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The Smuttynose Murder Letter

Actor Stephanie Nugent as Celia Thaxter/ photo (c) J. Dennis Robinson,

On the Scene Account

Poet Celia Thaxter wrote this letter just days after the horrifying ax murder and strangulation of two Norwegian immigrants on Smuttynose Island in March 1873. Two years later she collected and published her eye-witness report in the Atlantic Monthly. But this short letter includes her freshest remembrance of the event.


SEE ALSO: A Memorable Murder

One of the murdered women was Celia Laighton Thaxter’s own housekeeper, who had until recently worked at the Appledore Hotel nearby. Among the first on the scene to see survivor Maren Hontvet, Celia penned this tale to her friend Elizabeth Pierce a week after the murder.

Having lived her life among the Isles, it was for Celia, the murder of two foreigners by another foreigner. Though she had heard the tales of ghosts and pirates and shipwrecks all her life, this event brought one of the nation's most gruesome crimes into her small private world. Already facts had mixed with false tales and speculation about the accused murderer Louis Wagner of Portsmouth. This letter was never seen by the press and it was two years before Celia Thaxter would write about the story again in May 1875.

For those students of the Smuttynose Murders still enamored of wild conspiracy theories, this letter strongly indicates that Louis Wagner was the murderer according to survivor Maren' Hontvet. By Celia’s account, Maren had named Louis as the attacker immediately after her rescue. Celia’s version of the story matches almost precisely the deposition offered by Maren that was used in the court trail that convicted Wagner of the crimes. It is interesting to note how, just days after the traumatic event, Celia’s writing still shows the innate literary style that had made her famous. Readers should remember that Celia had almost no formal schooling, but learned to write thanks to her highly literate father Thomas Laighton and later her tutor (and eventual husband) Levi Thaxter. – J. Dennis Robinson

Copyright © 2005 First published here in 1997

To Elizabeth D. Pierce. Shoals, March 11,1873.

An early severe portrait of Celia Thaxter that makes her look not unlike Smuttynose Murder survivor Maren Hontvent / SeacoatNh.comWe have been here a week, Karl and I, but such things have happened I feel as if it were years. You know, I suppose, from the newspapers, of the horrid murder at Smutty-nose. Those dear, lovely Norwegian people had a settlement over there; there was John Hontvet and his wife Marie, and Karen Christiansen, Marie's sister, and Ivan Christiansen her brother, and Anethe his wife; the two had been married but a year and only came from Norway last fall. Anethe, everybody says, was a regular fair beauty, young and strong, with splendid thick yellow hair, so long she could sit on it. Both husbands, John and Ivan, were devotedly fond of their wives, and their little home was so bright and happy and neat and delightful they never ceased congratulating themselves upon having found such a place to live in. Louis Wagner, the Prussian devil who murdered them, had lived with them all summer, but was in Portsmouth working at nothing in particular for the last month (those three women had been heavenly good to him, nursed him in sickness, and supposed him to be a friend). The two husbands went to Portsmouth Tuesday to sell their fish, leaving the three women, as they often had done before, alone, as we on this island have often been. In Portsmouth they found Louis and asked him to come baiting trawls with them. He pretendcd assent, but knowing the three women had been left alone and thinking Karen, who had just left mother's service, had money with her, he took a dory and rowed twelve miles out here in the calm night lit by a young moon, landed on Smutty a little after midnight, broke into the house in the dark and hacked and hewed those poor women till he killed two of them by sheer force of blows, chopping off Anethe's ear and smashing her skull. She had twenty wounds where he had blundered at her haphazard, in the dark! Marie told me all about it.

She heard him first at Karen, rushed to see what was the matter, got three blows herself and a bruise on the jaw from a chair he flung at her when she fled, fastening the door behind her, into Anethe's room. She shook and roused the poor girl out of the deep heavy sleep of youth, and throwing some clothes over her, made her get out of the window, Louis thundering at the door all the time to get in. In vain Marie cried "Run, run, Anethe, for your life!" Utterly bewildered and dazed, poor little Anethe cried, "I cannot move one step," and with that Louis came rushing out of the house round the corner, and Marie saw him kill Anethe with many blows, felling her to the earth. She rushed back to Karen and tried to pull her out of the house, begging her to come and save herself, but poor Karen, half dead with blows, cried only "I too tired," and Louis coming back Marie leaped from the other window and ran for her life. He struck at her with the axe as she leaped and drove it deep into the window ledge. Having to finish Karen, he delayed long enough for poor Marie to get off among the rocks. The little dog, Ringa, was barking wildly all the time. He followed Marie and was really the means of saving her life, for but for him she would have crept under one of the old fish-houses to hide, but she knew his barking would betray her. Next day the devil's bloody footsteps were found all round the old buildings where he had searched for her everywhere. Barefooted, in her nightgown, over the snow nnd ice and rough rocks she fled with the little Ringa, down on the uttermost end of the island, crept into a hole and hid. The moon was just setting as she went; and there she stayed till morning, and dared not move till the sun was high, hugging Ringa to keep herself alive. Louis meanwhile finished Karen by strangling her, sought Marie in vain, took his boat and rowed to Portsmouth again, arrived there in the first sweet tranquil blush of dawn, a creature accursed, a blot on the face of the day. A heavenly day it was, calm, blue, and fair; poor Marie with her torn tender feet crawled round to Malaga opposite Ingebertsen's house, and signaled and screamed till at last they saw her, and what was good old Ingebertsen's astonishment when he went for her, to see her in her nightdress, all bruised and bloodstained, with her feet all bleeding and frozen. "Who has done it ?" he kept asking and she only could answer at last, "Louis, Louis, Louis." I went over to see her at his house (on our island, you know). She clasped my hands, crying: "Oh, I so glad to see you! Oh, I so glad I saved my life! " Poor thing, she tried hard to save the others. The two husbands arrived just after Marie had been taken to Ingebertsen's. When they went into their house and saw that unspeakable sight they came reeling out and fell flat down in the snow. A watch had to be set over Ivan lest he should destroy himself. Anethe, his precious little wife, was so lovely. Oscar was so impressed with her beauty. We begged her to come over as often as she could, it was such a pleasure to look at her!

You can't imagine how shocked and solemnized we have all been. Oscar walks up and down, now ejaculating, "Oh poor, poor things, and Anethe so beautiful, so beautiful!" 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. -- Celia Thaxter

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