Farm story 13: A death and a disappearance

Kårvik, 2023

It was passionate anger which lay behind a well-known 18th century crime, where the victim of an attack, Per Willomsson Brems of Toftenäs on Tjörn, lost his life after he initiated a brawl. It happened in January 1721 when Per, a married man of 36, left his home before sunrise to row over to Toftö island to check on his horses. Per must have been relatively well-off, for the records mention his horses, at a time when ownership of only a single horse was enough to indicate prosperity. The Brems were an old family with a proud name, and perhaps this and their relative wealth made Per act as he did on that fateful day.

On the island, in the dim light of a winter dawn, Per could see people walking along the seashore collecting firewood. When it was cold, kindling was often scarce making driftwood a valuable resource. Per called out to the group to ask who they were and one lad answered that he was his nephew (systerson ) , Anders Hansson. Then Per went up to another young man in the group. and asked him what he was doing stealing wood on Toftenäs property. This was fighting talk. The ownership of anything washed up by the sea was a grey area and Per was going too far to make such an accusation.

And Per didn’t stop there, but he struck the youngster with his whip shouting that he was going to take their boat. Anders quickly ran to the boat and pushed it offshore so his uncle couldn’t get to it. On going back to his own boat Per met his uncle Olof Hansson Brems and his cousin Olof Olsson Brems, who had obviously heard what had happened and decided to teach him a lesson. Together the two men beat Per with wooden clubs until he fell to the ground and lost consciousness. When he came round he managed to row himself back to Toftenäs beach where his brother helped him get home. He died eleven days later and the two Olofs were tried for his murder in 1722, found guilty and sentenced to death.

Those are the bare facts of the case but there must have been a background of earlier conflicts in the family. Per’s attitude to his relatives on the beach was hostile from the start and his use of the whip and his threat to take the men’s boat seems out of all proportion to their offence - if that’s what it was. This tendency to lash out verbally and physically made me wonder what Per was like to live with. His wife Marit, pregnant and living with her in-laws at the time of his death, can’t have had an easy time of it. But the reaction of the wood gatherers on the beach - to beat Per until he collapsed – was also extreme. Perhaps they were jealous of their richer relative.

The length of time between the beating and Per’s death introduced an element of doubt as to whether his two attackers were entirely responsible for his death, and there were further complications as nobody admitted to witnessing the incident. The two accused also refused to confess and as a consequence there was a second trial where they were eventually permitted to “swear themselves free.” (att svära värjemålsed )). This meant that they were allowed under oath to swear their innocence, the reasoning being that if they lied then, they would be sure to face the eternal flames of hell. In the 21st century living in (relatively) secular Sweden it’s easy to scoff at such a law, but at a time when religious belief was a given and the existence of Heaven and Hell unquestioned, the threat of eternal damnation was not to be taken lightly. Anyway, they swore their oaths and the earth did not swallow them up. Indeed, it appears that after their release the freed men went on to lead law-abiding lives, and both lived to be well over 80.

My husband’s family has a tenuous family connection with this story. A few years after his death, Per’s widow Marit Nilsdotter married again, this time to Tore Helgesson. Tore, born in 1700, was Olle’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather, on both his mother’s and father’s sides. I’m not the first person to conclude that fact is stranger than fiction – but in this case the cliché is spot on.

An equally sensational story unfolded six years later on another part of the island, but closer to home. It was a day in 1727 when five young girls rowed their boat over the sea from Bäckevik, the next community to Mölnebo, to the island of Marstrand to collect a boatload of flax to spin into linen. The five consisted of three sisters , Sigrid, Börta and Anna Olsdotter, with two friends. At that time Marstrand was well-known in Sweden as the location of Karlstens fästning, a forbidding 17th century fort and a key element in Sweden’s defence against attack from the west. It also acted as a sort of registration centre for seamen and as a heavily guarded prison. The girls separated during the day to do their various errands then later re-assembled to row back home to Tjörn. As they were nearing the open sea from the harbour two men called out to Sigrid from the rocks. She told her sisters that she’d met them earlier that day when they’d told her that they were stranded seamen who needed to get over to Tjörn to re-join their ship. After some persuasion the other girls agreed to row the men across to Tjörn and drop them off on their way home, so they put Sigrid and the men ashore at Kårvik, where she would show them the road back to their ship.

Nowadays Kårvik is a pretty little sandy bay popular with families. We spent a lot of time there when the children were little, grateful for the near tide-free waters of Hakefjord which meant we could eat our picnics on a grassy bank by the sea, rather than on the sand. It’s still a place where locals moor their boats for it’s well-sheltered, and protected from winds and storms by high, rounded grey rocks.

I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that the two men Sigrid befriended were escaping prisoners rather than lost seamen, or that shortly after their arrival at Kårvik, a wooden boat disappeared from a nearby harbour. But what may be a surprise is that neither the men nor Sigrid were ever seen again. Did the men murder her to cover their tracks, or did one of them take her with him to Gothenburg, or even America? And did Sigrid know that the two men were prisoners when she agreed to help them, or did she really believe that they were seamen? Was she simply bored with life at home and seized her chance for an adventure or had she fallen in love at first sight, as teenage girls are prone to do, with one of the strangers? Human nature being what it is, none of the alternatives are impossible .

Life must have been predictable and boring on the farm and a couple of friendly strangers from the distant cities of Karlskrona and Stockholm must have had a certain glamour, even if they were criminals, and Sigrid may have been swept along by a tide of excitement and infatuation. At times like this, common sense doesn’t get much of a look in. Of course once they’d made their escape the men may simply have done away with her, but their prison records tell us that one was a tailor and the other a ship’s mate, and that they were thieves rather than murderers. I hope that Sigrid survived her brush with adventure and lived a long and happy life with one or both of the men she helped escape. It may not be the most likely conclusion to her story, but sometimes we need to believe in happy endings.

One detail which makes the story more interesting for me is the fact that Sigrid’s father was Olof Trulsson, an unusual second name which made him easier to trace than the infinite number of Anderssons and Olssons. It was this that led me to discover that he, along with his father and grandfather (who died in the early decades of the seventeenth century), were all born here on Mölnebo Lower Farm. But that wasn´t our only connection with Sigrid, for after her disappearance her sister Börta married Nils Toresson (1731-1809), Marit’s son by her second husband and one of Olle’s great, great, great, great grandfathers. In this way our family shares a tiny piece of both Sigrid and Marit’s DNA.

Tumultous events sparked by strong emotions, or by chance, re-configured both women’s lives in the blink of an eye. I wonder if they ever reflected on how their lives had changed so suddenly and dramatically, and whether they looked back on those momentous days as the best, or the worst, of their lives.

©Gwyneth Olofsson, 2023

For more pictures of the farm on Tjörn go to Instagram account gwyneths_swedish_farm

Thanks to: Böner och Brännvin , Kjell Eriksson (Båtdokgruppen AB, Skärhamn, 2012) )

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