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Crime

Axlar-Björn, The only Icelandic serial killer, terrorized travellers on Snæfellsnes peninsula

By Staff

Snæfellsnes peninsula is known for its stunning beauty and fascinating mysteries. The magic of the nature of Snæfellsnes makes it the backdrop to the beginning of Jules Verne's novel Journey to the Center of the Earth: Snæfellsjökull glacier being the opening into a mythical world existing inside the earth, full of monsters and adventure. 

But Snæfellsnes is also the site of of one of Iceland's most horrendous murder mysteries: The terror of Iceland's only serial killer, Axlar-Björn.

Nobody knows how many he killed. Most accounts put the number of deaths at 18, some speculate the number was far higher. Many were drowned in a pond at the edge of beautiful Búðarhraun lava field. One was buried in a dung heap. In 1596 his reign of terror came to an end and he was executed. Some believe his wife was complicit in the murders, and his son was hanged in 1648 for rape. 

Snæfellsnes lava field, Hnausahraun
Fogs of myth The story of Axlar-Björn is lost in the mists of time, being replaced with the mystery seems to seep out of the lava fields ofn Snæfellsnes. Photo/Diego Delso, Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

Iceland's only serial killer 
In 1596 Björn Pétursson, better known as Axlar-Björn, was executed for his heinous crimes. Björn confessed to having killed 18 people but no-one knows how many his victims were. Almost all of his victims were unsuspecting travellers who happened to pass over his lands on Snæfellsnes peninsula, south of the iconic Snæfellsjökull. 

The farm Öxl stands by the current road along the peninsula: Just west of the junction leading to Búðir, on the way to Arnarstapi village. Axlar-Björn is said to have drowned and hidden some of his victims in a small pond south of his fields, near the edge of picturesque Búðahraun lava field.

Mother drank blood while she carried him in the womb
Axlar-Björn is believed to have been born in 1555, the youngest of three siblings. According to the legend his mother Sigríður had an unusual craving during the pregnancy, thirsting for human blood. His father, who loved his wife deeply, is said to have indulged her, letting her drink his blood.

After she drank the blood Sigríður is said to have had nightmares "so horrible they cannot be described", and when she confessed these dreams to one of the female farmhands she said she feared the child she was carrying would be "some kind of monster". 

First murder at fifteen
As a young boy Björn proved to be unruly and difficult to control. But other than that he did not show any signs of being different from other young men. When Björn was fifteen a friend of his father, Ormur Þorleifsson "the rich" at the farm Knörr, offered him to come live with him. In exchange for room and board Björn was to help out at the farm. 

Axlarhyrna

Mount Hestur One of the two majestic mountains dominating the hills north and east of Knörr where Axlar-Björn spent much of his youth. Photo/Diego Delso, Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

One day Björn decided to take a nap, rather than go to mass. While he slept he dreamt that a stranger approached him with a plate of meat. The meat was delicious, and Björn ate one piece after another. When he had eaten nineteen pieces he suddenly felt sick, and stopped eating. The man then told Björn to go to the top of the nearby mountain Axlarhyrna, where he would find an object which would make him famous.

The next day Björn was anxious to find this object and climbed the mountain. At the top he found an ax which he became fascinated with. Shortly thereafter one of the farmhands at Knörr, a boy Björn's age, disappeared. Axlar-Björn later confessed that he had murdered the boy with his new ax, burying him in the dung heap.

One of the most beautiful farms in W. Iceland
Some years later Ormur the Rich, who had taken Björn in, passed away, leaving his farm and wealth to his son Guðmundur. Guðmundur was the same age as Björn, and having grown up together the two were good friends. Guðmundur therefore gave Björn the farm Öxl, one of the best and most beautiful farmlands in the region where Axlar-Björn lived with his wife Þórdís from that time on.

But despite the beauty of the farm and the magnificient view Björn is said to have always been in a dark mood, caused by blood-lust and clouds of evil which constantly blocked his eyes. According to one story he is said to have approached a group of men who were outside enjoying the sun and beautiful weather, saying "these are dark days devoid of sunshine, my brothers."

Protected by a wealthy benefactor
It is not known how many people Axlar-Björn murdered. According to one story he confessed to 18 murders, while other accounts say he killed significantly fewer people. Other accounts however suggest the confessed murders were only the tip of the iceberg. 

Búðir, Snæfellsnes

Staðarsveit region The region where Axlar-Björn committed his crimes is beautiful but, in a desolate kind of way. Photo/cjuneau, Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

Locals had known for a long time that something strange was going on at Öxl where Björn lived, and suspected that Björn might be responsible for the disappearances of travellers and farmhands who were searching for work in the region. The reason Björn got away with his murders is that he enjoyed the protection of his benefactor and childhood friend, Guðmundur the Rich. 

The murder of three children lead to Björn's capture
Accounts do not agree on what led to Björn's arrest. Some claim that he robbed his victims, stealing their horses and other posessions, and that neighbors and ultimately the authorities grew suspicious seeing how Axlar-Björn's stable of riding horses kept growing as travellers disappeared in the region. 

Another account claims that he was ultimately brought down when a poor woman who was travelling with her three children came to the farm to seek shelter in 1596. Axlar-Björn lured the children away one by one to murder them, but the mother managed to hide and ultimately to run away to bear witness to his crimes.

Dead bodies kept popping up on the Öxl farmlands
When Björn was arrested he confessed to at least nine murders, but when the authorities investigated the farm they found far more human remains buried at the farm. Björn explained that he had kept on finding dead people on his property, and that he had just buried them there, rather than bothering with notifying the authorities or taking them to the cemetery. 

budahraun.jpg

Búðahraun lava field Öxl, where Axlar-Björn lived stood at the edge of the lava field. Photo/Diego Delso, Wikimedia, Creative Commons license

The authorities did not accept this version of the events, and it still remains unclear exactly how many people Axlar-Björn managed to kill, although most believe it was twice the number he confessed to. Perhaps even more.

Axlar-Björn was sentenced to death at Laugarbrekkuþing. He was hanged, drawn and quartered, and after than chopped to pieces and each piece put on a stake. His wife Þórdís was made to watch and Björns cut off genitalia thrown into her lap. Þórdís was pregnant at the time, carrying their son Sveinn "skotti" who grew up to be a rapist, and was hanged for his crimes in 1648.

A criminal gene?
Þórdís, the wife of Axlar-Björn was also sentenced to death for her involvement in her husband's murders. She is even said to have killed some of the victims herself, or at least to have held some of the victims while her husband beat them to death, and to have helped him dispose of the bodies. 

Despite this Þórdís escaped sentencing and raised her son, Sveinn "skotti" Björnsson. Sveinn turned out to be an evildoer as his father, spending his adult life drifting around the country before being hanged. Some suspected that the evil of Axlar-Björn had been hereditary, as his grandson, Gísli "hrókur", the son of Sveinn "skotti" was also hanged for criminal activities.

 

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