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Gift Recalls Shoals Murder



The gift of a photograph in Maine stirred up this 1935 newspaper article decades after the 1873 murders. This footnote to history focuses on George Yeaton who successfully brough Louise Wagner to the gallows. (READ entire article below)



George Yeaton Defeated Louis Wagner

MORE INFO on Smuttynose Murders

EDITOR’S NOTE: George Campbell Yeaton was a prominent attorney from South Berwick. His 19th century home is today the Academy Inn. Besides gaining fame as prosecutor in the Louis Wagner trial, Yeaton successfully defended a local selectmen accused of killing his 35 year old housekeeper. Source: Placesnames of South Berwick.

The Portsmouth Herald
July 3, 1935

ALFRED, ME –  The county of York has recently been presented with the framed photograph of an attorney whose name is often on the lips of members of the York Bar Association, despite the fact that he died nearly 20 years ago. It is the picture of George C. Yeaton of South Berwick and Boston, who won fame for his masterly prosecution of Louis Wagner (misspelled in the newspaper as "Wawner"), the respondent in that most sensational of all murder cases, the so-called Smutty Nose case, in 1873. At that time Mr. Yeaton was county attorney and the donors of his picture are his two nephews, both former prosecuting attorneys of York Country, George D. Varney of Berwick and C. Dean Varney of South Berwick.

Mr. Yeaton (misspelled "Yeats" in newspaper) was born in South Berwick, studied law when a young man, received a degree from Bowdoin College and was admitted to the York Bar in May, 1862. Thirteen years afterward he was made county attorney and attained widespread fame for his work in convicting Wagner, assisted by Attorney General Harold M. Plaistead, who afterward became governor of Maine.

The entire conduct of the case by Mr. Yeaton was a classic in criminal prosecution, from his reading of the riot act to the howling mob about the Town Hall at South Berwick when Wagner was being arraigned, to his finally obtaining a verdict of guilty from the jury and a sentence of death by hanging.

The trial, which was held at the courthouse at Alfred in the fall of 1873 was replete with sensational circumstances, for not only was the crime the most atrocious ever committed in York county, but unusual occurrences attended every step of the prosecution. Even when Wagner was taken in Boston the evening of the next day after the double murder, the authorities did not know whether he should be arraigned in New Hampshire or in Maine, for it had not then been determined that the little Island of Smutty Nose, the scene of the crime, belong to Maine. Wagner was taken first to Portsmouth and then, after several days of controversy as to the ownership of the island, he was removed to South Berwick, arraigned and bound over to the grand jury. The murder occurred at midnight of March 5th 1873, when Wagner rowed from Portsmouth out to Smutty Nose, a distance of 12 miles, to rob and kill if need be, three defenseless women. He knew that the menfolk who were fishermen, were on the mainland that night baiting their trawls and that he would have the island to himself, so he borrowed a rowboat and set out. Arrived there, he found the house unlocked. He entered and without uttering a sound himself, so Maren Hontvet, one of the women, said afterward, battered with anything that came to hand, Karen Karen Christiansen until she was dead, and felled Anethe Christiansen with an axe, hacking and beating without mercy. Realizing that there was a third woman who must have escaped he then hunted the island over to find her, leaving bloody tracks in the snow all along shore. But Maren and the little dog, Rindge, were hiding in the rocks so close to the water that he missed them. Abandoning the hunt, Wagner went back to the house and with the bodies of his two victims before him prepared a meal and ate before starting on the return journey to Portsmouth.

Back he rowed to the mainland, arriving there at sunrise and took a train for Boston as soon as he could get shaved and dressed, with the reward of his nights work, only $15 in his pocket. The next day he was apprehended and the trial and execution followed. It is said that he went to the gallows protesting his innocence, but he had been identified by Maren Hontvet, who saw him the moonlight as he struck down her sister-in-law, Anethe, with the axe.

Soon after the conclusion of the Wagener case, Mr. Yeaton was engage by the Boston and Maine railroad to act as their attorney in Maine being their first counsel in the state. He then established a home in Boston and lived there for many years, making weekly trips to South Berwick and continuing to practice at the York bar.

He He fought many a well-known legal battle such as the Bar Harbor Water Company case, in which James G. Blaine was interested as a stockholder (misspelled "stockholded"). His use of English was so exemplary and his diction so polished that he is often quoted by Maine attorneys even today, and the story of his questioning a witness in a certain flowage case involving large flooded areas in the northern part of the state is frequently told in Alfred.

In cross-examining one of the witnesses, Mr. Yeaton asked: "And how great was the circumstanced are of the inundated surface?" The witness looked blank (misspelled "black") and before Mr. Yeaton could put the question into simpler language the opposition lawyer, the late Benjamin Hamilton, shouted, "He means the puddle!"

Transcribed from research courtesy of

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