Maren Hontvet's testimony
Maren Hontvet's June 1873 eyewitness testimony was key to the prosecution's case in the Smuttynose Murders during the trial in Alfred, Maine. Maren, the surviving victim of the island murders, identified the killer as Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant who had worked on her husband's fishing boat and had lived in the Hontvet's house on Smuttynose Island part of the previous year.
Readers of the novel "Weight of Water" may recall much of this testimony. Although the story is ultimately fictional, a large chunk of the following transcript is used word for word in Anita Shreve's bestseller. Maren had confronted Louis Wagner once before the trial in his jail cell just after his capture. Too weak to stand, she lay on a couch that had been placed next to the cell for her and merely stared at Wagner, not speaking.
"I'm glad Jesus loves me," Wagner reportedly said, to which Maren's husband John angrily replied, "The Devil loves you!"
We assume this version has been copied at least three times, first from the original manuscript at the York County trial to a printed version, from that to a typed copy in the Portsmouth Athenaeum, and finally by us. The transcript itself seems to be missing pieces. Maren spoke little English, so we have no way of knowing how much her words have been altered by interpretation and translation. Conspiracy theorists complain about the feeble cross examination by Wagner's defense attorney. Others argue that Maren could not have seen Wagner clearly in the moonlight, or that her description of the missing button was staged to entrap Wagner. Still, according to Maren, she knew Wagner well, stood only a few feet from him as he murdered Anethe and heard her call out his name. --- JDR
TAKEN AT THE MAY TERM, 1873
At the SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT
YORK COUNTY, ALFRED, MAINE
Mary S. Hontvent, testified:
My full name Mary S. Hontvent, am the wife of John C, Hontvent; was sister to Karen Christensen. Evan Christensen is my brother.
Question: How long before this matter at SmuttyNose did you live there.
Answer: Five years. I was at hom day before the murder.
Question: Was your husband there that day?
Answer: He left in the morning, about day-light with my brother, and his brother Matthew Hontvet, and Evan Christensen. Evan is husband of Anethe
Question: After he left that morning, when did you next see your husband?
Answer: I saw him the next morning after, cannot tell, but about ten o'clock.
Question: At nine o'clock that night, who were present at your house before you went to bed.
Answer: I, Karen, and Anethe. There were no other persons upon that island at the time.
Question: What time did you go to bed that night.
Answer: Ten o'clock. I slept in the western part of the house in the bed-room I, and Anethe slept together that night.
Question: About ten o'clock you went to bed.
Answer: About ten. Karen staid there that night; she slept on a lounge in the kitchen. The lounge upon which Karen slept was in the easterly corner of the kitchen, corner standing up that way, and my bed-room that way. (Witness illustrates.)
Question: How was the door between the kitchen and the bed-room left, when you retired that night.
Answer: Left open.
Question: How were the curtains?
Answer: I did not haul them down, it was a pleasant night, so I left them open.
Question: I speak now of the curtains to the kitchen.
Question: How the outside door to that part of the house, fastened or not?
Answer: No sir, they were not fastened. The lock was broke for some time, broke last summer and we did not fix it, it was unfastened. Karen was undressed, bed made; we made a bed up.
Question: Was there a clock in that room?
Answer: Yes, clock standing right over the lounge in the corner.
Question: If you were disturbed that night or awoke, state the first thing that awoke you, as far as you know, what took place.
Answer: Karen halooed, (Objected)
Question: State the first thing you heard.
Tapley for Defendant: I may as well interpose objection now to the declaration of Karen, or even the declaration of Anethe.
Court: I think it is a part of the res gestae.
Tapley: We raise the point in season to save that.
Question: Go on.
Answer: "John scared me, John scared me." She says.
Question: Are you able to determine in any way about what time during the night that was.
Answer: He woke up; I know about his going and striking her with a chair.
Question: About what time was it?
Answer: The clock was fallen down in the lounge, and stopped at seven minutes past one.
Question: After you heard Karen cry out, John scared me, what next took place?
Answer: John killed me, John killed me, she halooed out a good many times. When he commenced striking her with a chair she halooed out, John killed me, John killed me.
Question: What did you do?
Answer: As soon as I heard her haloo out, John killed me, I jumped up out of bed, and tried to open my bed- room door. I tried to get it open but could not, it was fastened.
Question: Go on.
Answer: He kept on striking her there, and I tried to get the door open, but I could not, the door was fastened. She fell down on the floor underneath the table, then the door was left open for me to go in.
Question: What next?
Answer: When I got the door open I looked out and saw a fellow standing right alongside of the window. I saw it was a great tall man. He grabbed a chair with both hands, a chair standing alongside of him. I hurried up to take Karen, my sister, and held one hand to the door. and took her with my other arm, and carried her as quick as I could. When I was standing there , he struck me twice , and I held on to the door. I told my sister Karen to hold on to the door, when I opened the window and we were trying to get out.
Question: Which window was that?
Answer: My Bed-room window, and she said no, I can't do it, I am so tired. She laid on the floor with her knees, and hanging her arms upon the bed. I told Anethe to come up and open the window, and to run out and take some clothes on her, to run and hide herself away.
Question: Where was Anethe when you told her that?
Answer: In my bed-room.
Answer: She opened the window.
Question: Who opened the window.
Answer: Anethe opened the window, and left the window open and run out. I told her to run out.
Question: Where did she run out?
Answer: Out of the window, jumped out of the window.
Question: Go on.
Answer: I told her to run, and she said I can't run. I said you haloo, might somebody hear from the other island. She said, I cannot haloo. When I was standing there at the door, he was trying to get in three times, knocked at the door three times when I was standing at the door.
Question: What door?
Answer: My bed-room door. When he found he could not get in that way, he went outside, and Anethe saw him on the corner of the house. She next halooed, Louis, Louis, Louis, a good many times, and I jumped to the window and looked out, and when he got a little further I saw him out at the window, and he stopped a moment out there,
Question: How far from the window was he when he stopped?
Answer: He was not far from the window; and he could have laid his elbow right that way on the window. (Witness illustrates)
Question: Who was that man?
Answer: Louis Wagner.
Question: Go on, what else took place?
Answer: And he turned around again, and when Anethe saw him coming from the corner of the house, back again with a big axe, she halooed out, Louis Louis, again, good many times she halooed out, Louis, till he struck her. He struck her with a great big axe.
Question: Did you see what part of her person the blow took effect?
Answer: He hit her on the head. He struck her once, and she fell down. After she fell down he struck her twice.
Answer: And back he went on the corner again, and I jumped out, and told my sister to come, but she said, I am so tired I can't go.
Question: Which sister was that?
Answer: Karen. I told Karen to come; she said, I am so tired I can't.
Question: You jumped out where?
Answer: Out through may bed-room window, and I ran down to the hen-house where I had my hens, and opened the door and thought of hiding away in the cellar. I saw the little dog coming, and I was afraid to hide away there because he would look around, and I was afraid to the dog would bark, and out I went again. I thought I would run down to the landing-place and see if he had his dory there, and I would take the dory and draw to some island. I looked down the dock, but I did not find any boat there, so I went around. I got a little ways out from the house and I saw he had a light in the house.
Question: Go on, and state what you saw or heard.
Answer: He had hauled the window curtains down too. I did not haul them down, but he had them hauled down before I got into the kitchen. I forgot to state that. I went down on the island, ran a little ways, and heard my sister haloo again. I heard her so plain I thought she was outside of the house. I ran to find rocks to hid myself away underneath the rocks on the island.
Question: How long did you remain there among the rocks?
Answer: The moon was most down, and I staid till after sunrise, about half an hour after sunrise.
Question: Had you an axe on the island?
Answer: Yes, I had that axe few days before, cutting ice in the well, and I left the axe right out by my door, standing up alongside of the door. I had known Wagner for a year and a half, about. He boarded seven months with me last summer; came last spring.
Question: When did he leave, get through boarding with you?
Answer: He went into Portsmouth about November.
Question: What room did he occupy at your house?
Answer: He had the easterly end of the house, he had a big room there.
Question: Where did he keep his cloths?
Answer: He kept his cloths in a little bed-room there hanging up. He had oil skin hanging up in my entry, when he had been out fishing, he took his oil skin off and hung it up in the entry, entry coming into my kitchen.
Question: Entry in your part?
Question: From what room in your part did stairs go up chamber?
Answer: We go right in the entry, and go right up-stairs. When he was going out, and took his old pants off, he used to open the entry door, and only two steps up-stairs, and hung his oil pants and oil jacket on the wall.
Question: What was in the kitchen which he occupied as his room?
Answer: He had his bed there, and one big trunk, which belonged to my sister Karen.
Question: Do you know what was in that trunk?
Answer: She had cloths, some she wore in the winter time, and she put them in the trunk in the summer, and summer cloths she did not use she put in the trunk, and she had a feather-bed that she had at the time she came over in the steamer.
Question: Was that in the trunk?
Answer: Yes, the bed was in the trunk, the big chest.
Question: While he boarded with you, was Karen a member of your family?
Answer: She came out visiting me some days.
Question: Did she sleep there?
Answer: No sir.
Question: While he was there, was that lounge occupied as a sleeping place?
Answer: No sir, there was not anybody slept on the lounge.
Question: Do you know whether Karen had a piece of silver money?
Answer: Yes, she had that. I saw that, I cannot tell, October or or November, somewheres between there. The silver was a halfdollar piece. She got that from boarders at Hog Island. She said that to me. Objected
Question: Where did she keep that half-dollar?
Answer: In her purse.
Question: When did you see that purse last, before she was killed?
Answer: I saw that purse that afternoon.
Question: What else, if anything, was there in that purse that afternoon? (Objected)
Court: What else did you see?
Question: That is what I asked her. What did you see in that purse that afternoon?
Answer: She had money in there.
Question: What kind?
Answer: She had lots of copper money, and I gave her ten cents to buy me braid. She was going into Portsmouth, and Anethe gave her three-quarters of dollars, and she said. (Objected)
Question: Beside the money, did you see her put anything else in her pocket-book that afternoon?
Question: What was it?
Answer: A button, white button-like.
Question: Have you any articles of clothing, with similar buttons upon it?
Answer: Yes, have got some.
Question: Where was the button taken from, if you know?
Answer: From my sewing basket.
Question: State what was done with the button, how did it come there?
Answer: She wanted a button. I was sitting down to sew at the table, and she wanted a button and asked me. (Obj.)
Question: Not that, what you did.
Answer: She took the sewing basket and looked for a button, and took a button there and handed it to Karen.
Question: Who took it from the basket?
Answer: Anethe, and handed it to Karen, and Karen put it in her purse.
Question: Have you any buttons similar to that?
Answer: Yes, have them with me. (At the request of County Attorney, witness produces buttons).
Question: Where did you get these buttons?
Answer: Got them in my sewing basket, found one in the basket and two in my box that I have always kept in my sewing basket. I have a night dress with similar buttons upon it. (Witness produces night dress.) On this night dress are six buttons of this white kind and one odd one. Karen had some small pieces of silver, cannot tell what they were, she had them in her hand, they were about the size of a five cent piece. I have in my hands Karen's travelling bag. That night it was left on table along beside the lounge. Karen took her purse down and fixed some things and put them into the bag to carry with her when she was to go to Portsmouth. I never have been onto the island since. I first saw the bag about a forthnight or three weeks after this occurrence; the lock was broken then.
Yeaton for State: We offer both the night dress and the buttons produced here; (Obj.)
Court. I do not perceive at present, how they are connected with the matter sufficiently to admit them.
Yeaton: We will connect them hereafter and offer them again.
Question by Court. What relation are you to Anethe and Karen?
Answer: Anethen married my brother, and Karen was my own sister. Anethe's whole name was Anethe Christensen: she had no middle name.
Question: Where in that room was this man standing when you first saw him?
Answer: Right by the window, next outside the door; cannot tell the dress he had on, had short clothes on, can give no other description of the dress he had on; saw him in that room once; did not see the man when he struck me. I had my back towards him. I saw he grabbed a chair. When I saw the man out of doors, cannot tell the color of the short cloths he had on. He had a hat on his head, some kind of dark hat, short hat with a wide rim; did not see his face.
Question: How long was he in your sight, when you were looking out of the window?
Answer: He was stopping a moment outside of the window. And then went away.
Question: You spoke nothing to the man?
Answer: No , sir.
Transcript courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum. Transcribed for digital use on SeacoastNH.com by Phyllis Robinson.
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