Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Shooting of Jacob Dalager

As mentioned in the previous blog post, I am descended from Mathias Ferslev Dalager through his daughter Caroline. Mathias was born in Greenland and was the son of the Danish merchant C.C. Dalager and an Inuit woman named Juliane Marie. Mathias studied art in Copenhagen and later settled in Trondheim, Norway.

Many of the Dalager family remain in Greenland to this day.

In the course of my research, I discovered a most unusual and tragic account regarding my ancestor Juliane. Her son Jacob became "bewitched" or possessed of a spirit that demanded his death. Otherwise, Jacob would ultimately kill his family and devour his own children. Under the direction of the bewitching spirit, Juliane shot her son through the heart and killed him. The terrible ordeal was first recorded by Greenland historian Fin Gad and later quoted on a genealogy page written in Danish or Norwegian.

The experience was also quoted extensively in the book "Mental Disorders of Greenland."  

"The 'Dalager murder' of 1805 took a different course. Jacob Dalager, the son of the late Danish merchant C.C. Dalager and a Greenlander by the name of Juliane, was taken ill with a fever and violent pains in his head, and after a few days he became severely confused. He had the idea that he ought to die, for otherwise he would kill all his family and eat his children. He had been told this in a dream, and the sign was to be that he started eating his own tongue. He first asked his family to nail him into a large barrel, but on his way to the barrel he fled back to the house, where he fell into convulsions, during which he bit off a piece of his tongue; this was seen as a sign that his prediction was correct. He asked his family to kill him. His mother fetched the gun and put it on his brother’s lap, so that it was pointed towards him. She put some priming on it, after which it went off without anyone knowing how. It did not kill him, but he whispered to them asking them to shoot him again and now personally made sure the gun was pointing towards his heart. His mother then pulled the trigger, and he died on the spot.

"…During the investigations, both the inspector for North Greenland and the local missionary were far more understanding. The mother expressed the conviction that God had commanded her to kill her son through the son’s own words to her. She was afterwards very much in doubt as to whether the son was safely in heaven, and whether it was a sin she had committed. The missionary refrained from adopting an attitude, and he managed to comfort her" (Gad 1974: 165-171).

This account fascinates me on many levels. The story is tragically sad, but it also shows a blend of colonialism and indigenous thinking. What were the underlying spiritual beliefs that created and supported this experience? What personal or family events led up to Jacob's illness? Were there no doctors or spiritual healers to lend assistance to Jacob and his family? How did this event affect future generations of the family? Does anyone in Greenland today still practice indigenous forms of spirituality? Who can understand this event from an Inuit perspective?

As often occurs in family history research, we are left with more questions than answers.


Lynge, I. (1997). Mental Disorders in Greenland, Past and Present. Meddelelser om Gronland: Man & Society , 16-17.

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