Tuesday, October 13, 2020

In Their Footsteps: New England History - The Smuttynose Island Ax Murders

    On a cold night, on an island isolated by miles of ocean, a pair of gruesome murders took place. Two women lost their lives at the end of an ax while a third survived to finger the perpetrator. The culprit was caught, tried, convicted and put to death. Case closed. Or was it? What really happened on the tiny island of Smuttynose off the New Hampshire coast nearly 150 years ago? Here is the story, as it is known, of one of New England's creepiest unsolved mysteries.

    Fishing and New England go together like peanut butter and marshmallow fluff. Though not as thriving of an industry today it was the life-blood of the New England coast for centuries. Men flocked to such fishing areas with their families in tow hoping to create a better life. Though whaling had died down by the latter half of the 19th century fishing still was prosperous. The fishing industry played a large part in the crime that occurred.

    In 1868 a young couple, John and Maren Hontvet arrived in America from Norway. They found their way to the tiny island of Smuttynose located seven miles off of the coast of Rye, New Hampshire.  Part of the Isle of Shoals technically the island is considered part of York County, Maine. The couple rented a red, two-story duplex on the island and were the only year-round inhabitants of Smuttynose. John captained a schooner, the Clara Bella, and eventually brought his brother Matthew in to help him with the fishing. In 1871 Maren's sister Karen arrived from Norway and took up a job at the nearby Appledore Hotel on the neighboring Appledore Island.

    Needing another hand to help with the business John brought in a down on his luck young Prussian fisherman Louis Wagner into the fold in early 1872. Though he became very close to John and Maren others were distrustful of Wagner. He seemingly always fished alone and his past remained shrouded in secrecy. Nevertheless John Hontvet considered Wagner like family and invited him to stay on the other side of the red duplex in April 1872. Wagner's tenure in the Hontvet home ended shortly after the arrival of Maren's brother Ivan Christensen and his wife Anethe.

Louis Wagner (Edmund Pearson, Public Domain)

    John Hontvet now had more than enough help on the Clara Bella and so it was decided that Louis Wagner would take a job on another schooner, the Addison Gilbert. He departed Smuttynose in November 1872 with seemingly no ill will toward his friend and former employer. However that was not the case. Wagner had been forced to move from the relative comfort of the Hontvet's home to a flop house in a seedy part of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His fortunes only worsened when the Addison Gilbert sunk with all of Wagner's belongings on board. This left Wagner desperate for money. An unfortunate series of events led to one of the most horrific crimes of the 19th century.

    Wagner was at the docks when John Hontvet and his crew came ashore on the Clara Bella on March 5, 1873. They were waiting for a train carrying a shipment of bait from Boston. The train was running late forcing John, Matthew, and Ivan to wait on the docks rather than return to their significant others on Smuttynose. Wagner made it a point to ask John if the women would be along on the island. When he was told yes it gave Wagner an idea to row his way out to the island. He figured in the dark of night the three women would all be asleep and Wagner could sneak in and steal all he could to recoup his losses from the sinking of the Addison Gilbert.

    Wagner stole a dory and slipped away toward Smuttynose around 9pm. He rowed a considerably longer route south around a pair of the Isles of Shoals islands to avoid detection. Around midnight Wagner came ashore at Smuttynose and all was dark and quiet. However upon entering through the kitchen he was startled by the family dog as well as Maren's sister Karen who had been sleeping on a cot.

    As Wagner struggled with Karen, Maren and Anethe, who had been sleeping in a nearby bedroom, came to investigate. Maren was able to get Karen away and locked in the bedroom which left Anethe at the mercy of Wagner. She ran outside into the cold night air as Wagner grabbed an ax and pursued her. Anethe was able to identify Louis Wagner by name just moments before he killed her with an ax blow to the head. He then turned his attention back to the bedroom with the two other women.

The purported murder weapon now on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum (

    Wagner battered his way inside. Maren tried to get the barely conscious Karen to flee with her. Unable to rouse her she jumped out of the window and into the night. Wagner's blow with his ax did not kill Karen and he decided to finish her off by strangling Karen to death. Maren hid with the family dog in the rocks while Louis made himself a quick meal in the kitchen. After eating he resumed his search outside for Maren. Unable to find her he decided to leave the island and assume the cold would kill her. The island of Smuttynose was dark and quiet again as Wagner returned to Portsmouth.

    Louis fled Portsmouth via train to Boston. Maren survived the night and was taken to safety at Appledore Island to be treated for frostbite. The Clara Bella made it to Smuttynose at 10am on March 6th and the lives of the men aboard were changed forever. Wagner was identified as the murderer. His assumption that Maren had died from exposure proved to be his undoing. He returned to his old boarding house in Boston and his other old haunts. Wagner was quickly arrested by police without incident.

    Louis Wagner was sent to Saco, Maine for trial. Maren's first-hand testimony was so overwhelming that he was convicted and sent to prison in Thomaston, Maine to await execution. He escaped at one point yet was recaptured in three days as he made it a point to tell people he was a famous killer. Wagner was executed by hanging on June 25, 1875 all while proclaiming his innocence. In the aftermath of the murders John and Maren moved to Portsmouth, Ivan returned to Norway while Matthew's fate is unknown. Karen and Anethe Christensen were buried in Portsmouth's South Cemetery. The red duplex on Smuttynose was ransacked by ghoulish tourists taking pieces of blood spattered wood and other trinkets before the home ultimately burned in 1885.

Smuttynose Island in 2006 (Shoaler at English Wikipedia

    Despite the seemingly air-tight case against Louis Wagner of robbery and revenge against John Hontvet there is still a shred of doubt as to his guilt. Questions arose of how Maren could survive the cold night in night clothes, how Louis could row those many miles out to and back from Smuttynose, and how he was convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. The police were so sure they had found their man that the case was closed after Wagner's capture. There may be small seeds of doubt however it seems overwhelmingly likely that Karen and Anethe Christensen met their demise on Smuttynose at the hands of Louis Wagner.

    Today Smuttynose Island is privately owned though people are allowed to walk the grounds during the day. There is a marker and some rocks denoting where the red duplex once stood. There is nothing else on the tiny island left as a reminder of that terrifying March night nearly 150 years ago. Though for those looking for a chance to get up close to the Smuttynose murders the ax purportedly used by Wagner is on display at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

For more on the Smuttynose Murders: Smuttynose

My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

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