VAUGHN HARDACKER here. Once again I am returning to the realm of true crime. The Islands of the Shoals lie six miles off the coast of Portsmouth, New Hampshire and many people believe that they are in New Hampshire, However, the island group consists of nine islands, five are in Maine and four in New Hampshire, and were named by English explorer Capt. John Smith after sighting them in 1614. The first recorded landfall of an Englishman was that of explorer Capt. Christopher Levett, whose 300 fishermen in six ships discovered that the Isles of Shoals were largely abandoned in 1623.
Smuttynose Island, at 25 acres, is the third-largest island. It is known as the site of Blackbeard’s honeymoon, later for the shipwreck of the Spanish ship Sagunto in 1813, and then for the notorious 1873 murders of two young women. The latter is recalled in the story, “A Memorable Murder”, by Celia Thaxter, in the 1997 novel, The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve (and in the film of the same name), and in the song, “The Ballad of Louis Wagner” by John Perrault.
The terrifying events outlined by Thaxter and Shreve took place in the early morning hours of March 6, 1873. The island was inhabited by a single couple, John Honvet and his wife Maren, who arrived there from Norway in 1868. John was a commercial fisherman and he would sail his schooner, the Clara Bella, to the fishing grounds, draw his trawl lines, and then set sail for home in late afternoon. His industriousness earned him respect from his friends and neighbors on other islands (whose population rarely surpassed fifty).
Louis Wagner was working solo, barely eking out a living fishing the waters off the Isles of Shoals when he met Honvet. For two years John and Maren took Wagner, a dark muscular Prussian with a thick accent, under their care, seeing that he was never in need of food or clothing and even went so far as to include him in John’s prosperous business. During the two plus years they were acquainted it is said that Wagner and the Hontvets became as close as brothers and sister.
Though content with their new lives, the Hontvets missed their families in Norway. Maren cherished her small cottage, but often her only companion during John’s absences while fishing was her small dog, Ringe. In May 1871, Maren’s sister, Karen Christensen, arrived from Norway and within a few weeks obtained a position as a live-in maid with a family on nearby Appledore Island (the largest of the Isle of The Shoals islands).
By June of 1872, John’s business had prospered to the point where he was able to hire Wagner, giving him a room within his home. However, in October of that year John found himself with more help than he needed. His brother, Matthew arrived from Norway with Maren’s brother, Ivan Christensen and his wife Anethe. All five family members lived together in the Hontven cottage and Ivan and Matthew went to work with John.
Wagner stayed on for five weeks after Ivan, Matthew, and Anethe arrived and then booked passage as a hand on the Addison Gilbert, a fishing schooner, in November. His luck took a turn for the worse. The Addison Gilbert was wrecked and he found himself reduced to working along the docks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He barely made enough money to pay his board. By March of 1873 he was destitute, his shoes and clothes were worn and tattered, and he was behind in his rent.
John, Ivan, and Matthew had set sail early on the morning of March 5, 1873. They placed their trawl lines, intending to sell the catch in Portsmouth and buy bait there, they met a neighbor and asked him to stop by Smuttynose and inform the women that due to a change in the wind direction they would be sailing directly to the mainland.
The women, Maren, Anethe, and Karen (she had left her position on Appledore and taken one as a seamstress in Boston) who was visiting, got the word in the late afternoon.
When the Clara Bella docked in Portsmouth in early evening, Louis Wagner was on hand to help tie the vessel down. He inquired if John and his crew would be returning to Smuttynose that evening. He learned that it depended upon whether or not the bait they wanted to buy was delivered on time. If it was they would return, if not they would stay in port and return home in the morning.
Wagner was last seen in Portsmouth at 7:30 that evening. He learned that the bait had not arrived and decided to burglarize the Hontvet’s home. He stole a dory and rowed into the harbor and out to sea. The feat of rowing twelve miles to the Isles of Shoals and back was difficult, but not impossible and Wagner was a skilled oarsman, driven by desperation.
The three woman had waited for the men and by 10 PM decided not to do so any longer. They changed into their night clothes and made a bed for Karen in the kitchen, where it was warmer. Maren and Anethe retired to an adjoining bedroom.
Rather than go ashore in the cove where John kept the Clara Bella, Wagner rowed to the far side of the island and disembarked on the rocky shore. He observed the cottage for several hours after the inside lights had gone out. Confident that the women were asleep he made his move. He quickly found the kitchen door unlocked and stepped inside. He jammed a piece of wood into the latch of the bedroom door. His movement aroused the dog and it barked, waking Karen. She asked, “John, is that you?”
Maren then awoke and called to her sister, “Karen? Is something wrong?”
“John scared me!” With that Wagner reached for a chair and struck a incapacitating blow. Karen screamed as he continued his assault.
Karen struggled to her feet and tugged at the bedroom door. Battered and bleeding, she freed the latch and fell at Maren’s feet. Wagner rushed again, now swinging at and hitting both women. Maren managed to pull Karen out of his reach and closed and barricaded the door.
Anethe watched the attack from a corner of the room. Maren implored her to run and hide. Anethe climbed out the bedroom window and stood barefoot in the snow, frozen with fright.
Wagner gave up his assault on the locked door and left the house. In the light of the quarter moon, Maren could see who their attack was. He closed with Anethe and grabbed an axe from its place on the woodpile and with a single motion drove the blade into Anethe’s head. Her lifeless body fell as he continued to strike her. During this horrific attack, Maren was so close that she could have reached through the window and touched him.
Realizing that she could do nothing to help Anethe, Maren turned her attention to saving her sister and herself. She begged Karen to run. Karen, however, was on the verge of fainting and was unable to do anything. By this time Wagner had returned to the house with the axe. Believing both she and her sister would be killed if she remained, Maren wrapped herself in a heavy skirt and, when she heard Wagner return to the house, climbed through the window and ran. She headed for the cove hoping to find Wagner’s boat there. When she did not see it, she ran along the shore to the far side of the island. As she passed the cottage she heard Karen shout in agony. She crawled between two rocks near the water’s edge where the surf obliterated all other sound.
Karen tried to escape through the window but was so weak that it was too much. Wagner finally broke into the room and swung the axe, missing her and hitting the sill, which broke the axe handle. He then twisted a handkerchief around her neck and strangled her until she was dead.
Bloody footprints showed his search for Maren and where he dragged Anethe by her feet into the kitchen. He was exhausted and brewed a pot of tea, leaving blood on the handle, and ate food he had brought using a plate, knife and fork from the Hontvet’s kitchen. He ransacked the house, finding only fifteen dollars and departed, leaving Anethe’s body on the floor beside a clock he had knocked off the mantle—its hands were stopped at seven minutes past one.
It was after eight in the morning when Maren got the attention of the children of Jorge Ingerbredsen, who were playing beside their home on Appledore Island. Jorge rowed across the quarter mile of sea to rescue her. He returned her to his home and with several other men they returned to Smuttynose.
Finding no one on Smuttynose, the men returned home and searched there. A few hours later the Clara Bella was sighted on the horizon and they signaled her. Matthew and Ivan rowed a skiff to Appledore and John sailed the schooner to her moor on Smuttynose. When the men found Maren at the Ingerbredsen house and heard the horrific tale they rushed to Smuttynose, arriving the same time as John. They found the bodies and searched the full contents of their destroyed home, before sailing the schooner to Appledore. That afternoon, John and others carried Maren’s tale of terror to the authorities in Portsmouth.
The stolen dory was found in Newcastle, where two men who knew Wagner reported they had seen him about six o’clock on the morning of March 7, near a place called the Devil’s Den. Wagner had returned to his boarding house, changed some of his clothes and took a 9 AM train to Boston. Wagner was arrested that evening at a boarding house where he had stopped to see some women that he knew. He offered no resistance.
The following day he was transferred from Boston (where a jeering crowd followed—the crime had been widely reported throughout the east coast) to Portsmouth (where a crowd of 10,000 narrowly missed tearing him apart).
Smuttynose falls under the jurisdiction of Maine so Wagner had to be tried there. Three days after arriving in Portsmouth, he was moved from the jail to the train where a lynch mob of over 200 fishermen were waiting. The police escort drew their revolvers and a company of bayonet-wielding Marines were called from the Navy base, but the mob was not easily subdued. The escort was showered with stones and bricks.
Louis Wagner’s trial began in Alfred, Maine on June 9, 1873. It took nine days of testimony and 55 minutes of deliberation for the jury to find him guilty as charged. He broke out of jail within a week, but was recaptured in New Hampshire. On June 25, 1875, 27 months after the crime, Wagner was led into the yard of the state prison in Thomaston, Maine, and hanged. Wagner maintained his innocence to the very end.
Maren and John Hontvet were never to live in the Isles of Shoals again. They moved to Portsmouth, where John continued working as a fisherman. There are two small houses on the island. One of them, the Samuel Haley house, was once believed to be the oldest structure in the state of Maine. Smuttynose is not populated today.
I read The Weight of Water while staying on Star Island and gazing across the water at Smuttynose. The thought of the isolation those families endured was terrifying.
My husband’s great grand uncle drowned in a shipwreck on the southwest point of Lunging Island in 1876.
I read Anita Shrieve’s book, The Weight of Water and didn’t remember that it was based on chilling truth. Horrifying.
If I recall correctly Anita Shrieve indicated that Maren was the killer not Wagner.