No authoritative anthology of New England crime would fail to include the truly ghastly murders on Smuttynose Island (Isles of Shoals) the morning of March 6, 1873. If you’ve never heard the tale, and aren’t particularly squeamish, then read on…
Excerpt from “Horror on Smuttynose,” Yankee Magazine, March 1980
Louis Wagner was working alone, barely scratching out a living fishing the Maine and New Hampshire waters off the Isles of Shoals, when he had the good fortune to meet John Hontvet and his wife Maren. For two years John and Maren took a personal interest in seeing that Wagner was never in need of food or clothing, and even went so far as to include him in John’s prosperous fishing business.
The Hontvets’ trust in and kindness toward Wagner proved to be a mistake. On the morning of March 6,1873, they discovered, much to their woe, how they were to be repaid.
When John Hontvet and Maren arrived from Norway in 1868, they were the only people living on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals. At dawn each day John would navigate his schooner, the Clara Bella, to the fishing grounds and draw his trawl lines, then sail to market in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After selling the fish he would buy bait, then sail for home in late afternoon. His industriousness earned the tall, light-haired man much respect from his friends and neighbors on other islands, whose numbers rarely reached above 50. Business was good and in a short time the Hontvets prospered and lived comfortably in their island domain.
Maren Hontvet was a small woman, but not frail, with a gentle manner, especially in company of others. She provided a fine household for her hardworking husband, applying her decorative touch by using bright paint and paper in their cottage. And she always kept the sunny window shelves filled with an assortment of plants.
Although quite content with their new lives, the Hontvets missed their families in Norway. Maren cherished their small red house, standing in contrast to the run-down fish sheds scattered on the whitened ledges of the island. But often her only companion while John fished was her small dog, Ringe, who ran over the treeless landscape through the low thickets of wild rose and bayberry.
The Hontvets lived on Smuttynose about two years before Louis Wagner came into their lives. Wagner was a dark, muscular 28-year-old Prussian with a thick accent. He seemed friendly enough to the Hontvets but others viewed him less congenially. He never spoke of his shrouded past, and some had the impression he was always lurking and listening from the corner of the room, pretending not to hear the conversation.
Wagner fished alone from Star, Malaga, and Cedar Islands, which are connected to Smuttynose by seawalls and breakwaters. The Hontvets would have been hard pressed to avoid so close a neighbor for, although second-largest in the Isles of Shoals, Smuttynose is only one-half mile long and not quite as wide. The three became close friends over the two years of their acquaintance — as close, it is said, as brothers and sister.
In May 1871 Maren’s happiness swelled with the arrival of her sister, Karen Christensen, from Norway. The circumstances of Karen’s arrival were somewhat grievous – she had lost a lover in Norway for whom she continually pined — but Maren was certain she could help her sister overcome her melancholy and build a new life. Several weeks after she came, Karen got a position as a live-in maid with a family on Appledore Island, largest of the Isles of Shoals.
One year passed and John’s business continued to grow, so he hired Louis Wagner in June 1872. Wagner was also given a room in the Hontvets’ house and seemed more like part of the family than ever. But in October of that year John was to find himself with more help than he needed. His brother Matthew came from Norway to live on Smuttynose. With Matthew was Maren’s brother, Ivan Christensen, and his wife Anethe. Ivan was tall and well proportioned, and his wife was beautiful, with blue eyes, bright teeth, and thick blonde hair that swept across her delicate face and fell to her knees when not braided. They had been married since Christmas.
The new arrivals were welcomed by John and Maren and the five lived together in the cottage. Ivan and Matthew went to work for John and Anethe helped Maren keep house. Louis Wagner stayed on with the Hontvets for five weeks after Matthew, Ivan, and Anethe arrived, then booked passage as a hand on another fishing schooner, the Addison Gilbert, and left Smuttynose in November. The Hontvets surely felt secure in the knowledge that they had helped Louis get on his feet. But Wagner’s luck took a turn for the worse. The Addison Gilbert was wrecked and Louis was reduced to working along the Portsmouth wharves. He earned so little he barely managed to pay board to the Jonsens, with whom he lived. By March 1873 he was destitute. His shoes were worn, his clothes tattered, and he owed three weeks rent.
After a long, severe winter, spring was finally in the air and the sun rose steadily in the clear sky as John, Matthew, and Ivan set sail on the morning of March 5, 1873. When the trawl lines were in they planned to sell the catch in Portsmouth and buy bait arriving on the early train from Boston. At sea they met a neighbor and asked him to stop at Smuttynose and tell the women the winds had changed in favor of sailing directly to the mainland, so they wouldn’t be stopping to leave one of the men on the island, as was their custom. They’d be home later that evening.
It was late afternoon when the women got the message. They had already prepared supper and decided to keep it hot until the men came home. Karen was now living on Smuttynose also. She had left her position to take a job as a seamstress in Boston, but was visiting with the family before moving.
When the Clara Bella docked in Portsmouth early that evening Louis Wagner was present to help tie the vessel to the wharf. He asked John and the others if they would be returning to Smuttynose that evening, a question they thought curious but hardly reason for suspicion. John explained they would return home if the bait arrived on schedule but, if it was late, they would stay in port, bait their trawl lines, and return home in the morning. He then asked Wagner to help bait the lines, a chore which could consume an entire night. Wagner agreed and left the wharf.
It was 7:30 that evening when Louis was last seen in Portsmouth. He apparently learned the bait didn’t arrive on the early train and, knowing John’s profitable business as he did, concocted a bizarre scheme to burglarize the Hontvets’ home. The quarter moon shed little light on this, the first calm night of the new year. On the shore of the Piscataqua River Wagner stole a dory (not one hour after the owner had replaced the worn thole pins), and rowed past the murky brick buildings with smoke streaming silently from their chimneys, into the harbor and out to sea. The 12-mile row to the Isles of Shoals was a feat, yet far from impossible for a skilled oarsman. In fact, John Hontvet had made the three-hour trip alone in a whaling boat dozens of times. Doubtless Wagner’s desperation fueled his determination.
About 10 P.M. the three women in the Hontvet house decided not to wait up any longer. They changed into their nightgowns and Maren fixed a bed for Karen in the kitchen, where it was warmer than the upstairs bedrooms. She and Anethe then retired to an adjoining bedroom.
The crusty snow glistened on shadowy Smuttynose as Louis approached in the dory. Rather than land in the cove where the Clara Bella was usually moored, he rowed to the far side of the island and disembarked on the rocky shore. He watched the lone cottage for several hours after the light coming through the windows disappeared. Confident the women were asleep, he trudged up the slope in his heavy rubber boots to the door of the house. He tried the door and found it was not bolted and swung open easily. In the darkness of the kitchen, he closed the door behind him, and jammed a piece of wood into the latch of the bedroom door behind which Maren and Anethe slept unsuspecting. He intended to accomplish his raid undetected but at that moment Ringe barked loudly, waking Karen. Seeing the dark figure silhouetted against a window she asked, “John? Is that you?”
Maren sat up in bed and called to her sister, “Karen? Is something wrong?”
“John scared me!” Karen replied, still half asleep. With that Wagner reached for a chair and struck a crippling blow out of the darkness. The young woman screamed frantically as Wagner continued his assault.
‘Karen! Karen! What’s wrong?” Maren shouted as she jumped out of bed and tugged at the door. Karen struggled to her feet as Wagner dealt another crushing blow. Battered and bleeding, she was thrown against the bedroom door. freeing the latch, and fell at Maren’s feet. Wagner rushed again, swinging and hitting both women, but Maren somehow managed to drag her sister out of his reach. She closed and barricaded the door as Louis tried to force his way in.
Petrified, Anethe watched the gruesome scene from a corner of the room. “Anethe! Run! Hide!” Maren implored as she bolted the door from the inside. Nearly incoherent, Anethe clambered out a window and stood barefoot in the snow. She was frozen with fright. “Run!” Maren screeched, but it was too late. Wagner had given up trying to enter the room and left the house. As he approached Anethe, his true identity was revealed in the moonlight. “Louis! Louis!” Anethe shrieked.
Maren was astonished to see through the window the man they had so willingly accepted now so fiendishly occupied. As Anethe stretched out her hands before him he reached to the wood pile and seized the long handle of the axe. In one swift motion he raised the instrument high into the starry night and drove the steel blade into Anethe’s head. Her lifeless body shuddered violently and slumped as Wagner continued striking her, all in full view of Maren who stood so close on the other side of the window she “could have reached out and touched his arm.”
Seeing Anethe could no longer be helped, Maren turned her attention to saving herself and her sister. She rushed to the bed where Karen was kneeling with her head on the mattress and tried to revive the dazed woman. “Karen! Karen! We must run!” she begged, but her poor young sister was on the verge of fainting and could only manage to say, ‘No . . . too tired.’ ” Meanwhile Wagner completed his butchery and was returning to the bedroom door with the axe.
Maren’s keen sense of self-preservation told her they were both doomed if they stayed together. She hastily wrapped herself in a heavy skirt, and hearing Wagner entering the house, she climbed through the window into the bloodied snow with Ringe, now silent, close behind. As she ran, the spiny ice covering the undergrowth tore her bare feet. She expected to find Wagner’s boat in the cove and was near panic upon discovering it wasn’t there. Her first impulse was to hide in the cellar of a vacant building close by, but she thought better of it, realizing Wagner would be thinking likewise. Instead she ran along the shore to the far side of the island. As she passed the cottage, circumventing it as widely as possible, her ears captured the agony of Karen. Shivering and clutching Ringe close to her breast she crawled between two rocks near the water’s edge where the pounding waves obliterated all other sound.
At the house Karen was trying to escape through a window when Wagner burst into the room. He swung the axe wildly at the feeble figure, first on the mark, then missing, splitting the sill, and breaking the handle. Karen’s listless form melted into the room where Wagner twisted a handkerchief around her throat and pulled mightily until he was sure his deed was final.
What anxiety Wagner must have felt seeing Maren had escaped the room! He left a bloody trail of footprints in the snow surrounding every building on the island in a vain attempt to forever silence the last person who could identify him. He searched as long as he could but knew he had to abandon hopes of finding Maren if he were to escape under cover of darkness. He went back to the house and dragged Anethe’s body by the feet into the kitchen. Exhausted, he then brewed a pot of tea, leaving blood stains on the handle, and ate some food he had brought with him using a plate, knife, and fork from the Hontvets’ kitchen. After ransacking the house and finding only $15 he departed, leaving Anethe’s body on the floor beside a clock that had been knocked off the mantel in the struggle and stopped at seven minutes past one.
It was almost eight the next morning before Maren dared leave hiding. Unable to gain the attention of workmen on a neighboring island she staggered on frozen feet across the breakwater connecting Smuttynose and Malaga and waved her arms to the children of Jorge Ingerbredsen who were playing outside their home on Appledore. Once alerted, Jorge rowed the quarter mile to Maren’s rescue. He returned her to the care of his wife then gathered men with guns to search Smuttynose. When the party landed on the small island they discovered Wagner’s deed horribly documented.
Finding no one on Smuttynose the men returned to Appledore and searched there also. A few hours later the Clara Bella was spotted on the horizon, her sails spread majestically, gliding through the warming sunshine on the icy sea. Seeing a signal on shore, Matthew and Ivan rowed a tender to Appledore and John sailed the schooner to its mooring on Smuttynose. When the tender landed the men were told of “some trouble on Smuttynose.” They rushed to the Ingerbredsen house where they found Maren in a deplorable state.
“Anethe! Where is Anethe?” Ivan pleaded. Tearfully Maren answered “Anethe is . . . at home.”
Ivan and Matthew flew to the tender and rowed furiously to Smuttynose. They landed at the same time as John and the three raced to the house. Ivan pushed open the door and entered the kitchen. There, lying on the floor, her long gold hair matted in a pool of dried blood, was his adored lover. Covering his face he pushed his way out the door and collapsed senseless in the snow. John and Matthew viewed the full contents of the destroyed home, then sailed the Clara Bella to Appledore. Later that afternoon John and others carried Maren’s tale of terror to the authorities in Portsmouth.
Word of the calamity spread fast. A description of Louis Wagner was telegraphed to police throughout the coastal states and the evening editions were filled with all the gory details.
Two men, both of whom knew Wagner and were sure of their description, informed police they had seen Wagner in Newcastle about six o’clock that morning. The stolen dory was also found in Newcastle near a place called “Devil’s Den.” The new thole pins were worn almost a quarter of an inch.
After returning to the Jonsens’, where he changed some of his clothes, Wagner had caught a 9 A.M. train for Boston. There he purchased some new boots and a new suit of clothes, then dallied with some women he knew at a boarding house. Certainly John Hontvet told the authorities of Wagner’s usual haunts and that evening Boston police found him. When arrested Wagner was wearing his new suit over his old clothes. He offered no resistance.
The next day Wagner was transferred from jail to the Boston depot for the trip to Portsmouth, followed by a jeering crowd of 500. At each depot along the route the train was met by outraged citizens demanding his immediate demise. It is reported a crowd of 10,000 filled the streets of Portsmouth and narrowly missed tearing him to pieces when he arrived.
Smuttynose was in the jurisdiction of the state of Maine and Wagner would have to be tried there. Three days later, when he was moved from the Portsmouth jail to the train, a lynch mob of over 200 fishermen from the islands and the coast was waiting. The police escort drew their revolvers and a company of bayonet-wielding Marines were called from the Navy base, but the mob was not easily subdued. The escort was showered with stones and bricks.
The trial of Louis Wagner commenced on June 9, 1873. After nine days of testimony and 55 minutes of deliberation, he was found guilty as charged. He broke out of jail within a week, but was recaptured in New Hampshire. On June 25, 1875, 27 months after the crime, Wagner was led into the yard of the state prison in Thomaston, Maine, and hanged.
Maren and John Hontvet were never to live in the Isles of Shoals again. They moved to Portsmouth, where John continued working as a fisherman.
Ivan, his spirit broken, could not bear to leave the neighborhood where he and Anethe spent so many happy times. He worked as a carpenter on Appledore for the rest of the summer of 1873, never out of sight of the cottage where he was robbed of his happiness. He never spoke unless spoken to, and never lifted his eyes from his work when speaking. At the end of the summer he returned alone to Norway and was never heard of again.
Have you ever been to the Isles of Shoals?