphet Kotto, Harvey Keitel, and Richard Pryor all turn in powerful performances, and the whole film is a masterclass in how to use the hook of a heist plot to say something bigger.

11. Thief (1981)

Michael Mann remains one of crime cinema's greatest living practitioners, and he came out of the gate swinging in the subgenre with his directorial debut. Thief is the story of a safecracker (James Caan in top form) who longs for a fulfilling life beyond criminal pursuits after he gets out of prison. Of course, in classic crime cinema fashion, he finds that having it all isn't as within reach as he'd like. Thief features some of the best scenes of fiery, authentic safe-cracking in cinema, and remains one of the highlights of both Mann and Caan's stellar careers.

12. Die Hard (1988)

Whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie is still up for debate. What's not up for debate is its place in the pantheon of gripping, high-octane heist films. While it's best remembered for its action setpieces that take place around the heist, the inciting incident of John McTiernan's legendary film is indeed Hans Gruber and crew plotting to steal a corporation's stash of bearer bonds under the guise of a terrorist hostage situation. It's got everything you want from a great heist, from manipulating law enforcement to drilling a safe to an amazing mastermind at the head of it all. They just didn't count on a barefoot New York cop who's really into Roy Rogers to come and steal their thunder.

13. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Quentin Tarantino has hyped his debut film in countless interviews as a heist film where you never see the actual heist, and it's true that Reservoir Dogs never shows us exactly what happened during the planned diamond robbery at the heart of the story. So why is it on this list? Because, through a combination of careful character work, planning sequences, and absolute mayhem as everything goes wrong, Tarantino allows us to piece the heist together in our heads. By the end we feel like we were there with the characters even if we weren't.

14. Heat (1995)

At two hours and 50 minutes long, Michael Mann's Heat is the very definition of an epic crime film, and from the outside looking in it seems so massive that you might wonder what the filmmaker is possibly filling it with. Once that opening armored car robbery hits, though, the film moves at such a blistering pace that we're left wishing it was even longer. The film is best remembered now as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared the screen, but it should be just as remembered for one of the greatest shootout sequences in film history.

15. Bottle Rocket (1996)

Wes Anderson's debut feature is his take on "what if a group of total weirdos and idiots tried to pull a heist," with everything the Wes Anderson style implies about that—and the result is an unforgettably quirky entry in the subgenre. The practice heist in which the main characters (played by Owen and Luke Wilson) steal from a predetermined list of items within one of their family homes, remains a classic Wes Anderson moment.

16. Out of Sight (1998)

Before he made a trilogy of stylish, impossibly star-packed heist films in the 2000s, Steven Soderbergh turned his eye for genre cinema to this adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel of the same name, about a U.S. Marshal's budding romance with a bank robber she just happens to meet as he's escaping prison. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez bring the sex appeal, Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn bring the comedy, and Soderbergh brings his eye for setups and payoffs to one of the best crime films of the 1990s.

17. Sexy Beast (2000)

At its core, Sexy Beast is less about a heist than it is about a retired criminal who can't shake the demons of his past, which arrive on his doorstep in the form of a sociopathic colleague (Ben Kingsley at the peak of his powers) who demands he do one more job for him. Through this lens of regret and fear and tension, director Jonathan Glazer also manages to deliver one of the most spectacular heist setpieces of all time, as a crew breaks into a vault by drilling through the wall of a filled swimming pool.

18. Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors who feels as much like a perpetual student of film as he is a filmmaker, so it makes sense that if he was going to make a star-filled heist film on the scale of Ocean's Eleven, he'd try to make the ultimate heist movie. While the sheer amount of stuff going on in Ocean's Eleven might mean it doesn't always succeed in certain respects like its heist cinema ancestors, the film still plays today as an endlessly entertaining, utterly stylish, and effortlessly witty take on the subgenre that has just about everything you could ever want in a heist film.

19. Inside Man (2006)

Spike Lee's Inside Man is a film that promised in its trailers to show us "the perfect bank robbery," and it hooks us immediately by throwing us right into things with very little prologue or sense of a plan. The plan for this perfect robbery is only revealed to the audience at the same speed as it's revealed to the NYPD detective (Denzel Washington) and the secretive fixer (Jodie Foster) who are watching it unfold from the outside as the robbery's mastermind (Clive Owen) moves forward with an agenda we can't see coming. Lee pushes the film at a breathless pace, delivering twist after twist with the grace of a master, until we finally see the whole game board.

20. The Town (2010)

What Heat was for Los Angeles, Ben Affleck's The Town is for Boston. Affleck clearly learned a lot of his tricks from Mann, but what's most striking about The Town—aside from its structural similarities to Heat—is the way that Affleck and company take that sensibility then twist it to defy our expectations. What starts with a gloriously tense opening robbery setpiece and builds to a big last job ultimately becomes a standoff not between a cop and a crook who respect each other, but between two best friends who are supposed to be on the same side, each longing for their own version of freedom.

21. Fast Five (2011)

The Fast & Furious films began as a solid street racing franchise before becoming globe-hopping action spectaculars that defy all laws of motion and speed. Fast Five is the pivot point between those two eras of the franchise, and the one that leans most heavily on heist movie conventions. As Dominic Toretto and his crew plot to steal a drug lord's safe and a relentless DSS agent (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in his first appearance in the series) tries to bring them down, the film builds and builds in its ambition. By the end, a giant safe is racing through the streets of Rio, and from that daring heist on the franchise would never be the same.

22. Hell or High Water (2016)

There are a lot of films out there (Arthur Penn's brilliant Bonnie and Clyde among them) that stage a series of bank robberies in an effort to set up some kind of fiery last stand between the robbers and law enforcement, but few of them unfold with the intricacy of Hell or High Water. Chris Pine and Ben Foster shine as two brothers who've planned a high-stakes series of bank robberies, complete with a money-laundering scheme, to save their family's land. The plan is elegant in its simplicity, but grows increasingly complicated as a wise Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) closes in. It all builds to one of the most emotional climaxes of any film on this list.

23. Baby Driver (2017)

You'd think a film that's ostensibly about the getaway driver wouldn't necessarily lean as heavily on the heist elements, but Edgar Wright's clever car chase musical Baby Driver manages to find room for them in between all the driving. Wright's hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a young man who is gifted behind the wheel yet just wants to escape the criminal life. But what's supposed to be his last job puts him in deeper than he's ever been before. Come for the car chases, stay for the complexity of the setup and the fallout that heist movie fans crave.

24. Logan Lucky (2017)

Yes, Steven Soderbergh is on this list three times. And yes, he deserves it. After completing his Ocean's trilogy and playing in various other subgenres for a while, Soderbergh returned to heist pictures with this hilarious story of two brothers who try to turn their family's luck around by robbing Charlotte Motor Speedway in the middle of a busy race weekend. The accents alone—particular Daniel Craig's turn as an explosives expert named "Joe Bang"—are worth the price of admission, but the heist itself is also every bit as satisfying and intricate as anything Danny Ocean's crew ever pulled off.

25. Widows (2018)

After the success of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen could have made a lot of different movies. What he chose was a team-up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to tell the story of a group of women driven to desperation after the deaths of their criminal husbands. Together they hatch a plan to rob a local corrupt politician based on an idea one of their husband's left behind, and in so doing find their own power. What's perhaps most striking about Widows is that it could have worked as a very straightforward heist film. In McQueen and Flynn's hands, though, it becomes a twist-filled ensemble drama about so much more than planning and executing a job.