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“A bone of the devil” – graduate Nehrman and the horrifying bloody deed in Gränna

When Axel Emil Nehrman was born in Bäckseda near Vetlanda on 11 September 1868 there was nothing to indicate that his future would be anything other than bright. His background could perhaps be best described as “stable middle class”. His father, Carl Gustaf Nehrman, came from a long line of hatters in Vimmerby, but had studied law in Uppsala and was a senior enforcement officer for many years. Axel’s mother, Johanna Carolina Wickbom, was the daughter of an assistant vicar. Axel was the eighth of nine siblings, but the family’s finances were such that all the sons could gain an education: Gustaf Fredrik became an engineer at the Motala Verkstad engineering company; Hjalmar took a degree in law administration in Lund and became a knight of the Order of the North Star and Director General of Kammarkollegium, Sweden’s Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agency; John trained as an artist; August Wilhelm became a bank manager, and Olof worked as a clerk. A more distant relative also became well known – Axel was fourth cousin to the social democratic politician and journalist, Ture Nerman.

Axel was good at studying so, like his older brother Hjalmar, he was enrolled, in 1885, at the Växjö Secondary Grammar School, which later became the Cathedral School. We do not know a great deal about Axel’s grammar school years in Växjö, but we do know that he passed the equivalent of the secondary school certificate there on 8 June 1889. He achieved good grades – an overall grade of AB (pass with distinction) – and his best subjects were French, English, Latin, Religious Instruction, Natural History, and the combined subject, History and Geography.

Having gained good grades for his certificate, it was time for Axel to study at university. As his older brother Hjalmar studied law in Lund, it was not a radical move for the younger Nehrman brother to be sent to the southern seat of learning to follow in his big brother’s footsteps. We do not know if that was what Axel wanted, or if it was the father and older brother’s example that swayed the decision. However, we can assume, as the older brother John trained as an artist, that is was not out of the question for the Nehrman siblings to pursue something other than a career as a civil servant. Whatever the reason, Axel moved to Lund for the autumn semester of 1889, and found lodgings in a room at a now demolished building with the address, Mårtenstorget 10.

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Axel Emil Nehrman’s details in the University register.

Enrolling at Lund University in the autumn semester of 1889 was a much more formal and personal affair than the computerised, online process of today. The first step into the academic world for young Axel would have been a visit to the still relatively new University Main Building. He made this visit on 17 September 1889, probably wearing a tailcoat. After presenting his grades, he was enrolled in the University’s register by the academy secretary, and then went through the doors to shake the hand of the Rector Magnificus, Theodor Wisén, Professor of Scandinavian Languages and member of the Swedish Academy.

The enrolment was complete. Now it only remained to enrol in a student’s club (nation). At that time, the origin principle was still observed, i.e. students were compelled to belong to the nation in whose catchment area they were born, where they gained their secondary school certificate or where their parents lived. As Axel was born in the county of Jönköping and went to secondary school in the county of Kronoberg, he was only entitled to enrol in one nation, Smålands nation, and that is what he did. Enrolling in a nation also required a personal visit – to the home of the nation’s curator, Associate Professor in Exegetic Theology, Frans August Johansson, at Stora Tomegatan 14.

Axel, like Hjalmar, was to study law, and aimed to gain a degree in law administration, which paved the way for a legal career within the Swedish state. The first step on this path was the preliminary law exam. This qualification was awarded by the Faculty of Philosophy, and at the time Axel studied in Lund included grades in Latin, French, History, Political Science and Practical Philosophy. Gaining this qualification was a prerequisite for continued studies at the Faculty of Law. Axel, however, was hard-working and had a talent for studying, which is why on 14 May1890 – just two semesters after being enrolled – he could gain the qualification. His grades could be considered slightly mediocre with passes in everything but History, where he gained a “pass with merit”. However, it should be mentioned that of the six students who took the preliminary law exam that day, only Axel achieved better than a pass in any subject – one student gained a “pass with narrow margin” in Political Science, and another flunked Latin!

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The degree records for Axel’s preliminary law exam. 
Source: Lund University Archive.

The way should then have been clear for Axel some years later to gain his law administration degree and become an official in the Swedish state apparatus like his older brother. However, even though he studied hard, he never gained another qualification. We do not know much about Axel’s life as a student. Axel’s medical records state that his father was “miserly”, something that may have meant the young law student’s social life was non-existent, but many students financed social activities by taking loans when scholarships and parental funding were insufficient. Axel though seems to have lived a “strenuous” life and worried about his studies – so much so that he sometimes had sleepless nights. He was a heavy smoker, clearly overworked and given to religious brooding.

By the autumn of 1893, he could not go on. In October that year he had what his medical records describe as a “a bout of violence”, in which he broke things, an outburst that was followed by several other episodes of insomnia and anxiety. Between these attacks he was exhausted and listless. He had to leave the University without completing his studies. As his attacks became worse and more violent, he spent the following years in a succession of private asylums, ending up at Baroness von Düben’s asylum in Gränna in the spring of 1901.

In 1901, what was perhaps a case of burn out had developed into psychotic episodes interspersed with periods of clarity. Fortunately for Axel, he could feel when a violent outburst was coming on – he found it difficult to sleep and felt pressure at the back of his head – and could therefore warn those around him in good time. This is what happened on 4 May 1901, and why he was put in shackles, tied to his bed and guarded by two men. Unfortunately, these two men were also bell ringers and were forced to break off their guard duties to ring the bells before a church service. This meant that only the von Düben sisters, who worked as nurses in their mother’s asylum, were there to look after the muscular, 1.78-metre-tall Axel Emil Nehrman during his psychotic episode.

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Axel Emil Nehrman pictured during his time at Uppsala Hospital. 
Source: National Archives in Uppsala.

Around midday, Axel tore off the covering that fastened him to the bed. Ella von Düben tried to prevent him from getting up, but he responded by pulling her hair and punching her in the face. Shuffling in his shackles, he moved across the courtyard to the asylum’s kitchen, took a knife and cut the shackles off. He then rushed out on to the veranda where the von Düben sisters had fled, and stabbed Ella von Düben to death. Her sisters locked themselves into the kitchen’s porch, but Axel succeeded in his attempt to get at them by smashing a window and stabbing one of them, causing minor injuries. Unable to inflict further injury, Axel rushed into the courtyard instead, got through a fence and, naked except for a shirt, and with his knife at the ready, ran into the streets of Gränna. He ran in and out of backyards and alleys where he tried to stab as many people as possible. After causing minor injuries to five people, he was finally hunted down and captured outside the town by two men armed with sticks.

In the next few days, the story was told for the newspapers’ shocked readers. The day after the crime the newspaper, Kalmar, under the headline “An awful bloodbath” described how a lunatic had murdered his nurse and injured a further five people in what the paper two days later had upgraded to “The bloody deed in Gränna”. Östgötaposten told the same story using the headline “Horrifying bloody deed in Gränna – the perpetrator was a madman”. Both newspapers focused on the case’s more sensational aspects; how Axel, “coarse and large in stature” tore off his shackles, assaulted his (female) attendants and finally stabbed one of them. The fact that the attendants – including Ella the murder victim – were daughters of Baroness von Düben made the story even more sensational, and Östgötaposten painted Ella von Düben almost as a martyr for her mission as a carer for “the wretches whose light of reason has been extinguished”. The fact that Nehrman was not the “classic” criminal type, but came from a respectable family of civil servants and had been a student, added extra spice to the story. The newspapers wallowed in the accounts of how “the lunatic” ran around in Gränna and tried to stab as many people as possible before being captured – and all this during a church service.

After Axel’s capture, he was put in chains and sent to Eksjö Hospital. There, his outbursts continued; “I am a devil, a bone of the devil, a murderer!”, he screamed while banging on the door and walls of his cell. “I thirst for blood, I want to murder, I must murder!”, he continued. It was clear that Axel’s religious brooding had led him to believe that he was possessed by the devil, and that was why he had murdered his nurse. Axel did not stay very long at Eksjö Hospital, as on 19 June 1901 he was moved to Uppsala Hospital at the request of his father.

Axel Emil Nehrman never made a full recovery. His medical records from Uppsala Hospital show that his violent outbursts returned several times during his stay there. In 1909, he said “I want to murder, I want to cut their throats with a razor strop” as “I have a demonic nature, I am a devil, and have been since I was a child”. The same thoughts were repeated in 1913 when he said he was a devil that would go to hell due to the “carnal fantasies” he had when he was young. However, between these periods Axel was something of a model patient. His behaviour was so good that his status was similar to being “on parole”. He took walks on his own locally, cycled in to Uppsala to buy a newspaper, went skiing, and played tennis and billiards “with considerable skill”. During the early period at Uppsala he even played chess with fellow patient, the poet Gustaf Fröding. As well as sport, he appears to have been interested in music and painting, and was said to have a particular talent for making books when he worked in the hospital’s bookbindery. Sometimes he visited Hjalmar, by all accounts without incident.

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An extract from Axel’s medical records. Someone has noted that “he sometimes has a game of chess with Gustaf Fröding”. 
Source: National Archives in Uppsala.

Axel Emil Nehrman was a patient at Uppsala Hospital for 30 years. He outlived his father (1910), his mother (1922) and brother, Hjalmar (1930). In the later years, he had intermittent episodes of violence and depression, and in December 1930 he became suddenly worse – perhaps due to his brother’s death in October. He was depressed, slept badly and was anxious. Axel begged for sleeping pills and sedatives, perhaps because he was worried about a new explosive outburst. He maintained that he could no longer control his obsessions. At three o’clock in the morning of 1 June 1931, Axel Emil Nehrman was found dead in his room. He had made a noose from the bed sheets and hanged himself from the headboard.

It was the conclusion of an unhappy life that began with so much promise and ended with so much sorrow. Axel was obviously the black sheep of the family – a mentally ill murderer who was hidden away in institutions and mental hospitals for three decades. His name is not mentioned at all in the Dictionary of Swedish National Biography’s article on the Nehrman family. Carl Sjöström’s register of Smålands nation simply states, “Ill. Lives in Uppsala”. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that during his lucid periods he was a frequent guest at the home of his brother, Hjalmar. The family’s relationship to Axel was, and continues to be, ambivalent.

It is difficult to avoid thinking about whether Axel’s fate would have been different today. According to information received by the author, he probably suffered from schizophrenia, a disorder that has far more treatment options today than existed between 1901 and 1931. And if, as his contemporaries believed, it was the “strenuous” life in Lund that pushed him over the edge, it is tempting to believe that he would have coped better today with support from the Swedish Board of Student Finance (CSN) and the Student Health Centre. Who knows?

Henrik Ullstad
Archivist at the Lund University Archives

The author would like to express his thanks to intern psychologist Mikaela Månsson for important factual information, to the staff of the National Archives in Uppsala and Vadstena for their considerable assistance in the compilation of archive material, and to archivist Fredrik Tersmeden for his kind assistance with factual information, suggestions and retrieval of archive documents.
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