18th century Sweden witnessed the rise of a bizarre phenomenon of suicide-executions, where suicidal individuals committed capital crimes in order to receive the death penalty, namely murder. Because the killing of an adult would not always lead to execution, these suicidal people (mostly women) killed children, as the punishment for infanticide was, invariably, death. As strange as it may seem, the reason for this peculiar wave of suicide-executions was a religious one – during those times, the church strongly advised against suicide and taught that suicides go directly to hell. Murder, however, no matter how heinous it was, could be absolved through confession and repentance. Therefore, someone who murdered even an innocent, helpless babe would be forgiven if he (or she) openly confessed and repented (through execution) the crime, and gain access to heaven.
The Case of Christina Johansdotter
A well-documented case of suicide-execution is that of Christina Johansdotter – she killed her friend’s infant son for the sole reason of being sentenced to death. The incident occurred in Stockholm, in the year 1740. Christina was suffering from crippling depression ever since her fiancé, whom she deeply loved, passed away unexpectedly. According to her own words, she had lost all will to live after the tragic loss. She could no longer function, so she had lost her job and cloistered herself from the world spending her days wallowing in ever-growing despair.
After some time, Christina ended up contemplating suicide, but she feared for her soul. Her fiancé, who was a “good man”, had surely gone to heaven, but if she committed suicide she would go to hell instead, making their reunion impossible. This dilemma haunted Christina, tormenting her unceasingly. One day, however, Christina witnessed the execution of a woman sentenced for infanticide (probably another suicide) and that gave her a most terrible solution for her dilemma: if she would kill a child herself, she would be sentenced to death and finally see her fiancé again.
Ironically, public executions became theatrical performances in 18th century Sweden, and people oftentimes sympathized with the condemned. They even had special, festive costumes to wear on such occasions, much to the authorities’ dismay. Public executions were initially meant to strike fear into the audience and have a deterrent effect, but the execution-culture and its manifestations neutralized that. Quite on the contrary, public executions encouraged and inspired suicidal people, like Christina, to commit terrible crimes just to have their lives cut short by the executioner’s axe.
The Murder and Execution
It is curious to note that these suicide-executions became so widespread in Sweden that King Gustav III even considered replacing the death sentence with life in prison for female child murderers. Either way, after witnessing the gory spectacle, Christina made up her mind and decided to reunite with her fiancé in heaven. She made her way to a friend’s house – the friend in question was a young mother – and quickly made up an excuse to “borrow” her infant son,allegedly to show him to a relative who was visiting from the countryside.
Christina took the baby outside and placed him on a chopping block, then she grabbed an axe and cruelly chopped his head off. Afterwards, Christina freely admitted to her crime and pleaded guilty when she stood trial. She was eager to be sentenced to death and spoke openly of her crime and motivations in court. To Christina, it was the only way to reunite with her fiancé in the afterlife, so she had no regrets. When her time finally came, Christina probably died with a smile on her lips, but whether or not she reunited with her fiancé we will never know. She was beheaded and then had her corpse burnt at the stake.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Jansson, A. (1998). From Swords to Sorrow: Homicide and Suicide in Early Modern Stockholm. Almqvist &Wiksell International.
- Watt, J. R. (2004). From Sin to Insanity: Suicide in Early Modern Europe. Cornell University Press.
- Krogh, T. (2012). A Lutheran Plague: Murdering to Die in the Eighteenth Century. Brill.