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Why Louis Wagner Was Smuttynose Slayer

smfeature00.jpg1873 SMUTTYNOSE MURDERS

Maren Hontvet went berserk? Not likely. Yellow journalists, modern historic fiction and armchair detectives have offered alternate theories on the March 1873 murders at the Isles of Shoals. But for those who prefer facts to fiction, it is clear that Louis Wagner was the guilty man.





Guilty Isles of Shoals killer was hanged in 1875

NOTE: HISTORY MATTERS appears every other Monday in the Portsmouth Herald. For more essays visit As I Please    

The question inevitably comes up and my reply never changes. People always ask whom I think murdered two Norwegian women on Smuttynose Island on March 5, 1873.

smfeature01.jpg"Louis Wagner did it," I say with absolute certainty. That is what I told Mary Richards on a TV episode of Chronicle 10 years ago. That’s what I said to the two grad students who drove all the way down from Orono, Maine. I repeated myself on two different University of New Hampshire documentaries and again to a pair of media students from Emerson College as they were twisting bright lights in my face and running a microphone cord up my sweater.

The interviewer recoiled as if struck. This was not what she wanted to hear. Louis Wagner, a dory fisherman from Prussia, was convicted of killing Anethe Christensen with an ax and strangling and cutting Karen Anne Christensen. Both women are buried in Portsmouth. Wagner was hanged on June 25, 1875, one of the last men executed in the state of Maine. Americans, however, love conspiracies.

"But what about the Maren theory?" my interviewer asked, fiddling with the dials on her recording machine and tapping at the battery. The question always comes up.

The victim as murder suspect

"It’s ridiculous!" I say. The theory suggest that Maren Hontvet, the surviving victim went berserk, hacking her own sister and sister-in-law to death at the Isles of Shoals. The double homicide took place on a frigid winter night when the three women were alone on the island. Maren’s husband John and Anethe’s husband Ivan had been forced to stay over in Portsmouth waiting for a train carrying bait for their fishing boat. Maren escaped in her nightclothes and spent the night hiding among the icy rocks on the barren island.

The "Maren theory" is not really a theory at all. It is fiction. Anita Shreve popularized the idea in her 1997 novel The Weight of Water, later adapted into a movie starring Sean Penn. The book was a bestseller and is still widely read. The film bombed. Shreve’s plot twists on an imaginary letter discovered at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in which Maren confesses to the crime. The Portsmouth Athenaeum, like the murders, is real. But the letter is not. Shreve made it up, but her novel follows the actual trial transcript so closely that fact and fiction blur.

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