Monday, 7 January 2013

Sex, Lies and Death: The Story of the Yngsjö Murder

Yngsjö is a small and rather insignificant municipality in the southernmost county of Sweden. It's the sort of place most people wouldn't have heard of unless it had been the centre of one of the most publicised murders in the history of Sweden.

Anna Månsdotter
Where it all began is debatable, but a good starting point for the story seems to be the marriage of one Anna Månsdotter to a Nils Nilsson, 13 years her senior, around 1860. It seems that it was very much a marriage of convenience rather than infatuation and Anna had counted on a financially stable and secure future. In reality, however, they ended up poor and debt-ridden. The relationship between husband and wife was strained, and Anna sought comfort in their son Per, the only of her three children to survive into adulthood.

Per Nilsson
At some point - it's not entirely clear when, but likely when Per was still a child - Anna started sexually molesting her son who grew increasingly dependent on her. It's not clear if Nils ever suspected anything - inquiries were made into the cause of his death after the incidents of 1889 but nothing conclusive that pointed to foul play could be found. Either way, after his death in 1883, when Per was 21, the relationship could carry on without outside interference. However, nothing can long be kept a secret in a small community, and soon tongues started wagging about the unnaturally close relationship between mother and son (judging by the number of people who could later testify that it had been their habit to sleep in the same bed, they weren't exactly discreet either). This may have been the reason why Anna persuaded Per to get married in 1888.

Hanna Johansdotter
The young bride was one Hanna Johansdotter, 21 years of age and the daughter of a respected pillar of society, lay judge and church usher Johan Olsson. The idea was that Anna would then move in with her own mother, but when push came to shove, she stalled and she soon came into conflict with her daughter-in-law. The relationship between the two women was one of intense rivalry over the rather vague and quite frankly weak-willed Per, and Anna resented having to share her son with his wife, despite the marriage originally being her idea.

Meanwhile, Hanna, who was genuinely fond of Per, felt she was treated as an outsider and complained of Per's treatment of her to her family. She even tried to get her father to intervene and force Anna to move out, and he promised to help buy her out and build her a new house. However, Hanna soon realised that their future happiness depended on their removal from Anna's presence altogether, and she pushed for selling the family farm and moving. According to witnesses, Hanna had told them that she and Per had never lain together. She also expressed fear of her mother-in-law both verbally and in writing. The day before she died, she is said to have cried and told a neighbour that:

"I am so afraid of Anna Månsdotter that it feels like someone stuck a knife in my breast whenever I see her. As soon as she comes home lately, she and Per shut themselves up in the stable, where they keep conferences. This happened today too. I think they are conspiring against me. I simply don't dare to go home! I even want to scream - because I am thinking of something wicked." 

Her last letter to her parents, seven days before her death ends: "I will not remain in Yngsjö. I have told Per so."

Exactly what happened next isn't known as the only people who could have told were either dead, or constantly changing their accounts. Most likely Hanna had begun to suspect the true nature of her husband's relationship with his mother, or she might even have discovered them in flagrante. Anna would later claim that Hanna had confronted her and told her that she knew everything. Either way, someone - most likely Anna - decided she had to die.

On the morning of 28 March, 1889, a neighbour visited and couldn't find Hanna anywhere. Upon returning a few hours later, he found Per who said she'd likely gone out. The neighbour was sceptical and persuaded Per to look for her. They found the trapdoor to the basement open and Per peeked down and said - quite without any real emotion: " Oh, here she lies, dead from the fall. Oh no, woe me!"

The neighbour started screaming and more people soon arrived. When they helped lift Hanna up the stairs, they nothed a deep red groove around her neck, as if after a noose. One of the local women also notced that she wasn't completely dressed - she wore a shift and stays, but no dress bodice. No one thought to notify the police, though. Instead, they turned to the local vicar and told him of their suspicions. He then notified the authorities and the district doctor who performed the autopsy concluded that there could be no doubt that she had been murdered.

Both the victim's father and several other locals began pressuring Per and his mother, trying to get them to confess. After five days, Per finally relented but refused to implicate his mother. It wasn't until after Per's confession that the police was notified and the first real interrogations were held. The general view was that Anna wasn't just involved, but the instigator of the whole affair, and most of the inevstigation was aimed at proving that fact.

While the exact hows were never fully established beyond the fact that Hanna was killed, either by Anna or by Per and Anna in collaboration and that mother and son helped each other to cover up the foul deed, the "why" seems pretty straight-forward. Hanna had come between mother and son and she did not intend to yield. She had some knowledge, or anyway a well-founded suspicion, of a criminal relationship between them, and so she had to die.

Both mother and son were sentenced to prison for the illicit sexual affair and they both received the death penalty for their share in the murder of Hanna Johansdotter. Anna was beheaded (with an axe) in August 1890, but Per, who had appleaed to His Majesty the King for mercy, had his sentence transformed into a prison sentence. Virtually all their neighbours supported his appeal and when he was finally released after 23 years, they welcomed him into the community with open arms. He finally died from a disease of the lungs in 1918, and is said to have expressed relief at his upcoming demise.

Anna Månsdotter, moments before her execution
Even today, and even internationally, the murder in Yngsjö 1889 stands out as a sort of bizarre, 19th century Freudian tragedy. It's hardly surprising that the case has been the subject of several books as well as being filmed several times. Anna Månsdotter was also the last woman in Sweden to be executed, and as such, she is the object of some interest. Sadly, but perhaps typically, I noted that while both she and Per has an entry each on the Swedish Wikipedia, Hanna, their victim, does not.  I think she deserves better than to be a footnote in her murderers' story.


Main source is Yngsjömordet by Yngve Lyttkens, Stockholm, 1951

The images are all in the public domain and full information can be found:

1. Anna Månsdotter
2. Per Nilsson
3. Hanna Johansdotter
4. Execution of Anna Månsdotter

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  1. Yes, it was that murder I thought of. I did ponder the massmurder at Prins Carl too, though.

  2. Prins Carl on my to-do-list as well!

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