On the website of the Regional State Archive of Hamar, Norway, is a remarkable story, written in English, about a woman who was imprisoned in Oslo (Christiania) at the same time as Anne Larsdatter Skurdal, and whose story parallels Anne’s in many ways. Let’s begin at the end … the top photo shows Peace Lutheran Church and Northwest Rush Cemetery in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. It is the final resting place of one Ragnild Christiansdatter, the subject of this study. Her gravestone is shown below, alongside that of Anne Larsdatter at Brush Creek, 150 miles away.
The story was researched and written by Hans Petter Schjønsby, a retired physician and historian in the community of Ringsaker, the place where Ragnild was born and raised. Ringsaker is about 100 miles north of Oslo, and about 50 miles south of Sør-Fron parish, where Anne Larsdatter was born and lived for 65 years, at a tenant plot under the farm named Skurdal.
Dr. Schjønsby has kindly given permission to re-post his essay here, where it appeared four installments, now recombined.
The story of Ragnild Christiansdatter (1812-1894) from Ringsaker, Norway.
By Hans Petter Schjønsby
[Hans Petter Schjønsby (b. 1936) is a retired physician and medical historian in Ringsaker, Norway. In addition to serving as Medical Officer for Hedmark County (1986-1997), he has lectured, published scholarly articles, and advocated for the preservation of medical history in the region. In 2011, he received the annual Honors Award from the Hedmark Medical Association. In praise of Dr. Schjønsby’s work, the announcement of his award quoted Simone Weil: “If one does not know the past, one does not understand the present and is not suitable to shape the future.” The Regional archive at Hamar produced a video of Dr. Schjønsby reading this essay, in excellent English, with photos and visuals. To view the video, click below:]
[Throughout this series, I (George) have added editorial comments, in small type and enclosed in square brackets like this.]
November 6th 1836 the lensmann (sheriff) in the parish of Ringsaker in Norway, Elias Heltberg, wrote to his superior, fogd (bailiff – see note 1) Hansen in the district of Hedemarken:
Tuesday the 2nd this Month, a newborn dead Child has been found in a Pond close by the Farm of Store Kindlie. At the Investigation, the Maid servant Ragnild Christiansdatter Store-Kindlie, confessed to be the Mother of the Child, which was the Reason why I sent her to the District Jail of Olsrud today.
Sougstad the 6th of Novbr: 1836 [signed] Heltberg
Already the following day, the Sorenskriver or District judge Muus ordered the County medical officer Albert Blehr to perform a post-mortem examination of the child. This was carried out on the 8th and 11th of November. In his report, Blehr confirmed that the child was dead by drowning.
The child was born in concealment, and that implied a criminal offense. According to the law at that time – which was the country law of Norway of 1687 – the mother was automatically presumed guilty and was to be punished severely: “Women of easy Virtue who kill their Child, should lose their Neck, and their Head [be] put upon a Stake.”
[Ouch! You may recall that this is what actually happened to our ancestor Marte Østensdatter Forbrigd (alt. Bø) in 1695, after her conviction for murder. Luckily, Ragnild was eventually pardoned (as were most such offenders by the 1830s), and “only” spent four years in prison.]
In a following section of the law, women who gave birth in concealment received the same punishment when the child “is born dead, or in other ways dead, then she shall be regarded as if she had killed her Child on Purpose.” It is to be noted that the burden of proof lied with the accused. So in such cases legal protection was not very prominent at that time, to put it mildly.
By contrast, the oldest Norwegian criminal law was meant to create agreement between the accused and the offended and his family. That is the reason why homicide cases as a rule were settled with fines for the bereaved. Outlawry [?] was also practiced. Imprisonment was not common at that time. The reformation in 1537 created a new basis for criminal law which was radically changed. It was now Lutheranism in its most literal form that left its mark. In other words, the new criminal law was strongly based on the Old Testament. The starting point of this law became deeds that could displease God, and that meant also that cases involving licentiousness and immorality were considered more serious than crimes of violence. For example intercourse without being married became penalized. Men were mostly able to escape prosecution. As a rule it was the woman who was left with shame and punishment and what hurt most, she became a victim of the ostracism of the local community. They were often merciless, so it is not surprising that births in concealment were not unusual.
The time of Enlightenment and the humanizing of society led to a considerably milder practice of the criminal law from the middle of the 18th century. It became usual that women who gave birth in concealment [and their baby died or was stillborn] were pardoned and instead sentenced to imprisonment. In Norway a new criminal law – based on modern judicial principles – took over in 1842. This meant that the death penalty from 1687 was repealed, and the sentence became around 3-4 years imprisonment.
Those of you who have read Knut Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil” will remember Inger, who had to serve her sentence in the prison of Trondheim. This Nobel Prize awarded book (1920) probably took place around 1850-60. So this sort of criminality did not disappear when the new law was introduced. One of the country`s leading historians on this subject, N.R. Langeland, reflected on this in 2005:
A time limit of 24 hours constituted the original connection between birth in concealment and to bereave the child of its life. If the child did not appear before that time it was reason to believe that the woman had given life in concealment because she wanted to take the child’s life.
This underlines the size of this problem in the 19th century socially and legally, also after the introduction of modern criminal law. Today, this is a marginal phenomenon, we now prefer to believe that mothers who kill their newborn baby, must be mentally ill. That was not the case 150 years ago.”
The situation in Hedemarken
There is no reason to believe that the parish of Ringsaker, where Ragnild lived, and the county of Hedemarken differed from the general situation in Norway. Between 1813 and 1853 the Regional archives in Hamar registered a total of 40 such forensic cases. In 24 of these cases the court ordered an inquest and post-mortem examination as it suspected that homicide might be involved.
The child’s mother was almost without exception unmarried. She was around 20 years old, and belonged to the lowest economic sector of the population, that of the cotters* and the farmhands, those without any property. She had minimal, if any education and many of them could not read. She had to leave her home early, normally after confirmation, usually to work as a house maid on a farm. The father of the child belonged mostly to the same social stratum. He lived in the same area and it was not uncommon that he was married.
At this time, the local society kept a close eye on its young women. The one who officially executed this function was the community parson (præst). He was a civil servant as well, and also responsible for the population register of the parish (after 1837 the municipality), and all births were to be reported to him. The neighbors also had a duty to report such cases to the parson.
(1) A “fogd” was the head of the police in a district (fogderi). A district consisted of several parishes or municipalities. The local policeman (lensmann) or sheriff reported to the “fogd” (bailiff). The “fogd” was subordinate to the commisissioner of the province (county).
The province or county of Hedemarken was traditionally divided into 5 regions, where Hedemarken (the province was named after this region) was the most populous. Ringsaker parish, from 1837 municipality, where Ragnild lived was the largest in the region of Hedemarken.
Ragnild was immediately suspected and she soon admitted that the child found in the pond was hers. She was then arrested by lensmann Heltberg who placed her in confinement in the district jail at the farm of Olsrud in the neighboring parish of Vang.
On Thursday 10th of November 1836 Ragnild was interrogated. The minutes give a fair picture of Ragnild and her background. Below is an extract:
The Witness Ragnild Christiansdatter Stor-Kindlie, said she was 23 years old, born in a Cotter`s Place (husmannsplass) under the Farm of Samsahl by Parents Christian Olsen and Anne Olsdatter who both are alive and live in a Cotter`s Place called Nilsstuen in Ringsager Aasmark. Ragnild stayed home until she was 12 years old, from that time she has served as Maid Servant in different Places, namely on Dæhlie, Samsahl, Hersoug, Lehne and last on Kindlie.
She has never been prosecuted or punished for any Offence. As to the Object of the Interrogation she openheartedly confessed: Since 1835 she had several times Intercourse with a married Man, Hans Gulbrandsen Lille Koldstad – Eie (2), and in the begin of this Year she felt pregnant. However, when the Father of the Child at this Time became ill and died (of typhoid fever) before the Birth, she had no Opportunity to communicate about the Situation.
Ragnild`s course of life so far, corresponded with what was usual for her rank in the community, as she was supposed to stay in the social class she was born. Most paths out of that rigid system were practically closed, although the modernization of the country with greater privileges and increased social mobility had recently begun. She lived an unnoticed life, and did not differ from the majority.
Ragnild was born on the 2nd of March 1812 and christened in Ringsaker church on the 18th of March the same year. In 1826 she was confirmed in the same church. Her marks for knowledge and behaviour were average, the same result as for most of the other confirmands.
Ragnild was described as “60 Inches high (5 feet), has blue Eyes, blond Eyebrows, a somewhat narrow Face and brown Hair” so she did not differ in this respect either.
Ragnild’s case was handled in the local court of justice and the sentence was pronounced on the 18th of January 1837. She was sentenced to “lose her Neck and the Head to be put on a Stake.”
She appealed, and the appeal to the Court of Appeal in Christiania was sent on the 28th of January. On the 28th of May this court rejected the appeal. The High Court was the next address. However, the law was clear and the High Court ratified the decision taken. The next step was to send a petition of mercy to the King. On the 9th of December 1837 the King’s commissioner in Hedemarken sent the following message to fogd Hansen:
The Royal Department of Justice & Police has on the 1st of this Month written as follows to the Kings Commisioner in the County: that Ragnild Christiansdatter Store Kindlie of North Hedemarken Court District, is graciously freed from the Verdict of the High Court of 28th of September having her Life lost and her Head Put on a Stake, by being left to the Grace of the King.
The fogd was also ordered to send Ragnild as soon as possible to the prison in Christiania. The departure to the capital took place the 17th of December, and 4 days later the prison authorities signed for the receipt of Ragnild in a letter to fogd Hansen.
(2) The namegiving at that time was patronymic. For example Ragnilds surname was“Christiansdatter” after her father. Crofters and servants connected to a farm, added the name of the farm, often with an “eie” at the end. This signified connection to the farm and the place where they lived. Accordingly Ragnilds name when she worked at the farm Store (great) Kindlie, was “Ragnild Christiansdatter Store Kindlie”.
[So Ragnild entered Oslo (Christiania) prison in December 1837. She was still there in April 1841, when Anne Larsdatter arrived.]
This prison of Christiania – which also served as a correctional facility – was built in 1741 as a consequence of the reorganization of the poor relief in Norway. The institution originally had many functions. An important task was isolation of all who were “unworthy poor” (worthy were for instance the ill and parentless) such as vagrants and beggars. This category was often perceived as a problem of law and order.
The next group was women with a so called immoral conduct, such as intercourse outside marriage. Many were also imprisoned because of theft [as was Anne Larsdatter]. In addition, in the institution there were also a few cubicles for mentally ill.
Under their stay the inmates had to work hard for a small payment. This included of course also Ragnild. Such work was considered a combination of punishment and education. Ragnild worked later as a spinner, and it likely that she learned this skill in prison.
Opinions differed about this institution. One of the inspectors at the end of the 18th century remarked that it gave rise to more criminals than it improved the character of the prisoners.
[Conditions in the prison were appalling. Overcrowding, deadly epidemics, bad food, and frequent beatings were among the miseries that prisoners endured.]
The prison of Christiania was a beautiful baroque building [at least at its façade. The walled compound included many buildings over several large city blocks.] Its address was later Storgaten (Main street) 33, and was demolished in 1938.
On the 28th of February 1842 Ragnild was released after four years in prison. She received a passport (Passports were compulsory at that time, even when travelling domestically. This was abolished in 1860) issued by the Commissioner of Christiania and ordered to report to the authorities in the municipality of Ringsaker when she came home. See photo of Ragnild`s passport below.
[Anne Larsdatter’s release from prison was also in February 1842. Not only did the two women undoubtedly know each other in prison, it is even possible that they traveled north together after their release. Their homes were both along the “King’s Road,” the overland route linking Oslo with Trondheim.]
Ragnild also had to report the removal from Christiania to the parson in Ringsaker. She was included in the parson`s population register 11th of June 1843. It is here noted that she was 30 years old, that she was a former prisoner, and that the purpose of her removal back to Ringsaker “was in her Place of Birth to earn her Bread”, and her address and place of work was the farm of Smedstad (situated in the northern part of Ringsaker, not far from the present town of Moelv and the lake Mjøsa).
Ragnilds further fate and life in Ringsaker
Ragnild reported her removal to Ringsaker about 13 months after being released from prison. This was not unusual, because many wanted to establish themselves in the community before they reported to the parson. Her past was of course well known and she was a marked person. It is reasonable that she needed time, and we understand that she wanted to act and behave correctly.
Ragnild soon found herself a man and on the 29th of December 1842 she married “Andreas Arnesen, Widower and Farm hand.” Andreas was 2 years younger than Ragnild. He lived in a cotters house, a place under the farm of Ødemo, neighbour of the farm Smedstad. Ragnild and Andreas had a daughter, Christiane, in 1843. Andreas died only 2 years later, and Ragnild was alone again. However, Andreas had a brother, Mons Arnesen. Mons and Ragnild had a son, Andreas in 1846 and he was probably named after his uncle.
In 1850 Mons and Ragnild were married. In the parish register it is stated that “Marriage with deceased man’s Brother is permitted according to Royal Commission of 12th of October 1850” (This prohibition against marriage between people related by marriage was formally repealed as late as 1993, when a new law of marriage was approved in Norway).
According to the church book, Mons was “Inderst” (lodger, usually a farm hand) and born in the same year as Ragnild. Ragnild was named widow and “Inderst.” (3)
In February 1851 Ragnilds third child was born and the boy was given the name of Bernt. Bernt was confirmed in 1865. He had good marks and was placed as number 6 on the church floor as the custom was at that time. This was quite an accomplishment from someone of such humble origins. We like to believe that Ragnild was very proud of Bernt.
(3) The “Inderst” was a farmworker who hired rooms, mostly at a cotters place, or at the farm. He had his own housekeeping.
From around 1850 the economy of the country went from fair to worse. Norway was overpopulated in relation to the production of the land and the gap between poor and rich grew wider. Beggary and social distress was one of the most important consequences. The unskilled workers were the main victims because unemployment was most widespread in that part of the population. And never has the country had so many cotters (peasants) as in this period. The country was ripe for emigration.
The young and the strong ones, those who wanted to make a future elsewhere moved, either domestically, to the growing cities or northwards, but especially to U.S.A. The emigration from Hedemarken was considerable already at the middle of the century and it exploded after the civil war. In 1866 there moved around 250 able-bodied persons from Ringsaker, almost 90% of them to America. Among them were Ragnild Christiansdatter and her son Bernt. [They sailed on the bark “Anna Delius,” from Christiania to Quebec, Canada, spending 40 days at sea. Pictured below is a similar ship, the bark “Agnes M Lovett.” A decade later, immigrants were crossing by steamship in two weeks or less.]
The 20th of April 1866 the church register noted that “Ragnild Christiansdatter Ødemoeie,” with “Søn Bernt” born 24th of February 1851, reported that they were to emigrate to America. This was surely well considered. Bernt was confirmed some months before, while Mons and 15 year old Andreas had already left in 1861 to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the family. The departure of Ragnild and Bernt was probably postponed because of the Civil War.
In the period between 1861 and 1866 Ragnild and her son had rooms at a farm called “Slottet” situated in the same neighborhood as before. She was now mentioned as spinner, and this was probably the way she subsisted in this period. The daughter Christiane married in Ringsaker in 1868, and left with her husband farmworker Ludvig Larsen and their small Daughter Gunda for America in 1869.
The family ended up in the Middle West. In the census for 1870 we find them in the northwest of Wisconsin, in the township of Rush River in St. Croix county. In the census Mons is referred to as “Farmer”, and Ragnild or Rachel as she is called here as “Farmers wife,” Andreas or Andrew, Bernt or Benjamin and Ludvig or Lodewick as “Farm laborers”. And they have changed their surname to Anderson. Christiane is now Christina, and is “at home”. The value of the property is estimated at 1500 dollars and the movables at 300 dolllars.
End of Ragnild`s story
Ragnild grew up in poor circumstances in the inland of Norway, the family was at the bottom of the social ladder, she had a criminal record and was probably stigmatized in the local society, she was a victim of customs and circumstances belonging to the past, and with poor prospects for the rest of her life.
She ended up as a respected farmer’s wife in the USA. And last but not least, they had become freeholders [that is, they owned their own land, a status they could never have dreamed of in the old country]. Before she died at 82 years old in 1894, she even lived to see her son Bernt as an attorney. Ragnild must have been strong-willed and brave to have gone through this impressive transformation.
Ragnild’s children were all married and their descendants are spread over the United States, most of them in the Middle West. They have good reason to be proud of their ancestress. [These same observations apply to us, the descendants of Anne Larsdatter, a poor woman who overcame very similar obstacles, and who lived out her later life in America, in what must have seemed like the lap of luxury.]
Ragnild’s story may for some seem remote and irrelevant. However, we must not forget that it is not so very long ago that Ragnild was imprisoned in Christiania. The great-grandfathers of the older of us were born or grew up at that time. They experienced the attitudes and views of the 19th century, but they also took part in the modernization of the country. A period of growing standard of living, better possibilities for work and education, a humanized criminal law and not to forget female emancipation and equal rights. In this way, they witnessed the development of a more just society. Ragnild Christiansdatter would have liked that.
Fylkesmannsarkivet (The Archive of the Commissioner in Hedmark). The Region Archives in Hamar.
Tukthusarkivet (The Prison Archive). The National Archives of Norway, Oslo.
History of the High Court . Vol.1. Oslo 2005.
The History of Ringsaker, vol 3 & 4. Ringsaker historical society 1993, 1998.
The Church Registers of the parish of Ringsaker. Digitalarkivet.no
The Court Protocols. The Region Archives in Hamar
The Fogd Protocols. The Region Archives in Hamar
A profound thanks to ms Torill Steivang at the Regional Archives of Hamar for her kind support and for organizing the contact between Hedemarken and the good people in the Middle West.
[And from “Ole Larson’s Folks,” heartfelt thanks to Dr. Hans Petter Schønsby for his permission to present his article here on the website. We hope you have enjoyed the journey.]