Anatomy of an Ax Murder
By J. Dennis Robinson
The "murder" house on Smuttynose Island is
long gone, ravaged by 19th century souvenir hunters who literally
carried away blood spattered bits of wall and floorboard. Today the
bodies of Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen lie in a quiet
Portsmouth, NH cemetery, ten miles in from their island home. A few
streets away in a glass case an ax with a broken handle, the one
most experts agree Louis Wagner used to carve the life from the two
Norwegian immigrants, lies on mute display.
The double midnight murder at Smuttynose Island on March 6, 1873 is
a story that just will not die quietly. It's the story of two victims as
told by their surviving companion, Maren Hontvet, who eluded the killer
by hiding all night in the bitter cold and eventually brought him to
justice. It is a news story that gripped American readers in its day.
Anita Shreve's recent best-selling novel "The Weight of Water"
based on the murders, shows the grip of the Smuttynose story still holds
America tightly 125 years later.
Despite a nearly airtight criminal case, doubts about the guilt of
Louis Wagner, hanged for the crime in 1875, continue unabated.
Alternative theories point the finger at Maren's husband John, at Maren
herself, at a neighboring "shoalers" or nearby hotel construction
workers. But a clear reading of the trial transcript and a study of
Wagner's testimony and behavior before and after the crime are extremely
damning. He had ample motive and ample means.
Poet Celia Thaxter had no doubt of Wagner's guilt when she
wrote a letter to a friend detailing the shocking news. Thaxter's
family owned the large tourist hotel on Appledore Island within site of
Smuttynose. One of the murdered women had been working for the Thaxters
just two weeks earlier. Celia herself had even lived on Smuttynose years
before and her family still owned the island and rented the "Hontvet
House" as it became known. Six Norwegian immigrants lived there at the
time -- Maren, her older sister Karen, their brother Ivan Christensen
and his new wife Anethe, Maren's husband John and John's brother Matthew.
The previous summer they had taken in a Prussian fisherman as a house
guest. His name was Louis Wagner. The men ran a successful fishing
business and Louis, when he was not ill from rheumatism and being nursed
by the women, would help bait trawls in exchange for room and board.
Six months before the moonlight murders, Louis moved to
Portsmouth on the mainland and eventually to a boarding house on Water
Street. There he was doing poorly, behind in his rent and living hand to
mouth assisting local fishermen when work was available. He grumbled
constantly about his poverty and the state of his worn clothing. He
reportedly spoke to one fisherman of his passion for young Anethe of
Smuttynose. He also told the story of a "wicked man" he knew who, back
in his homeland, had lived with a family and then returned to steal from
By 1873 the Hontvet group was almost an anachronism, a symbol
of the rugged fishing families that had peopled the Isles since the
early 1600s. John had made a successful business, but few could.
That same year, the once thriving island fishing village of Gosport
Harbor (including Smuttynose, Appledore, Cedar and Star) held its
last town meeting and vanished from history.
1873 was the beginning of Seacoast NH's first real tourism
boom. Besides the Thaxter's successful hotel, a new rival inn called the
Oceanic (the only Isles hotel still standing) was being constructed by a
man named John Poor on Star Island. Wealthy ale brewer Frank Jones was
opening his own grand hotel in New Castle, NH, still visible on a clear
day ten miles away from the nine Isles of Shoals.
The darling of literary Boston, Celia's career as "the island
poet" was just now in full bloom. But even as she wrote about the peace
and serenity of the nine tiny islands, Louis Wagner was making sure
Smuttynose would have a dark fearsome reputation of its own. Ironically,
it was Smuttynose that already held more than its share of ghosts and
legends. The previous resident of the Hontvet House had recently been
lost at sea. The breakwater that connected Smuttynose to its little
sister Malaga Island had been built with pirate treasure discovered
there. And not far from the Hontvet's were the graves of a 14 Spanish
sailors who had been discovered shipwrecked and dead outside Samuel
Haley's Smuttynose home in 1813. It was Haley who build the
breakwater from the pirate treasure around 1820. In fact, the graves of
the Haley family and the nearly 200-year old Haley home are among the
only sites still visible on the island that was formerly called "Haley's
Island.". Their house is best known today for the photograph on bottles
of Smuttynose beer.
In its time, the Smuttynose murder story has been told in a
slew of magazines and books, set to music in the "Ballad of Louis
Wagner" by John Perrault, adapted into a new short play by Jeff
Symes and now digitized into its own web site. At least two major
film makers, Fritz Lang and Louis De Rochemont considered turning
the tale to celluloid and director Oliver Stone has currently
optioned a movie script version of Shreve's popular novel. A short film
based on Perrault's ballad was made by UNH cinematographer Gary Sampson
in the early 1980s.
What Really Happened?
She hid, she said, all that winter night. She hid in the rocks at
the end of the island ten miles out to sea, clutching her dog Ringe for
warmth. Her feet frozen, her night dress bloody, waving her skirt and
shouting, Maren Hontvet finally attracted the attention of the
Ingebretson children playing outdoors on nearby Appledore Island at
about 7 a.m. March 6, 1873. Old Mr. Ingebretson rowed the short distance
from Appledore to Smuttynose and became the first person to discover the
horrific double murder of Maren's sister Karen and sister-in-law Anethe.
Two years later Celia Thaxter wrote a melodramatic, but
powerfully detailed summary of events in Atlantic Monthly called "A
Memorable Murder." Still, everything we know of the slaughter from
that night comes through Maren's testimony and evidence gathered at the
crime scene. Though critics have questioned her eye witness account, It
was Maren who identified the killer as Louis Wagner, a Prussian
fisherman who had lived with the six Norwegian immigrants on Smuttynose
the summer before. Maren's husband John, his brother Matthew and
Anethe's husband Ivan Christensen arrived aboard the Clara Bella at 10
a.m. to discover the frozen butchered bodies. Anethe lay in the kitchen,
her head split while Karen was found in the unoccupied half of the small
house. Both were partially naked. The very next day, Louis Wagner was
arrested at a hotel in Boston. Massachusetts, just a short train ride
from Portsmouth, NH.
According to John Hontvet's court testimony, the crew of the
Clara Bella had been forced to wait in Portsmouth for a train load of
bait from Boston. Their former house mate Louis Wagner had stopped by
the dock and offered to help bait trawls. John told Louis he had cleared
$600 and was saving toward a new boat. When the train delivery was
pushed up even further, Louis asked John three times if he planned to
return to Smuttynose that night. It was the first night the women had
ever been left alone. Louis offered to return to work with them later,
but never materialized.
A local fisherman found his dory missing from Pickering Wharf
nearby at 8 p.m. and it is now assumed Louis borrowed it. Although the
20 mile round trip in open winter seas causes many to question Louis
Wagner's guilt, he was a powerful man with a great deal of solo dory
fishing experience in the region. His eleven hour absence provides ample
time for the journey under existing calm weather conditions. The tide
was in his favor, the moon was half full and the White Island lighthouse
clearly showed the way. The boat was found the next day near New Castle,
it's newly installed oar "thole pins" mysteriously worn as if subjected
to weeks of use in a single night.
Maren testified that a passing fisherman had carried her
husband's message saying he would return very late. The three women had
put away the men's dinner and gone to bed early with the door unlocked
and the shades open. Theirs was the only occupied house on the island in
winter. Maren and Anethe went to sleep in one room downstairs and Karen,
who was visiting from Appledore, slept on a bed made from chairs in the
kitchen near the stove.
Louis Wagner, it is assumed, observed the house and then
approached softly, hoping to slip in, remove the money, and disappear.
He was probably not aware of Karen's visit (Louis was considered
handsome and there had even been talk of a romance between him and the
39-year old unmarried woman.) Karen was roused when Ringe the dog barked
and she sleepily assumed it was John Hontvet returning as planned. From
the next room Maren heard her call to John, then cry out "John is
killing me." This line, though understandable in context, has kept the
not-guilty-theorists active for a century. Louis attacked Karen in the
darkness, breaking a clock which left an assumed murder time of 1:07
Maren tried to get to Karen, but the killer had blocked the
door with a stick. She then helped Anethe outdoors through the bedroom
window, but the girl was too petrified to scream or run for help. The
still unseen intruder found Anethe and found a dull ax used to chop ice
at the well. Anethe screamed "Louis. Louis. Louis" and Maren, still
inside the house, witnessed the attack. Maren then pulled Karen into the
bedroom, but her older sister was too injured to escape, so Maren
grabbed a skirt and escaped through the window in her bare feet with the
dog in the nick of time. Louis reportedly hit Maren with a chair and
swung at her with the ax, breaking it against the window frame. From a
distance, Maren reported, she saw a lantern come on in the house, then
heard Karen's final cries.
The trail of blood convinced the jury that the killer was
familiar with the Hontvet house. The well, where the murderer washed,
was yards from the house and unmarked. Someone had used the silverware
to eat a meal and left bloody prints on the tea kettle. There were
bloody boot prints around the area where the killer must have searched
in vain for Maren. But the $600, (actually $135) hidden in a trunk, was
not discovered and Louis Wagner made off with about $20, in a purse
including three $5 bills and some coins. Among the coins was a button
that was later found in his pocket. Karen had planned to find a match
for the button when she went to Portsmouth.
What also confuses people is why Louis did not immediately
flee, but seems to have abandoned the rowboat in New Castle and then
walked a few miles to his boarding house. A number of locals saw him
looking wild and disheveled. He appears to have changed his shirt,
stuffing a bloody one, later recovered, in the privy. A recently
rediscovered news article suggests that he may have hidden a knife in
the floorboards of his room. Then he boarded a train bound for Boston.
There he visited a barber who cut his hair and beard and bought new
clothes and boots, leaving his old clothes behind. He made some odd
comments to the shopkeepers who testified at his trial in Maine. He went
to a hotel he knew, at first refusing to be recognized, then telling a
woman that he had just murdered two sailors and had one left to kill.
When he was arrested soon after at the hotel, he went without question
Trial of the Century
The capture, trial, conviction, escape, recapture, imprisonment and
eventual execution of Louis Wagner made headlines for 27 months. He
insisted to the end that he was innocent, that God would not allow him
to be executed for crimes he did not commit. This unwavering position,
stated with calm conviction, swayed even the editor of a major New York
newspaper who recorded Louis' last hours.
A number of strange events and urban legends surround the
highly publicized proceedings. Some pro-Louis sentiment must certainly
have been a reaction to the fervor with which Seacoast locals regarded
the heinous attack on such innocent women. 10,000 residents reportedly
swarmed around the city and the train station when Louis was returned to
Portsmouth from Boston. The next day hundreds of fishermen and "shoalers"
marched to the city jail intent on lynching the killer named by Maren
To make matters messier, it became quickly clear that the
crime had been committed in Maine, not New Hampshire. A map of the
Isles of Shoals shows them divided between the two states, with
Smuttynose on the Maine side under the town of Kittery in York County.
Louis' attorney made much of this fact, and the prisoner was transferred
to South Berwick and then to Alfred, Maine to stand trial. Then Louis
Although the new prison was supposed to be extremely secure,
Louis Wagner seems to have picked the lock, leaving a dummy figure in
his cot. The ease of his escape, fueled by the border dispute over
jurisdiction lead to charges that Maine sympathizers had helped Louis
and two others to escape. Maine residents reacted instead to the idea of
a New Hampshire ax murderer lose in their region. IN a few days Louis
was apprehended in Farmington, NH.
The trial of Louis Wagner began June 9, 1875 and lasted nine
days. Crowds poured into Maine from Portsmouth and beyond, many people
convinced of his innocence. The circumstantial evidence was powerful,
especially Karen Hontvet's button found in the pocket of the accused.
There was the returned dory with the worn thole pins and many witnesses
who saw Louis crossing that morning from New Castle to Portsmouth. There
was the bloody shirt which the defendant said was covered with fish guts,
but chemical analysis proved to be human blood. The bloody boot marks on
the island were matched to ones in the mud at New Castle and both to
boots owned by Louis. A number of people testified that Louis had said
he was so poor that he might have to murder someone to get money.
But it was the defendant's own elaborate and unsupported
testimony that did him in. Louis explained that the evening of the
murder he had baited 600 trawls for the owner of a schooner. He could
not remember the name of the ship nor the man. He had then had drinks in
a bar in Portsmouth that he could not name, had gotten sick and fallen
asleep outside, though no patrolmen has seen anyone in that area. He
testified he had spent part of the night on the couch of a boarding
house in the next room to where the Hontvet crew was baiting their own
trawls. This was shown to be totally untrue, but the defendant held to
his story. Asked why he had been so curious about the women alone on the
island, Louis said he simply wanted to help a mysterious woman named
Johannah to get to the Isles. The defense lawyer could produce none of
the people named by Louis for an alibi. His landlady testified that he
had not returned all night.
Soon after his arrest, in a deposition, Louis Wagner had
protested that he was so familiar with the Hontvet house that, should he
really want to rob them, he could have done it easily and without
detection. He even knew of a second ax, he said, and where the well was
located. But at the trial he played offense, blaming John Hontvet and
even Maren for framing him to the crime. His explanations did not
impress the jury who found Louis Wagner guilty of murder in the first
degree. The decision took 55 minutes.
Even Louis Wagner's death is wrapped in false impressions. According
to Shoals historian Lyman Ruttledge, Louis was not the last man executed
in Maine as most Smuttynose murder aficionados categorically state.
Louis and a triple-murderer John T. Gordon were hanged on June 25, 1875.
Three more executions followed in 1885 before Maine finally abolished
Although Louis Wagner died boldly and unrepentant, his
companion made a spectacle of the event. John Gordon had attempted
suicide and succeeded in wounding himself mortally. Officials were
obliged to haul his bleeding half dead body into place on the gallows
and put the noose around his head. "Poor Gordon, poor Gordon, you are
almost gone," Louis Wagner said aloud and then, smiling, said a gentle
farewell as the floor of the scaffold disappeared below him.
By J. Dennis Robinson
©1997 SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.
All use must be attributed
Murder at Smuttynose and Other Murders by Edmund Pearson, pp.
1-69, Doubleday, Page & Co., NY 1926
Moonlight Murder at Smuttynose by Lyman V. Rutledge, 46 pp., Star
Island Corporation, Boston, 1958, reprinted 1988.
"A Memorable Murder," by Celia Thaxter, Atlantic Monthly, May 1975,
Vol. 35, pp. 602-615.