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The Beast of Smuttynose

Pulp Detective cover 1964 / SeacoastNH.comSMUTTYNOSE MURDERS

We’re always on the lookout for more views of the famous shoals murders. This August 1964 pulp account illustrates why you just can’t trust those cheesy detective magazines for facts. Long before Americans got a steady diet of lurid murder tales on HDTV, crime periodicals were in their heyday.




Isles of Shoals History as Pulp Fiction

The Beast of Smutty Nose
By William Beeson
Front Page Detective / Dell Magazines
August 1964

MORE on the murders 

Besides the trial transcript, there are few reliable accounts of the 1873 Smuttynose Murders. Contemporary newspaper articles were peppered with inaccuracies. Pulp magazines like this one from Front Page Detective recycled the story of Louis Wagner largely as told by poet Celia Thaxter in 1875 and later by murder reporter Edmund Pearson in 1926. Both of those authors were unequivocally convinced that Louis Wagner murdered two women on Smuttynose Island, and was rightfully hanged for his crime.

This pulp detective version, probably written for pennies a word, follows in that tradition. But like many later accounts, this author clearly never visited Smuttynose Island or dug very deeply into the story. Author William Beeson begins dramatically:

"Nothing human could row so far in stormy seas – except a man inhumanly possessed by visions of hoarded gold and lovely girls left alone on a barren island."

Pulp fiction cover, Front Page Detective, 1964 on

Beeson’s narrative is reasonably accurate in the description of the crime, although he notes early that the murder house was the only house on the island. That was not, and has never been true. Then as the story unfolds, Beeson gets more and more details wrong. The mystery for a modern researcher, is where Besson got his false facts. He notes, for example, that Louis Wagner stole $200, when he, in fact, got only $16 from the house on Smuttynose. Beeson goes further and further off the mark with the timeline of the murders of Karen and Anethe. He notes, for example, that Louis Wagner attended the funerals of the victims in Portsmouth and introduces a series of alternative murder suspects not known to historians.

Beeson says that investigator’s found a Prussian medallion clutched in Karen Christiansen’s dead hand, pointing to Wagner, the Prussian fisherman, as the killer. Beeson says Wagner rowed back to Portsmouth and, to provide an alibi, went to work with fisherman John Hontvet at 3 a.m. that morning, unloading bait from a train. All of these and many other "facts" in the article are false. Did the author find these stories somewhere else or simply make them up? Beeson clearly never saw the detailed account of the "Moonlight Murder" by Shoals historian Lyman Ruttledge (1958) that offers the best researched essay available. Anita Shreve, however, did use the booklet by Ruttledge to craft her own fictional version of the story in her best selling novel Weight of Water. -- JDR


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