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Björn Pétursson
Björn Pétursson

Other namesAxlar-Björn
Criminal penaltyDeath
Span of crimes
Date apprehended

Björn Pétursson (1555-1596) was the only known serial killer in the history of Iceland. He was nicknamed Axlar-Björn, which translates as "Shoulder-Bear" in Icelandic.

Early life[edit]

Axlar-Björn was the youngest of three children born to an Icelandic farmer couple in 1555. According to legend, Axlar-Björn's mother Sigríður had a craving for human blood during her pregnancy and her husband indulged her by letting her drink his own blood. Sigríður also said that she had terrible nightmares during the pregnancy, making her fear that she was carrying a monster. Axlar-Björn was an unruly and difficult child but otherwise normal.


Abandoned farms in Snæfellsnes.

When he was 15-years old, Axlar-Björn began to help in the farm of a rich neighbor named Ormur in exchange for room and board. One day, he took a nap instead of going to mass. He dreamed that a stranger came to him and offered him meat to eat. Axlar-Björn found the meat delicious, but when he had eaten nineteen pieces of meat, he suddenly felt sick and stopped eating. The stranger then told him to climb the mountain Axlarhyrna where he would find an object that would make him famous. The next day, Axlar-Björn climbed the mountain and found an axe at the top. As per his later confession, Axlar-Björn used the axe to kill another 15-year-old farmboy and buried him in the dung heap.

Ormur died some years later from natural causes and left his estates to his son, Guðmundur. Guðmundur had become friends with Axlar-Björn during his employment, and gifted him a farm called Öxl in the Stadarsveit region of Snæfellsnes. Axlar-Björn took residence there with his wife, Þórdís.

The accounts differ on the motives, modus, number of victims, and events that led to the arrest of Axlar-Björn. Two numbers of victims, nine and eighteen, are the most common claims. The victims were travellers and farmhands that came to Öxl looking for work; some versions say that he hacked them with the axe and others that he drowned them. Local suspicions about Axlar-Björn grew as people disappeared in the area while his horses and other possessions increased, but he was safe because of the protection given to him by Guðmundur. Per one account, the final alarm was raised when a poor woman and her three children sought shelter in the farm. Axlar-Björn lured away, and murdered the children one by one, but the mother escaped and reported him.

Arrest and execution[edit]

A contemporary depiction of a breaking wheel.

Axlar-Björn was arrested and confessed to nine murders, but authorities found more bodies when they searched his farm. Asked about them, Axlar-Björn claimed that he had found the remains buried in his land and decided to rebury them in another place without notifying authorities or bringing them to a cemetery. The authorities did not believe this explanation.

A þing sentenced Axlar-Björn to die by hanging followed by breaking on the wheel. After his death, his body was dismembered and each piece put on a stake. Þórdís, who was pregnant at the time, was forced to watch the execution, and at the end had the amputated genitals of her husband thrown over her lap.

Family aftermath[edit]

Þórdís was accused of assisting her husband in the murders and even of committing some of the murders herself. She was also sentenced to death, but the execution was not carried out. The son she was carrying, Sveinn "Skotti" Björnsson, grew up to be a vagrant and a criminal, and was hanged for rape in 1648. After Sveinn's own son, Gísli "Hrokur" Sveinnsson, also became a criminal and was executed, there was speculation that Axlar-Björn's evil had been inherited by his descendants.

External links[edit]