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.
Anna Kristine Orning was born on 1664 to one of the really rich and powerful families in Mid-Norway. Her great-grandmother was Lady Inger of Ostrat, a formidable powerhouse of a woman who, among other noteworthy deeds, inspired a play by Henrik Ibsen. When Anna Kristine was sixteen years old she was married off to the much older army captain, Iver Monssøn Stadsgaard — their union was not a happy one. The couple took up residence at Mære, a large estate that had already seen its share of drama. It was a center of worship in heathen times, and the very place where King Haakon the Good (a staunch Christian) was forced by his subjects (staunch heathens) to partake in their ritual meal. This unchristian eating of horse was perceived as a huge heathen victory at the time.
Anna Kristine didn’t care about big politics though. She was mostly concerned with her own plight as a lively young woman trapped in the country with an old man — and she wanted out! As often as she could, she left Mære for Trondheim, the biggest city in the area, where the parties were many and temptations were rife. She took up lodgings there and became quite the socialite, making several influential friends. One of them became more than a friend. Six years into her marriage, Anna Kristine took her husband’s army buddy, Lieutenant Jørgen Randulf, as her lover. The affair must have been sizzling hot — or Anna Kristine really fed up, because it was the two of them who first came up with a plan to get rid of the old captain.
This first attempt was made with strychnine in a sausage. Anna Kristine enlisted the help of a maid who mixed the powder into the food. The sausage was then served and the captain ate — but then he must have tasted something, or been warned somehow, because he abruptly stopped eating and lived to tell the tale — which he didn’t. Though the relationship with his wife naturally suffered after this blatant attempt on his life, no one was held accountable for the crime — perhaps the captain was ashamed? He even accepted the son Anna Kristine had by her lover as his own. Jørgen Randulf did not fare so well though. He suffered a crushing bout of guilt and killed himself with a pistol.
Rumor has it that Anna Kristine made several other attempts on her husbands life after the butchered sausage affair. We don’t know much about them but for a juicy little side note about her trying to hire a cunning woman to get rid of the captain through means of magic. What we do know however, is that ten years later she had a new lover: her children’s tutor, Hans Henrich Ehm. Sadly, the captain was not so lenient this time, and the young man was fired in 1695, only a year after he first arrived. Their affair didn’t end though, and Anna Kristine probably planned to run away with Hans — she sent him chests of clothes and jewelry — why she ended up killing her husband instead, nobody but the lady knows.
In the fall of 1695, Anna Kristine served the captain fish soup, seasoned with the finest arsenic. The old man was hard to kill however, and after a weekend spent in agony, he was still kicking on Monday morning. Anna Kristine — doubtlessly frustrated — made him some porridge for breakfast and added another spoonful of arsenic. This time it finally worked! The captain took leave of this world, and Anna Kristine was free!
The joy was sadly short lived, however. Though they still met, the infatuation between Anna Kristine and Hans had faded — perhaps this lover too balked at murder. A more serious obstacle was that several of the servants at Mære as well as Anna Kristine’s sister and daughter already knew that the lady had served her husband lethal meals. The reason they knew this was nothing mysterious: Anna Kristine had told them herself — discretion was clearly not among her virtues (or, as one not unlikely theory goes, the captain was such a bad man that people who knew them supported the lady).
It was Anna Kristine’s overseer (now married to the maid who helped out with the sausage) who gave her up to the authorities. Anna Kristine was arrested, but not imprisoned. Due to her station she was placed under house arrest at Mære while awaiting trial — this would prove to be a grave mistake.
Anna Kristine seems to have had pleasant days as a prisoner. She was allowed to socialize and had several regular visitors, among them the sheriff and his wife. She was, however, guarded at all times, even when she visited the toilet, though the guards stopped outside the outhouse door. This was another grave mistake.
One night, Anna Kristine disappeared from the outhouse. Someone had come into the yard with a rope, pushed it in through the open space at the top of the wall and pulled the lady out. The murderess was gone! A massive hunt ensued; the terrain around Mære was scourged in the search, and Trondheim too since she had friends there — but Anna Kristine had successfully vanished.
Only five months later did the truth come out when a couple of local farmers who’d had a sudden increase in their means were interrogated, probably not very kindly. They outed the assistant sheriff as the mastermind behind the plot, and he was sentenced to hard labor with the other men involved. It turned out that, while everyone was looking for her, Anna Kristine had been at a neighboring farm after a tumble down a steep hill during the initial escape. The plan had been that she would go to Trondheim by boat that same night, but that had to be postponed due to her injuries. Only weeks later was she brought to Trondheim, and there ends the tale of the lively lady. No one knows what happened to her next, only that the law never found her.
The silhouettes are from various free graphics sites.
Source: I hine hårde dage by Nils Johan Stoa