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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

Dan O'Reilly passing Fort Constitution and lighthouse in New Castle / J Dennis Robinson photo 

Murderer's Row 

It is roughly 10 miles from the base of old Pickering Street to Smuttynose Island where Wagner killed Karen and Anethe Christensen. Back in the Victorian era, before small motors replaced sails, no one thought twice about a fisherman rowing that distance. John Hontvet, whose wife Maren was the sole survivor of the 1873 attack, testified at Wagner's trial that he had personally made the trip 50 or 60 times in a rowboat. Traveling with the tide, Hontvet said, he could reach his home on Smuttynose from Portsmouth in two or three hours, as long as the mighty Piscataqua tide was in his favor. The tide was perfect for Wagner at 8pm on the night of March 5. It was chilly, but not too cold. The sky was clear and the moon was three-quarters full with a light breeze blowing toward the Shoals.

Despite the facts of the case, modern armchair detectives (many of whom have never been in a wooden dory, much less rowed one), keep telling me it was "impossible" for the murderer to travel that far on a winter's night. But Louis Wagner was a dory fisherman who worked in all seasons. He was tall and muscular, much like Dan O'Reilly, but with one key difference. On the night of the murders, Louis Wagner was 28 years old. Dan is 75.

"We're both ancient," says Dave Kaselauskas, who is also 75. "Why Dan and I can remember when rainbows were black and white and the Dead Sea was only sick."

"Dan's an avid rower," Dave says,  "and strong for the age he is. If you stay physically cooking, you do a lot better than if you sit around and vegetate." 

Rower Dan O'Reilly (right) and friend in Smuttynose Cover / J. Dennis Robinson photo

 CONCLUSION OF Smuttynose Rowing article NEXT PAGE

Off to the races  

David Burke, a Portsmouth fisherman, testified in the 1873 murder trial that his dory was stolen at about 8 pm. Burke and his two sons knew Wagner. They had fished with him and he knew where they kept the dory. A clock smashed during the murders on Smuttynose puts the time of the attack at a few minutes after 1 a.m. the following morning.  So Wagner had as much as five hours to get to the Shoals. His robberty was interrupted by a barking dog and by Karen Christensen, who was sleeping in the kitchen of her sister's house as Wagner entered.  

Dan left early on a Friday morning. catching a swift outgoing tide similar to the one that Wagner experienced 140 years ago. Half a dozen of us followed him along with Jersey Girl acting as our "chase" boat. We brought sandwiches, drinks, cameras, and rain gear. Dan took only a compass and a quart of Gatorade.  The minute Dan's wooden boat hit the swirling river he was out of sight.

"Where the hell did he go?" Dave asked, scanning the horizon.

By the time we caught up  with Dan, the lone rower was "in the zone," pulling rhythmically on the oars, feathering them parallel to the surface of the water with each stroke, then digging back into the salty Piscataqua.  

Following Wagner's likely route, Dan stuck to the New Hampshire side of the river where the outgoing tide carried him quickly toward the sea. He passed Whaleback Light and was at the fort by Portsmouth Harbor Light in New Castle before anyone thought to check a watch.

"Almost three miles in 30 minutes!" Dave called out to Dan. "You're a rock star!"

 Replica Piscataqua wherry build at Strawbery Banke Museum in the 1970s -- J. Dennis Robinson photo

 Time to kill  

At the mouth of the Piscataqua Dan's colorful dory seemed to shrink as the sea opened up and took over the horizon. The rush of the tide diminished, and yet, Dan reported, he could feel the underwater currents still urging him toward the Isles of Shoals for miles. Wagner would have passed the same two lighthouses in 1873, and then been drawn by the night beacon of White Island Light. A small weeping leak forced Dan O'Reilly to pause and bail a little water, then he rowed on like a small mechanical toy in the distance. Before we knew it, the islands grew larger and the 75-year old rower glided between Appledore Island in Maine and Lunging Island in New Hampshire.

Entering Gosport Harbor, Dan curved to the left and slid between Malaga and Smuttynose into the only natural cove at the Shoals. Then he circled back to the Jersey Girl for a victory lap.

"Two hours and 14 minutes!" Dave shouted. "You did it with time to kill."

 Dan wasn't even sweating. We all paddled into Smuttynose Cove and I gave a quick tour of the murder site.  Then we pulled Dan's flat-bottomed boat onto the deck of the Jersey Girl and motored home. We were back at the Commercial Wharf by noon.  

 "Your worst day on the water's better than any day on land," Dave said as we parted.

Lots of people row to the Shoals these days in sleek fiberglass kayaks and plastic ocean-going shells. It can still be a dangerous trip if you don't know the weather and the sea. But you won't see many 19th century wooden dories making the trip these days. Dan proved my point. He wasn't driven to Smuttynose by adrenalin and greed. Dan was just taking it nice and easy.

"I wanted to tell Dave I wasn't ready for this," Dan O'Reilly confessed to me on the phone two weeks later. Turns out he was suffering from a bad case of strep throat that morning. He should have been home in bed.

"But when I heard you were all coming to watch, well, I felt like I ought to go do it," Dan said.

If he had not been sick, and if he did not have to pause to bail a leaking boat,  Dan says, he's certain he could row the distance again in under two hours. Thanks, Dan. I rest my case.

 

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 SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on Amazon.com and in local stores He is also a Smuttynose Island steward.

 

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