Old Shoaler John Downs lived in the
I grew up with the fishermen who came in and went out of Gosport Harbor. There were about thirty fishermen on the Island. They would come from Hampton and Seabrook to catch fish to salt. In the Fall they would go home to the mainland for the winter. I would help them bait the trawls for the next day's fishing trip. They would bring back the small fish to me for helping them. I would take the sounds off them, clean and dry them, and when we went in to the mainland I sold them to buyers who bought them to make glue.
At about the age of eleven we moved to Smutty Nose island. My oldest brother had gone off in a fishing vessel. I would help my other brother in his work. Sometimes we would have a great deal and other times we would not have so much.
We lived in the same house where the Wagner murder was committed. I was a child of three years old and living at Star when the murder, which has become so famous as a treat murder story, was carried out on Smutty Nose Island on the night of March 5, 1873. Naturally, I have no recollection of the happening but from what I have heard and read since concerning it. John Hontvet and his wife, Maren, with her sister, Karen Christensen, and his brother, Matthew, and also Karen's brother, Ivan, living with his young bride, Anethe, were living with him on Smutty Nose. There was no one but them living there at the time on the island and the dark murky fog in the mysteries of the night enveloped this Island with a feeling of awe and sinister adventure.
John Hontvet never left the women alone on the Island unless it was absolutely necessary for him to do so, but in fishing it was often necessary for him to remain on the mainland because of the weather and distance. Previously to a few months before, to off set this and to offer more subsistence for his family, he had been boarding a Louis Wagner, a Prussian, who because of his similarity in race to the Norwegians, had been welcomed into their home as a friend and helpmate, and often he had proved to be of aid and protection as he was a tall, burly, steel-blue eyed Prussian of brute force with a clear calculating mentality. He had been in America for only about seven years and about his past life, nothing was known. He made his living by working in and about the shores, loading and unloading goods, and by fishing or hiring himself out as a crew member. At this particular time he had been out of work for some time and was in desperate need of money, having left the Hontvets just shortly before to board in Portsmouth on Water Street. So that it was no wonder then, when the men about the water front with whom Wagner spoke that night, heard him talking about his lack of money and his willingness to commit murder to get hold of some, they shrugged their shoulders and paid no attention to what seemed to them to be idle boasting.
John Hontvet had to carry in a haul of fish to Portsmouth late that afternoon which they had just caught on a trip and they, the three men, had to remain in Portsmouth waiting for the bait train to come in from Boston. The train was quite a bit later than usual so when Louis Wagner met them at the wharf in Portsmouth as they were waiting, they told him of their intention of having to stay in that night. Little did the three men dream of what was to happen to them when they did return home when they uttered these few innocent words which meant so much to the evil heart of the man beside them.
Banks were not relied in because they seemed so far away on the mainland, and most of the Shoalers hoarded and banked their money as best they could--in tin boxes, between mattresses, feather beds or sheets or otherwise. As a general rule most folk out there were hard-faring honest people and would loathe to touch the cent of another so that robbery on the Island was an unheard of crime. The Hontvets and family hid their money that they had brought over from Norway in much the same manner, leaving some out for daily use and placing the large sum of fishing money for each trip away in a trunk between two sheets. Wagner knew that they had money hidden there although he did not know the exact spot where it was hidden so this in the main, in his poverty stricken, unemployed, bewildered mind he was forced to go to the extent of stealing a dory from the wharf and begin rowing with his powerful strong arms toward the silent island where the sisters were sleeping.
This was about half-past seven in the evening when he slid, with the raving ideas of a demon sweeping his mind, to the off shore of Smutty Nose and under cover of the darkness of the night he slipped onto the shore and made his way towards the blackened house. Maren, Anethe, and Karen, had retired at that time, not having any fear of being alone and being partially guarded by their small dog Ringe. There was a white blanket of snow still left on the Island from the winter's storms lending a softened still about them. Karen was sleeping in the kitchen while Maren and Anethe were sleeping in the room next to it. Suddenly, out of the stillness rose the piercing yelps of the dog ringing through the crisp air with a startling vibration. Karen was the first to hear him and she jumped up out of her bed. At first upon hearing the dog she thought that it was just her husband returning from the mainland so she called out into the pitch blackness: "John, John, is that you?"
With her cry Maren and Anethe awakened, and they became startled into terror when they heard the tearing fall of a chair being hurled at Karen, and the sound of a heavy form of a man dashing at full speed toward her. They heard the clock being struck from the shelf "a clock found later to have stopped at seven minutes after one."
Again they heard blow after blow and Karen cried out: "John kills me! John kills me!" for in the pitch blackness of the night she could think only that her husband was there.
Maren and Anethe rushed out of their bed to find that the door of their room had been in some way wedged. While they were trying to force it open they heard the horrible cries of Karen as she staggered across the floor and went down and loosened the bar that held the door.
As Maren went through the door she tried to seize her sister to drag her into the bedroom but the man looming over them with his huge shape and a chair still swinging high in his hand, uttered no sounds but kept on striking at them.
She dragged her sister into the other room and slammed tight the door. Meanwhile, Anethe climbed out of the window to cry for help from God knows where as the other Islanders were far away and fast asleep. She was in her night gown and bare feet. She tried to yell, but fear paralyzed her throat so that she could not utter a sound. Wagner had seen her leave and he raced out of the house toward her. Upon seeing his full form silhouetted with the dim lighting afforded her by the snow, she found her voice to cry out:
"Louis! Louis! LOUIS!"
Upon realizing that he was recognized, he switched back into the kitchen and seizing an axe with which they had been chopping ice from the well that day, he ran back to the terror stricken girl and cleaved her skull in two with all of his massive moronic strength wielding the axe.
Maren saw all this from the window and she tried to rouse Karen, who was by this time fully unconscious from fear and the blow she had received. Finding this to be impossible Maren took a blanket about her shoulders and hugging to her bosom the dog who was crouching beside her, she climbed out the bedroom window and stumbled half blindly through the snow to hide among the crevices of the stones in a cove near the edge of the island. As she was settling down to hide, she could hear the pitiful cries of Karen who was being carefully and artfully disposed of by the blood-thirsty German.
Wagner tracked about the house, looking this way and that for the missing girl. Being unable to find her, he returned to the cottage and, in the presence of the two bleeding bodies, he calmly brewed a cup of tea and ate some lunch that he had brought with him. After satisfying his appetite, childlike, he ransacked the rooms for the money and found less than twenty dollars to pay him for his trouble. Pocketing this with a grunt of dissatisfaction he coolly returned to his dory and rowed back to Portsmouth during the blackness of the early morning.
Maren, still hugging the dog close to her, waited until the sun was up before she tried to secure help. Upon hearing the pounding of the hammers of the workmen who were rebuilding the "Oceanic" after the great fire, she rushed to the edge of the island toward them and frantically called for help, while waving her blanket at them to attract their attention, but they went on with their work and did not heed her. So she dragged her half-frozen bare feet again over the cold snow to the edge of Malaga, another island nearby, and managed to attract the attention of the children there. Old Mr. Ingerbredsen came across in his boat and, upon seeing the nature of the tragedy, he called for men from the other islands to bring their guns and they hunted for the maniac, but in vain. At about ten o'clock the "Clara Bella" returned with John Hontvet, Ivan and Matthew, they were stunned by the gruesome sight of their loved ones and were so overcome that two of them swooned, with grief.
Wagner, in keeping with his calculating Teutonic scientific disposition, went to Portsmouth and at half-past seven was at 25 Water Street. He went to the boarding house of Mary Johnson where he ate, changed his clothing, and soon was out of the house again. He sauntered down into the town, purchased some food, and then decided to take a train in to Boston. Reaching Boston, he tried to locate a ship that would take him on and out but this failing as no ship was going out at that time, he again began to walk about. He went to a barber and had his hair trimmed, then to Jacob Todtman, at 39 Fleet Street, where he bought a pair of shoes. From there he went, at about four in the afternoon, to a sailor's boarding house kept by Katharine Brown and her husband at 295 North Street. He held conversation with an Emma Miller in a barroom, and returning to Mrs. Brown's he sat down by the stove and took a nap.
While he was loitering his time away, marking each step of his progress for identification and evidence against him later, the "Clara Bella" had reached the mainland with John Hontvet on board her. The police were notified immediately and, through the information that Hontvet gave the police of Wagner's hide-outs, they telegraphed to Boston, and that same evening the police were at Brown's and Wagner was arrested on the charge of murder.
The next day, with crowds of Boston curiosity seekers which followed him everywhere the officials took him, for the murder was so gruesome in its details that the full feeling of the people was aroused to anger, he was taken back to Portsmouth by train. At Portsmouth there was another large delegation of angry men from the Shoals to greet him and to try to kill him, my father among them. They were stopped only from accomplishing their purpose by a detachment of Marines who had been called out to prevent a riotous hanging.
Several days later, when they were about to transfer Wagner to Saco, Maine, for Smutty Nose was under the jurisdiction of the Maine courts so that Wagner was to stand trial there, my father and two hundred men from the Shoals, Portsmouth, and vicinity, went into Portsmouth again to try to lynch him and to give him the fishermen's personal hanging, but because of the force of the law they were again unsuccessful. Hooting and yelling, wild ejaculations dinned the ears of Wagner way into midnight, the fishermen, in their clumbering fishing boots and waving their old tar ropes, followed the officials to the trains and whenever possible tried to aim at Wagner with a stone or so.
Like all other prisoners or victims of murder mania there were all sorts of theories connected with the murder. While in prison, Wagner acted the usual part of the religious innocent who has been unjustly wronged and he blamed the whole affair on Maren. He claimed that Maren, in a fit of jealous hysteria, had murdered her sisters in cold blood. The courts quickly disposed of this theory with the necessary data of evidence which Wagner had scattered all about him. He was given a fair trial in every manner, and, on June 18th, he was found guilty of murder in the first degree and a year later he was hanged.
Karen and Anethe were buried side by side in the old South Cemetery. A year after the murder of his wife, Ivan Christensen went back to Norway, alone. John and Maren Hontvet moved into Portsmouth, taking the dog with them, and from there on John Hontvet took up his fishing trawls again, only this time he set out from the mainland where he remained until he died.
When I was a baby, Louis Wagner used to come in and out of our house. My mother has often told me that more than once he held me in his big, brawny arms and cuddled me with his broken English. She always said that he could swear more than any man she had ever heard. His commiting the murder was a surprise to most of the Shoalers, for they had liked and respected Wagner in many ways. While we were living in the house, strangers from the mainland and the cities, looking for souvenirs of the murder, would come and be allowed to cut out pieces, which were still bloodstained, and of the room where the murders were committed. Lem Caswell refused to repair any part of the house, claiming that he was able to make more money by allowing the people to come and see it and by selling the pieces of the house as souvenirs.
Excerpted with permission from the publisher from "Sprays of Salt: Reminiscences of a Native Shoaler," by John W. Downs, Gosport Publications
© 1944 John W. Downs
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