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The Hontvet Murder House

Smuttynose Murders/ Original photo by J. Dennis Robinson taken on Smuttynose Island (c)

Public response to the March 1873 murder at the Isles of Shoals was immediate. Killer Louis Wagner was almost mobbed by vigilante crowds in Portsmouth and tourists rushed to see the building at the Isles of Shoals. Here are three contemporary images – two photos and a very rare painting by Portsmouth artist Sarah Haven Foster.



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The summer of 1873 coincided with a boom in Portsmouth, NH tourism. Visitors reportedly slept on hotel billiard tables and porches. One was lucky, according to a local newspaper, to find "a cot by the sea". Among the most popular destinations that summer was the "murder house" on Smuttynose Island. Owned by the Laighton Family of Appledore Island, the house had been the scene of a double-murder the previous winter.

Photographers too flocked to the island to make images for sale to the public. Two of the most famous are are shown on the next page. But the most interesting is a watercolor painting by Portsmouth artist Sarah Haven Foster.

Watercolor of the Haley (left) and Honvet (right) houses on Smuttynose Island by Sarah Haven Foster (c) Portsmouth Public Library

For much of her 73 years, Sarah Haven Foster painted. Nearly 1,000 of her tiny watercolors lie in the archives of the Portsmouth Public Library, glued into scrapbooks and labeled, most likely, in her own hand.

Known primarily as the author of the "Portsmouth Guide Book" (1876), the city's first historic walking tour, Foster's work is little known today. The volume and scope of the paintings she produced, including scores of pictures of local houses, is even more obscure.

So imagine our surprise to find what may be the most lively and detailed color image of the Hontvet House. We have as yet no indication when the painting was made out at the Isles of Shoals, but it must have been composed in the short time before the house burned a few years later. Foster's handwritten notation lists it as the "Wagner Murder House." It is one of only four Isles of Shoals images in her collection.

The picture shows the familiar bare duplex on barren Smuttynose Island, but is enlivened by the addition of a clothes line to the right and a "fish flake" drying rack, familiar on the Shoals from the early1600s. The figure of a woman in the foreground may be accurate or symbolic, perhaps, of the murder victims Karen and Anethe, or survivor Maren Hontvet.

Assuming this image was drawn from life and not from reports or memory (which Foster did in some cases), it adds a wealth of detail to the stark photographs from the era including. Another photo from the Portsmouth Library collection also shows a single female figure in the doorway, which may have inspired Hale’s painting. Foster also shows the Haley House to the left, which survived today. The fact that she does not show the proch that was, during the time, attached to the exterior of the Haley House implies that she may not have actually visited the site. Today only the foundation of the house remains. – JDR

Text © 2006 Painting by Sarah Foster © Portsmouth Public Library. All rights reserved. Special Collections Dept.

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