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New Book Will Fully Explore 1873 Smuttynose Island Ax Murders


 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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