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Rower Retraces Smuttynose Murder Route

Dan rowing00
HISTORY MATTERS  

"What drives me nuts," I told David Kaselauskas," are all the crazy people who think Louis Wagner could not row a boat to the Shoals, kill those women, and row back in one night."  (Read full article below)

I was talking, as always, about the book I'm writing on the Smuttynose Island ax murders. Wagner is the killer who stole a dory in Portsmouth's South End on March 5, 1873. He rowed that dory out to Smuttynose Island to rob a house. He was destitute, knew the family well,  and thought they had a lot of cash hidden in the house. The men were all stuck in Portsmouth for the night. Wagner ended up killing two of the three women living there and Portsmouth has been talking about the murders ever since. Wagner was caught, convicted, and hanged, but some still question his guilt.

"How long was Wagner missing that night?" David asked.

"About 11 hours," I said. "He had no alibi from 8 pm until almost 7 o'clock the next morning when he was spotted near an abandoned dory in Little Harbor."

"Hmm," David said. "I think I know a guy."

And that's how this little adventure began.  

 

Dan and Dave 

David Kaselauskas is a tall, tanned, lanky lobsterman. He's been fishing out of Kittery Point for 46 years, but the old timers still call him "The Carpetbagger."  The "guy" he spoke of turned out to be Dan O'Reilly, an engineer who hails from Casco Bay and now lives in from "North Kittery" near the York border. Dan began working at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1955 as an apprentice blacksmith. He was head of the X-Ray Department when he retired in 1993. He's been rowing wooden boats and winning races for decades.

"Dan says he'll do it," David told me a few days later.

"Do what?" I asked.

"He'll row out to Smuttynose for you," Dave said.

"For me?" I was still confused.

"Well, it was your idea," Dave said.

"What idea?" I asked.

"To prove how long it takes to get there," he explained.

So we ended up at the Commercial Fishing dock at Peirce Island a few weeks back. It was a warm day at the end of May. David pulled in with his big lobster boat nicknamed "Jersey Girl." She's a 36-foot "Novi, " a spacious sturdy craft built in Nova Scotia.

Dan paddled by a few minutes later in his little Piscataqua wherry. Dan bought his classic, hand-made, wooden rowing boat at Strawbery Banke Museum back in the 1970s. He thinks he paid about $500. It is very similar to the kind of dory Louis Wagner likely took to the Isles of Shoals on that fateful night.

"I used to row pretty serious," Dan says, "but not as much these days. I know a lot of good guys that can row better than I can."

He's being modest. Dan has won a healthy share of races. Years ago he held the record in the famous Blackburn Challenge. Each year competitors row 20 miles in memory of Howard Blackburn, a dory fisherman from Gloucester. Blackburn became separated from his fishing schooner in a winter squall off Newfoundland in 1883. His partner quickly died of exposure and the corpse sat in the boat. Blackburn survived for five grueling days at sea by lashing his frozen hands to the oars as he searched for land.

Dan figured that this jaunt out to Smuttynose might be a good warm-up for the next Blackburn Challenge coming in July.

CONTINUE "TIME TO KILL" essay

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