The Lively Lady of Mære

I sometimes lament how few interesting murderesses we have in my part of the world when the truth is that I just might not know about them. I guess devious murder isn’t something people in general talk about, and that very vintage scandals have been nearly silenced to death through the centuries. Imagine my surprise then, when I found out that a Norwegian pioneer in the art of arsenic poisoning once lived and killed just around the bend from me — and I had never even heard her name!

When I read more about it, I was even more surprised to realize I had stumbled across one of the most bizarre stories of murder and deception that I had ever heard.

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Arsenic – A Girl’s Best Friend

Nevermind the diamonds, arsenic has been a girl’s best friend for centuries. The mineral has been useful as cosmetics, fabric dye and as a component in home decorations like wallpapers, lampshades and paint. It has also proven to be gem in the war against rodents in the cupboards, and – of course – troublesome husbands.

In a time when divorce was a disgrace and/or difficult to get, arsenic was the perfect weapon of choice to end a domestic dispute. It was everywhere: in rat poison, flypaper and other useful things one kept at home. The symptoms of the poisoning were hideous though, as a body exposed to arsenic will shut down the digestion system. There will be vomiting, bloody feces – and quite a lot of pain.

Many famous people have succumbed to the poison: George III of Great Britain and Napoleon Bonaparte are just the tip of the iceberg. Arsenic is held responsible for Monét’s blindness and Van Gogh’s neurological disorders, though the latter weren’t poisoned; they just painted with the wrong kind of paint.

Poisoning in general and arsenic in particular has often been considered a woman’s method, and history is rife with incidents to support the claim. In honor of Women in Horror Month, here’s some horrific examples:

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How To Survive a Long House in October

I still remember the moment before we left, when I was looking into my storage, thinking, “Oh, look all those sheepskins — well, I probably won’t need those. It isn’t that cold. ” Little did I know I was in for one of the coldest 48 hours of my life, and certainly the least luxurious. Viking life just isn’t for everyone.

The reluctant shield maiden.

We were visiting the island of Jøa, off the coast of Mid-Norway, where a local enthusiast has built a long house amidst a gorgeous landscape studded with graves and other traces of Viking-age settlements. The island is famous amongst the historically inclined for the mysterious sitting graves (dated between 650 – 1000 AD), that no one really knows the meaning of. While other graves on the island are traditional mounds, a small group of people was buried in a sitting position, surrounded by expensive artifacts like knives (though not for combat), jewelry and bone combs. Most of them were women, and they were generally older (at the time of death) and taller than the average Viking. Nothing like it has been found anywhere else in Norway, and there’s speculations that the inhabitants of the sitting graves belonged to some sort of priesthood.

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Katie Bender, Witch of the Prairie

While researching folklore that crops up in serial killers’ wake, I found some really interesting stories linking Katie Bender, of the infamous Bender family, to old-school witchcraft.

The Benders, Ma, Pa and Katie and John, arrived in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1970. The family settled down and built a cabin to be used as an inn close to the main road between Independence and Fort Scott. The family’s origins are shrouded in mystery: Some said the family had been part of a German or Dutch settlement in Pennsylvania, and had been forced to leave after some sort of dispute, another theory went that the family had been part of an Amish community. The family relations were a bit unclear too. Some said that Katie and John were siblings, others man and wife, and some even said they were siblings living as man and wife. Of the four of them, only Katie spoke English fluently and the family as whole spoke to each other in German.

Shortly after their arrival, travelers — mostly men — started to disappear. When as many as a dozen had failed to arrive at their destinations, it was decided that all the farms in the area had to be searched. The Benders, who saw their share of travelers at their makeshift inn, had not been suspected at that point but took the cue and fled. Not long after, neglected animals had people look in on the farm, which seemed deserted, and a persistent, bad smell made them search the premises.

It didn’t take long before they discovered a cellar smeared with blood, and several graves in the apple orchard. The Benders are believed to be responsible for at least a dozen murders — all of them guests at the inn.

Though it’s a fact that stories told after a horrible event are hardly ever objective and sometimes outright lies, it doesn’t make them any less interesting to me. And in this case it’s particularly fascinating to look at the stories that links Katie Bender to witchcraft and sorcery.

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That Strange Little Place in the Mountains

  

If you’re feeling a little burned out, there’s no better place to go to refill the well than Røros — which is just what a friend and I did this summer. It’s not far from home at all, just a few hours’ train ride, but I have rarely been there in summer. Røros is more of a winter place with a huge annual fair in freezing temperatures — an ongoing tradition since 1854.

Røros was founded as a mining town in 1644, when they found copper — and later silver — in the area. The mining was the backbone of the community until the mines closed in 1977. The harsh conditions for the workers has been an inspiration for several works of fiction, the most famous being Johan Fakberget’s three volume series Nattens brød (1940-1959). The movie An-Magritt (1966), starring Liv Ullmann, was based on Falkberget’s books.

The beautiful location high up in the mountains and the 17/18th century architecture has drawn a lot of creative people to Røros, and the town today is a playful cross between a artist colony and a living museum. The considerable number of authentic buildings still standing earned Røros a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1980, and has made it a coveted movie location. The town has in the latter years gained a reputation as a gourmet haven with several local specialties on offer, especially dairy and meat products. In addition, Røros has always had a  considerable Sami population (of which many still keep reindeer herds) adding another cultural layer to the mix.

We weren’t there just for the food though. We were there for the dead soldiers.
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Best News Ever

Last night, while I was already sipping bubbly things at the annual office Christmas party — I got an e-mail with this beautiful gem of a screen cap:

Yup, it’s true. My strange, little novel has found a home with Tor, and I just couldn’t be happier!

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This Year’s Summer Reads

I’m not sure if my summer reads are what most people consider summer reads. I tend not to choose the easy breezy ones — although I often like them when I do. This year’s load of novels is no exception, though, and I’ve gleefully read about about darkness and mayhem through hot, sunny days. Sunscreen and monsters are excellent companions.

These are the ones I liked the most:

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