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New Book Will Fully Explore 1873 Smuttynose Island Ax Murders

Maryellen at Marens RockHISTORY MATTERS

March 5 is my wife's birthday. It is also the 140th anniversary of the 1873 ax murders on the Isles of Shoals. That's especially weird since my wife and I are summer stewards on Smuttynose Island. We stay in the old Haley Cottage about 10 feet from where the "murder house" once stood. And this year, to make things weirder still, I am writing a book on the Smuttynose murders. (Continued below)

The ink is barely dry on the book contract. We're looking at a late 2014 publishing date. My literary agent suggested the idea. The publisher is in New York City. And I'm up to my armpits in dark, scary stuff. So far I have read over 150 newspaper clippings about the murder of Anethe and Karen Christensen who are buried in Portsmouth's South Cemetery. I'm up to my neck in the 350-page transcript of the murder trial of Louis Wagner.  It's the tragic tale of a robbery gone bad, but with a twist or two or three. The murders took only a matter of minutes, but I'll be reliving this horrific event, night and day, for an entire year.  

So if you have any special insights into this homicide case, now is the time to tell me. My research has tentacled out in a hundred directions. I'm tracking the lawyers in the case, the judge, the jurors, the people who testified at the trial, and more. I'm studying up on the fishing industry in the 1870s. I've been reading up on the way the mechanism worked that opened the floor of the gallows where Wagner was hanged two years later in 1875. I've been to the prison where Wagner was kept. I'm learning more about the type of wooden dory he rowed 10 miles to the Shoals and back. I'm learning how to bait trawls, empanel a jury, and autopsy a body.

MURDER BOOK article continued on next page

 Honvet House location on Smuttynose Island /copyright




Nate Hamilton at murder site on Smuttynose Island

Maren didn't do it 

While I welcome new input, what I don't need are more crackpot conspiracy theories. I've heard enough of those for a lifetime.  One goal of this book is to put a bullet into each of the rumors, falsehoods, fictions, and hoaxes that have been floating around town here since the story hit the newspaper on March 6, 1873. Such speculation is normal. Wagner, after all, was convicted on circumstantial evidence and professed his innocence to the end. Nobody, not even the surviving woman Maren Hontvet, actually saw Louis Wagner mutilate Anethe with an ax or beat Karen senseless with a chair, then strangle her with a scarf.  Maren saw a figure in the darkness, and she heard her sister-in-law cry out "Louis! Louis! Louis!" as the murderer struck her repeatedly.

Each summer I mow the lawn where one body lay. I trim the weeds around the well where the killer washed up before rowing back to New Castle in his stolen dory. I have appeared on national TV holding the murder weapon, the same ax with the broken handle that my wife Maryellen was holding in a photograph on the front page of this newspaper back in 1997. Like I said, it gets weird. But by this time next year, if the literary gods are smiling, I will have exorcised this murder from my soul and sent Louis Wagner back to hell.

You don't have to know the facts, sadly, to have a strong opinion. Those who say Louis Wagner was innocent, most of the time, have only read the novel Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, or they saw the movie version by director Kathryn Bigelow. Although based on the actual trial, the novel is not history. It is fiction. The movie is Hollywood.  The rumor that Maren herself confessed to killing her own sister and sister-in-law is false. That rumor was started by the killer himself while he was still in jail. A newspaper article that made a similar claim was proven to be a hoax and was written years long before Maren died.

Those who say -- no one could row a boat to the Isles of Shoals at night in the winter -- don't know much about boats or rowing. Those who say the police faked the evidence or that Wagner's defense attorney didn't make a valiant effort to save his client have probably not read the trial transcript or the news reports. Those who believe Wagner's complex alibi holds water don't know much about the laws of physics or the principles of logic. And those who think circumstantial evidence is less viable than direct evidence don't know much about American criminal justice.  But a good rumor is hard to kill, and I will do my best to waste them all. 



 History writer J. Dennis Robinson mowing Smuttynose lawn

Old familiar places 

While much of this research is new to me, some is as comfortable as an old shirt. Among the witnesses at the Wagner trial, for example, were Charles and Sarah Campbell of New Castle. Sarah saw a man peeking around her house at Little Harbor at 7 am the morning following the murder. Her husband, a watchman at the Navy Yard,  saw the same character running across the ice toward the cemetery at New Castle. Minutes later a number of witnesses saw the same figure crossing the toll bridge that leads to Portsmouth. They identified him as Louis Wagner.

I've written about the Campbell's before. The year after the murder they launched a new tourist hotel on a bluff just above their home on Campbell's Island. Wagner was till in jail when the Wentworth House, later Wentworth by the Sea, opened in 1874. You can see  photographs of them in my book on the hotel. The Campbell's quickly went bankrupt and sold their hotel to ale-maker and former Portsmouth mayor Frank Jones.

Much of the story also takes place on Water Street, now Marcy Street. The Norwegian immigrants John and Maren Hontvet stayed there briefly before moving to Smuttynose Island. Louis Wagner  was staying at the Johnson's boarding house -- or not staying there -- the night of the murders. Wagner had been sleeping in a bedroom at the top of the stairs and was four weeks overdue on his rent. It was Wagner's landlady Elizabeth Johnson and her daughter Mary who presented the damning testimony that Wagner did not spend the night in the boarding house as he claimed.  Instead, they saw him arrive early in the morning, covered in ice, scratched and wind-burned, and acting very strange. "I have got myself into trouble," Wagner reportedly told both women,  "and I feel as if I am going to be taken." Soon after Wagner fled by train to Boston where he shaved off his beard, bought new clothes, and was quickly captured.  

I'm not precisely sure where the Johnson's boarding house was, somewhere at Strawbery Banke Muresul or Prescott Park, just a few buildings up from the old Liberty Bridge that ran across Puddle Dock. I'll track it down. The bodies of Karen and Anethe were exhibited there on Water street before the funeral service at St. John's Church. The Hontvets stayed there after the murders too and lived in a boardinghouse nearby off Water Street in the 1870s. They had a child there and John continued as a fisherman. Maren eventually returned to Norway and John eventually remarried.

I know these streets from writing a history of Strawbery Banke Museum. And I know Marshall Thomas Entwistle who bravely protected Wagner from the Portsmouth mob. Thousands of our good citizens attempted to wrest Wagner away from the police after he was captured and jailed in Portsmouth, I assume over by Ceres Bakery. The locals chanted "Kill him!" and "Hang him!" forcing the Portsmouth police to call in military troops from the Navy Yard who held the crowd off with bayonets fixed. Years later, corrupt and overweight, it  was Marshall Entwistle who lorded over the sex trade in Portsmouth's "red light" district on Water Street and was driven out of office in 1912.

Most of all I know Celia Thaxter, the poet of the Isles of Shoals. It was Celia's family, if you saw my last book, who lived on Smuttynose Island and later rented a house to the Hontvet family. It was Celia who heard the horrific story first hand from Maren Hontvet, bloody and half-frozen, after she survived the killer's hand. And it was Celia Thaxter who wrote  the powerful essay "A Memorable Murder" that appeared in Atlantic Monthly. Celia pushed for Wagner to be hanged in Maine, a state averse to capital punishment.

One of the last things Louis Wagner read in his jail cell was Celia Thaxter's now famous essay on the murder. Her article, Wagner claimed, was full of lies. But then, Wagner was a chronic liar as my book will prove, and a murderer of innocent women. If you have facts proving otherwise, or want to help me nail the killer's coffin shut, speak now -- or forever hold your peace.


AUTHOR NOTE:  I want to especially thank the Shoals Marine Lab, the Star Island Corporation, the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company,  and the Portsmouth Athenaeum who are underwriting my research on this new project. Others interested in supporting this work or with added information are invited to contact me. 

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.

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