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The Ballad of Louis Wagner
By John Perrault

Click for Smuttynose 101

Louis Wagner Singer-songwriter John Perrault first heard the story of Louis Wagner and the Smuttynose murders from Celia Thaxter's granddaughter Rosamond in the early 1970s. He was then a teacher in Kittery, Maine and Rosamond lived at Kittery Point. (Author of the Celia biography "Sandpiper," Rosamond died in 1989 at age 93.) The "Ballad of Louis Wagner" appeared on Perrault's 1981 record album "New Hampshire" and is currently available on audio cassette.

"I didn't get into the legal details of the trial at the time," Perrault says, though he is currently a criminal lawyer. "That came later when Gary Sampson and Dot Ahlgren decided to make a film based on the ballad."

Perrault says he saw in Wagner a Raskolnikov-type character, a figure who thinks he can command his own conscience. The structure of the narrative is similar to Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" who wanders the earth like a ghost.

"If you let the dark forces come out, "Perrault says, "you pay for it through all eternity. Wagner was lovingly nurtured by these gentle people and, for some reason, turned on them for some pathological reason that is not clear to me."

Perrault says the original version of his ballad was longer, but he eventually pared it back to 24 verses. His goal was not just to tell a murder story, but to examine it from a moral and psychological perspective.
© 1997

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"Ballad of Louis Wagner" By John Perrault

The fog peers in the windows, passes 'neath the lamps
Settles in the doorways and huddles from the damp
Slips inside the houses, rooms, the sleeper's bed and dreams
It rolls him over, turns him out into the shrouded street.

Dreamer, listen to the river, rubbing at the docks
Through the smoky loneliness on Ceres Street we'll walk
There's someone waiting for us, where the tugs are tied
His name is Louis Wagner and he's waiting there tonight.

Over there by the warehouse, a shadow like a stain
A man and around his neck, look! A silver chain--
He is pointing at us, fingered us, it's Wagner's laugh all right
Shh, he's about to speak, God look at.his eyes.

"A night like this, just like this in march and it was cold
John Hontvet and Ivan Christensen had come in from the Shoals
To sell their catch and buy some bait and have themselves some rounds
Oh those crazy fools had left their wives on the isles of shoals alone.

And they wanted me to join them, to go out baiting trawls
But in my mind flashed silver there had been some talk about
Last summer out on Smuttynose and I was Ivan's guest
Well I heard him whisper to his wife: 'let's hide the silver in the chest.'

So I left them in the alehouse, pulled by an undertow
I grabbed my hatchet, shoved the dory out and I set my back to row
I rowed that dory through the night twelve miles out to sea
Twelve miles out and twelve miles back, it seemed eternity.

I see the trees on Gerrish Island, looming from the shore
The swell is building under me and I'm digging in the oars
And a sickle moon comes cutting cross my shoulder from the east
Colder than the hatchet blade lying at my feet.

It's all Darkness over Appledore, darkness over Star
Darkness over Smuttynose, pounding in the heart
And those women out there waiting, Anethe, Anethe and Marie
And Karen, Ivan's sister, she was so good to me.

Lunging Island to my left, Malagar to my right
Smuttynose lies dead ahead, I can just make out the light
And the rhythm of my rowing, it is coming faster now
The halfway rocks just off the stern and death just off the bow.

Louis, Louis Wagner, rowing through the night
Louis, Louis Wagner, the noose will fit you tight
Silver chain around your neck, silver in your eyes
Silver in your Judas soul, that never, never dies.

"Well the wind now whipping from the west and the swell will not be tamed
The ocean building to a roar and the mind will not be changed
This boat will have its landing, this sea will have its flood
These hands will have their silver, and the devil will have his blood.

One lamp in the window, a beacon 'cross the ice
Safe harbor for the weary, safe keeping for the night
Comfort for the sailor, wrecked upon the sea
Terror for those gentlefolk who once befriended me.

I'm gliding into Haley's Cove and there's not a soul in sight
I grab my hatchet and I climb the bluff headed for the light
The snow is sucking at my boots and the ice gnawing my hands
But the blood is boiling in my veins; the blood, do you understand?

I smash into the cottage, my hatchet swinging wild
Anethe leaps up from sleep and her eyes are like a child
She screams 'God, John, God!' running from the room
I grab her in the doorway, the axe glints in the moon.

Fire racing through my brain, explosions in my eyes
Anethe lying on the floor and Karen screaming: 'Why?'
The axe, the blood, the sky, the moon, the pounding of the sea
the howling of the crazy wind, the wind or was it me?"

Louis, Louis Wagner, raging in the night Louis,
Louis Wagner the noose will fit you tight
Silver chain around your neck, silver in your eyes
Silver in your Judas soul, that never, never dies.

"Anethe, Anethe Christensen, her lovely golden hair
All smeared with blood, all splashed with blood oh god, it was everywhere
And Karen, gentle Karen, she just wanted to be my friend
She made me well when I was ill, her blood is on these hands.

Marie, Marie she got away, she ran barefoot through the snow
I followed her tracks through the craggy rocks but the moon was falling low
I couldn't find her anywhere and I went back for what I came
But in the chest I only found this piece of silver chain.

Oh this icy piece of silver chain and there was nothing more
I threw the chest against the wall and I smashed the bedroom door
I ripped apart the still-warm beds, I tore up every shelf
I cursed the very universe and then I cursed myself.

I stumbled down to the dory and I flung the hatchet in
I shoved off for the mainland fighting time and wind
The dawn was breaking bloody red when I rowed into rye
I threw myself down on the beach and I hung my head and cried.

And I made it to the train to Boston, but nothing was the same
and every woman on that coach kept whispering their names
Anethe, Anethe and Karen, they was with me all the while
And so they took me back to Kittery where I had to stand my trial.

Well the judge was steaming on the bench and the jury numbered twelve
A thousand eyes inside that room condemned my soul to hell
I was seated in the dock, Marie was on the stand
And right behind me, I couldn't look, were the eyes of John and Ivan.

Well the judge looked toward the doorway, and the jury disappeared
And a hush rolled through that courtroom like a fog across a pier
and the judge he banged his gavel and the jury took their seats
and the foreman stood and he pointed at me and he said: 'guilty in the first degree!'

Oh the sun had not yet risen, there was a moon still in the sky
They took me from the prison with the sleep still in my eyes
And the moonlight on the gallows made that noose like a silver chain
And as I fell I heard Karen pleading: "Louis won't you be my friend?"

OH, Louis, Louis Wagner, hanging in the night Louis,
Louis Wagner the noose now fits you tight
Silver chain around your neck, silver in your eyes
Silver in your Judas soul, that never, never dies.

Well Karen's question gets no answer, for the wind's beginning to rise
And the fog's rolling out with the river, look at the run of the tide
And now a moon, a sickle moon, is rising just offshore
And out beyond the tugboats, listen you can hear the dip of his oars.

Dreamer--in March at Portsmouth harbor, when the night puts on her mask
And the fog prowls the dripping street you might hear a stranger laugh
You might feel a bloody finger, jabbing your moral soul
For Louis Wagner is bound to relive what happened on the Isles of shoals.

©1981, John Perrault
Published by Rock Weed Music, ASCAP
PO Box 1211
Portsmouth NH 03802-1211
603/431-4631; Fax 603/427-0005

SEE ALSO: Seacoast NH Poems, Ballads & Songs

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