Aiming for the Death Penalty

Lauri Moilanen studies suicidal murders from hundreds of years ago. Desperate people could not kill themselves, so bystanders suffered. The knives and axes were especially heavy in Ostrobothnia.

TEKSTI Kalle Parviainen

KUVAT Maiju Putkonen

In the autumn of 1797, soldiers Simo Storm and Henric Qvist invaded the house of Kankaanpää in the village of Launola (now Laakkola). They murdered a ten-year-old girl in the house by hitting her over the head with an axe several times. The men’s aim was to get the death sentence, a so-called suicidal murder.

PhD researcher Lauri Moilanen has been studying such atrocities since 2020 in the History of Science and Ideas Department at the University of Oulu. 

According to Moilanen’s definition, ”suicidal murder was a type of crime that became widespread in the 17th and 1700s, in which the perpetrator murdered an innocent bystander with the aim of being sentenced to death.” 

How did Moilanen become interested in such a macabre topic? ”I was working for the Puolanka magazine in 2016 and interviewed non-fiction writer Mikko Moilanen. He has been researching death sentences in Finland and tipped me off about an unusual case he had found: the topic had not been researched in Finland and the material was ready, so it would have been foolish not to take it on board. We are still on the same path”, says Moilanen.

Moilanen was interested in studying history already when he was in high school, and during the early stages of his undergraduate studies at university, he was thinking about writing his doctoral thesis. Since graduating with a Master’s degree, Moilanen’s research career at the Faculty of Humanities has been fairly straightforward. ”Many stars aligned when I received funding from the Finnish Cultural Foundation for 2020, and after that I got a job at the University of Oulu Graduate School.”

Moilanen’s research material consists of transcripts of court cases, i.e. dockets. Studying the handwritten and Swedish judgement books required learning old handwriting and the old Swedish language. ”The courses were of little use, as each scribe has a different handwriting. Judgement books follow a certain pattern, so with time and enough reading you learn to recognise the essentials”, Moilanen explains. Moilanen has used an early 19th century dictionary from an antiquarian bookshop and various translation programs to help him in his translation work. The material for the forthcoming doctoral thesis consists of the court records of just under forty trials – well over two thousand pages. ”A single trial is between 20 and 80 pages long, so there is plenty to study”, says Moilanen.

Women as Murderers, Everyday Tools as Tools of the Trade

One of Moilanen’s main research questions is whether the suicidal murders in Finland were related to similar acts in Europe. There are many similarities with the suicidal murders in Germany, Denmark and Stockholm. ”The acts were planned and the victims were mostly young children. In addition, around 60% of the perpetrators were women, which is exceptional in the context of the history of homicide.”

The social class of the perpetrators is also clearly visible: there are many maids and soldiers among the condemned, while priests, nobles and bourgeois are almost absent.

Based on Moilanen’s data, suicidal murders were committed especially in Ostrobothnia. ”The suicidal murders were to become a chapter in the region’s extraordinary criminal history.” Moilanen cites the knife junkies that were active in South Ostrobothnia from the late 17th century to the end of the 19th century and the numerous witch trials in the 17th century as other special features of the region. Moilanen is currently investigating the reason for the concentration of crime in the region. ”The reasons may be related to the religious and social culture of Ostrobothnia and the region’s close commercial and cultural links with the mother country, especially Stockholm, where an alarming number of suicidal murders were committed between the 1680s and 1720s.”

Moilanen cites the weapons used in the Finnish suicide murders as one of the special features of the killings: knives have been used everywhere, but in Finland axes were often used in the killings. The choice of murder weapon, he says, reflects a feature of rural society: ”We have needed more axes in everyday life than in the big cities, Stockholm, Hamburg and Copenhagen. In the Finnish cases, the axe was used to kill adults while the knife was used to kill children. This suggests that the perpetrators wanted to be sure of a successful murder.”

The methods of committing suicidal murders may have been described in great detail in the court records of the trials. Towards the end of the 17th century, the inquest became more professionalised, and doctors were increasingly consulted in trials, whereas previously laymen and at most laymen’s witnesses had been used. The investigation of the cause of death of the victim was included in every judgment. ”In my thesis, I do not repeat in great detail these exceptionally brutal acts, but then again, I do not hide them either.”

Historical research often borrows perspectives from other disciplines. Moilanen’s dissertation combines perspectives from historical criminology, sociology and cultural history. ”The study of suicidal murder – like the study of the history of crime in general – intersects with many branches of research. I study these crimes as a criminal phenomenon from a criminological perspective, but also as a social phenomenon through social history and sociology. From a cultural-historical point of view, I am particularly interested in the connection between crime and religion. The study of the state of mind of the accused, on the other hand, can be traced back to the early history of forensic psychiatry.”

Moilanen is among the few even internationally. ”I am the first in our country to have studied these crimes in depth. There are only a handful of researchers in the world who have studied the subject, so I’m in good company.”

There are both pros and cons to the narrowness of the research field. ”I pretty much know all the other researchers in the field and we work together. Of course, this can be a real headache if you make a gross misinterpretation.”

PhD researcher Lauri Moilanen has been studying suicidal murders since 2020. Photo: Kalle Parviainen.

Moilanen says that historical research is always about interpretation. ”The most important thing is to try to understand what kind of world these people have lived in. Even the people of the past acted rationally in their own environment, even if it may sound funny to us. They acted according to their own cultural code.”

Connections to the Present

The soldiers Storm and Qvist mentioned at the beginning of the article had previously assaulted a corporal in their company. Not wanting to face the punishment that would follow, they decided to commit a much worse crime that would certainly and quickly get them the death penalty. According to court records, the men finally got what they wanted: both ended their earthly journeys with execution.

In the 1700s, the execution of a death row inmate was, according to Moilanen, a popular event. ”The whole village was invited, from baby to grandfather. Executions were even ecstatic events, especially in Sweden in the 1700s: hymns were sung, sermons were preached and some people might be in a state of ecstasy. The executed criminal was even compared in holiness to Jesus, who atoned for the sins of mankind on the cross. This may have attracted some people who were tired of their lives and self-destructive to seek attention to end their lives.”

Moilanen sees similarities between suicidal murders and modern-day acts, and mentions police-assisted suicide. ”Suicide by cop is a type of crime where the aim is to behave aggressively towards the police, with the aim of getting the police to shoot.” In addition, mass shootings, for example, may seek media attention. Some suicidal murders can also be interpreted as extended suicides, where the perpetrator wanted to extend his self-destructiveness to someone else, such as his own child.

Suicidal murder as a type of crime has been explained in many ways, for example by religious reasons. ”Some people were extremely desperate, but not prepared to kill themselves for either religious or human reasons. Killing oneself can be difficult for many reasons, so it was easier if someone else did it,” Moilanen says. Ultimately, the death penalty allows suicidal murder to exist. ”In societies where death sentences are enforced, it is possible to commit suicide by beheading.”

Moilanen reveals that suicidal murders practically stopped in Finland by 1825 at the latest, when the death penalty was abolished and death row inmates were sent to Siberia. In Europe, too, the phenomenon faded as the 19th century progressed. ”In contrast, in the United States, for example, in states that allow the death penalty, acts of suicidal murder have occurred to this day.”

“I could think of something else”

The suicidal murders have been Moilanen’s research topic since his bachelor thesis. ”Now I’m starting to feel like I could be thinking about something else”, he says. ”For eight years I’ve been thinking about these things every day.” Breaking away from difficult topics was a challenge in the early stages of writing his dissertation. He cites the pandemic and working from home, which meant he had to work, play, and sleep in the same room.

For Moilanen, art is a counterbalance to his doctoral work. He’s a songwriter, singer and guitarist in a black metal band called Leskentuska, which plays several gigs a year. ”Music is a good way to deal with these issues.”

The dissertation monograph is due to be completed in spring 2025, but Moilanen does not want to plan too far ahead. ”My thoughts are on the dissertation and there is no thought of a later stage. Writing is close to my heart, but it doesn’t have to be academic. I want to finish the dissertation topic and then see what comes up.” •

In addition to the interview, the article ”Murder for fear of God. A warning to priests.” The role of religious beliefs in the suicide murders of the Suicides in North Ostrobothnia at the turn of the 1700s and 1800s by Lauri Moilanen has been used as a source.

Kalle Parviainen

Kirjoittaja on Oulun ylioppilaslehden toimitusharjoittelija ja opiskelee tiedeviestintää. Hän haluaa parantaa maailmaa viestimällä innostavasti monimutkaisista aiheista.

Lue lisää: