From the early Middle Ages, that is from the 1100’s, until the late 1700s torture, flogging and executions were are a part of everyday life. Not just on the island but in other places as well.
The purpose of these punishments was to scare people into obedience. Staying in prison was often a wait on the proper punishment, for example being whipped in public, to get one or several body parts cut off or public humiliation.
Death sentences were common and there were several different methods were used. You could be hanged, beheaded, burned or buried alive. The approaches were numerous and cruel.
Fortunately, Gotland is a far nicer place today. However, if you are interested in the darker side of our history there are plenty of things to discover. Start by having a look in our guide – Crime & Punishment in Visby for 600 years.
Places to discover
1. Visby prison
The prison was popularly known as Sjumastaren and was built in 1857. The most famous inmate was Konrad Tektor Lundqvist, who together with his accomplice Gustaf Adolf Ericsson Hjert was sentenced to death for robbery and theft. Tektor was beheaded on May 18, 1876, the last public execution in Sweden.
The prison is today used as a youth hostel but was a correctional facility until the mid-1990s.
2. Donners plats
According to the local medieval law “Gutalagen” harsher penalties were awarded for crimes committed in the Church and in the harbor. This shows how important the port and its trade was for Visby on the Middle Ages. The house where the restaurant Dinner & Table is today was in the 1750s owned by Sven Petter Fighter Dahl, a known Stockholm drunkard and reveler who was actually mentioned by Bellman in his Fredman songs.
3. Courthouse Square
The courthouse and city jail stood on this square in 1730–1794. The cells were holes 4 ells (240 cm) deep and in the late 18th century were half-filled with gravel to prevent unhealthy vapours coming up.In this musty, damp environment prisoners sat and awaited their judgement, punishment or transfer to a fortress elsewhere. The man who assassinated King Gustavus stood trial in this courthouse.
4. The Spinning House
In the 18th century, the corner of Bremergränd and St Hansgatan Street was home to Visby’s spinning house. The city had about 100 homeless people at the time, and women and children who could not prove that they had someone to support them could be placed in the spinning house to earn their keep. The wool from Swedish spinning houses went to making uniforms for the Swedish army.
This was the site of the whipping post in medieval Visby. An uprising in 1342, called the Visby Bloodbath, culminated in the decapitation of Visby’s two mayors, Herman Swerting and Johannes Moop, on this very site. The men were accused of paying military tax to the Swedish king against the public will. Decapitation was considered an honourable death. Poor people who were condemned to death were hanged.
6. The Gunpowder Tower
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the gunpowder tower was used as a dungeon. In 1705, a woman named Ingeborg died here after being accused of witchcraft by another woman. Ingeborg was imprisoned here in winter; the cell was a barren tower room with no creature comforts, and she died in these miserable conditions before her trial was over.
7. St Drottensgatan
In the summer of 1790 Johan Jacob Anckarström, the man who would later murder King Gustavus III, visited this Three-storey building. He stayed on the central floor in the room nearest the courtyard of the Chapterhouse building. During his stay on the island, he
railed at Gustavus III and was accused of lese-majesty (slander against the king). The following year, inquiries were held in the courthouse and Anckarström was held under house arrest here. He was acquitted of the charges and left for Stockholm, where he then murdered the king on 16th March 1792.
8. Stora Torget – the Central Square
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the whipping post was positioned on the central square. The city’s guards – called corps de garde – had their station here. Gotlanders changed the word corps to korv, sausage, and dubbed the guard house the “sausage pot”. The stairs northwest of the square were called the thief stairs. They made up the final march of prisoners from their cells to the gallows hill.
The Flogging Square was the home of the whipping post from 1790 on, and a copy of it still stands in the place. Standing and being shamed in a public place was a common punishment in olden days. There have also been many kinds of physical punishment: flogging, running the gauntlet, having body parts chopped off or having all your bones crushed while still alive. Gustavus III abolished torture when he became king in 1771.
The old gallows still stands here. Three wooden beams were placed on three stone pillars, and condemned prisoners where hanged on the beams. In ancient times, this place was associated with misery and sorrow. If you count, you will see that each pillar contains 17 stones, which is said to be the reason that sjutton, seventeen, is used as an expletive in Swedish.
11. Kajsar Tower
As early as the 17th century, this tower was used as a prison. It housed male and female prisoners alike. Female prisoners were often there for infanticide. It was extremely shameful in those days to have a child out of wedlock, so much so that many women actually killed such children. The Visby County Jail was erected in 1782 next to the tower. Nothing remains of that building today.