Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Smuttynose Murders

Life on Smuttynose Island, in the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of New Hampshire, was hard in the 1870's. The winter months were bitter cold and the winter storms were devastating. Maren Hontvet, her sister Karen Christensen, and their sister-in-law Anethe Christensen dreaded the loneliness and isolation of the island when the men of the house were away fishing. The night of March 6, 1873, with the men away, the women were prepared to be alone in the cold house, but nothing could have prepared them for the arrival, by rowboat, of a deranged axe murderer.

Date:  March 6, 1873

Location:  Smuttynose Island, ME

Victims: Anethe Matea Christensen and Karen Anne Christensen

Cause of Death:  Axe murder

Accused:  Louis Wagner


In 1866, John and Maren Hontvet left hard times in Norway for the promise of America. They spent some time in Boston but did not like the city life. As soon as they could afford it, the Hontvts moved up the coast to and bought a house on Smuttynose Island, in the Isles of Shoals - belonging to the State of Maine, but geographically closer to New Hampshire. John bought a fishing schooner and soon had earned enough money to send for his brother Mathew and Maren’s sister Karen Christensen.

Mathew was a great help to John but he felt he needed another hand on the schooner. In the spring of 1972, he offered a job to Louis Wagner, a Prussian immigrant living in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in exchange for room and board. Louis Wagner was down on his luck, working when he could for local fishermen. Though he was not happy to be working without pay, Wagner welcomed the stability this situation offered and enjoyed having two women to feed and take care of him. Wagner worked on the boat through the summer, though he was often laid up with rheumatism. That fall more relatives arrived from Norway, Maren and Karen’s brother Even Christensen and his new bride Anethe. Louis Wagner’s arrangement with the Hontvets ended soon after.

On the morning of March 5, 1873, John, Mathew, and Even took the schooner to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to pick up a shipment of bait arriving from Boston. The shipment was delayed and they sent word back to Maren, by another fishing boat, that they would be staying in town that night. In Portsmouth they ran into Louis Wagner and offered him a job helping them with the bait. He knew shipment was late and they would not be heading home that night. When the bait did arrive, Louis Wagner could not be found.

Around 8:00 that night, a rowboat was stolen from Pickering Wharf in Portsmouth. The thief rowed for five hours, though the bitter March winds, across ten miles of frigid sea from Portsmouth to Smuttynose Island. The man knew his way around Smuttynose, he docked the boat on the south side of the island and walked through the snow directly to the only occupied house on the island, the Honvets'.

Karen had been working at a hotel on Appledore, another of the Isles of Shoales, but that night she was visiting her sister. Because of the cold and their loneliness without the men, the three women stayed close together downstairs, Maren and Anethe in the downstairs bedroom, and Karen on a makeshift bed in the kitchen.

The hinge on the kitchen door creaked as the intruder opened it and the family dog, Ringe, barked waking Karen. She thought it was John returning from Portsmouth after all. The man was startled to find someone sleeping in the kitchen, and he sprang to life grabbing a chair and raising it over his head.

Karen screamed, shouting, "John scares me! John scares me."

The man started beating her with the chair. Still thinking it was her brother-in-law, Karen shouted, "John is killing me! John is killing me!

The screaming woke Maren who opened the bedroom door and saw the dark form of a man standing over her Karen. He had paused for a moment and Maren was able to drag her sister into the bedroom and bolt the door. The killer pounded on the door, it would not keep him out for long. Maren persuaded Anethe that the only hope was to leave through the bedroom window. Anethe went through the window but only went a few paces before freezing with terror. The killer ran out of the house, grabbed the dull axe that was kept by the door for chopping ice, and ran toward Anethe.

Anethe now recognized the man and shouted, "Louis! Louis! Louis!"

From the bedroom window Maren saw the man raise the axe and, with one blow, crushed Anethe's skull killing her. The killer ran back into the house and started pounding again on the bedroom door. Maren tried to get Karen through the window but saw that her sister was dying too. Maren's only hope was to climb out the window and leave her sister behind. As she went for the window, he burst into the room and rushed at her with the axe. She jumped out the window as he swung the axe, hitting the sill with so much force that the head of the axe broke off. From outside the window she heard Karen scream has he finished her off.

Maran ran quickly looking for a place to hide. She was carrying the dog, afraid that if she let him down his barking would give away her position. She first thought of hiding in the henhouse but rejected this idea as too obvious. She then ran to the dock thinking she could escape the island in the killer's boat, but there was no boat there, he had come from the other side of the island. Finally she found an isolated section of rock. There, barefooted, in her nightclothes with only the dog for warmth she waited until dawn.

In the daylight, not knowing whether or not the killer was still on the island she hurried to Malaga, a small island connected to the north end of Smuttynose by a breakwater. From there she could shout to Appledore Island. She got the attention of some children playing on Appledore and was rescued.

Witnesses in Portsmouth said that Louis Wagner looked haggard that morning, as if he hadn't slept. He ate breakfast at his boarding house, then packed his bags and took the 9 A.M. train to Boston. When Maren told the story of the murders and accused Louis Wagner, a manhunt began. In Boston, Wagner bought a new suit of clothes and new boots, then had a haircut and shaved his beard. But he went straight to the North End neighborhood where he had previously lived and was well known. By 7:00 that night, Wagner was arrested and on the train back to Portsmouth.

In Portsmouth, a crowd carrying torches was waiting at the depot when the train came in. He was hurried into a waiting police wagon which was pelted with stones all the way to police station. Another crowd was waiting there and a line of police carrying shotguns was required to guarantee his safe entry.

With Wagner safely inside the Portsmouth jail, the authorities needed to address some procedural matters. The Isles of Shoals are divided between New Hampshire and Maine, and while geographically close to New Hampshire, Smuttynose Island is part of the state of Maine. Wagner had to be extradited to Maine and he would run the gauntlet of the rock throwing crowd once more. He was taken by train to South Berwick, Maine, then to the supposedly more secure prison in Alfred, Maine.
Trial: June 9, 1873

Louis Wagner's trial lasted nine dayse. The circumstantial evidience against him was strong. Before leaving Portsmouth he had hidden a bloody shirt in the privy of his boarding house. Fifteen dollars and some change had been stolen from the Montvet's house (Wagner had paid fifteen dollars for his new suit and boots) and among the coins was one of Maren's buttons. The button was found in Wagner's pocket when he was arrested. Witnesses testified that Wagner, at his lowest moments, said he would commit murder for money. He knew John Montvet had money in the house that he was saving for a new boat. Maren Montvet's testimony was compelling, stating without hesitation that the killer was Louis Wagner and relating Anethe's last words, "Louis, Louis, Louis."

But the most damaging testimony came from Wagner himself. His testimony was rambling and sometimes incoherent. He claimed he was working that night baiting trawls for a fishing boat. He could not remember the name of the boat, the name of the captain or even the location of the pier. Then, he claimed, he went to a saloon, had two beers, then went to sleep outside. He could not remember the name of the saloon or its location. No witnesses were presented to verify any of his testimony.

Verdict:  Guilty of premeditated murder.
Louis Wagner had been working on an escape plan since he arrived at Alfred prison and he knew he had to act on it before he was transferred again. The night after the verdict he picked the lock with the end of a wooden toothbrush, put a stool and other items under his blanket to make it appear he was sleeping soundly, then during the guards' regular 3 A.M. break he made his escape.
Once again he was free, and once again did not know where to go. He was afraid to take to the woods so he followed the roads. He was shown some hospitality by a local farmer by was captured at the farmer's house by a group of vigilantes and taken back to Alfred prison.

On March 26, 1875, Louis Wagner was hanged along with a man named John True Gordon who murdered his brother's wife and child. Though Gordon begged for his life, Wagner remained silent. Louis Wagner strongly professed his innocence and never wavered.

Alternative Theories:
In spite of overwhelming evidence against him, Louis Wagner's steadfast assertion of innocence, together with incomprehensible nature of his crime, have lead some people to seek alternative answers.

1. Maren Hontvet was the killer - As the only eyewitness, her testimony was given much weight, but she had more opportunity than a man in a rowboat from Portsmouth. An unsubstantiated rumor published by a number of newspapers in 1876 claimed that Maren confessed on her deathbed. The theory that Maren committed the murders was fictionalized by Anita Shreve in her 1997 novel The Weight of Water.

2. John Hontvet was the killer -In Maren's own testimony, Karen thought the man was John Hontvet, even as he was beating her with a chair. Perhaps John did the murders and Maren covered for him. For obvious reasons this story would be hard to substantiate.

Those who have looked at the case objectively believe that the state of Maine executed the right man.

Here are some 1874 illustrations of Smuttynose Island and the Isles of Shoals: Scenes from Smuttynose.
This is one of 50 stories featured in the new book
The Bloody Century

Faxon, David. Cold Water Crossing: An Account of the Murders at the Isles of Shoals. David Faxon, 2009.

Spooner, Emeric. Return To Smuttynose Island: And Other Maine Axe Murders. On Demand, 2009.


Anonymous says:
March 19, 2010 at 4:26 PM

Was just reading Celia Thaxter's "Among tlhe Isles of Shoals" and was curious about the murders which she mentioned . Well written account--how awful!

Anonymous says:
July 22, 2010 at 11:52 AM

Read Cold Water Crossing. It's better than Return to Smuttynose, or A Memorable Murder by Celia Thaxter.

Anonymous says:
August 26, 2010 at 9:18 PM

Enjoyed Cold Water Crossing very much...what an awful murder.

Unknown says:
November 8, 2016 at 4:26 PM

Unknown says:
January 10, 2020 at 12:13 PM


sofia verdugo says:
February 15, 2021 at 2:50 AM

it’s insane that anyone would believe that it was anyone else. He had the motive, the opportunity, and strength to crush someone’s skull with an axe and swing it so hard it broke the fuck off into a window sill.

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