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Who killed Anethe and Karen on
Smuttynose Island, March 6, 1873?
Was it really Louis Wagner after all?

Maren Hontvet

Maren Hontvet

Schooner

Mystery Schooner

John Hontvet

John Hontvet

Karl Thaxter

Karl Thaxter

Question Marks

Someone Else?
Louis Wagner

Louis Wagner


Click thumbnail for larger picture. Click
caption for more info on each suspect.

Did Louis Wagner Really Do It?
Despite Maren Hontvet's eye witness testimony, clear motive and a hoard of circumstantial evidence, some armchair criminologists still believe Louis Wagner wasn't guilty. Did the state of Maine hang an innocent man in June 1875 for the brutal Smuttynose ax murder and strangling? Wagner insisted that he was blameless to the end and swayed a sizable loyal following to his side. Still, his elaborate detailed alibi was never supported. No other suspect was ever pursued and his repeated efforts to have his sentence commuted were denied. (JDR)

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Alternate Suspect Theories

Suspect #1:
Maren Hontvet
Louis Wagner offered this theory as part of his trial defense. He suggested that the only survivor of the bloody attack on March 6, 1873 was herself the killer. Wagner argued that she might have beaten and strangled her sister Karen and hacked her sister-in-law Anethe to death in the middle of the night with an ax. According to Wagner, she then concocted her testimony and walked around on the frozen island barefoot and partially dressed to make her story appear authentic.

The night of the murder was the only time the three women had been left alone on Smuttynose Island and critics of Maren's testimony have searched a century for "holes" in her story. They point out that:

  • The murderer was familiar with the Hontvet house and could find his/her way around in the dark.

  • Most of the money in the house was not stolen, yet Wagner said he knew where it was hidden.

  • The stab wounds were numerous but not deep suggesting a killer without great strength.

  • How could anyone survive a winter night outdoors walking barefoot in only a nightgown?

  • How could Maren have identified Wagner in the dim moonlight?
An unsupported story later circulated that years later, after Maren returned to her native Norway, she made a deathbed confession. This idea was recently revived in the 1996 best-selling novel "The Weight of Water." Author Anita Shreve's fictional main character finds a lost manuscript by Maren while researching the Smuttynose murders at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

But in reality, Maren did identify Louis Wagner immediately upon her rescue. How could she, isolated on an island with no connection to the mainland, know that Wagner would have no alibi to explain his 11 hour disappearance during the time of the murder? And what about motive? Was Maren fearful of losing her status as female head of the household? No solid explanation has been offered.



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Suspect #2:
John Hontvet
This is another Louis Wagner theory. Wagner suggested at his trial and in jail house interviews that his sometime employer and benefactor John was the murderer. Wagner said he had heard John complaining how the three women on the island -- two recently arrived from Norway -- were literally "eating up" his income with their high grocery bills. Wagner suggested that John may have killed the women and conspired with his wife Maren to frame Wagner instead. No supporting evidence was offered and no decent motive was ever presented by Wagner's defense lawyer.

John Hontvet had spent the previous day fishing aboard the Clara Bella and the previous night in Portsmouth baiting trawls, always in the company of his brother Matthew and brother-in-law Ivan whose newlywed wife Anethe was murdered. The three fishermen arrived home on Smuttynose at about 10 a.m. the morning after the murders. John was enraged by the events, but Ivan was emotionally crushed by his wife's death and soon after the trial returned to Norway. No reasonable motive for a conspiracy is known.

It has even been suggested that John baited Wagner into committing murder by revealing to him that the women were alone on the island. If he was coerced or hired to commit murder, Wagner seems to have forgotten, since he did not offer this possibility during his trial.

20th century filmmaker Louis de Rochemont blamed inept media coverage in the late 1800s for publicizing Wagner's unfounded accusations of John and Maren Hontvet. It was this "yellow journalism," he reasoned, that made such rumors appear equivalent to facts, giving false credence to the myths and legends of Smuttynose that persist today. De Rochemont's attempt to tell the "true" story on film, however, was never completed.



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Suspect #3:
Karl Thaxter
It is ironic that Celia Thaxter, one of the most famous women American poets of her time, lived just across Gosport Harbor on Appledore Island. Thaxter was one of the first to talk to Maren when she was brought to a neighbor's house the morning after the murder. Maren was suffering from frostbite, bruises and probably in shock as she told her gruesome story for the first of many times. Thaxter recorded all the details and wrote about them years later in Atlantic Monthly.

Just a few days before the murders, the "island poet" had brought her son Karl to Appledore. Celia normally wintered in Massachusetts with her husband Levi, but had come this winter to nurse her aging mother. Karl, described as retarded and occasionally violent, was under his mother's care all his life.

Robert Whittaker, captain of the Isles of Shoals ferry Thomas Laighton (named for Celia's father) has advanced the theory that Karl or someone other than Wagner may have been responsible. Whittaker has completed a novel, as yet unpublished, based on the details of the murder. He has traveled to Norway to research the Hontvet family and to Eukermundy, Germany to examine Wagner's birth records.

"You cannot dissect the murders separately from the era," Whittaker says. "This was a very volatile time for the Thaxters...They had had a monopoly on tourism in the area for 20 years. All that was changing."

" My whole idea changed when I read the trial transcript. I would never want to rewrite history...but when you distill the whole thing down -- there's nothing! Everything was suspect and circumstantial and poorly put together."



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Suspect #4:
The Mystery Schooner
Bob Tuttle, a confessed "Shoals junkie" and avid follower of the Smuttynose murder story, comes away from the documentation with more questions than answers. "The trial transcript baffles me," he says. "There are so many inconsistencies and holes in the story."

Among them, Tuttle says, is a passage about a reported conversation between Wagner and John Hontvet. There is mention of another schooner that passed by the Isles the night of the murder. This idea of a mysterious schooner has raised the possibility that others with access to the island and knowledge of the Hontvet money may have slipped in and out unseen.



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Suspect #5:
Someone Else?
There are not many places more barren than the rocky Isles of Shoals in winter. The most likely alternative suspects would be people already living ten miles out to sea. According to Isles historian Lyman Ruttledge, about 50 people were scattered on a few of the nine islands on the night of the murder. Besides a few Thaxters and domestics at their Appledore Island hotel, there were a number of "Shoalers" and other immigrants like the Hontvets who fished year round.

The most conspicuous newcomers that season were construction workers on Star Island. Ironically, this was the year that entrepreneur John Poor had chosen to built a rival hotel across Gosport Harbor from the Thaxters. The giant Oceanic hotel on the tiny island was due to open in the summer and benefited greatly by the crush of tourists drawn by lurid stories of the Smuttynose murders. In her trial testimony, Maren says she came out of her hiding place the morning after the murders when she first heard the hammers of the workers on Star. She frantically tried to attract their attention, then moved to the other side of Smuttynose and flagged down some children on Appledore.



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The Case Against Louis Wagner

Maren testified that Anethe shouted "Louis. Louis. Louis" when the killer confronted her in the moonlight outside the house. Maren then said she saw Wagner's face in the half-moonlight when he murdered Anethe with an ax just outside her bedroom window. When Maren noted she might not have seen his face clearly, Louis Wagner's defense attorney did not object or question her further.

This kind of detail has led many to doubt the fairness of the trial. Yet the trial was held in Maine, miles away from Portsmouth where an angry mob of thousands had waited to see "the murderer" on the day of his capture. Trainloads of curious NH visitors did attend the nine day trail. Was it possible to get an acquittal with such media scrutiny? Did Wagner's attorney sleep walk through the trial. Still, the accumulated evidence is compelling.

"I don't have the faintest idea if justice was done," says Shoals history buff Bob Tuttle, "but if it was, it was done poorly. If I'd been on the jury and seen what was presented, I probably would have voted guilty too. But did they see the facts? And was there reasonable doubt by today's standards?"

The jury took less than an hour to ended a verdict. Here a few items that weighed against Louis Wagner:

  • A button supposedly belonging to Maren was found in Wagner's pocket when he was captured in Boston the next morning.

  • He had lived at no expense with the Hontvet family and admitted that he knew the household well, including the location of the ax and the well where the killer washed after the mired. In his initial deposition taken in South Berwick, Maine, Wagner cited his knowledge of the house as proof he had not committed the murder. He even knew, he said, where John Hontvet kept a second ax.

  • He had been a dory fisherman, used to long solo voyages in a small boat around the Isles of Shoals. John Hontvet said he had made the trip from Portsmouth to the Isles by dory many times.

  • His boot pattern appeared to match the pattern of bloody prints in the snow and the muddy prints at New Castle where a stolen dory was found adrift.

  • He had no supportable alibi. Wagner's attorney could not produce anyone to corroborate his story about a woman who wanted a ride to the Shoals, a schooner and its captain whom he allegedly worked for all night, or witnesses at a saloon where he supposedly drank ale. He was not seen lying in the street where he remembered being drunk and ill, nor was he sleeping on a couch where he said he fell asleep.

  • He made a number of strange statements after the murder, telling one man he was in great trouble, telling another he had just killed two sailors and needed to kill another, telling a Boston shoe salesman he had seen "a woman lying as still as that boot."

  • When arrested in Boston, he did not resist or even ask why.

  • He was broke, behind on his rent payments, out of work and complained to a number of people that he might have to commit murder for money.

  • He asked John Hontvet three times if he was returning to the island that night, offered to help bait trawls, then did not return all night.

  • His bloody shirt was found in the privy near the boarding house covered, not in "fish goory" as Wagner said, but in human blood as confirmed by chemical testing.

  • His landlady noted that he had been uncharacteristically absent from dinner and from his room in the boarding house during the entire time in question.

  • He was seen by a number of witnesses walking from New Castle where the abandoned boat was found toward Portsmouth early the morning after the murder.

  • Karen's purse with $15 and coins (and Maren's button) was missing from the island. Though broke the day before, Wagner took a train to Boston the morning after the murder and bought new clothes, accommodations and a shave, spending approximately $15 total.

By J. Dennis Robinson
©1997 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
All use must be attributed

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