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Ballad of Louis Wagner

Smuttynose murders collage (c) 2006

Especially in March we think of the lyrics to this classic Portsmouth ballad and the moonlight murders at Smutty Nose Island. Now 25 years old, this song more than any artistic interpretation we know strikes at the dark heart of the story.




SEE ALSO: Ballad of the Squalus

Writing the Ballad of Louis Wagner

Singer-songwriter John Perrault first heard the story of Louis Wagner and the Smuttynose murders from Celia Thaxter's granddaughter Rosamond Thaxter in the early 1970s. He was then a teacher in Kittery, Maine and Rosamond lived at Kittery Point. Rosamond authored the Celia biography "Sandpiper," and died in 1989 at age 93.) The "Ballad of Louis Wagner" appeared on Perrault's 1981 record album "New Hampshire" and is currently available from his web site. John, a former poet laureate of Portsmouth, published the lyrics in a book with other ballads.

"I didn't get into the legal details of the trial at the time," Perrault says, though he is currently a criminal lawyer. "That came later when Gary Sampson and Dot Ahlgren decided to make a film based on the ballad."

Perrault says he saw in Wagner a Raskolnikov-type character, a figure who thinks he can command his own conscience. The structure of the narrative is similar to Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" who wanders the earth like a ghost.

"If you let the dark forces come out, "Perrault says, "you pay for it through all eternity. Wagner was lovingly nurtured by these gentle people and, for some reason, turned on them for some pathological reason that is not clear to me."

Perrault says the original version of his ballad was longer, but he eventually pared it back to 24 verses. His goal was not just to tell a murder story, but to examine it from a moral and psychological perspective.

Copyright © 2006 by This article first appeared on this web site in 1997.

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