Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873By Sarah Mangiola April 11, 2017
On an icy March morning in 1873, horror struck a collection of small islands off the northern coast of New England. Two women were murdered during a home invasion. What’s worse: The victims knew the assailant well.
The Isles of Shoals consists of a group of small islands off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire, including Smuttynose Island. At the time of the murders, John and Maren Hontvet, a married couple who moved from Norway in 1868, and the family members who had been staying with the Hontvets, were the only inhabitants of Smuttynose.
Enter Louis Wagner (pictured above). When the Hontvets first met Louis, he was a Prussian man struggling to make ends meet. They took a personal interest in him—making sure he was never hungry or in need of clothes. The Hontvets even hired Louis to work for John’s successful fishing business. However, when John’s brother, Matthew, and Maren’s brother, Ivan, came to live with the Hontvet clan, Louis found himself the odd man out.
The Hontvet family set up Louis with another fishing job, but the new fishing boat was soon destroyed. Once again, Louis was destitute. Desperate for money, he decided to rob the Hontvet home—knowing that John and the other men would be out working all night. However, when Maren’s sister, Karen, awoke when Louis broke in, what started as a robbery turned into a cold-blooded ax murder.
But is that what really happened? Historian J. Dennis Robinson dives into the case, exploring the history of the Isles of Shoals and how Louis Wagner never confessed to the crimes—even gaining a following of people who believed in his innocence—in his book Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case of the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873.
Read on for an excerpt and then download the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.
Evening, March 6, 1873
Smuttynose Island was dead quiet. The bodies of the two murdered women had been lying half clothed on the icy floor of the empty house for upward of seventeen hours. The killer had fled long ago and was still at large. Maren Hontvet, the surviving victim, had been rescued early that morning by a dory fisherman from a neighboring island at the rocky Isles of Shoals off the New England coast. Fragments of her horrific story had by now drifted back to the mainland and leaked into the late edition of the local newspaper, transforming the peaceful citizens of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, into a frenzied vengeful mob.
“The men who come from the Shoals are so excited that it is impossible to get many particulars from them,” the Portsmouth Daily Evening Times admitted, “and this news reached us just as we go to press.”
So the earliest printed reports were understandably flawed. The first victim identified was Karen Christensen, a Norwegian immigrant, not “Cornelia” as the newspapers called her. The second victim was her sister-in-law, Anethe Christensen, whom the report listed as “Annetta Lawson.” The New York Times reported they were two German girls. The women had “quite a large sum of money, and that is now missing” the Portsmouth Daily Chronicle erroneously added. The thief, they would soon discover, had taken roughly sixteen dollars.
“They were killed with an axe by some person as yet unknown,” the Evening Times continued, “although the people who live there have no doubt in regard to his identity … The suspected man is a Mr. Lewis [sic] Wagner. He is said to be a desperate character.”
It was early Thursday evening by the time the Portsmouth newsboys began shouting the headline “TERRIBLE TRAGEDY AT THE ISLES OF SHOALS.” Demand for newspapers was so great that copies quickly ran out.
Directly across the deep swirling Piscataqua River, at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, a solemn group was filing onto a steam-powered tugboat to visit the murder scene. Despite its name, the historic Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, founded in 1800, is located in Kittery, Maine. The Piscataqua, one of the fastest-flowing rivers in the nation, divides New Hampshire from Maine. That invisible border extends three miles to the mouth of the river and another seven miles out to sea where it splits the nine tiny Isles of Shoals between the two states.
It was 6:45 P.M. by the time the coroner’s jury began their grim mission. A team of at least 15 men including doctors, reporters, law enforcement officers, and observers settled in for an hour-long ride inside the large heated cab of the USS Mayflower. The iron-hulled tug, designed during the recent Civil War, pulled slowly away from the dock and into icy waters. The trailing cloud of coal soot was all but invisible against the black sky and the black water. The 137-foot tug appeared in silhouette as it chugged past Portsmouth Harbor Light off the starboard bow and soon the glimmer of Whaleback Lighthouse on the port side. Here the surging Piscataqua River met the sea. Then the tug faded to a speck of gaslight against the open ocean.
Aboard the USS Mayflower, reporters representing six or seven newspapers, mostly from nearby Boston, clustered around one man. The Evening Times had mistakenly called him “Mr. Huntress,” his nickname among the island fishermen, but his name was John C. Hontvet. A fair-haired Norwegian immigrant, he was captain of the fishing schooner Clara Bella. He was the man who rented the only house occupied year-round on Smuttynose Island. John’s landlords, the Laighton family, owned the big tourist hotel on Appledore Island at the Isles of Shoals. It was John Hontvet’s wife, Maren, who had survived the deadly attack and who had named Louis Wagner as the killer. And it was John, his brother, Matthew, and his brother-in-law, Ivan, who had first seen the bodies of the slaughtered women that same morning when they arrived home on Smuttynose Island from an overnight fishing trip.
Now, despite the darkness and the chill, the coroner’s team was on a mission to gather the facts and uncover the truth. The Mayflower followed the route the suspected killer had taken the night before as he rowed mightily toward the few flickering lights at the Isles of Shoals, following the invisible ocean border separating New Hampshire from Maine. The steam engine slowed to a crawl as the tug rounded Appledore Island, home of the famous poet Celia Laighton Thaxter and her family’s summer resort. The expansive wooden hotel was dark but there were lights visible in the poet’s cottage. A few lamps also flickered on Star Island to the right on the New Hampshire side of the cluster of flat islands, little more than rocks sticking out of the sea. The flame at the top of the lighthouse tower on White Island, a mile further to the south, helped define Smuttynose Island, a gray shape floating like a drowned giant in the near blackness. At night and from this direction, the long black point of rock stretching to the southeast would not be visible. That is the smudged or “smutty” nose from which the island takes its curious name.
The captain of the Mayflower, a man named Baker, guided his ship into the rocky inlet below the darkened Appledore Hotel. The crew secured a mooring and the captain cut the engine. To the reporters and members of the coroner’s jury—men familiar with the constant clanks, hisses, and squeals of Victorian city life—the silence of the Shoals must have been stunning. After a momentary sense of deafness, the human ear quickly tunes itself to subtler sounds. The murmur of a gull, the distant clang of a navigation buoy, and the slapping of water against the hull of a ship rushed in to fill the emptiness. One feels, in the silence of the islands, that it is possible to hear everything for miles in all directions.
It was now 8:00 P.M. and, with the exception of the tugboat lamps, it was fully dark. The pale three-quarter moon had barely risen. One by one, the reporters, doctors, lawmen, and witnesses climbed awkwardly over the railing of the sturdy tug and down a cold ladder into a tiny fleet of fishing boats that bobbed in the waves below. It was only a short pull of the oars, no more than half a mile, around the tip of Appledore Island and across a fast-flowing channel to Gosport Harbor and into Smuttynose Cove. But for men unused to the sea at night, it could be a heart-stopping ride. With a fresh breeze and a now choppy sea, one group of nervous reporters almost capsized their launch, filling the boat halfway to the gunwales with numbingly cold salt water.
In the silence, the wooden boats screeched as the landing party hauled them across pebbles, fish bones, and broken seashells in the sandy cove. The men secured the boats against the dark stone pier slick with cold seaweed. No light shown from any of the dark ramshackle buildings encircling the cove. There was nothing here, at first, but a billion flickering stars and the stench of rotting fish.
Thrusting their glaring lanterns at arm’s length, the coroner’s team followed John Hontvet over the stone boulders and up the slippery incline toward a stark, scarlet-colored building. Shoalers called it the Red House, but at night the two-story duplex was as black as the other shadowy structures on the island. The snow was flattened all around by the footprints of those who had first visited the murder scene earlier that day.
An ax, a key piece of evidence, still lay in the snow by the front of the house, its handle broken and the blade thick with frozen gore. What had been gruesome by daylight had grown fearsome by night. A large flat rock not far from the corner of the house was coated with dark blood. A long streak of blood trailed from the rock to a door marked with a stained handprint. Mr. Hontvet ushered the first of the observers through the narrow doorway on the right side of the duplex, through a cramped entranceway hung with coats, and into the kitchen, lit now only by their sputtering lamps. Anethe Christensen’s half-frozen body still laid face up in the center of the kitchen floor near the stove, her head toward the door. Her “lower extremities” were unclothed, according to Dr. Daniel W. Jones, one of six members of the coroner’s jury. A cloth or napkin was tied tightly around her neck. One hand was clenched. Someone covered the woman’s partially naked form with a stray garment.
The doctor and others on the team placed the bludgeoned corpse of the once-beautiful 25-year-old Norwegian immigrant onto a wooden plank and lifted it onto the kitchen table for a hasty medical examination. They had to clear aside the blood-stained dishes where the killer had apparently eaten a meal of tea and cake before making his escape back to the sea. Anethe’s face was savaged beyond recognition, her skull crushed by a powerful blow.
“The head was, as you might say, all battered to pieces,” a member of the coroner’s team later testified in court. Anethe’s body, the witness said, was “covered with wounds, and in the vicinity of the right ear, two or three cuts broke through the skull so that the brains could be seen running through them.”
As the doctors worked and the reporters scribbled in their notepads, the policemen searched the ransacked rooms by lamplight. The floors creaked eerily as they walked. In the other half of the duplex, the officers found Karen Christensen. Her body was partially naked and thrust under a bed. A scarf was wrapped so tightly around the woman’s neck that her tongue protruded and her eyes bulged. The feet were straightened out “as if she had been in great agony.”
It was past 2:00 A.M. Friday morning before the coroner’s men reassembled aboard the USS Mayflower for the return to Portsmouth Harbor. It was breaking dawn before the Boston and New York reporters could telegraph the gory details to their editors. By Friday afternoon, readers up and down the Atlantic coast knew all about the bloody ax with the broken handle, the smashed furniture, the mangled bodies, and Maren Hontvet’s miraculous escape from the Grim Reaper’s blade. They were amazed by the news that a clock, apparently smashed during the island attack, had stopped precisely at 1:07 a.m., potentially fixing the time of the murders.
By the next morning, the narrow streets of the old seaport were thick with hundreds, eventually thousands, of shocked and angry citizens. The alleged killer, according to rumor, had already been apprehended in Boston and was headed back to Portsmouth by train under police guard. Armed with brickbats and snowballs, the mob gathered at the city’s eastern railroad depot. They were determined to waylay Louis Wagner, a fisherman and the former employee of John Hontvet, as soon as the prisoner arrived. They chanted, “Lynch him! Kill him! String him up!”
But back on Smuttynose Island, it was a calm and peaceful day with spring not far off. Except for the distant tapping of carpenters, who were building a grand new tourist hotel on Star Island, there was only the familiar cry of gulls and the muffled splash of waves against the rocks. Anethe and Karen Christensen still occupied the silent house where the coroner’s team had left them. They would lie there another full day, cold and mute, until the undertakers arrived from Portsmouth with their coffins.
Want to keep reading? Download Mystery on the Isles of Shoals on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.
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