Saturday, March 05, 2016

Murder on Smuttynose Island!—March 5th, 1873

One hundred and forty three years ago today two women, immigrants from Norway, were murdered on Smuttynose Island, six miles off the coast of Maine. Smuttynose is one of the Isles of Shoals, a group of islands, some of which belong to Maine and some to New Hampshire. The actual number of islands varies depending on the tides—at low tide a few of them are connected.

The story of the famous axe-murder can be found on a number of sites on line but briefly the story is this: John and Maren Hontvet came to Boston in 1868 from their home in Norway. At first they lived in Boston's North End but at that time the North End was a dirty, ugly, crowded place packed to the rafters with immigrants from many countries all competing for jobs, food, and living space. John hated their living conditions and was able to earn enough money to take himself and his beloved Maren to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. There John met Oscar Laighton, a resident of Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals and who also wrote one of the most interesting autobiographies I've ever read—Ninety Years on the Isles of Shoals.

Oscar helped John get started on Smuttynose as a fisherman. For a few years John and Maren lived alone there but eventually Maren's older, unmarried sister, Karen Christensen, arrived. Karen stayed with them for awhile but then took a job at the big hotel owned by the Laighton family on Appledore. She also made the acquaintance of Celia Thaxter who
was famous both as a poet, a gardener, and the author of another charming book, Among the Isles of Shoals. Not long after, John's brother Matthew, accompanied by Maren and Karen's brother, Even, arrived with Even's young wife Anethe. It was said that Anethe was exceptionally lovely with beautiful blue eyes and thick blond hair that hung to her knees when not braided and done up.

John was an industrious fisherman and did very well for himself. Among the men who worked for him at one time or another was an immigrant named Louis Wagner who was something of a ne'er-do-well. He had knocked around the Isles of Shoals fishing from Star, Malaga, and Cedar Islands. A few weeks after Matthew, Even, and Anethe arrived, Wagner booked onto the fishing schooner Addison Gilbert but it wrecked and Wagner's luck got even worse. By 1873 he was destitute and desperate.

The winter of 1873 was a hard one and by March the Hontvets were happy when March arrived. Karen was staying on Smuttynose with Maren and Anethe when the men decided to go to Portsmouth to procure bait that was to arrive by train. There they encountered Wagner and John offered him work baiting lines once the bait arrived. However, the train was late and John, Matthew, and Even decided to stay on Portsmouth for the night—something they had never done before. When Wagner learned of this he remembered that John had a profitable fishing business and he decided to row to Smuttynose and steal what he could. He stole a row boat he found on the bank of the Piscataqua River and took off.

Rowing six miles was a chore but one that men like John Hontvet did on a regular basis. It would have taken Wagner about three hours to get to Smuttynose, thinking that the women would be asleep. Unfortunately, Maren's little dog, Ringe, heard him and began barking. All the women awakened and Wagner became desperate. He grabbed an axe and went to work. Maren, carrying Ringe, climbed out a window and hid in the rocks by the shore. Wagner searched for her but realized he had to get away from the island before dawn. He found only $15 in the house and rowed back to Portsmouth.

When it grew light out Maren walked across the breakwater to Malaga Island and managed to attract the attention of some children playing. Their parents took Maren in and cared for her until John arrived. Unfortunately it was too late for Karen and Anethe who were both dead.

Eventually Wagner was captured, tried, and found guilty. He escaped from jail but was captured a few days later and on the morning of June 25, 1875 he was hanged in Thomaston, Maine.

The entire story is such a sad one and yet, like so many strange murders, so fascinating. I've only been to the Isles of Shoals once but it was a memorable experience. On clear days you can see them glittering on the horizon from many places on the coast here. And I suspect the story of this horrible murder is weaving its way into a future story of mine. You never know.

Thanks for reading.

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