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
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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For the first time, the full story of a crime that has haunted New England since 1873.

The cold-blooded ax murder of two innocent Norwegian women at their island home off the coast of New Hampshire 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, 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. Robinson delves into the backstory at the rocky Isles of Shoals as an isolated centuries-old fishing village was being destroyed by a modern luxury hotel. He explores the neighboring island of Appledore where Victorian poet Celia Thaxter entertained the elite artists and writers of Boston. It was Thaxter's powerful essay about the murders in the Atlantic Monthly that shocked the American public.

Robinson goes beyond the headlines of the burgeoning yellow press to explore the deeper lessons about American crime, justice, economics, and hero worship. Ten 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629145785
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 11/18/2014
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(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, lectures frequently and operates, a popular website on local news and history. He resides in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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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