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Louis H. F. WAGNER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 


A.K.A.: "The Smuttynose murderer"
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Rape - Robbery
Number of victims: 2
Date of murder: March 6, 1873
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: Anethe Christensen and Karen Christensen
Method of murder: Beating with ax
Location: York County, Maine, USA
Status: Executed by hanging on June 25, 1875
 
 

 
 

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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.

Historic Homicide

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 them.

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 a.m..

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 or protest.

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 Hontvet.

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 disappeared.

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.

Dead Wrong

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 capitol punishment.

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

Primary sources:

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.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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