Jacob Gyll’s axe with initials and owner’s mark. Photo: Västerbotten Museum
Jacob Gyll was an executioner from 1836 to 1863 and worked in Västerbotten, Norrbotten, Västernorrland and Gävleborg counties. There are a number of eyewitness accounts from several executions carried out by Jacob Gyll.
At a double execution on 16 July 1851 at the Njurunda district court area’s execution site, Jacob Gyll was requested from Umeå. Tenant farmer Johan Höglund and crofter Johan Andersson from Årskogen were being executed for murder. For the double execution, Gyll was paid 30 riksdaler banco, shown to him in advance as a receipt. On 28 July, the remaining sum was paid, a total of 128 riksdaler, 15 shillings and 8 rundstycken banco for the deed.
Throughout the 1850s, Gyll was also the head executioner in Västernorrland county.
When a double execution was ordered in Gnarp in 1851, Gyll was described in a note by a farmer as follows “….he was ugly, but he was pleasant to talk to, about 50 years old and dressed in simple homemade attire. His sole characteristic was a small gold ring in his right ear and a bigger one in the left. From this ring hung a small gold axe, as a sign of dignity…”
At an execution in Bureå (Skellefteå Municipality) in the 1830s, it was said that the executioner wore a black cowl over his clothing and small gold earrings in the form of axes.
Like executioners in general, Gyll very much wanted to brace himself somehow and at one execution in Sävar in 1839, the sheriff received a special order from the head officer to “keep a close eye on Gyll, so that he doesn’t have the chance to get drunk.”
A few days before, the execution site would be cleared of trees and shrubs and equipped with a wooden floor and a pillory, as well as a hut for the executioner to hide inside before and between his tasks.
When the execution was to happen, farmers from several villages in the area were encouraged to “stand watch”; they would be equipped with long stakes to prevent anyone unauthorized from passing through the circle of watchmen before the execution was completed and the grave was filled up.
At execution, people flocked in from villages and farms on dozens of kilometres around. The executions were considered to be of great pedagogical importance and that they should be “a warning.”
The death penalty in peacetime was abolished in Sweden on 30 June 1921. The death penalty in wartime was abolished in 1973.
Until the early 19th century, death was the most common punishment for more severe crimes, because prison was rare. In the law of 1734, the death penalty was the punishment for 68 different crimes. Most death penalties meant beheading, which was done by an acting executioner. Beheading was considered a relatively humane method, with limited suffering, as long as the tool was sufficient and the executioner was skilled enough to succeed on the first attempt.
Dödsstraffet i fredstid avskaffades i Sverige 30 juni 1921. Dödsstraffet i krigstid avskaffades 1973.
(Sammanställt av Lars Beckman 2014.)