Joan inherited a keen and abiding interest in the history of her (very) Scandinavian family from her parents and grandparents. She inherited documents, letters, photographs, and a variety of treasured heirlooms from both her Swedish paternal side and her Norwegian maternal side. Family histories done the old way, from personal accounts and letters, library research, and maybe a paid researcher from the old country, were passed down along both lines. These treasured manuscripts—links to an exotic, fascinating past, shaped Joan’s lifelong interest in her Swedish and Norwegian family roots.
But maybe it was the stories—most of all—that captivated her. To a young child, especially one as curious as Joan, stories of distant places and olden times bore a special fascination. Especially vivid in her active imagination was Norway.
From an early age her grandfather, Martin Cornelius, had regaled her with tales of that far-off country. He even used to read to her in Norwegian—because he simply wanted her to hear the distinct cadence and tone of his birth language. Grandpa Cornelius also revealed to her the truth about the discovery of the Americas—a truth that all right-thinking Scandinavian-Americans know.
He told her about distant Vikna, a group of islands in the north of Norway, where he was born. He told her about fishermen in the Lofoten islands, about shipwrecks, and about lives lost tragically at sea. He told her of his mother’s birthplace, Leka, a place that seemed unimaginably distant in both time and place to a young girl sitting fascinated at her grandfather’s knee. Leka was home to trolls and ogres—like the poor “Maid of Leka” (the Lekamøya) frozen in stone forever—although Joan’s family called her the “Leka Lady!” And it was home to a little girl, Svanhild, a relative of her grandfather, picked up, the famous story goes, by an eagle and deposited high up on a rocky crag. One can imagine the wonder in her eyes at hearing this tale—and seeing the evidence—because he even showed her a letter, all in Norwegian, from his second cousin Haldor Hansen with a picture of Svanhild inside!
Stories—whether folktales, myths, legends, or the more personal narratives of our forebears recounting their triumphs and tragedies—have a greater longevity than we imagine. In Scandinavia, the oral tradition, the passing down of stories by word of mouth, was an important means of preserving history—the record of one’s ancestors and the recounting of their deeds, both great and small. Many such narratives have survived in Norway, about kings and jarls and farmers and fishermen, to be captured eventually in writing and passed down again in the great poetic sagas, in books and magazines and, yes, even in blogs like this one.
Many stories have been preserved in Norway’s so-called “farm books,” the bygdebøker. Compiled over the last century, they contain not only the results of research into church records, land transactions, and wills, but the textual remnants of people’s lives, hints of tales not completely told, of mysteries yet to be uncovered—of a mysterious silver belt of tremendous value owned by a distant ancestor in Orheim—or about a murder on a lonely island in which one’s many times great grandfather might have been involved!
While researching her maternal grandfather’s genealogy, Joan and Greg found a reference to this distant grandfather in the first volume of the bygdebok for Bindal in Nordland, Norway. While translating the entry for Torger (or Torber as the bygdebok has it) Jonsen on the farm of Gimsen, Greg encountered this tantalizing tidbit of an entry (Bindal, Gård og slekt, Bind 1. H. Sylten. 1999. p. 178):
“Torber and neighbor Jørgen Sjursen got entangled in a murder in Melstein in 1692. They had been involved in sharing stolen goods that Anne Pedersdtr. and Sjur Paulsen of Melstein had appropriated from the men they murdered. For this they were sentenced to pay a fine of 6 lodd of silver.”
What was this story? Was Joan’s 7th great grandfather really involved in a murder? Had Joan, a descendant of staid Lutherans for centuries, finally discovered a criminal in her past?
Trying to solve this mystery, Greg, quite by happenstance, googled the name Melstein and thereby discovered a 300 year old story of dire deeds by moonlight, of unbridled human greed, and of dark violence.
The story told below is Greg’s translation of a wonderful blog post by Norwegian journalist Torstein Finnbak, detailing these long ago events on Melstein (see https://finnbakk.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/hun-stikker-av-hun-stikker-av/). Many thanks to Torstein for reading over this translation and allowing us to publish it.
She’s running away, she’s running away!
By Torstein Finnbakk
[Translated from the Norwegian by Dr. Gregory M. Shreve]
Melstein 1692: Four men were brutally murdered. The heroine of the drama is a 14-year servant girl who ran away, risking her own life.
A February night in 1692 unfolded into an eerie drama on the small island of Melstein in Helgeland when four men were brutally murdered.
A boat crewed by four men decided to seek shelter at the farm owned by Sjul Paulsen and Anne Pedersdatter on the island of Melstein. It proved to be a fateful decision.
This article is based primarily on interviews recorded in 2013 with writer and folklorist Dag Skogheim (1928-2015). Dag himself was from Southern Kvaløya in Sømna, just a few kilometers from Melstein. He knew very well the story of the murders that transpired there. In the 1970s he collected several variations of the murder legend, including one told by his grandfather. He also wrote also a short story on the subject, which was later dramatized.
Melstein or Steine as it is often called, is just a few kilometers from the western side of South Kvaløya in Bindalsfjorden, roughly midway between Sømna and Leka.
So, this is the history and legend of Anne and Sjul, a couple who robbed and murdered four men on Melstein in 1692.
In the book Farm and Family in Bindal, Melstein is referred to as “the most marginal farm in Bindal.” Melstein was a simple cotter’s holding, a husmannsplass. The mountainous island is only a kilometer long, offering the possibility of earning only a very scant livelihood. Those who lived there in the 1600s had very little livestock, outside of a few sheep and maybe a cow. These were truly destitute people, living mostly by fishing.
There are no sources—at least none known—that relate where Anne and Sjul originally came from. Church records indicate that Anne Pedersdatter and Sjul Paulsen were married in Solstad Church in 1682. Sjul was listed as a værmann (fisherman) and bruker (farm holder) in Melstein from 1682 to 1693. At the time of the murders the couple had lived on the island of Melstein for ten years and may have been about 30 to 40 years old. They were childless.
Whether they had previously committed any other murders or crimes has not been discovered; so one can only speculate. Melstein was an isolated place, but lay right along a shipping channel. Boats would sail by just a stone’s throw from the island.
Anne and Sjul’s house was tucked into a cove at the northern end of Melstein, a location where, in later times, there were also other houses. The later inhabitants of Melstein were not related to Anne and Sjul. The cove had a small earthen bank behind it. Practically speaking, there really was no other place where one could have erected buildings. The barn on the property must have been close to what was once a marsh. There are, in fact, stone slabs at a place where it was natural to build a barn, about 50-100 meters from the house.
Through documents, articles, and not least, Dag Skogheim’s interviews with people who have related the legend of the killings, the events that transpired on the island are well described.
There came a boat
A ten-oared boat is sailing south. Four men are on board, Karsten Jensen, Lars Størkersen, Størker Olsen and Lars Larsen. All of them are from Grønnøy in Meløy, further north in Helgeland.
Presumably these men were on their way to Bergen, but some sources say they did not intend to sail further than Trondelag and the Meløy district to buy and sell goods. There is no place, really, to store great riches in a ten-oared boat, but there may have been, among other things, equipment, money, and some silver.
In South Helgeland seafarers can encounter difficulties with the weather. Probably there were winds off the shore as well as easterlies. On the fjord between Vennesund and Holm easterlies can be especially problematic. Landing on Melstein in such weather would have been quite difficult. The four beached the boat on the seaward side, the only place they could land given the east wind that was blowing—and then they came up onto the shore.
There they ran into Anne and Sjul along with their maid, or perhaps foster daughter, of 14 years, Anne Jonsdatter. The three inhabitants were greatly astonished by this late evening visit.
Dag: “I can also imagine that these men are a bit ostentatious. The four men came upon these destitute conditions; they see a house nearby, maybe just a hut walled in stones and sealed with peat. Then these four men appear, brusque and domineering, giving the inhabitants an immediate sense of inferiority.”
There is no space inside the hut. Anne and Sjul have no lodging to offer these visitors other than the barn, where there is hay they can lie down on. Without a doubt, they have also taken their pelts from the boat along with them.
There is nothing in court documents that indicate that these men protected themselves or kept watch. They fell asleep. They were tired, having maneuvered the longboat ashore against a hard easterly wind. It was difficult to moor the boat in the wind—they were at risk of life and limb. The four men probably didn’t discuss the landing much—they were tired, and there was still a long way to go to reach Leka. So they simply decided to go ashore on Melstein.
Their boorish behavior and belongings soon revealed that the visitors had not come empty-handed to the farm. They have with them many valuable things. Anne and Sjul have probably speculated, imagining what these four possessed. Some of the men have perhaps bragged too much, or foolishly displayed their belongings. Anne and Sjul began, perhaps, to fantasize and become more and more tempted. If they could take what the men had, they figured, maybe it would secure their future. Here, now, it seemed there were riches that they could take and use.
They must have thought, “How can we get these riches? — Yes, we can kill them!”
Dag: “I do not think that these two discussed the murders to any great length. I believe that, given their social position, they really didn’t reflect on any culpability, any consequences. They saw only this: riches were here now, here on Melstein.”
“Anne and Sjul each have their own axe with them when they go out of the house on their way to the barn. I think that there were two adults, two strong people. They will attempt to kill four men. You have to be flexible and relaxed—loose-limbed—when you kill someone with an axe. This is true especially when the conditions under which this terrible work had to be done are as complex as they must have been in this small barn. It was bright enough; but there was only moonlight, nothing else.”
“The barn had scarcely a real door, rather just a wooden bar, and when they opened it up, it was certainly bright enough inside.”
“The four victims must have placed themselves in such a way that it was relatively easy to go from one to the other cutting them down in turn. The records of the trial don’t reveal if they used the sharp edge or the blunt poll of the axe. But the four must have slept with sufficient distance between them—so it was possible to take them unawares, man for man. During the trial it emerged that both Anne and Sjul had cut the victims with their axes.”
A scream in the moonlight
In Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1 Havard Sylten says:
“They didn’t really land a good first blow on the last man; he reared up on his elbows and let out a scream before the killing blow landed. Foster daughter Anne Jonsdatter woke up at the screaming. She got up and rushed out. In the moonlight she could see that Anne and Sjul had dragged a man wearing a black shirt out of the barn and on up the mountain. After a while they came back and pulled out another man dressed in black—and did the same thing with him. The remaining two were dragged out over the rocks and thrown into the sea. When Anne and Sjul had finished with them all, they just went in and lay down.”
Two men were tossed into the sea. Two men were sunk in a boggy marsh on the island.
The next day Anne and Sjul were breaking open casks they had taken from the boat’s hold when the foster daughter discovered blood on the grass in the field. When she asked the couple about it, they threatened her life.
Visitors from Gimsen
A few weeks afterwards, neighbors Torger Jonsen and Jørgen Sjursen visited from the island of Gimsen. Sjul told them that he had found a boat and some debris by the seashore. The two men agreed to keep this find hidden from any others and divide up the spoils. They helped Sjul chop the ten-oared longboat into pieces, and then these two neighbors took the ship’s sails home with them to Gimsen.
Dag: “This is how it happened. The conditions were right for the murders. It was light enough, and the men were asleep. Then, when the frenzy of the killing grew, and they were nearly finished: the girl. We know she is 14 years old. We don’t know where she came from. During the trial she stated that she pretended she was asleep. But she had heard Anne and Sjul talking together. Then while the murders were being perpetrated, she heard screaming.”
Dag Skogheim relates the legend as he heard it from his paternal grandfather:
“Out on Melstein there were once lived three people: Anne and Sjul in Steine, and a servant girl. Strangers came to the island. They brought a lot with them—so Anne and Sjul agreed that they would kill them and hide the bodies. But they didn’t know that the maid had seen and heard them. Eventually they figured out that she knew something she shouldn’t know. So they decided to kill her too. They decided to do this during the grain harvest in September. During this time in autumn you went inland to get what you needed for the winter. This was a good time to take her somewhere while collecting wood and lure her to her death. But when they had arrived at Rangådalen and got ready to return home, the girl said that she forgotten her neckerchief at her mother’s. Sjul had to wait for her while she ran uphill to fetch it. But then she broke into a run, rushing to get away towards Gutvik farm. Sjul grabbed his axe, and ran off after her. She ran until she saw the Gutvik farm, and then she shouted. Those working there stopped to look, and Sjul had almost caught up to her. When she came up to the first farm, he threw his axe at her, but he missed, and it lodged in a wall.”
Skogheim reflects: “I think the girl must have been quite astute. She understood that because of what she heard, her life was in great danger. She successfully pretended she didn’t know anything. She managed constantly to play someone ignorant.”
And, of course, she also had no one to tell this story to. Skogheim believed that no one had any errands requiring them to visit Melstein. The few who could possibly have landed at Melstein during the spring and summer might have been occasional fishermen who went ashore temporarily to eat the food they had brought with them. But, most likely, this was not a place people had any reason to go to.
The tense situation with the girl continued throughout the spring and summer. There must have been things they had stolen that she saw, but she couldn’t talk about them. After the murder there must have been many occasions where she had seen things they had taken from the boat that couldn’t be hidden.
“And the girl couldn’t escape—she simply could not escape. Maybe she considered suicide, jumping into the sea and drowning herself, but she didn’t do it. But I think that they must have become suspicious of her, so much so that they must have talked amongst themselves about it. Maybe there was a slip of the tongue, and she heard them discussing her. They must have known that she was the only one who could betray them.”
Another grandfather tells it…
My maternal grandfather always told it this way:
“It must have been that they had to go inland to fetch wood. They needed other goods too, but had to find someone who had them. If you are on Melstein, where can you find these things? Yes, they had to be found in the Gutvik country where there are krongel pines and birch. It was September, and they were bringing in the corn then. They probably had to force the girl, up to the very end, to join in the work. The boat was to be filled up. The wood had to be harvested and pruned, and the wood cut into lengths and carried down to the boat. Someone had to stand by boat, while the others pulled the wood up into it. It could have happened that Sjul is down by boat when the girl begins to run off south toward Gutvik.”
“So begins this nightmare, which for me is even more intense than the actual murder scene. Sjul must have understood right off that she’s running away. She’s running away! She’s running to Gutvik to tell people what she knows! Now, he doesn’t have any choice, boat or no boat, he has to go after the girl. And he knows he must beat her to death. That’s when Sjul of Steine takes up his axe and starts to run after her. She ran until she could see Gutvik, where people were out harvesting the grain, and she called out.”
“Those people heard someone shout and they stopped working. As the two came up to the first farm, he was so close behind her that he threw his axe, but it missed and stuck into a wall.”
This, I think, is a legend variant where they make it very dramatic. And grandfather always ended it this way:
“Then the lensmann, the sheriff, came to Melstein. He sat down with Sjul at the table—and said to him: you don’t have a human heart at all!”
The sheriff finds out
It is certain that the sheriff in Leka went out to Melstein to investigate early on, very soon after objects began to appear that had come from the ship’s hold. Anne and Sjul had tried to sell them. The sheriff went there that first time but had to come back empty-handed, without proof. At home in Grønnøy, where the missing men were from, people start getting worried about the boat that had never come home. There was a lot of relatively dense boat traffic along the shipping channel, and rumors started up about the longboat crew that had vanished without a trace. Records mention, particularly, that the father of one of the missing men had initiated an inquiry into the fate of the crew.
Dag: “Then the girl enters into this dramatic story. She talks about what happened out there on the island. Now, as far as the sheriff is concerned, the circumstantial evidence is now so strong that he goes back out to Melstein to bring the couple in for questioning.”
So it’s finished now. In court the foster daughter relates all of the sinister events. Sjul confesses. Anne never does. The two neighbors who shared the plunder, apparently in the belief that it had just washed up on the shore in the boat, are only sentenced to fines.
The breaking wheel
Both Anne and Sjul were sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, the breaking wheel. The two of them were to be killed and dismembered in Trondheim.
But both died in prison before the sentence was ever executed. However, the bodies were still treated according to the final judgment. The Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments says that they were broken on the wheel and that on the 14th of August 1694 there was a request that the city rakker (night men) remove the bodies and bury them in Galgebierg, since they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Galgebierg was at that time a place in Trondheim lying just outside the city walls, at the foot of the Steinberget Ila.
Whatever happened to the foster daughter, Anne Jonsdatter? It doesn’t say.
A poem about the murders by Sigrid Wågan is on page 59 of the book Hverdadsdikt (not translated).
Ha du haurt om hain Sjul i Steine
ha du haurt at dæ seies før saint,
at hain drap dæ som kom på lainne,
både storkar og faranes faint.
Hain bod utpå Melstein åelinæ,
bære hain me kjærring å taus,
dem tok imot folk utme leie,
som i skavere plagast å fraus.
Sources: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen and Torstein Finnbakk: Interview with Dag Skogheim, Levanger 2013. Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1, page 165. Sømna Bygdebok, Volume 2, page 80. It happened in Melstein 1692, article by Arnt O. Åsvang in Yearbook Helgeland 1973. Gunnar Solum: Adventure Coast: From Å to Træna, page 58.