Podcast 250 – The Smuttynose Island Murders

On March 5, 1873, two women were brutally murdered on Smuttynose Island in Maine. A third narrowly escaped with her life.

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In Episode 250, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger sail out to the Isles of Shoals, Maine, to investigate the infamous Smuttynose Island murders. On March 5, 1873, two women were brutally murdered on the island, while a third narrowly escaped with her life. Louis Wagner was hanged for the crime, but did they execute the right man? This crime still haunts the tiny islands.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: Michael Legge
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The Hontvet House on Smuttynose Island in Maine.

The Hontvet House on Smuttynose Island in Maine.

Louis Wagner - the convicted Smuttynose Island killer.

Louis Wagner – the convicted Smuttynose Island killer.

John and Maren Hontvet

John and Maren Hontvet

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: Another summer’s day, another trip to the ocean. I’m guessing we’re heading for those islands up ahead?
JEFF: We are, Ray. We’re about 6 miles off the coast of southernmost Maine, visiting the Isles of Shoals. A small group of islands that straddle the official border between Maine and New Hampshire.
RAY: Right. The southern-most four islands are in New Hampshire waters, and the northern most four islands are in Maine waters.
JEFF: When we say islands, we mean REALLY small islands. A few of them are uninhabited rocks that stick out of the ocean, but Appledore Island and Star Island, for example, actually have a few roads and buildings. And then there’s Smuttynose Island.
RAY: Okay, I’ve heard of Star Island because there’s that famous and haunted Star Island Resort. AND I’ve heard of Smuttynose Island… and not just because there’s a brewery named after it.
JEFF: What have you heard?
RAY: I heard there was a brutal murder out here long ago. There’s even been books and a movie made about it.
JEFF: That’s why we’re here, Ray. Two women were murdered here, while a third narrowly escaped. A man was hanged for the awful crime! But did they hang the wrong man?
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 250 of the New England Legends podcast!
JEFF: 250 weeks ago today, we embarked on mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. With hundreds of stories under our belt, millions of downloads, multiple awards, and an incredible community of legend hunters who share these legends, provide us with leads on new stories, and keep us going, we’re ready to tackle the next 250.
RAY: Whether we’re talking about ghosts, monsters, aliens, odd history, eccentric people, roadside oddities, or notorious true crime, like this week, we’re grateful to have you with us. We appreciate it. If you want to get us a 250-episode anniversary gift, how about sharing our podcast with your friends, or posting a review of our show on Apple podcasts. It goes a long way in helping our community grow.
JEFF: We can’t do what we do without you, and of course a little help from our friends at Nuwati Herbals who have been a sponsor of our show for a long time now.
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RAY: Okay, Smuttynose Island is infamous. It’s only 25 acres in size. It’s the third largest of the Isles of Shoals islands.
JEFF: It’s called Smuttynose because fisherman noticed how one end of the island was completely covered in seaweed. When you approached from the ocean that end looked like the smutty nose of some giant sea animal. The name stuck.
RAY: Some believe Smuttynose Island was the location of the Pirate Blackbeard’s honeymoon. And it WAS the site of the Spanish shipwreck of the Sagunto in 1813. But it’s these murders that shocked New England that everyone remembers today.
JEFF: Let’s head back to 1873, and find out what happened.
RAY: It’s early March of 1873. Late winter. Though the skies are staying brighter longer each day, there’s still a fierce bite to the ocean wind here on Smuttynose Island. There’s snow on the ground. We’re standing outside the home of John and Maren Hontvet. The couple moved here five years ago from Norway.
JEFF: Each day at dawn, John takes his schooner, the Clara Bella, to his fishing grounds. He knows a great spot that gets him some big numbers. Then he sails to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he and his crew sell the day’s catch. They buy bait for tomorrow’s run, then sail home to Smuttynose Island to do it all again the next day.
RAY: John Hontvet has the magic touch. His neighbors on other islands and on the mainland respect him for it. He’s doing something right, and he and his wife are living a comfortable life.
JEFF: Three years ago, a 28-year-old Prussian man named Louis Wagner moved to the island. He was friendly to the Hontvets, and they were friendly to him, but others around the Isles of Shoals didn’t take as kindly to the Prussian.
RAY: Wagner was NOT as lucky at fishing as his neighbor, either. He fished alone around the various islands, but his catch was sometimes pretty slim. However, John Hontvet wouldn’t let his friend go hungry. John and Maren often fed Louis, they gave him new clothes when he needed them, and eventually John hired Louis as a hand on his fishing schooner so he could earn more money. The Hontvets are close with Louis Wagner. They even invited him to live with them in their cottage.
JEFF: In May of 1871, Maren’s sister, Karen Christensen arrived from Norway. Karen soon found work as a live-in maid on nearby Appledore Island. And Louis Wagner is still working with John. The arrangement is working well until October of 1872 when John’s brother, Matthew arrived from Norway along with Maren’s brother, Ivan Christensen, and Ivan’s new bride, the beautiful Anethe.
RAY: With able-bodied family living here, there’s no room for Louis Wagner, both in the cottage and on John’s schooner. Still, John helped Wagner get a job as a hand on the fishing schooner the Addison Gilbert. In November of 1872, Wagner leaves Smuttynose Island, and the Hontvets take comfort that they helped their friend get on his feet.
JEFF: Wagner’s luck didn’t hold out very long. On January 6, 1873, the Addison Gilbert wrecked after colliding with the sloop, M.M. Hamilton in Portsmouth Harbor.
JEFF: Though the crew safely made it to the Hamilton, the Gilbert sank. It was a total loss.
RAY: With no ship, Louis Wagner had no job. He took a job working on the Portsmouth wharves, but he’s not earning enough to pay for food and his rent. Now that it’s March 1873, Wagner is destitute and weeks behind on his rent.
JEFF: It’s the morning of March 5th and John, Matthew, and Ivan have just set sail from Smuttynose Island on the Clara Bella. After gathering the day’s catch, the winds shifted toward the mainland, which meant they could get to Portsmouth to sell their catch more quickly if they don’t make the usual stop at Smuttynose to drop off one of the men. Knowing the wives would worry, Captain John sees one of his neighbors on his ship and yells across the water asking him to let Maren know they’ll be home later tonight. The neighbor waves and agrees.
RAY: If their luck holds out, John can sell his catch in Portsmouth, buy bait for tomorrow from the early train arriving from Boston, and get back out to Smuttynose Island in time for a late dinner.
JEFF: When the Clara Bella docks in Portsmouth, Louis Wagner is there to help tie the ship to the docks.
RAY: Wagner asks his old friend if he and the other men would be returning to Smuttynose Island tonight. John explains that if the bait arrives on time on the early train from Boston, then, yes, that’s the plan. But if it arrives on the later train, then they’re going to bait tonight, spend the night in Portsmouth, and return home to Smuttynose Island in the morning.
JEFF: Wagner nods, and wanders off.
JEFF: When the early train from Boston arrives, the fishing bait didn’t make it, which means John and his crew will have to wait for the later train, and they’ll be spending the night in Portsmouth. Tough break, but they’ve done it before.
RAY: Meanwhile, Louis Wagner ALSO learns that the shipment of bait did NOT arrive on the early train. That’s when he sneaks over to the banks of the nearby river… and steals a dory boat.
RAY: Knowing how successful John Hontvet is, the plan is to row 10 miles out to Smuttynose Island, and burglarize his house while there are no men home. Wagner suspects there could be $500 or maybe even $600 dollars hidden in the cottage.
RAY: The journey is arduous, it takes three hours to reach the island. Wagner decides he better not risk pulling into the dock where the Clara Bella usually moors, so he rows to the far side of the island, and pulls his stolen dory onto shore.
JEFF: It’s about 10:30 at night. It’s cold. There’s crunchy snow on the ground. Wagner approaches the Hontvet’s cottage and watches until all of the lights go out. Then he waits a little longer to be sure that the women inside are asleep.
JEFF: It’s late. Very late. And cold. Wagner approaches the cottage. He reaches for the door, unsure if he’s going to have to kick it in, but it’s not locked. Why would you lock your door when you’re the only house on the island?
JEFF: Wagner slips inside. He jams a piece of wood under the latch of the bedroom door where Maren and Anethe are sleeping. If they wake up, they’ll be stuck inside. His hope is to snoop around undetected and get out… but then.
JEFF: The family dog alerts the house.
RAY: Karen is sleeping in the kitchen because it’s warmer. She’s the first to hear the dog and sit up. She calls out asking if it’s John. Maren hears the commotion from her bedroom and calls out to Karen. Now panicked, Wagner reaches for a chair…
RAY: And smashes it over Karen.
JEFF: Inside the bedroom, it’s now clear to Maren and Anethe that something is very wrong.
RAY: Wagner smashes the chair against Karen again. Then shoves her against the bedroom door, which frees the latch. The door flies open and Karen falls bleeding at Maren’s feet. Wagner forces his way into the room and hits both woman. Maren pulls Karen inside, and shoves Wagner out long enough to close the door and bolt it shut.
JEFF: Maren knows they must escape and get help. She opens the bedroom window.
JEFF: And helps Anethe out of the window.
RAY: Meanwhile, Wagner has already left the house and is circling around. When he spies Anethe barefoot in the snow, he grabs the axe from the nearby woodpile… Anethe is frozen in fear, but when the moonlight hit his face, she can see it’s Louis Wagner.
RAY: Wagner strikes her down.
JEFF: Maren can also see it’s Louis Wagner from the other side of the window as she watches in horror. Maren tries to get her sister, Karen to her feet, but she’s too badly beaten. Maren grabs her dog, and a heavy skirt to wrap around herself, then she jumps out the window as she hears Wagner enter the house again. Stepping in the bloody snow left beside Anethe’s body, she runs from the house.
RAY: Karen is practically falling over, but manages to get herself to the window. She lacks the strength to pull herself out, and that’s when Wagner’s axe hits Karen once, but his second blow misses her.
RAY: Wagner ties his handkerchief around her neck and chokes Karen until he’s certain she’d dead. Her lifeless body slumps to the floor.
JEFF: Maren is still running. There are no boats in the harbor of Smuttynose Island, and she knows there are precious few places to hide on such a small island. Wagner’s only hope is to find Maren and kill her too, otherwise he can be identified. Leaving a bloody trail of footprints, he races off searching.
RAY: Maren crawls between two rocks at the water’s edge, where the surf is so loud, no one could possibly hear her. She shivers and cradles her dog. Wagner searches the island, but realizes time is NOT on his side. He’s going to have to get off this island and row to shore while it’s still dark.
JEFF: Back at the cottage, he drags Anethe’s body inside and leaves her near a clock that had fallen during the attack. The clock is frozen at 1:07 AM.
RAY: Wagner makes himself some tea, he eats some food, and searches the house. His hope is that Maren will come in out of the cold and he can finish the murderous task, but soon he can wait no longer. For all of his efforts and horrendous crimes, he walks away with $15 dollars.
JEFF: It’s about 8 in the morning when Maren comes out from hiding. Her feet are bleeding from running on ice, and nearly frozen. She limps and stumbles across the breakwater stones connecting Smuttynose and Malaga island, and finally waves to get the attention of her neighbor who rows out to the breakwater to her rescue. After bringing Maren back to his house for his wife to tend to her, the neighbor gathers some men with guns and rows back out to Smuttynose Island where they discover the gruesome crime scene.
RAY: When Honvet and his crew return on the Clara Bella, they’re greeted by their neighbors who tells them everything. Devastated, but focused, the crew sail back to Portsmouth to alert the police. A description of Louis Wagner is quickly circulated.
JEFF: Two men who know Wagner tell police that they saw him in Newcastle that morning. When authorities search Newcastle, they find the stolen dory boat near a section of shore called “Devil’s Den.”
RAY: Hot on the trail, police learn Wagner stopped by his boarding house in Portsmouth, then caught the 9:00 AM train to Boston where he purchased some new boots and a suit from the money he stole from the Hotvets. By that evening, Boston police find Wagner near a boarding house he’s known to frequent. Wagner makes no protest when he’s arrested.
JEFF: It’s the following morning when Boston police place Wagner on a train bound for Portsmouth.
JEFF: By the time the train reaches Portsmouth, thousands of angry people have gathered.
JEFF: Wagner barely escapes with his life. The crowd tries to grab him and lynch him, but police get him safely to the Portsmouth jail.
RAY: Because Smuttynose Island is Maine’s jurisdiction, Wagner will have to be transferred across the state line. Portsmouth police are nervous. They know the locals want to lynch this guy. They don’t want to get caught in the middle of vigilante justice.
JEFF: After three days of holding Wagner, Portsmouth police are ready to move him to the train up to Maine. Over 200 fishermen from the Isles of Shoals and Portsmouth are waiting with knives, rocks, and bricks.
JEFF: Police draw their revolvers, but the crowd doesn’t disperse. Police and Wagner are showered with rocks before they reach the train station.
RAY: It’s June 9, 1873 when Wagner’s trial begins. He pleads innocent. But after nine days of testimony and 55 minutes of deliberation, Louis Wagner is found guilty.
JEFF: A week later, Wagner escapes prison, but is recaptured in New Hampshire. As the weeks turn to months, Wagner can feel the walls closing in. It’s September 24th. At his sentencing hearing, Wagner makes an impassioned speech about his innocence.
WAGNER: I came to this county seven years ago; known here by a great many people as a true and innocent creature. I have never harmed a child in this country or any other. I have lived with Mr. Hontvet two years. I have not done him any harm. I have been known in Portsmouth, and no one can prove I ever did any harm. I have been charged with the crime of murder and sworn before God Almighty that I am innocent, and I say this minute that God Almighty is my witness, I am innocent. Still, I will not mourn against the sentence that you put upon me, but a great many will feel after a while that this poor man who stands here at this bar today is an innocent soul, and that is true. It has been proved in South Berwick that Louis Wagner is no murderer, that those two women were not dead in the morning between 8 and 9 o’clock, when Hontvet arrived there. Those two women were not killed with an axe, but were choked to death with handkerchiefs. It is charged that it was my handkerchief, but it was not mine. It is the same as the shirt which they swore was mine, when it did not fit me. It that shirt should be fitted on to Hontvet it would fit him, and it is Mr. Hontvet’s shirt. I can swear before the living God that it is his shirt. I know it. I have seen it on his wrists before. I did not intend to do it. I did not intend to harm any soul, if I could help it. I did not believe that people would take a poor innocent soul who has never harmed a child and condemn him, but I will not mourn. The Lord Jesus did not mourn against those who crucified him. He looked up to heaven and asked the Father to forgive them, for they knew not what they did, and I will do the same. But the time will come when they will realize the wrong they have done me, to the poor innocent Prussian, Luis Wagner. This is all I have got to say.
RAY: So his Wagner implying it was John Hontvet who killed those women?
JEFF: Either John or his wife Maren. Wagner would go on to claim Hontvet used $500 to pay off various locals to testify against him.
RAY: That speech really makes you think.
JEFF: In the end, Louis Wagner is hanged June 25, 1875 at the state prison in Thomaston, Maine. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: There have been several books written about the Smuttynose Island murders. Some non-fiction, and others are fictionalized accounts. The most famous was Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, The Weight of Water. In her work of fiction, she put in a plot twist where Maren later confessed to the crime.
JEFF: Some people read the novel, see that’s it’s based on a true story, and think it’s all facts.
RAY: Right. Shreve’s book was made into a movie in 2000 starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley. The movie didn’t do very well, and critics hated it. But there it was on the silver screen.
JEFF: There’s so many facets to this story. This lonely island with just a few people living on it. A community where everyone knows each other, and a horrific murder with a living witness. The case seemed so open and shut, but it’s tough when the convicted maintains their innocence all the way to the gallows. It forces us to never stop thinking about the crime that left a permanent stain on the Isle of Shoals.
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