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I Met the Smuttynose Murderer

Old Shoaler John Downs/ courtesy Gayle Kadlik1873 SMUTTYNOSE MURDER

When John Downs (1870 –1945) was a baby he was held in the arms of Louis Wagner who become the infamous Smuttynose murderer in 1873. Downs later lived into the Honvet House on the island. The last of the true Shoalers, Downs recounted the story as it was told to him many years later.


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"Old Shoaler" John Downs lived in the
Hontvet house just after the 1873
Smuttynose Murder

Excerpted from
Sprays of Salt:
Reminiscences of a Native Shoaler
by John W. Downs (1944)

I grew up with the fishermen who came in and went out of Gosport Harbor. There were about thirty fishermen on the Island. They would come from Hampton and Seabrook to catch fish to salt. In the Fall they would go home to the mainland for the winter. I would help them bait the trawls for the next day's fishing trip. They would bring back the small fish to me for helping them. I would take the sounds off them, clean and dry them, and when we went in to the mainland I sold them to buyers who bought them to make glue.

At about the age of eleven we moved to Smutty Nose island. My oldest brother had gone off in a fishing vessel. I would help my other brother in his work. Sometimes we would have a great deal and other times we would not have so much.

Murder Map detail/SeacoastNH.comWe lived in the same house where the Wagner murder was committed. I was a child of three years old and living at Star when the murder, which has become so famous as a true murder story, was carried out on Smutty Nose Island on the night of March 5, 1873. Naturally, I have no recollection of the happening but from what I have heard and read since concerning it. John Hontvet and his wife, Maren, with her sister, Karen Christensen, and his brother, Matthew, and also Karen's brother, Ivan, living with his young bride, Anethe, were living with him on Smutty Nose. There was no one but them living there at the time on the island and the dark murky fog in the mysteries of the night enveloped this Island with a feeling of awe and sinister adventure.

John Hontvet never left the women alone on the Island unless it was absolutely necessary for him to do so, but in fishing it was often necessary for him to remain on the mainland because of the weather and distance. Previously to a few months before, to off set this and to offer more subsistence for his family, he had been boarding a Louis Wagner, a Prussian, who because of his similarity in race to the Norwegians, had been welcomed into their home as a friend and helpmate, and often he had proved to be of aid and protection as he was a tall, burly, steel-blue eyed Prussian of brute force with a clear calculating mentality. He had been in America for only about seven years and about his past life, nothing was known. He made his living by working in and about the shores, loading and unloading goods, and by fishing or hiring himself out as a crew member. At this particular time he had been out of work for some time and was in desperate need of money, having left the Hontvets just shortly before to board in Portsmouth on Water Street. So that it was no wonder then, when the men about the water front with whom Wagner spoke that night, heard him talking about his lack of money and his willingness to commit murder to get hold of some, they shrugged their shoulders and paid no attention to what seemed to them to be idle boasting.

John Hontvet had to carry in a haul of fish to Portsmouth late that afternoon which they had just caught on a trip and they, the three men, had to remain in Portsmouth waiting for the bait train to come in from Boston. The train was quite a bit later than usual so when Louis Wagner met them at the wharf in Portsmouth as they were waiting, they told him of their intention of having to stay in that night. Little did the three men dream of what was to happen to them when they did return home when they uttered these few innocent words which meant so much to the evil heart of the man beside them.

Banks were not relied in because they seemed so far away on the mainland, and most of the Shoalers hoarded and banked their money as best they could--in tin boxes, between mattresses, feather beds or sheets or otherwise. As a general rule most folk out there were hard-faring honest people and would loathe to touch the cent of another so that robbery on the Island was an unheard of crime. The Hontvets and family hid their money that they had brought over from Norway in much the same manner, leaving some out for daily use and placing the large sum of fishing money for each trip away in a trunk between two sheets. Wagner knew that they had money hidden there although he did not know the exact spot where it was hidden so this in the main, in his poverty stricken, unemployed, bewildered mind he was forced to go to the extent of stealing a dory from the wharf and begin rowing with his powerful strong arms toward the silent island where the sisters were sleeping.


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