A Murderous Row
Revisiting the Smuttynose Murders
June 18, 2004
On the evening of March 5th, 1873, the first calm night of spring after a long, bitter winter, an event took place that made tiny Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals the center of the biggest media frenzy in America. The event would spawn intensive media coverage, a famous poem, dozens of 20th century books, plays and the last public execution of a man in the state of Maine.
According to the official history of the Smuttynose murders, that night Louis Wagner rowed a stolen dory over ten miles out to sea from Portsmouth to Smuttynose Island, where he murdered Anethe and Karen Christensen with an axe before returning to Portsmouth by dawn with about $15 and an incriminating button he had stolen from their house. Maren Hontvet, the third sister, narrowly escaped the axe murderer and lived to testify against him in his subsequent conviction for the crime. This is the version of history that Celia Thaxter first put forth in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875. This is also the version that is challenged by numerous conspiracy theories that continue to survive despite the very damning evidence put forth in the trial of Louis Wagner. These theories continue to linger, and have been added to in recent years by Anita Shreve’s book, “The Weight of Water” and subsequent film, in which the protagonist finds a fictional confession letter written by Maren revealing her guilt in the crime on her deathbed years after the murders.
Though the Smuttynose murders were beyond the scope of the Victorian mind, there isn’t much to the story that seems all that inconceivable in our era of 24-hour cable news feeds. Even so, one thing that stands out in the Smuttynose lore that is hard to believe: in order to commit the murders, Louis Wagner must have rowed a dory over twenty miles over open seas in a single night. A dory is a rowboat: a small, one-man fishing vessel not ideally suited for such a voyage. And Wagner was a man who had moved to Portsmouth on the mainland from the Isles of Shoals due to rheumatism, which had been severe enough to stop him from fishing on the islands.
Certainly, in the late Nineteenth Century, a dory was a much more common form of transportation, and men were probably more accustomed to the physical labor of rowing. Even still, it sounds like a daunting task: row for hours in the dark to a tiny island with only one occupied house on it, brutally murder two hearty Norwegian women, search the house for hidden money, and then row all the way back to shore, stash the boat on the island of Newcastle, and walk a few miles back into town before daylight.
I could believe the rest of the story. Wagner had lived in the Hontvet House on Smuttynose Island with four of the Norwegians a year earlier (at one time or another, the house was home to Karen, Maren and her husband John Hontvet, Anethe and her husband Ivan Christensen, and John’s brother Matthew). Wagner had ample motive: he was down on his luck and in need of money. He had seen Ivan, John and Matthew in Portsmouth the day before the murders, had offered to help them bait nets when the train carrying their bait arrived that evening (the train with the bait didn’t arrive until after midnight, and Wagner never showed up to help). Wagner knew that the men would leave the women alone on Smuttynose Island that night. John also told Louis that he had cleared $600 through fishing and that he was planning to purchase a new boat. The money would have undoubtedly been kept somewhere in the house on Smuttynose Island.
But what about the trip itself? I have paddled a kayak all around the seacoast, braved the Piscataqua River as it rushed out at full speed after the waters of Great Bay were released into the river by the tide, and been out in the ocean as the waves tossed me about like a rag doll on a stormy day. In such conditions, rowing a dory to the Isles of Shoals and back would surely be impossible. But I have also seen the ocean look as flat and smooth as a pond, with just a faint breeze under an inviting sky, and the islands can look so very close at times from shore.
The sea was calm on that March evening in 1873. The lights from the lighthouse on White Island, the houses on Appledore and the half-built hotel on Star Island would have served as a beacon in the darkness: an easy mark to follow. Louis Wagner followed the ebbing tide down the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth to the harbor mouth, and then continued straight out to sea the eight miles from the coast to the Isles of Shoals.
I want to follow in the murderer’s path and repeat his journey to see what it must have been like, knowing that any trip in a nineteenth-century row boat made of thick wood and weighing several hundred pounds would have been much tougher than any trip in my well-equipped and lightweight touring kayak. I didn’t know anyone who had paddled out to the islands from the mainland, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be done. I wasn’t sure of the logistics. There are no campgrounds on the islands, which are all privately owned. There’s nowhere for visitors to stay overnight except at the hotel on Star Island, which is used for conferences. Ferries from the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. make daily trips to Star Island during the summer months, and as a tourist you may get off and explore for a few hours in the afternoon before the last ferry heads back to Portsmouth. And visitors are welcome to go ashore on Smuttynose Island from private vessels during the day to explore the island and walk the trail from one end to the other.
I had convinced my friend Steve to rent a kayak and join me on the journey if good conditions coincided with a free weekend day sometime in the near future. So, over the next few weeks I prepared by researching the Isles of Shoals, and I tracked down and visited the graves of the murdered Christensen sisters in the Harmony Hill section of South Cemetery in Portsmouth. I paddled on longer and longer trips around the coast and braving choppy seas and surf to hone my skills for the crossing. Steve, for his part, prepared by getting out his surfboard whenever there were waves, drinking beer, and in general doing nothing kayak-related whatsoever.
* * *
We awake one sunny Sunday morning that promises to provide a calm and beautiful background for a twenty-mile paddle over open seas. We head out down Sagamore Creek and follow the tide out past the newly renovated Wentworth Inn, which was originally opened in 1874, just a year after Louis Wagner made his infamous trip. The grand old hotel has recently been restored and reopened after a 20-year lapse in which it sat empty and decaying.
We pass by the Wentworth by the Sea Marina, around the sea wall at the mouth of Little Harbor, and out into the open water, where we discover that there are choppy waves hitting us from a variety of directions all at once and a stiff southeasterly wind blowing into our faces.
I had set the western point of Smuttynose Island as a waypoint on my GPS unit, and as we pass into the open ocean it tells me that we have seven miles until we reach land again. Wagner, coming out of the mouth of Portsmouth Harbor, would have hugged the shore lest the lighthouse lamp at the mouth of the harbor give away his location. The next light he would have seen looking out to sea would have been the lighthouse on White Island, at the southwestern end of the isles. He must have been utterly alone in the darkness.
“That little toy of a boat with its one occupant in the midst of the awful, black, heaving sea! The vast dim ocean whispers with a thousand waves; against the boat’s side the ripples lightly tap, and pass and are lost; the air is full of fine, mysterious voices of winds and waters.” –Cecilia Thaxter, “A Memorable Murder,” 1875.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we, unlike Wagner, are not alone, and we have very different conditions facing us. Whereas his night was calm, our afternoon has a stiff wind blowing us away from the islands. Thankfully, the water is warm enough that it would not bring a swift death if we were to capsize. But we are confronted with chop from the wake of myriad powerboats, ships, and fishing vessels, hitting us from seemingly every angle, and sometimes without warning, augmenting the small natural waves into three to four foot seas.
An hour into the trip the islands look no different. They are still as small and indescript as they always are from land, and when I turn and look back towards the mainland it is still very close; I can make out Wallis Beach, Rye Point, Odiorne Point, the lighthouse in Portsmouth Harbor.
Time drags by. Were it not for my GPS steadily ticking off the distance, I would think we were standing still. The constant headwind slows us down, and we continue to plod forward at 3.5 miles an hour. By the time we come within a mile of the islands, I am in bad shape. My arms feel like rubber, my lower back aches, and I have reached a distracting level of nausea from the steady pitching of waves against my hull. I know I have no choice but to tough it out, for soon we should reach the calm safety of the harbor waters. Steve, for all his lack of preparation, dances ahead of me, churning up the water with a continuing ease.
What did Louis see as he reached the shelter of the islands? In the darkness he would have passed near the hulking mass of Appledore Island to his left; a steep cliff for a coast. Atop the cliffs would have been the hotel built and owned by Thomas Laighton, father of Celia Thaxter, who was one of the first people to arrive at the murder scene the next morning and subsequently wrote about the Smuttynose murders. Across the harbor to Wagner’s right would have been Star Island, with a handful of houses and the half-constructed silhouette of the Star Island Hotel spread out under the new moon. He could have kept towards Appledore’s coast, unseen by inhabitants atop the cliffs and unnoticed by anyone on Star, as his profile would have been lost in the dark background of Appledore. Ahead would have been the western tip of Smuttynose Island, long and slender, with the Hontvet House perched just above its westernmost point.
As Steve and I glide into the natural harbor the islands are alive with activity. It’s early afternoon on a summery Sunday. Many boats are anchored in the calm waters, and the Isles of Shoals Steamship Co.’s ship, the Thomas Laighton—affectionately known as the “Tippy Tommy”—has crossed our path and is docking at Star Island. Passengers line the rails on both decks of the ship, and a steady stream of information is broadcast over loudspeakers powerful enough to be heard all over the recently quiet harbor.
Together, Appledore, Smuttynose, Cedar, and Star, form a compact, three-sided harbor, which in the seventeenth century formed a bustling fishing town collectively called Gosport Harbor. As we pass Appledore and near Smuttynose I am amazed at how close everything is. There are only a few hundred yards separating the southwestern point of Smuttynose and the northern shore of Star Island. Appledore is even closer. We near the multitude of yachts at anchor and discover more than a dozen people in kayaks. I am momentarily dismayed that so many people have paddled out to the islands before us, but it soon becomes apparent that they had not all paddled out from the mainland. They had taken all but the last small part of the journey aboard the boat navigated by Plum Island Kayak, LLC from down the coast in Newburyport, Mass., on their monthly tour to the Isles. We say hello and paddle into the small lagoon between Smuttynose and tiny Malaga Island. The breakwater connecting the two islands was created, as the tale goes, when illustrious resident Capt. Samuel Haley built it in the 1820s from the proceeds generated by the sale of several bars of silver that he found buried under a rock—presumably by the infamous pirate Blackbeard, who, as legend has it, left his thirteenth bride on the island to guard a buried treasure, and never returned.
In 1873, Louis didn’t row into this obvious cove, for the beached dory would have been found by a fleeing Maren to escape to the safety of Star Island or Appledore. Instead, he must have continued east towards Cedar Island and come ashore after passing through the breakwater between Smuttynose and Cedar, which had fallen into disrepair. From here he could have sneaked up to the Hontvet House, near the shore. The house was the only occupied building on the island at the time.
We arrive at the cove and pull our kayaks up onto the shore above the high tide line amid a handful of other tourists. We have been two and a half hours at sea. We walk up onto the grass and find a comfortable place in the sun to sit and eat. After the seasickness has faded and we’ve taken a rest, I walk over to the Haley House (the only building still standing on Smuttynose Island aside from the tiny building known as Aunt Rozzie’s cottage) while Steve goes to explore the island on his own. The Haley House, built by the same Captain Haley who later built the breakwater, is claimed to be the oldest house in the state of Maine. It is often mistaken to be the house in which the murders occurred, but the Hontvet House burned in 1885, and there is nothing of it remains other than a floor plan marked in the dirt and a small wooden plaque in the ground. The caretaker is living in the Haley House for a week with his wife, about life on Smuttynose. He tells me about the solar generator, the gas-powered stove and oven, and the small, newly installed refrigerator. He says that otherwise, life is pretty much the same as it was on the island 100 years ago. For $3 I purchase a small booklet entitled “Welcome to Historic Smuttynose Island: A Self-Guided Walking Tour” and head off down the walking path to find some of the highlights and recover Steve, who has wandered off down the trail away from the cove. The only year-round residents on Smuttynose these days are birds. Nesting gulls—great black backs and herring gulls—colonize the island. Snowy Egrets, black crown night herons, great blue herons, little blue herons and double-crested cormorants abound, and the gulls repeatedly dive bomb anyone who dares encroach into their territory.
After he pulled the dory up on the dark shore, Louis stole towards the Hontvet House. Since he had lived there, he knew it well: he knew the layout of the house, all the doors and windows. He even knew where the clan kept their axe leaning against the side of the house in the winter to break the ice and draw water from the well. His stealthy approach was broken, however, by the barking of the little dog Ringe, at which point he burst through the door and first attacked Karen. She called out that John was killing her—fueling speculation for generations of conspiracy theorists—and repeated John’s name until Maren pulled her away from him, wounded, but still alive. Then the murderer went back outside and found young Anethe, who stood frozen in her tracks in the snow after escaping the house through a window. Then, for the only time during the attacks, Anethe called the murderer “Louis” as he chopped her down with the axe and then went back to finish off Karen. During this time Maren, who never got a good look at the murderer, escaped through a window and ran with her dog all the way to the opposite end of the island. She hid behind a large rock on the southeast tip of the island all night long in nothing more than a nightgown. The murderer never found her, though his bloody footprints crisscrossed the island. He left the island in the last hours of the night, having found neither Maren nor the hundreds of dollars hidden between some sheets in the bottom of a ransacked drawer. There is evidence that he ate a meal at the table and washed the blood from his hands at the well before hurriedly leaving the island.
For us kayak tourists, it is getting late as well. We repack and leave the shelter of the cove and the harbor. As we float past the end of Star Island the waves begin to pick up again. The wind and the waves push us from behind. Without much effort we travel at over five miles per hour, and with a little more effort I speed up fast enough to catch a wave and surf along on it. But it’s nerve-wracking. The waves try to turn my kayak first to the right, then to the left as I try to compensate. If I let the wave turn my kayak broadside to the wave, it will be tough to keep from being capsized a long way from shore. So the next ninety minutes are filled with millions of small adjustments, paddle strokes and braces to keep us moving in a straight line. Ahead, details of the coastline come into view: the peak of Mount Agamenticus a few miles off to the north, and a host of rolling hills disappearing inland to the west beyond Durham and Dover.
I cannot know what Wagner’s trip back from the isles was like. Wasting too much time on Smuttynose searching for Maren, he was racing the rising sun, and the sky was probably already showing the first hint of light as he left the island. He came ashore at Newcastle with the sky already rosy and light. He tried to shove the stolen dory out to sea, but the surging tide brought it back to shore at Jaffrey’s Point, where it was found a few hours later. He walked the last mile or two through Newcastle and over the bridges to Portsmouth, where he was seen by more than one person who testified against him in his trial. He returned to his boarding house well after dawn and concocted a story about having a drink in a pub and sleeping it off on a bench overnight. Later, in his trial, there was no one who could corroborate any part of this story. Then he disappeared on a train to Boston, where he was found the next evening, minus his beard, but with a few dollars and the incriminating button belonging to Karen. Along with Appledore Island, Smuttynose sits on the Maine side of the state boundary line running down the center of the islands’ harbor. As a result, Louis was tried in York, Maine, where he was convicted. On July 25, 1875 he was hanged: the last man ever executed in Maine.
Could Louis Wagner have done it? Absolutely. He had the motive and the means. All the evidence, though mostly circumstantial, seems to point solidly in his direction. As for the trip to the island: it would have been a tough row, but definitely plausible for a big, strong man with such a purpose in mind. Who else could it have been? If it had been Maren, as suggested by some theorists, how could she have known that Wagner would not have an alibi or believable story to contradict her? The same could be said if it was John Hontvet, or anyone else. Louis had no real explanation for his whereabouts and actions on that fateful night, and every action he took from the next morning on was that of a guilty man.
Steve and I pass back between the sea walls separating Odiorne Point and Newcastle and into the inviting waters of the incoming tide. We pass under the bridge on Route 1B and turn up Sagamore Creek to return to dry land. Unlike Wagner’s disaster of a trip, our journey is a complete success. The sun sets on the coast of New Hampshire, and the Isles of Shoals are lit up in violet and rose. As we sit watching the fading sky from the mainland, the islands seem but an arm’s length away: so close, but so far outside the realm of the rest of the world. It’s been a long trip, but I have finally made it to the Isles of Shoals, and the only thing of which I am absolutely certain is that the islands haunt me no less, and I will go back again.
Author’s note: Don’t try to paddle to the Isles of Shoals. Generally, it’s a very bad idea. Deep waters, rip currents, big, unwieldy waves and stiff winds await anyone silly enough to try it. Capsizing in the middle of the ocean is a very real danger, and even if you don’t die of hypothermia, getting your boat righted, emptied of water and yourself back in it, even with a few skilled compatriots, is a daunting task.
Even if everything goes right, the wind on the open ocean can easily blow you miles off course up or down the coast, or worse yet, out to sea. The Isles of Shoals are jewel-like islands, but they sit out to sea and tend to have weather more akin to the peak of Mount Washington than to the nearby Seacoast.