First and foremost, a thousand thanks to cousin Joanne Lillevold, who originally researched this story, translated the source documents (drawing on her one year of college Norwegian, and struggling with several difficult, unstudied dialects), and presented it as a slide talk to her local genealogy society. While I am attempting to retell it in my own voice, Joanne did the heavy lifting. Many of the images were also collected by cousin Joanne.
If you are squeamish, you might find parts of the story disturbing or even revolting. In this age of extreme violence in literature and the media, circumstances of the crime itself may not seem shocking, but the punishment … OMG!
The motive behind Marte’s crime is a complete mystery. Cousin Joanne remarked cryptically that it was a case of “a rich person killing a poor person for the money.” The writers we will quote from are all confounded by the lack of any apparent reason. Apparently, motive was never mentioned at all in the rather perfunctory trial. Be aware that any speculation about motives or mental states that I may make in the course of the telling are exactly that: pure speculation.
Unlike the Medieval royals and nobles I claim as ancestors in my lighthearted pages on ancient history, Marte Bø is a documented sixth great-grandmother. Joanne and I have assembled evidence from primary and secondary sources, establishing our mutual relationship, in accordance with the Genealogical Proof Standard.
Excerpts from the following, translated by Joanne Lillevold:
Hovdhaugen, Einar: Gardar og Slekter i Fron. Norway: Fron Historielag, 1974
Kleiven, Ivar: Fronsbygdin: Gamal bondekultur i Gudbrandsdalen. Norway: H Aschehoug & Co., 1930
Thomle, Erik Andreas: En Kriminalhistorie fra 1694. Bygd og Bonde (periodical)1927-1928
Here is a map of the farms I explored on my 2011 trip to Norway. Click on the image to enlarge.
With the exception of Lillegard, all of these farms are associated with the last two generations born in Norway; that is, my first and second great-grandparents. I knew of some farms of more distant ancestors just outside this area, but time did not permit exploring them.
Enter cousin Joanne Lillevold. Her area of study did include those earlier farms, and overlapped slightly with my area. By removing a few of my labels, I was able to show her farms on the same map, in a different color.
Lillegard is the farm of our nearest common ancestor, as noted earlier. Bø, Harildstad, and Forbrigd are homes of earlier ancestors to both Joanne and me. Lillevold is, of course, the namesake farm of our “new” cousin Joanne. The other places marked are important scenes in the story I am about to tell. Kjorstad, in addition to that distinction, is the current home of my friend, mentor, and guide, Pål Kjorstad.
One other farm of interest is not marked, but is located between Vinstra and Harildstad. Kongsli was the home of some important characters in the story, and also (possibly) some even earlier ancestors. The “big house” was one of the most spectacular farm homes I viewed on my visit.
Finally, let’s zoom in on the map, to the area of our story, in satellite view. Click on this one to see a lot of the farm names.
It is about 6 kilometers, or a couple hours’ walk, from Skurdal to Bø; that is, from the adult home of Lars Paulsen to that of the central character in our story. I refer to Marte Østensdatter, born at Forbrigd around 1650, matriarch of Bø when she met her downfall in 1694-95. The same Marte who happens to be Lars Paulsen’s great-great-grandmother, and thus my sixth great. Oh, grandma, what have you done?
Chapter 1: Lady of the Manor
Unlike so many ancestors I have written about, this one was wealthy, both born and married into the upper echelon of Gudbrandsdal society. Her grandfather was Simen Trondsen Heggen, sheriff of Gausdal, a rich and powerful man by all accounts. In August 1648, Sheriff Simen Heggen appeared in Oslo on behalf of the farmers in his parish to pledge allegiance to Frederick III, the newly seated king of Denmark and Norway.
Simen Trondsen Heggen was married to Kari Amundsdatter Olstad. Their second daughter, Marte, married Østen Østensen of Fron parish, who bought the farm Forbrigd, of the same place [Fron], from Oslo mayor Nils Toller in 1674. It appears that Østen was already established at Forbrigd before he purchased it. Our ancestor of interest, Marte Østensdatter, was born about 1650 to Østen Østensen Forbrigd and Marte Simensdatter.
Østen Forbrigd was apparently a shrewd dealer in real estate. At his death (which occurred while his daughter was in jail awaiting execution), his land holdings amounted to more than 18 hides, on 11 farms in Fron, Lesja, and Gausdal parishes. A “hide” is an ancient measure of land. It originally referred to the amount needed to support one family, regardless of the acreage. The term also referred to taxes on the land. The typical farm in Fron contained between one and five hides. The eminent historian of the area, Einar Hovdhaugen, said of Østen Forbrigd, “One gets an impression that here one has an intentional land collector.” I mention this family wealth because some writers have speculated that the motive for Marte’s crime was greed, perhaps learned or inherited from her father; that she coveted the land owned by her victim. As we shall see, however, this theory holds very little water.
Marte Østensdatter Forbrigd, in due time, married Torger Torgersen Bø, whose family had been on the Bø farm since at least the Middle Ages, perhaps much longer. Hovdhaugen details the long history of the farm in vol. 2, pp. 147-151 (emphasis added):
It is an interesting ancient farm district we find in north Ruste with the farms Bø, Hov, Lunde, and Bryn. Probably … an ancient large farm, which in a distant prehistoric past was a community unto itself, with a residence for a large household. We believe Bø must have been central in this farm district and seat for the original large farm. The name Bø means literally “the farm.”
The author goes so far as to date the community to pre-Christian times.
The oldest god-worship was perhaps connected to a sacred grove [lund] on Lunde, then moved to the pagan temple on Hov [“pagan temple”] when the asa belief had reached its full development, and then came Christianity, with a church on the central original farm, Bø. Here are long historical lines.
By “asa belief,” I believe Hovdhaugen meant the pantheon of Norse deities. Remember that name, Lunde, the pagan “sacred grove.” It will come up again later. The history continues,
Bø is mentioned in several documents from the Middle Ages. The farm was the Hamar archbishop’s property. In 1604, Bø was a full farm … there stood a church on Bø in the Middle Ages. Bishop Jens Nilssøn tells in his visitation books from the 1590s that there then yet stood a dilapidated annex-church on Bø.
By 1785, when another cleric chronicled his visit, the church was in ruins, and the soapstone grave markers were no longer readable. Even in Marte’s time (late 1600s), the abandoned chapel and graveyard must have been a spooky place.
Marte was the owner’s wife, with all the attendant status and privilege. Despite the ruined church, Bø was a thriving community, boasting in 1658 five horses, 30 cattle, 15 goats, 30 sheep, and four hogs (! – hogs were a great luxury; few farms had even one). There was also a grain mill and a sawmill. Torger and Marte had four children, two boys and two girls, including Tore Torgersdatter (married Harildstad), our ancestor. Life in those days was quite primitive for everyone, but those of Marte’s station were certainly more comfortable than most. From this idyllic setting, then, sprang the most bizarre and perplexing crime in the history of Gudbrandsdalen.
The Bø farm dominates the center-left portion of the above photo. Below is an enlargement of the present-day housing compound.
Chapter 2: Scene of the Crime
A few miles up the Vinstra river from Bø lies a little farm called Huskelien (or Huskelia). It is much smaller and less prosperous than its downstream neighbor. The relative size of the farms can be seen below; the two satellite photos are shown at the same scale. As usual, you should click on them to see a lot of details. The present Bø farm is at least the size of the solid line. In ancient times, it was surely much larger, perhaps to the dotted line or further. Note the preponderance of gently sloping, readily cultivated land.
In contrast, Huskelien is nestled between steep, wooded hillsides, and the size of its clearing is miniscule.
Furthermore, Huskelien lies on the “backside” of the river valley, on the slope facing north (away from the sun), making it colder and snowier, with poor farming potential. Even if the farm included a great deal of the surrounding forest land, it could hardly have been prosperous living.
The blacksmith was on his way to Huskelien, so his view was closer, from a similar angle.
Despite the apparent disparity in their economic status, the Bø and Huskelien families shared a close and cordial relationship. Kleiven suggested there was a family connection, but offered no details. In Marte’s time, Huskelien was owned and occupied by two sisters, single women of middle to advanced age, named Marit and Tore Jonsdatter. They were either widows or spinster women, living there alone. They had two brothers living elsewhere in the area, about whom more later. The inter-family relationship was such that Marit Jonsdatter Huskelien, the eventual victim, had held Marte Bø’s eldest son Torger, one of the eventual murderers, to sponsor his baptism. Remember that fact; it relates to a poignant scene coming up. If you are wondering why Marte did not hold her own baby, an ancient custom held that a mother was excluded from the church for a period after childbirth, so Marte herself was probably not present at the baptism. It was generally assumed that the Huskelien property would be inherited by the Bø family after the sisters died [? – unsure why the brothers would not inherit].
All this speaks loudly against the “greed” motive put forward by at least one author. To someone with Marte’s wealth, surely no amount of greed could account for this crime. Even if they had gotten away with it, the prize would have been pitifully small, weighed against the risk. But I am getting ahead of myself again. Or, maybe not?
At some date prior to the murder, the following incident occurred, as reported by Kleiven, pp. 351f:
One spring in the spring-work time, Tore [Jonsdatter] died suddenly and unexpectedly. They found her in the field at Huskelien, where she lay on her stomach with a mouth full of earth. Afterwards, Marit lived alone at Huskelien.
Ouch! No suspicion of foul play was noted, although the circumstances were more than suspicious. The precise date, even the year, of this event is not clear. Nor is there any known connection with her sister’s subsequent, violent death. But, — OMG again — how could there not be a connection, at least an indirect one? Henrik Ibsen could have made a great psychodrama out of this.
Cut to the chase: In the summer of 1694, Marit Jonsdatter Huskelien went missing. Her shoes were found on the riverbank, and it was feared she had drowned. That fear was seemingly confirmed when Marit’s body was found in the fall, lodged in a birch tree several miles downstream (ironically, close by the farm Bø).
Marit’s brothers, Per and Lars Jonsen, persuaded the sheriff of Fron to investigate her death. They were convinced that their sister had not drowned accidentally, nor committed suicide.
Chapter 3: The Confession
Marit Jonsdatter Huskelien lost her life in 1694, on the evening of 11 July. At that time of year in central Norway, daylight and twilight linger far into the night. Quoting again from Kleiven, p. 352:
The same night, there was a blacksmith in Kvikne, Jo Sylte, who had assembled a cast-iron hook for the cottage door at Huskelien, which he now meant to go install. When he came to a mountain cleft on the edge of the Huskeli land, he saw two guys come carrying a person between themselves. Understanding immediately that a terrible crime had been committed, he kept himself hidden and watched. The mountain cleft he stood back in was called Jo-Klovo [Jo-cleft] afterward, but now [1930?] it is heaped full of stones.
The questions of when the blacksmith came forward, whether he identified the men he saw, and whether there were other witnesses, are left unanswered. But in the course of the sheriff’s investigation, suspicion eventually fell on Bø’s eldest son and heir, Torger, and his mother, Marte, along with a hired hand of theirs named Anders Lunde. By this time, a magistrate had taken up the case, and the three suspects were called to court to testify.
Immediately, or so the sources state, Torger Torgersen Bø poured out an emotional, detailed confession, “with great remorse and weeping.” The other two also readily confessed. At least, that is what the record shows. In this age of “enhanced interrogation,” we are entitled to wonder what Medieval forms of coercion may have been applied in secret, especially considering certain details of the court’s sentence in this case (which I am not yet ready to reveal). And of course, if torture was a factor, then the veracity of the confessions themselves is called into question. But I digress.
On the night specified, at the bidding of his mother (who had been obsessed with the notion for years), Torger and the hired man went to Huskelien, where Marit was lying in bed. Torger asked her if they from Bø should cut the grass in the holding pen at the seter [summer pasture]. “No, it is too early yet, my godson,”(!) she answered. At that, he took her arms, while Anders Lunde applied a choke-hold on her throat. After she was lifeless, they carried her out to the hill above the Vinstra river, set her shoes behind the hill, and threw her in. O-ouch!
Anders Lunde testified that Marte Bø had promised him a new shirt and three riksdaler, payment of which was made the Saturday after the murder. Three riksdaler in those days was about the value of a cow. Anders further stated that the woman had been nagging him to commit this crime for the past six years. She had also unsuccessfully approached his brother, Jon Lunde, on at least two occasions, offering him a greater reward than Anders eventually accepted. Her son Torger took part in some of these conversations. For her part, Marte also confessed fully, admitting that the whole affair had been her own idea.
One time just days before the event, Anders had started out for Huskelien with lethal intent. But when he slowed to rest, a large black dog appeared, behaving as if it wanted to follow him. The hired man lost his nerve and hurried back home. Another account of this day(?-may have been two separate occasions) has it that the crime was aborted because Torger did not meet Anders at Huskelien as expected.
Chapter 4: The Sentence
On 14 November 1694, under Norwegian Law 6-9-1, Marte Bø, Torger Bø, and Anders Lunde were sentenced to death for premeditated murder. After the sentence was pronounced, the prisoners were transported 120 kilometers to a regional or district court in Hedmark, where the sentence was upheld. They were returned to the Fron sheriff’s jail at Kjorstad to await their execution, the method of which was specified: beheading by sword, with their heads to then be set on stakes.
O-o-o-ouch! I warned you it was gross. But this was the 1600s. They were still burning “witches” at the stake, for example. Later, we will take a look at an executioner’s “menu” of options. But the craziest thing of all is, no one seems to have asked why. I think I will need a whole episode to mull that over.
Also unexplored was any possible connection between this murder and the earlier sudden death of the victim’s sister, under suspicious circumstances already described. Kleiven seems to vacillate between disgust over the perfunctory nature of the trial, and rationalization of its shortcomings:
As evil** as this Huskeli murder is from the first to the last, yet more evil were he who did the execution, the sheriff, and the judge. From the first to the last, the hearing of these three criminals is so superficial and hastily done that it is meaningless, and there isn’t once asked nor said a word about the reason for the murder. The husband at Bø was not called into court to give an explanation, and neither of the two brothers of Marit Huskelien, who raised the court case. It appears as though the judge has arranged in order to get the case done as quietly and quickly as possible and avoid all kinds of commotion with witness and testimony. It was all right to do it with this case because all three criminals at one time confessed to the crime, without the least concealment. Perhaps the court here took consideration for the two well-respected, old and distinguished families and all the relatives far and wide in the valley, who certainly did see hurt from the Huskeli murder.
My thoughts wander to some of those “relatives far and wide” who “saw hurt.” Østen Østensen Forbrigd, Marte’s father, died of unknown causes in December 1694. Surely, heartbreak over his daughter’s crime and punishment was a significant factor. Marte’s husband, Torger Torgersen Bø died suddenly, just days before his wife’s execution, most likely from a stroke caused by stress.
Then there were Marte’s three other children Østen, Marte, and Tore. Tore was the youngest daughter (fourteen years), and was also our ancestor. .
**another translator used the word “strange” instead of “evil.” I would say strange and evil, and more.
Chapter 5: The Walk Begins
I thought I was pretty good at collecting images from the Internet to use in my projects. But Cousin Joanne really nailed it when she made her PowerPoint on this story. Using Norwegian mapping sites, and on-the-ground images from Google “street view,” she presented, among other things, a realistic series showing the countryside as Marte must have seen it on her walk to Gallows Hill. Another tusen takk to my resourceful fifth cousin! All images are clickable for enlarged viewing.
Naturally, the color photos show all modern improvements. Marte and the others on her death-march would have seen fewer and very different man-made developments. Roads were obviously unpaved and more primitive, but probably followed mostly the same route. The triple execution took place on 11 Feb. 1695; I emphasize the date because some of the 20th-century sources got it wrong. The ground would have been mostly snow-covered. Below is part of Uppigard Kjorstad as it looks in the present day. This is where the walk began.A photo dated 1938 shows the L-shaped barn above, under construction. The building in the left background (no longer standing) was purportedly the jail where Marte and the others were held, 240 years earlier(!)
In the previous post, I implied that Marte’s other three children (besides the condemned eldest son) came along on the walk. That was based on my misinterpretation of a passage from Kleiven, which Joanne has retranslated as follows (she cautions us that it is a rough paraphrase, up to the ellipsis):
Marte Bø had three more children besides the oldest son: Østen, Marte [called “Marit” in other sources], and Tore. Of those, at least Marte was an adult. On the way to Gallows Hill, Torger said to his mother that his sister Marte should also have been with them [to be executed]. Marte (the mother), tells him, ‘keep quiet, it’s bad enough as it is.’ … Those words Torgjer Bø said to his mother about Marte, his sister, pointed to her also having some guilt in the Huskeli murder, but how that could connect cannot be understood.
While the elder daughter was not among the condemned (which Torger asserted she should have been), there is no indication whether she or the other children were present as witnesses. Joanne doubts it; she posed to me the simple question, “Would you?”
Well, no, I surely wouldn’t, if I had a choice. Both Marte’s husband and her father, who no doubt would have been required to attend, avoided the horror by conveniently dying in the weeks prior to the execution. The husband died suddenly, eleven days before the awful event, possibly from a stress-induced stroke. It is not known whether the father’s death was sudden, but surely the upheaval in his family was a factor. As for the children, I think it likely they were also required (forced) to be there by the customs and mores of the time, as devastating as it would have been for anyone, let alone a child. Either way, I strongly doubt they had a choice in the matter.
Chapter 6: Final Hymn
From the jail at Uppigard Kjorstad to the execution place, named Gallows Hill (Galjehaugen), Marte and the others first walked across a small plateau just below the Kjorstad farm but above the valley floor. Try to imagine the scenes with primitive, unpaved roads, some poorly drained, and snow-covered much of the year. The road from Kjorstad is called Kilevegen.
It is not recorded how many officials and witnesses came along on the walk, or showed up at Gallows Hill for the execution, but one can imagine a considerable crowd. Also unclear is which details of the event were officially noted at the time, and which were passed down in folklore until our source authors wrote them down over 200 years later. Be aware that if certain items sound implausible, they may have been exaggerated or even added to the story over the centuries. I will comment next chapter on one particularly bizarre episode.
After crossing the plateau, Kilevegen descends through the forest to Kongsvegen, which translates as “the king’s road.” Since time immemorial, this has been the overland route between Norway’s two historical capitals, Oslo and Trondheim. Today, it is part of “E6,” the primary highway from the southern tip of Sweden to Kirkenes, Norway, the northernmost settlement in Scandinavia.
At this point, I ask you to ratchet up your imagination to the next level, and ignore the modern multi-lane, paved highway, with its signage, guard rails, and motor vehicle traffic. Try to concentrate on the scenery, and imagine the road as a rutted track, passable by wagon or coach for a brief season only. In wintertime, passage by sleigh may have been less difficult, if travelers were equipped to withstand the sub-arctic weather. Here is the junction of Kilevegen with Kongsvegen as it looks today.
The execution party continued southeast on Kongsvegen for about two kilometers,
until they reached Gallows Hill. At cousin Joanne’s request, Gunvor Brække took this photo at the summit (the execution’s precise location is unknown).
One striking detail of the narrative is musical. You may recall that the son Torger earlier confessed to the crime “with great remorse and weeping.” It was not noted if Marte was remorseful, but on the walk, Kleiven says she sang an old hymn.
… on the way to the execution place she sang with strong, beautiful, and clear voice this hymn in the Kingo* book for the Second Sunday of Advent: “I beseech you, my Lord and God.”
In her research, cousin Joanne found a hymnbook from Norway, published in 1883, that contains that very song.
One remark on the hymnal: It was published in Christiania (Oslo), but the language is Danish (official language of Norway from the 1500s until 1906). Confusingly, the king it refers to, by whose resolution the book was published, was Oscar II, king of Sweden, which had been the co-monarchy of Norway since the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. What language did Marte sing in 1695? Most likely a dialect unique to Gudbrandsdalen, quite different from not only Danish and Swedish, but also from Norwegians in other areas. A very distinct dialect remains even today.
*Thomas Hansen Kingo (1634-1703), Danish bishop and hymn-writer
Chapter 7: Heads Will Roll
11 February, 1695. From Kleiven, p. 353:
The old execution place in Fron was at Gallows Hill [Galjehaugen] at the Augla brook, and here all three were executed the same day. When Marte went to the scaffold, she kicked off her shoes and asked an acquaintance to take them along to Bø. “They can make a little money for these, also,” she said. [These were Marte’s last words, at least in the record.] There was a steep slope from Gallows Hill down to the Augla, and for each chop the executioner rolled a head into the river. Afterward, the heads were set on stakes on the hill.
I am torn between a sense of grief for this 300-year-old tragedy in my family, and a fascination with the story, those few aspects which are told by our sources (in fact or error), and those many things left untold. Also between revulsion at some of the gory details, and curiosity about their technical aspects.
For example, the rolling of the heads into the brook. Cousin Joanne collected this topographic map of Gallows Hill from www.finn.no. The pin marks the hill’s summit.
She then drew a line on the map, showing the shortest distance from the summit of the hill to the Augla, roughly 85 meters.
This would presumably be the approximate path by which the heads would roll from the scaffold to the water, if the scaffold were at the hill’s summit, which is not known in this case. But there is a serious problem here. Not the buildings, which were surely not there, nor the road, which may or may not have been, nor even the location of the scaffold. The trouble concerns the slopes involved.
A key feature of topographic maps is the system of contour lines that indicate slope. Where the lines are close together, the slope is steep; where far apart, it is more nearly level. On any given slope, a path running perpendicular to the contour lines is the steepest, i.e. the natural path of a freely rolling object.
Along Joanne’s line, the first 20 meters or so come pretty close to that ideal rolling path, almost perpendicular to the contour lines. But then, the contour changes, and Joanne’s line runs at a cross-angle. A little further on, about the location of the first modern building, the ground becomes nearly flat. Even a soccer ball would not roll across it without constant help. This fact led me to doubt the whole story of the rolling heads, until I re-read the passage from Kleiven. It says, ” There was a steep slope from Gallows Hill down to the Augla …”
But the steep slope ends more than 30 m. (100 ft.) from the stream, according to our map. A closer inspection, however, reveals a low-lying channel at the base of the slope, indicated by v-shaped protrusions in the contour lines, which suggest it may have been the stream bed at some era in the past.
If this were the case, it would certainly be possible, with some planning and preparation, for the executioner to roll the heads into the brook, whether the scaffold was at the summit of the hill, or on the shelf to the north. The poetic justice here is stark and gruesome: the murderers threw their victim into a river; so, the executioner caused their severed heads to roll into a brook.
Under this scenario, the large flat area, instead of an obstacle to the rolling, would have provided a convenient gathering place for a large crowd of spectators to watch from across the creek.
Which brings back the question, who was present at the execution? It may be that attendance was purely voluntary. Literature, both historical and fictional, makes clear that public executions were wildly popular in urban England during the 18th century, drawing crowds in the tens of thousands. It is unknown whether this morbid fascination extended to rural Norway. On the other hand, we have already raised the possibility that prevailing customs may have required families of the condemned, even including small children, to witness the event. I have yet to find any such details in English non-fictional sources; so far, it is only a possibility in my mind.
As for the method of execution, it was just one of several macabre options offered by executioners of the time.
Chapter 8: Services Rendered
In Thomle’s article, he itemized the costs of the triple execution, and maintenance and transport of the prisoners during their twelve weeks in custody.
According to what was stated in the Gudbrandsdalen bailiff’s records for 1695, all three offenders were taken into custody 14 November 1694 and held in jail at the [farm of the] sheriff in Fron, Paul Paulsen Kjørstad, until on 11 February 1695 they were all beheaded by the executioner from Oslo, Nicolai P. Flug. By the sheriff’s receipt, it is seen that all the prisoners were transported from Fron to the district court in Hedemarken, over 12 Norwegian miles [120 kilometers] and back again and that he for this transport and for the prisoners’ maintenance for 12 weeks and five days and guarding, according to agreement, was paid 19 riksdaler, 9 shillings. The executioner was paid for the beheading “by sword” and for setting the heads on stakes, as well as for the travel, horse rental for himself and “journeyman,” along with maintenance from Stange to Fron, 15 Norwegian miles [150 kilometers] forth and back, in all 63 riksdaler.
The executioner was probably paid an annual salary by the city of Oslo, in addition to the per-item fees paid (by Fron parish?) for this particular “service,” and for travel expenses. Joanne did not find much information on the Oslo executioner, but did collect a photo of the house where he may have lived; at least, it was the home of the city’s executioner in the 1700s. It is located on Rådhusgata, not far from Oslo’s city hall, and currently houses the Young Artists Association.
*UPDATE* In a comment below, Harald Moberg, who signs himself Keeper of Akershus Castle (!) says that neither the above house, nor this address on Rådhusgata, were ever occupied by the executioner, and that the above-mentioned Nicolai P Flug lived at Kongens Gate 5. At that address now stands a large brick hotel building of the modern or early-modern period.
Joanne found more extensive info about the executioner of Bergen during the same time period, Augustus Høcker. In addition to a brief biography, there was a fee list for the various duties he could perform. It seems likely that the Oslo executioner offered similar services, at comparable rates. The fee for rolling a head into a brook(!) is not listed here.
What a way to make a living! Joanne translates two different words as “stake” (two kinds of stake), but the point is clear: these were brutal times. One does not have to search long to find other methods of torture and execution even more revolting than those listed.
I was surprised to learn that beheading by sword was considered the most honorable or dignified form of execution, in Scandinavia and throughout the Western world. It was generally reserved for upper-class criminals. Wikipedia has an extensive article on decapitation. The execution of choice for lower classes in Norway was beheading by ax, and in England and elsewhere, hanging. By “choice,” of course, I mean the choice of the authorities, not the condemned. Presumably, the rolling of the heads, and displaying them on poles, was not considered “honorable” by anyone.
Chapter 9: The Spoils
Marte Østensdatter’s execution, and the several related deaths, created a complex problem regarding the farm and fortune left behind. From Thomle:
The probate for Marte Østensdatter was held on Bø, 1 and 2 March 1695. The estate was very prosperous. It owned 18 cows, 11 young cattle, 4 oxen, 14 calves, 21 goats, 39 sheep, 2 hogs, and 9 horses. Of silver, there were a goblet, heavy 11 weight, 3 spoons, and 2 riksdaler in money. The whole estate, not including real property, came to 260 riksdaler, 2 ort, 6 shillings, of which the wife’s share of the personal property came to 130 riksdaler, 1 ort, 3 shillings. The son Torger’s inheritance from his father the tax collector also intended to be forfeited. But the maternal uncle, Amund Østensen, and the children’s guardians, Peder Veikle and Johannes Kongsli, intended that this could not be the case, because the judgment of the district court was pronounced 9 January 1695, while the father, Torger Torgersen, only died 31 January the same year, and the son accordingly received no inheritance from him. The execution, of course, did not occur until 11 February. But that was because the executioner had other business, so it could not occur before. The matter was referred to the king’s decision.
I don’t want to get into the currency system, but just note that 260 riksdaler and change was a great deal of money. Also in dispute, along with the wealth of personal property, was Marte’s share of the land holdings, which were extensive. In addition to the entire Bø farm, very large in itself, the estate included farm lands in several other localities, even a part of Forbrigd, which Marte would have inherited upon her father’s death, had she not been under a death sentence by that time.
In its final decisions the following year, the Crown awarded Marte’s half of both real and personal property to the children. To be more accurate, the children were given preference over other bidders to buy the land. While it is not made clear in our texts, the children must also have received their “normal” inheritance, namely, the other half of the property. Under this ruling, their riches were greatly increased.
The children’s names were Østen, Marit (or Marte), and Tore (or Toro). Our sources do not detail what became of Østen, the only surviving son. He would be expected to become operator of the farm. Instead, the elder daughter, Marit, married Peder Tjøstelsen Harildstad, who became the owner-operator, or gaardbruger of Bø. Marit, you may recall, was the sibling who was indirectly, and perhaps apocryphally, implicated by her brother in the murder plot.
The younger daughter, Tore, married Peder’s brother, Paul Tjøstelsen Harildstad, and became my fifth great-grandmother, as follows:
1) Marte Østensdatter, b. Forbrigd (c. 1650-1695) – m. Torger Torgersen Bø
2) Tore Torgersdatter Bø – m. Paul Tjøstelsen Harildstad
3) Marit Paulsdatter Harildstad – m. Svend Paulsen Lillegard (alt. Litlgard)
4) Paul Svendsen Lillegard* – later Flaate – m. Mari Pedersdatter
5) Lars Paulsen Flaate – m. Anne Larsdatter Skurdal
6) Ole Larson Skurdal (emigrated to Wisconsin) – m. Anne Samuelsdatter Bjerke
7) Isaac Larson – m. Anna Moen
8) Lovell Larson – m. Reatha Myers
9) George Larson (b. 1947)
* There were two brothers named Paul Svendsen (alt. Poul Sveinsen) Lillegard(!). This kind of double naming happened occasionally, when both grandfathers of a family had the same given name, and under other circumstances. The other Paul Svendsen was Joanne’s ancestor.
Aside from the inheritance, one can only wonder how the children’s lives were shaped by those awful events of their youth. I also wonder if they had any better idea than we have, what possible motive there may have been …
This is pretty much the end of the facts. But of the story, so much is missing.
Chapter 10: Why, Oh, Why?
As every mystery fan knows, a criminal needs three things: motive, means, and opportunity.
In our 1694 “murder mystery,” opportunity was hardly an issue. Who could be more vulnerable than an old spinster, living alone in a small clearing, deep in the woods?
The means are less clear. What power did Marte have over her son, that she could incite him to commit cold-blooded murder, of his own godmother, no less? And the hired man, to commit murder for a new shirt and enough money to buy … a cow? As to this, there are no clues, not now, nor 80 years ago, when our sources were writing.
For even deeper puzzlement, we turn to the motive. Was it greed? Marte’s reputation in folklore was that of a very greedy person, who would do anything to get what she wanted. A scene at the execution, also passed down in folklore, is related by Kleiven, who points to it as an indication of her obsession with money and possessions.
When Marte was about to go to the scaffold, she kicked off her shoes and asked an acquaintance to take them along to Bø. “They can make a little money for these, also,” she said.
Fair enough, let’s take that to mean she would do anything, including murder. But surely the prize must be very great, to risk her own life for the potential gain? And her son, a grown man, heir to the Bø farm, what was in it for him, to risk his own very promising life? The probate of the Huskelien farm consisted of personal property about 1/4, and real estate 1/8 the value assigned to Bø. In personal property (chattel), “62 riksdaler*, with subtraction for one cow to the minister for the funeral sermon, 2 riksdaler, 2 ort.” This led Kleiven to speculate that Marte’s greed had become a sickness, which went far beyond the desire for material gain.
Marte Bø must have been sick on her soul’s life in another manner, in addition to her having been a thoroughly hard [?] person without heart, and with a great power over those she could rule with [?]; her son Torgjer [was] a plaything in her hands.
Of course, other motives are possible, although no evidence of any was noted. Perhaps Marit Huskelien knew something scandalous about Marte, and was killed to safeguard the secret. But I tend to partially agree with Kleiven’s rather dated assessment above.
“Sick on her soul’s life …” A very poignant translation, one that leads a person of my age to think of what is today recognized as mental illness. In addition to my imagination, which is about to go feral, I beg you to indulge me in the use of some clinical terms, which I use strictly as a layman, in what I would call “street” language. Joanne suggests that obsessive-compulsive disorder may have been in play. Alternatively, what if Marte suffered from schizophrenia, with symptoms such as paranoid delusions, i.e. false certainty that people were intent on doing her harm, and hallucinations, such as hearing voices?
We know from Hovdhaugen that there was a Medieval church at the center of Bø, already in ruins by Marte’s time. That church is linked in other sources to a visit by Saint Olaf himself (Olaf II, 995-1030 A.D.), who rested at Bø on his campaign to Christianize all of Norway. This royal connection needs more exploration later. Imagine Marte walking alone at the ruins, among ancient gravestones, hearing voices, perhaps voices of long-dead heroes (including Saint Olaf) whose names she knew from sagas still sung by folk of the valley. Suppose those imaginary voices told Marte that Marit Huskelien intended, and had the means, to destroy her and her family?
But if Marte’s motives were delusional, what of her son’s? How could she incite him to such a crime based on her delusions? Well, charismatic persons have been known to coerce otherwise normal associates to commit heinous acts. Joanne points to the case of Charles Manson in our own time.
* using the value of the cow mentioned above (approx. 2.5 riksdaler), and the value of a cow today (roughly $1000 US), one could compare any amount with contemporary currency at a ratio of 1:400, but I do not find such comparisons very helpful.
Chapter 11: Witch-steria
In the 1690s, another avenue for coercion may have been the fear of witchcraft, a fear still widespread among the populace, if not among public officials.
Why bring this up? None of our three twentieth-century sources even hint that seventeenth-century witch hysteria had any bearing on the deaths at Huskelien, much less those at Gallows Hill. There was apparently no mention of it in any of the documents, nor even in the folklore collected by our source authors. Or perhaps the authors, with their own modern biases, considered folklore on this topic unworthy of recording.
In Europe as a whole (and in European colonies, where it touched an ancestor of mine), the witch-trial era peaked in the 1600s, then declined rather swiftly around 1700. The last trials and executions were about 1750. It was also in that year that the trials were outlawed in Great Britain. I have not found similar information on laws in Denmark-Norway, but the last known witch trial in Norway took place in 1750 as well. It is estimated that at least 60,000 accused witches were executed in Europe between 1300-1750; some estimates go much higher. In just one sparsely populated county of Norway, Finnmark, 135 trials and 91 executions took place, according to the research of scholar Liv Helene Willumsen.
In our local area of interest, Fron parish, there were many witch trials, including three burnings in 1619-1620. Joanne is still working to find whether those executions also took place at Gallows Hill. The legal status of witch prosecution in Gudbrandsdalen by 1694 is not known. But even if it was banned from the legal-ecclesiastical system, one can hardly doubt that the superstition was still widespread among rural farm people. And what sort of tragic drama would better fuel such mass hysteria that the story we have related?
To begin with, look back to the sudden death of Tore Huskelien, prior to the murder of her sister. It is said that she was found in a field, “lying on her stomach, with her mouth full of earth.” To the modern reader, this suggests one of two things: either someone forced her face into the dirt, suffocating her as she struggled, or she suffered an epileptic seizure.
While foul play can by no means be ruled out, even though it is not mentioned in the sources, let us consider the alternative. In ancient times, epilepsy was believed to result from possession of the body by evil spirits. That superstition would certainly play well in combination with the belief in “black magic,” that is, that a sorcerer could cause another person to be so possessed.
Suppose, then, that Tore had a history of seizures. That would be likely to arouse suspicion among the superstitious that her “possession by demons” was intentionally caused through witchcraft. It is even possible that both Marte Bø and Marit Huskelien, although long-time friends, eventually came to suspect each other. And when Tore turned up dead, well, you can take it from there.
This could also help explain how Marte was able to persuade her son and hired man to commit the murder; perhaps they were also fearfully superstitious. Mind you, the witch-fear angle and the mental illness theory are not mutually exclusive. Both disorders could have been in play, each reinforcing the other.
I have some great fiction spinning in my head around this story. It remains to be seen whether I can get any of it on “paper.” But for now, I will bring the series to a close, summarizing with several of Joanne’s PowerPoint slides. As always, click to enlarge.
One more shout-out to cousin Joanne Lillevold, for providing me with nearly all the “raw materials” (painstakingly translated), lots of ideas, and generous proofreading and editing help.