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Poem to Smuttynose Murder Victim

Spinning Wheel /

Before the March 5, 1873 ax murder at the Isles of Shoals, victim Karen Christensen worked for poet Celia Thaxter at Appledore Island. In fact, Celia’s family fired Karen just days before she was killed. We know little about the victims, but this rarely seen poem by Celia offers insights into the character of the victim.



Do Celia Thaxter’s Norweigian Poems Hold Hidden Murder Clues?

VISIT our Smuttynose Murder and Celia Thaxter sections

     - Karen
     - Thora
     - Lars

Poet Celia Laighton Thaxter was fascinated by the Norwegian emigrants who found a year-round home on the harsh Isles of Shoals. She was drawn to their friendly, long-suffering nature and the fair skin, blue eyes and blonde hair of women like Thora. At least three of these immigrants became topics for her poems, including a verse portrait of Karen Christensen, one of the Smuttynose murder victims from 1873.

Celia Thaxter / SeacoastNH.comKaren was the sister of Maren Hontvet and Ivan who lived on Smuttynose Island. She had been working for the Thaxter's at their tourist hotel Appledore Island for two and half years, but through a twist of fate, was fired by Celia Thaxter's mother Eliza just two weeks before her murder. According to a letter by Cedric Laighton dated February 23, 1873, the mother Eliza Laighton had shouted at Karen, "Depart and never come my way again!" Karen left the Laighton’s employ and returned to stay with her family on Smuttynose, interestingly, in the house that the Hontvets were renting from the Laightons. Katen was apparently sleeping in the kitchen of the cottage when Louis Wagner's botched robbery attempt turned into a double homicide. Celia implies that it was Karen's severance pay from the Appledore Hotel that Wagner was after when he broke into the house that night. Historians generally believe it was money that John Hontvet had saved up to buy a new fishing boat.

In a letter to a friend the week after the murder, Celia writes the following: "Karen was quite one of the family here; it was she of whom I wrote the little spinning ballad, you know. Now I 'm afraid these dear people will all be frightened away from here and no more will come."

Assuming it is accurate and not highly fictionalized, Celia's poem reveals much about Karen's state of mind. Celia describes her as depressed, homesick and sullen. She is not pretty and not young, the poet says bluntly. As Karen runs her spinning wheel, we learn that she had thin hands. She owned a blue dress with a snow white collar.

Celia describes Karen in more detail in her powerful essay "A Memorable Murder." She soft-pedals Karen's departure from the Laighton employ in these words:

Karen left our service in February, intending to go to Boston and work at a sewing machine, for she was not strong and thought she should like it better than housework, but before going she lingered awhile with her sister Maren -- fatal delay for her!

Karen was not the only Norwegian to appear in Celia's poetry. In "Thora" she writes about the young Ingebretson girl whose family lived in another house leased by Laighton’s, this one on Appledore. It was Thora's father who first discovered Maren the day after the murder and rowed to rescue her. Another poem tells the story of Thora's beau Lars who was lost adrift at sea with a dead companion in a hurricane. This is the first time the three poems have been printed together so readers can see and compare them.

In "Karen" Celia notes that Karen had left a lover in Norway. The poet also refers to a mysterious Isles of Shoals suitor named Waldemar. We have no surviving images of Karen, but in the poem Waldemar carries a portrait of Karen. Although younger than her, he seems to be in love with Karen, but she seems not to know or want him, locked in her sadness, pining for her native Norway.

According to one Smuttynose legend, it was Louis Wagner himself who pined for Karen. He too was reportedly young and handsome. Could Waldemar be Wagner? Writers have suggested that Wagner was later attracted to Ivan's wife Anethe, a gorgeous blonde with long flowing hair and Karen's sister-in-law. Since no autopsy was performed on the two homicide victims, it is impossible to know if these were crimes of passion as well. The positioning of one body and the victim’s clothing suggest that possibility, but any analysis would be pure speculation. Louis Wagner was tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of the two Norwegian women who are buried in Portsmouth’s South Cemetery.

Notes by J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright (c) 2000 All rights reserved.

Source: All three poems from "The Poems of Celia Thaxter", Houghton Mifflin Co , NY & Boston, 1896 edition. The picture of Celia is from "The Woman's Story: Twenty American Women," John B. Alden Publisher, New York, 1888. (Courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum)

CONTINUE to Three Norwegian Poems

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