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Smuyttynose Murder Ax on Travel Channel Tuesday


We’re crossing our fingers that we don’t look like crazy people in this segment for the Travel Channel series “Mysteries at the Museum.” The segment airs Tuesday evening at 9pm, November 1, 2011.  (Read more below)



It took a full day to shoot the short piece, one of half a dozen that will appear on the Tuesday night program. After weeks of preparation via email, the crew arrived on a day when the Portsmouth Athenaeum was closed and immediately took over the old and new library rooms in the building on Market Square. I jotted down what I recall in an earlier blog.

The second season of “Mysteries at the Museum” is apparently a Travel Channel effort to pull in the heritage tourist demographic, and the show is, from what we’ve seen, well produced. It’s clearly designed for History Channel viewers familiar with “History Detectives” that also filmed a segment at the Portsmouth Athenaeum earlier this same year. The Travel Channel also has new shows that target the food and restaurant market and lovers of the Discover Channel.

Both Maryellen Burke and I are strong proponents of history fact over fiction. But the story of the Smuttynose Murders at the Isles of Shoals is still best known from the bestselling fiction novel Weight of Water by Anita Shreve. The ax that Louis Wagner allegedly used in the murders did not arrive at the Athenaeum until Anita’s novel was already on the shelves.

While all historic evidence points to the conclusion that Louis Wagner was the murderer, TV producers, including our friends at the Travel Channel pushed hard for the Maren Honvet theory fictionalized in Anita’s novel. As historians, we held to the facts, but we are curious to see how this episode spins the story. The Maren theory (Maren was the only surviving victim of the double homicide) was created by a newspaper hoax soon after the 1873 murders and, even though the newspaper retracted the story, the conspiracy theory lives on. Those who know the story well, know how the legend was promoted, but most readers are only familiar with the fictionalized version.

In an earlier episode, shot at the Dimond Libray at the University of New Hampshire, the same show made a wild effort to “prove” that Betty and Barney Hill of Portsmouth were actually abducted by aliens. Their “proof” was an unconfirmed, undocumented, unclear report by some woman in a lab coat who allegedly analyzed Betty Hill’s dress (now in the library collection) and concluded that it contained traces of something not of this earth. We’re crossing our fingers that this episode will stick closer to the facts of the Smuttynose case.

Since rediscovering the Travel Channel, we’ve become interested in a well-produced show called “Off Limits” that really does take viewers to unseen parts of American cities. Then again, there are shows like “The Dead Files” and “Ghost Adventurers” that exploit history with pure nonsense. We’re thrilled by the increased number of shows focusing on interesting details of American history, but TV also has a way of condensing facts into myths even as it pretends to ‘reveal” the truth. Beware and enjoy. – JDR

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