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A Memorable Murder in Maine

Celia Laighton Thaxter author of Isles of Shoals

Popular island poet Celia Thaxter got tangled up in a real live murder while running her tourist hotel at the Isles of Shoals. One of the victims of the 1873 Smuttynose Murders had worked for Thaxter at the Appledore Hotel just weeks before the bloody incident. Celia’s account, published two years later, has been appearing in murder anthologies ever since. 



Island poet Celia Thaxter lived much of her life on the Isles of Shoals and wrote mostly of pastoral scenes of her life on White, Star, Smuttynose and Appledore islands, ten miles out to sea off the coastal border of New Hampshire and Maine. The darling of literary Boston, she attracted some of New England's great writers and artists to her family's hotel on Appledore kicking off the wave of tourism in the region.

In this essay, originally printed in Atlantic Monthly in May 1875, Celia broke with tradition and told the factual tale of a gruesome murder that had occurred literally at her doorway. Karen Christensen and her sister-in-law Anethe were horribly murdered just past midnight on March 6, 1873. Celia had employed Karen at the hotel and knew the other victim, her family and the murderer Louis Wagner.

Celia was among the first people on the scene to comfort the survivor Maren Hontvet who, with her husband, rented a duplex on Smuttynose from the Thaxter family. Celia heard the story first hand and watched the reactions of Maren's husband John and Anethe's husband Ivan. Celia did write a letter to a friend detailing the murder soon after but took two years to publish her account. The version of the Smuttynose murders, often anthologized and reprinted, remains the most compassionate essay on the incident ever written. This article was published one month before convicted murderer Louis Wagner was hanged in Maine. – JDR

READ: Celia’s Murder Letter to Friend

By Celia Laighton Thaxter
May 1875

At the Isles of Shoals, on the 5th of March in the year 1873, occurred one of the most monstrous tragedies ever enacted on this planet. The sickening details of the double murder are well known; the newspapers teemed with them for months: but the pathos of the story is not realized; the world does not know how gentle a life these poor people led, how innocently happy were their quiet days. They were all Norwegians. The more I see of the natives of this far-off land, the more I admire the fine qualities which seem to characterize them as a race. Gentle, faithful, intelligent, God-fearing human beings, they daily use such courtesy toward each other and all who come in contact with them, as puts our ruder Yankee manners to shame. The men and women living on this lonely island were like the sweet, honest, simple folk we read of in Bjornson's charming Norwegian stories, full of kindly thoughts and ways. The murdered Anethe might have been the Eli of Bjornson's beautiful Arne or the Ragnhild of Boyesen's lovely romance. They rejoiced to find a home just such as they desired in this peaceful place; the women took such pleasure in the little house which they kept so neat and bright, in their flock of hens, their little dog Ringe, and all their humble belongings! The Norwegians are an exceptionally affectionate people; family ties are very strong and precious among them. Let me tell the story of their sorrow as simply as may be.

Louis Wagner murdered Anethe and Karen Christensen at midnight on the 5th of March, two years ago this spring. The whole affair shows the calmness of a practiced hand; there was no malice in the deed, no heat; it was one of the coolest instances of deliberation ever chronicled in the annals of crime. He admits that these people had shown him nothing but kindness. He says in so many words, "They were my best friends." They looked upon him as a brother. Yet he did not hesitate to murder them. The island called Smutty-Nose by human perversity (since in old times it bore the pleasanter title of Haley's Island) was selected to be the scene of this disaster. Long ago I lived two years upon it, and know well its whitened ledges and grassy slopes, its low thickets of wild-rose and bayberry, its sea-wall still in tact, connecting it with the small island Malaga, opposite Appledore, and the ruined break-water which links it with Cedar Island on the other side. A lonely cairn, erected by some long ago forgotten fishermen or sailors, stands upon the highest rock at the southeastern extremity; at its western end a few houses are scattered, small, rude dwellings, with the square old Haley house near; two or three fish-houses are falling into decay about the water-side, and the ancient wharf drops stone by stone into the little cove, where every day the tide ebbs and flows and ebbs again with pleasant sound and freshness. Near the houses is a small grave-yard, where a few of the natives sleep, and not far, the graves of the fourteen Spaniards lost in the wreck of the ship Sagunto in the year 1813. I used to think it was a pleasant place, that low, rocky, and grassy island, though so wild and lonely.


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