Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873

Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873

by J. Dennis Robinson


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The shocking but true story behind the film and bestselling novel, The Weight of Water

The cold-blooded ax murder of two innocent Norwegian women at their island home off the Maine and New Hampshire coast has gripped the region since 1873, beguiling tourists, inspiring artists, and fueling conspiracy theorists.

The killer, a handsome Prussian fisherman down on his luck, was quickly captured, convicted in a widely publicized trial, and hanged in an unforgettable gallows spectacle. But he never confessed and, while in prison, he gained a circle of admirers whose blind faith in his innocence still casts a shadow of doubt. A fictionalized bestselling novel and a Hollywood film have further clouded the truth.

Finally, a definitive “whydunnit” account of the Smuttynose Island ax murders has arrived. Popular historian J. Dennis Robinson fleshes out the facts surrounding this tragic robbery gone wrong in a captivating true-crime page-turner. He goes beyond the headlines of the burgeoning yellow press to explore the deeper lessons about American crime, justice, economics, and hero worship. Years before the Lizzie Borden ax murder trial and the fictional Sherlock Holmes, Americans met a sociopath named Louis Wagner—and many came to love him.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510741775
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 370,784
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

J. Dennis Robinson is to the seacoast area as Nathaniel Philbrick is to Nantucket. He is the foremost historian on the area and has published numerous books on local history. He lectures frequently and operates, a popular website on local news and history. He resides in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Read an Excerpt

Mystery on the Isles of Shoals

Closing the Case on the Smuttynose ax Murders of 1873

By J. Dennis Robinson

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 J. Dennis Robinson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63220-057-0



The lure of the terrible event on Smuttynose is inescapable. The story paints its own picture. We can easily visualize, with the barest of description, a solitary figure rowing a tiny boat on a dark, vast sea. We imagine three women alone on a speck of land entirely surrounded by deep water.

At first glance, it is the man in the boat who is in danger. It is cold and he is tired and very far from land. The women are sleeping, warm and secure in their home. Suddenly the scene erupts to life in a furious collage of indistinct shapes. There are sharp cries and a flash of metal against a backdrop of black and gray. A voice cries out. A blade glints in the moonlight. More silence. At dawn, the scene could be the cover of a pulp detective paperback. We see blood on the snow and an ax by the door, its handle shattered. A woman in a white nightgown shivers in the shadow of a sharp rocky cave as the yellow sun rises.

The killing of Anethe and Karen Christensen, on the surface, is a story so simple and graphic that it cannot be ignored. Almost 150 years later, it is still told and told again. But there is a second tragedy here because, by its simplicity, the story risks becoming a cartoon. For generations, the 1873 murders at the Isles of Shoals have been stripped of their historic context, edited into newspaper columns and magazine features, cleansed of distracting facts, and boiled down to a palatable horror story for tourists. The result is a tale that everyone knows, but no one knows well.

Although it feels timeless, the Smuttynose tragedy is deeply anchored in 1873, a year still powered by horses and ruled by social convention, and yet on the brink of a recognizably "modern" age. Breakthrough communication technology that year included the first typewriter and the first US postcards. Showman P. T. Barnum opened his first circus and outlaw Jesse James robbed his first train. Ulysses S. Grant, a hard-drinking military hero of the Civil War, was beginning his second term as President of the United States, a term remembered for government corruption and a lengthy depression that began with the Financial Panic of 1873. The previous year, Susan B. Anthony had struck a blow for women's rights when she attempted to vote in a New York election. She was arrested and, after her trial in 1873, fined one hundred dollars, which she adamantly refused to pay.

Critics complain that there was only a single suspect in the crime that shocked New England. Louis Wagner, a fisherman recently emigrated from Prussia, was captured the same day as the ax murder of two Norwegian women on an island in Maine. Wagner had lived among the fishing family on Smuttynose, knew the women he killed, and believed that the family kept a significant amount of money in the house. Wagner protested his innocence from his arrest until minutes before he was hanged two years later. No one saw Wagner steal a dory in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and row ten miles to the Isles of Shoals on March 5, 1873. Only the two victims saw the face of Louis Wagner. He was tried and convicted in a tightly constructed body of circumstantial evidence and hanged. Most who have truly researched the Wagner case agree with the verdict, yet the legends of Wagner's innocence live on.

The media coverage then, as now, was all over the field. A few journalists set out the facts of the Wagner case honestly as they evolved. Other newspapers played fast and loose, disseminating rumors, for example, of a broken love affair between Wagner and one of his victims, or declaring that the gentle and pious prisoner himself was the victim of false evidence planted by the local police. There were later rumors that Mary S. "Maren" Hontvet, the surviving Smuttynose Island victim, had confessed to the murders on her deathbed. But the greatest threat to the facts of the Wagner case must be human nature itself. Our natural curiosity, our desire to oversimplify, to connect the dots without facts, and to jump to conclusions, combined with a culture of cynicism and distrust of authority has turned every criminal case into an open-ended mystery. In a twenty-first-century world addicted to plot twists, double agents, alternate endings, hidden agendas, and conspiracy theories, Louis Wagner has much to offer. His ability to seduce, deceive, and obfuscate have kept his name alive and in the public debate while his victims are almost forgotten.

Even before this story begins, it is vital to put the most common misconception of the Wagner case to death. On a clear day, the Oceanic Hotel and the White Island lighthouse, both nineteenth-century structures, are visible to the naked eye from the coast of New Hampshire. They poke up like small white dots on the blue horizon. The nine small stone islands are so flat that they flicker in and out of view. Beyond them, there is nothing but ocean. It is a good six or seven miles from the nearest point on the Isles of Shoals to the mainland at Rye Harbor and another three or four miles down the wily Piscataqua River to downtown Portsmouth, the only seaport in the "Live Free or Die" state.

"That's impossible," people often say with certainty upon first hearing the story. "No one could row a boat that far and back in a single night." It is one of those spontaneous deductions that sounds obvious at first blush. But like so much of the Wagner story, there is more here than meets the eye.

Rowing to the Shoals is an adventurous, but certainly not a daunting journey for an experienced person powering a small boat under favorable conditions. In the 1800s, it was not uncommon for the fishermen of the Shoals to row their wooden boats to the mainland and back. John Hontvet, Maren's husband and Wagner's employer, testified that he had made the trip propelled by muscle and oars from Smuttynose Island to Portsmouth fifty or sixty times in the few years he lived at the Shoals. Another fisherman testified that he had made the entire distance rowing one way in ninety minutes. True crime writer Edmund Pearson, author of Murder at Smutty Nose (1926), argued that Wagner's defense attorneys never once mentioned the act of rowing to the Shoals in their attempts to raise a reasonable doubt among the jurors. It was not an issue. For men living on the New England coast, this was an entirely familiar and believable feat, though only a desperate or foolhardy man would risk the trip alone on a winter's night.

The trip is not always safe and it is not always wise even in season. Uncounted victims have lost their lives over the centuries in the watery expanse along the Shoals. On a perfect summer afternoon in 1825, for example, seven men and boys returning to Portsmouth from a Sunday school outing were caught in a surprise squall. Not even their experienced captain could save the little pilot boat. Searchers found nothing but a hat belonging to one of the teachers floating placidly on the waves. In 1902 a boat carrying passengers, mostly waitresses from the Oceanic Hotel, capsized in a similar "evil wind" off the Shoals. "The squall took me entirely by surprise," the grief-stricken captain told reporters. "The boat turned bottom up like a flash." Fourteen passengers drowned. That record would stand until the submarine USS Squalus sank in 240 feet of water on a test dive off the Isles of Shoals in 1939. Thirty-three crewmen were rescued with a diving bell, but twenty-six sailors were lost.

Yet athletic rowers in fiberglass kayaks and oceangoing rowing shells make the trip every year, often stopping in the cove at Smuttynose Island to explore the flora, the fauna, and historic sites. Today the smart rowers tend to travel in pairs, wearing protective wetsuits and carrying emergency tracking devices. A few years ago, a solo kayaker got stranded on an uninhabited island at the Shoals in bad weather and died of exposure before he was discovered. But there was nothing startling about a dory fisherman rowing a considerable distance in 1873. The crossing — depending on the tide, the wind, the current, and the waves — could take two or three or four hours. We know the tides were favorable on the Piscataqua River on the night of the murder. By eight p.m., the estimated time of Wagner's departure in a stolen boat from Pickering's Dock in Portsmouth's South End, the first three miles' journey to the open ocean would be merely a matter of coasting in the swift outgoing tide with little muscle required.

Roughly eleven hours elapsed between the time Wagner was last seen in Portsmouth and when he was spotted by three witnesses arriving at Little Harbor in New Castle, New Hampshire, the following morning. There he abandoned his boat and made his way back into the city on foot. At a comfortable but unspectacular rowing speed of about three miles per hour, the roughly eighteen-mile round trip could have been completed in four, five, or six hours, leaving at least five hours unaccounted for while the killer was on the island.

Wooden boat builder Greg Hopkins laughs at the notion that rowing to the Shoals is anything special. He has built and sold seven "murder boats" based on what he considers the most likely design of the boat Wagner stole from a fisherman named David Burke. Hopkins works from a shop at his home in Portsmouth about two miles from where Burke's dory disappeared between seven-thirty and eight-thirty p.m. on March 5, 1873.

"My main interest in the murder story is the boat that Wagner rowed out to the Isles in," Hopkins says. "It was probably between sixteen to eighteen feet long. I fashioned my replicas after what locals call a 'wherry.' These were the standard of the region back then, sort of the taxicab of the Piscataqua, for running back and forth across the swift river."

Using an ancient Norse system of overlapping, or "lapstrake" planks, the Piscataqua builders were able to use thinner planks that, when attached to one another, were extremely solid, yet lightweight and cheap to build. The wherries that Hopkins builds today are based on an 1850s design and are trimmed in mahogany. They weigh about two hundred pounds. They are, he says, a bit sexier than other members of the flat-bottomed dory family but functionally the same. The elegant planking system gives the wherry a shapelier front, or "bow." The transom, the panel that forms the back or stern of the boat, is a little higher in the wherry to prevent waves from washing in. Designed to work along the inner two saltwater bays and many tributaries of the Piscataqua estuary, these handcrafted rowboats were incredibly seaworthy and surprisingly fast.

To underline his point, Hopkins brushes a fragrant stack of wood shavings from his work bench, pulls down a book, and points to a passage by Isles of Shoals writer Celia Thaxter. Thaxter's family owned Smuttynose Island and was renting the house to the Hontvets at the time of the tragedy. In her famous 1875 essay, "A Memorable Murder," Thaxter claimed to have seen Louis Wagner a year before the murders. He was fishing solo from a wherry off Star Island, Thaxter wrote, and not making much money.

Reproductions of the Piscataqua wherry are prized today among rowing purists. Two similar historical designs are known as the "Strawbery Banke" or the "Isles of Shoals" dory. The late Aubrey Marshall sparked a revival of these classic wooden boats in the 1970s at Strawbery Banke Museum, a campus of historic buildings on the Portsmouth waterfront. Marshall, whose career began in 1923 at the Lowell Boat Shop in Amesbury, Massachusetts, calculated that he worked on upwards of thirty thousand dories in his lifetime. During his years building boats at Strawbery Banke Museum, his shop was located only yards from the boarding house where Louis Wagner had lived a century before.

"The idea that it is too difficult to row from Portsmouth to the Shoals is silly," Greg Hopkins says, pointing to the skeleton of another boat in progress at his workshop. A sign above reads: PISCATAQUA WHERRY — SMUTTYNOSE MURDER BOAT?

"Making three miles an hour is very easy in one of these," Hopkins says. "Wagner had plenty of time with the tides and the weather in his favor."

Indeed, the eighteen-mile round trip from shore to Shoals and back pales in comparison to the 1,600-mile rowboat journey of Nathaniel Stone in his memoir On the Water (2000). Departing from the Brooklyn Bridge, Stone rowed solo from the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, and up the Atlantic seaboard to the Canadian border. While Stone traveled in fiberglass boats, one with a sliding seat powered by his legs and the other with a stationary seat propelled by arm muscles, his crafts were no larger than Wagner's dory. Once accustomed to the trancelike repetition of the oars, rowing one stroke per breath, Stone was able to increase his daily distance to twenty, thirty, even sixty miles per day.

Stone's trip was inspired, he writes, by the journey of Nova Scotia doryman Howard Blackburn. Separated from his schooner in a blizzard in 1883 while fishing off the Canadian Grand Banks, Blackburn rowed for five days with his hands frozen to the oars. Although he lost all of his fingers to frostbite, Blackburn became a successful tavern owner in Gloucester and twice sailed solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

Halfway through his own epic journey, Nathaniel Stone was honored to meet a Canadian named Mark Robbins who twice attempted to row alone in a small boat from Coney Island in New York City, around the coastal United States, to the Yukon in Alaska. Robbins was thwarted twice by sickness and had to abandon his quest, but he managed to complete 5,000 miles of the 6,500 mile trek. His average distance, consistently day in and day out, was forty miles, more than twice the distance Wagner had to cover on that single fateful night.

Stories of locals making the journey are legion. One Portsmouth businessman regularly rows his ocean shell to the Shoals and back before breakfast. Portsmouth-born novelist and sport fisherman Rodman Philbrick, author of The Young Man and the Sea, recalls rowing to the Shoals as a boy after hearing about the Wagner murders. "I rowed it from Rye Harbor in a crappy little flat-bottomed rowboat with a short pair of oars when I was about fourteen," Philbrick recalls. "It took me three or four hours and I blistered my hands badly. Then I realized I had to row back."

John W. Downs, the grandson of the last fisherman at the Isles of Shoals, recalled making the journey frequently. "In the early days when we had no power, we thought nothing of rowing a boat eight to ten miles, and hauling in from sixty to one hundred lobster pots, and rowing back again." The colder the weather for these rugged men, the better, since the cod and the mackerel were then most abundant.

In an age of muscle power, seacoast Victorians accepted Wagner's rowing ability without question, but as engines replaced oars, journalists and pulp crime writers exaggerated the story. An August 1964 issue of Front Page Detective, for instance, shamelessly mixed facts from the Wagner case with a wholly imaginary set of murder suspects in a semi-fictional piece titled "The Beast from Smuttynose." The blaring introduction to the article says it all: "Nothing human could row so far in stormy seas — except a man inhumanly possessed by visions of hoarded gold and lovely girls left alone on a barren island."

In May of 2013, to quell all doubts, a Maine engineer named Dan O'Reilly took the Wagner challenge. Dan is a ruddy-faced former shipyard worker with a thick gray mustache and a thicker Maine accent. Catching an identical outgoing tide to the one the killer took at eight p.m. on March 5, 1873, O'Reilly pulled out of Portsmouth's South End on a crisp May morning, not far from the dock where Wagner stole his wooden dory. O'Reilly was the sole figure in his replica Piscataqua wherry. He bought the flat-bottomed seventeen-footer more than forty years ago from Aubrey Marshall for five hundred dollars. Half a dozen observers in a thirty-five-foot lobster boat shadowed O'Reilly as he paced himself, pulling smoothly on his oars, not rushing. Within half an hour, Dan had already reached the lighthouse at New Castle, where the swift river meets the sea, a distance of about three miles.

"You're a rock star, Dan!" someone on the chase boat shouted as the rower, following Wagner's proposed path, glided past the historic Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and the granite walls of Fort Constitution where the mainland turns to open ocean. Soon he was moving beyond Whaleback Light, just off the Kittery shore. The rower paused only twice during the next seven miles, once to bail out his dory from a "weeping" leak, and once to take a long drink from a bottle of Gatorade. When he eased his dory into Smuttynose Cove, Dan O'Reilly wasn't even breathing hard.

"You made it with time to kill," the captain of the lobster boat shouted. It was a sick joke, but everyone laughed.

O'Reilly's official time from Portsmouth to Gosport Harbor was two hours and fourteen minutes. Admittedly, he was using more streamlined modern oars and better oarlocks than the wooden "thole" pins in Wagner's dory.


Excerpted from Mystery on the Isles of Shoals by J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright © 2014 J. Dennis Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Notes on Spelling and Word Choice xiii

Introduction xv

Prologue xxi


1 Wagner's Dory 3

2 Our Founding Fishermen 12

3 The Wild Wild East 21

4 The First Tourists 28

5 The Norwegians 35

6 Poor Karen and Mr. Poor 44


7 With an Ax 55

8 Best of Friends 61

9 On Water Street 69

10 Rowing 78

11 Louis! Louis! 87

12 Hunting Maren 94

13 Escape 99


14 The American Killer 107

15 The Stranger 114

16 The Arrest 122

17 Lynch Mob 129

18 Evidence and Alibi 137

19 The Funeral 145


20 Opening Ceremonies 155

21 The Examination 163

22 Dream Team 171

23 Alfred 179

24 Hailstorm of Evidence 186

25 Four Women 196

26 Cops and Blood 205

27 Wagner's Last Stand 214

28 Circling the Wagons 224

29 The Verdict 234

Death Row

30 Capital Debate 245

31 The Escape Artist 253

32 Dead Man Talking 260

33 John True Gordon 268

34 Final Hours 278

35 Upon the Gallows 285


36 The Oceanic Burns 295

37 Celia's World 301

38 The Hontvet Legacy 306

39 Last Men Hanged 313

40 Legal Eagles 316

41 Pure Murder 323

42 Weight of Water 331

43 Louis in Hollywood 339

44 Victorian Psycho 344

Epilogue: Back on the Island 355

Author's Notes 359

Select Bibliography 383

About the Author 392

Visiting the Isles of Shoals 393

Index 395


J. Dennis Robinson is an award-winning writer and lecturer based in historic Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He is the author of a dozen books and edits the popular website, focusing on regional history and culture.

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