Execution is an old and well-known way of punishment. It still goes on in many countries, and the methods in use are plentiful and varied. Anne Pedersdatter Beyer was burnt as a witch at Nordnes in 1590. The last execution performed in Bergen during peace time was when Swedish-Norwegian Jacob A.J. Wallin was beheaded at Nordnes in 1876.
Wallin grew up in the border area of Finnskogen. His parents were Norwegian, but he was born in Sweden. As he grew up, Wallin’s face became well known in prisons on both sides of the border, his crimes being vagrancy and theft. He was said to have been a difficult prisoner to handle. Wallin was sent to Bergen, supposedly after having been a leading figure in a riot in Kristiania (Oslo). He was put in jail in the Manufactory House, where he killed an inspector with a knife. For this crime he was given the death penalty.
Jacob Wallin was executed on 25 January 1876 on the point of Nordnes. People followed Wallin to the execution place in the thousands. The crowd was described as an odd view, as the people were not among the town’s “good people” – they were rather from the lower classes of Bergen. Perhaps the cultured classes had followed the request printed in the newspaper, asking all humane citizens to keep away from the execution place?
Jacob Wallin was executed on 25 January 1876 on the point of Nordnes.
At the time death punishment was debated in Norway as well as in Europe. Many countries had already abolished the death penalty, other countries kept their executions inside the prisons rather than making them public appearances with large crowds as audiences. Only Denmark and Norway allowed the public to participate in the killings. In spite of the heated debates, two more people were executed in Norway in the following months, but those were the last executions in Norway. A new penal code was passed in 1902, which prohibited death penalty in peace time.
Anne Pedersdatter Beyer was a clever and important woman in Bergen in the 16th century. She was also the widow after priest and lecturer Absalon Pederssøn Beyer. She was given the death penalty for sorcery and was burnt at Nordnes in 1590. It was quite uncommon for a woman of her position to be convicted as a witch, and the question has been asked by a number of people whether the case against her may have been politically motivated. “Witches” were usually women from lower social groups. Accusations about sorcery were usually based on small or big accidents in daily life, for example cows milking poorly or shipwrecking.
In our time we may wonder what motivated the extensive witch hunts, where an estimate of more than 50 000 people in Europe and Northern America – mainly women – were tortured and killed. The Church made its standings and its actions legitimate through the book Malleus Maleficarum – the Witch Hammer – written in 1486 by the South German Inquisitor Heinrich Krammer and Professor of Theology in Cologne Jacob Sprenger. The book was used as a manual for witch hunting inquisitors.
Mass hysteria and hatred towards women have been launched as possible explanations to why the women were executed. But we should explain the witch hunts by trying to enter the minds of medieval people. What was their perception of witches and magicians? They really, truly believed in their existence, and that they in fact were accomplices of Satan. In order to maintain God’s order these witches and magicians must be executed. Probably these people were mostly wise women or practicing midwives with knowledge and ideas about diseases and healing processes. They were often in difficult positions; no matter if the patient died or was healed – either way it signified powers out of the ordinary.
In Bergen Mary Geith was convicted and burnt as a witch on Nordnes in 1615. Mary had paid another woman to shipwreck a vessel with many people on board. The woman who had done the deed for money, had her neck wrung in the basement of the Town Hall, supposedly by Satan himself!
The witch hunts decreased during the 17th century. A general increase in knowledge made society’s elites ask for evidence when witches were charged. In time people stopped believing that there existed phenomenons like broom flights in the night.
Different sites have been used as places of execution in Bergen. Some of the places were later given names that serve as reminders of their previous use, such as “Holm of Thieves” or “Executioner’s Hill”. The last time anyone was executed in Bergen was after the Second World War, when convicted German war criminals were shot at Sverresborg. Today Norway prohibits death penalty during war time as well.