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Murder Testimony of Maren Hontvet

Murder survivor (c) Portsmouth Athenaeum

Maren Hontvet barely survived the attack on Smuttynose Island in March 1873. The other two women on the island were killed. Maren’s testimony sent Louis Wagner to the gallows. More than a century later her text formed the heart of a novel about the island ax murder.




MORE on Smuttynose Murders.
Photo possibly of Maren courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum
Maren Hontvet's June 1873 eyewitness testimony was key to the prosecution's case in the Smuttynose Murders during the trial in Alfred, Maine. Maren, the surviving victim of the island murders, identified the killer as Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant who had worked on her husband's fishing boat and had lived in the Hontvet's house on Smuttynose Island part of the previous year.

Readers of the novel "Weight of Water" may recall much of this testimony. Although the story is ultimately fictional, a large chunk of the following transcript is used word for word in Anita Shreve's bestseller. Maren had confronted Louis Wagner once in his jail cell, just after his capture and before the trial. Too weak to stand, she lay on a couch that had been placed next to the cell for her and merely stared at Wagner, not speaking.

"I'm glad Jesus loves me," Wagner reportedly said, to which Maren's husband John angrily replied, "The Devil loves you!"

We assume this version has been copied at least three times, first from the original manuscript at the York County trial to a printed version, from that to a typed copy in the Portsmouth Athenaeum, and finally by us. The transcript itself seems to be missing pieces. Maren spoke little English, so we have no way of knowing how much her words have been altered by interpretation and translation. Conspiracy theorists complain about the feeble cross-examination by Wagner's defense attorney. Others argue that Maren could not have seen Wagner clearly in the moonlight, or that her description of the missing button was staged to entrap Wagner. Still, according to Maren, she knew Wagner well, stood only a few feet from him as he murdered Anethe and heard her call out his name. --- JDR


Mary S. Hontvent, testified:

My full name Mary S. Hontvent, am the wife of John C, Hontvent; was sister to Karen Christensen. Evan Christensen is my brother.

Question: How long before this matter at SmuttyNose did you live there.
Answer: Five years. I was at hom day before the murder.

Question: Was your husband there that day?
Answer: He left in the morning, about day-light with my brother, and his brother Matthew Hontvet, and Evan Christensen. Evan is husband of Anethe

Question: After he left that morning, when did you next see your husband?
Answer: I saw him the next morning after, cannot tell, but about ten o'clock.

Question: At nine o'clock that night, who were present at your house before you went to bed.
Answer: I, Karen, and Anethe. There were no other persons upon that island at the time.

Question: What time did you go to bed that night.
Answer: Ten o'clock. I slept in the western part of the house in the bed-room I, and Anethe slept together that night.

Question: About ten o'clock you went to bed.
Answer: About ten. Karen staid there that night; she slept on a lounge in the kitchen. The lounge upon which Karen slept was in the easterly corner of the kitchen, corner standing up that way, and my bed-room that way. (Witness illustrates.)

Question: How was the door between the kitchen and the bed-room left, when you retired that night.
Answer: Left open.

Question: How were the curtains?
Answer: I did not haul them down, it was a pleasant night, so I left them open.

Question: I speak now of the curtains to the kitchen.
Answer: Yes.

Question: How the outside door to that part of the house, fastened or not?
Answer: No sir, they were not fastened. The lock was broke for some time, broke last summer and we did not fix it, it was unfastened. Karen was undressed, bed made; we made a bed up.

CONTINUE with Smuttynose Murder Transcript

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