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Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island

When the Clara Bella docked in Portsmouth early that evening Louis Wagner was present to help tie the vessel to the wharf. He asked John and the others if they would be returning to Smuttynose that evening, a question they thought curious but hardly reason for suspicion. John explained they would return home if the bait arrived on schedule but, if it was late, they would stay in port, bait their trawl lines, and return home in the morning. He then asked Wagner to help bait the lines, a chore which could consume an entire night. Wagner agreed and left the wharf.

It was 7:30 that evening when Louis was last seen in Portsmouth. He apparently learned the bait didn’t arrive on the early train and, knowing John’s profitable business as he did, concocted a bizarre scheme to burglarize the Hontvets’ home. The quarter moon shed little light on this, the first calm night of the new year. On the shore of the Piscataqua River Wagner stole a dory (not one hour after the owner had replaced the worn thole pins), and rowed past the murky brick buildings with smoke streaming silently from their chimneys, into the harbor and out to sea. The 12-mile row to the Isles of Shoals was a feat, yet far from impossible for a skilled oarsman. In fact, John Hontvet had made the three-hour trip alone in a whaling boat dozens of times. Doubtless Wagner’s desperation fueled his determination.

About 10 P.M. the three women in the Hontvet house decided not to wait up any longer. They changed into their nightgowns and Maren fixed a bed for Karen in the kitchen, where it was warmer than the upstairs bedrooms. She and Anethe then retired to an adjoining bedroom.

The crusty snow glistened on shadowy Smuttynose as Louis approached in the dory. Rather than land in the cove where the Clara Bella was usually moored, he rowed to the far side of the island and disembarked on the rocky shore. He watched the lone cottage for several hours after the light coming through the windows disappeared. Confident the women were asleep, he trudged up the slope in his heavy rubber boots to the door of the house. He tried the door and found it was not bolted and swung open easily. In the darkness of the kitchen, he closed the door behind him, and jammed a piece of wood into the latch of the bedroom door behind which Maren and Anethe slept unsuspecting. He intended to accomplish his raid undetected but at that moment Ringe barked loudly, waking Karen. Seeing the dark figure silhouetted against a window she asked, “John? Is that you?”

Maren sat up in bed and called to her sister, “Karen? Is something wrong?”

“John scared me!” Karen replied, still half asleep. With that Wagner reached for a chair and struck a crippling blow out of the darkness. The young woman screamed frantically as Wagner continued his assault.

‘Karen! Karen! What’s wrong?” Maren shouted as she jumped out of bed and tugged at the door. Karen struggled to her feet as Wagner dealt another crushing blow. Battered and bleeding, she was thrown against the bedroom door. freeing the latch, and fell at Maren’s feet. Wagner rushed again, swinging and hitting both women, but Maren somehow managed to drag her sister out of his reach. She closed and barricaded the door as Louis tried to force his way in.

Petrified, Anethe watched the gruesome scene from a corner of the room. “Anethe! Run! Hide!” Maren implored as she bolted the door from the inside. Nearly incoherent, Anethe clambered out a window and stood barefoot in the snow. She was frozen with fright. “Run!” Maren screeched, but it was too late. Wagner had given up trying to enter the room and left the house. As he approached Anethe, his true identity was revealed in the moonlight. “Louis! Louis!” Anethe shrieked.

Maren was astonished to see through the window the man they had so willingly accepted now so fiendishly occupied. As Anethe stretched out her hands before him he reached to the wood pile and seized the long handle of the axe. In one swift motion he raised the instrument high into the starry night and drove the steel blade into Anethe’s head. Her lifeless body shuddered violently and slumped as Wagner continued striking her, all in full view of Maren who stood so close on the other side of the window she “could have reached out and touched his arm.”

Seeing Anethe could no longer be helped, Maren turned her attention to saving herself and her sister. She rushed to the bed where Karen was kneeling with her head on the mattress and tried to revive the dazed woman. “Karen! Karen! We must run!” she begged, but her poor young sister was on the verge of fainting and could only manage to say, ‘No . . . too tired.’ ” Meanwhile Wagner completed his butchery and was returning to the bedroom door with the axe.

Maren’s keen sense of self-preservation told her they were both doomed if they stayed together. She hastily wrapped herself in a heavy skirt, and hearing Wagner entering the house, she climbed through the window into the bloodied snow with Ringe, now silent, close behind. As she ran, the spiny ice covering the undergrowth tore her bare feet. She expected to find Wagner’s boat in the cove and was near panic upon discovering it wasn’t there. Her first impulse was to hide in the cellar of a vacant building close by, but she thought better of it, realizing Wagner would be thinking likewise. Instead she ran along the shore to the far side of the island. As she passed the cottage, circumventing it as widely as possible, her ears captured the agony of Karen. Shivering and clutching Ringe close to her breast she crawled between two rocks near the water’s edge where the pounding waves obliterated all other sound.

At the house Karen was trying to escape through a window when Wagner burst into the room. He swung the axe wildly at the feeble figure, first on the mark, then missing, splitting the sill, and breaking the handle. Karen’s listless form melted into the room where Wagner twisted a handkerchief around her throat and pulled mightily until he was sure his deed was final.

What anxiety Wagner must have felt seeing Maren had escaped the room! He left a bloody trail of footprints in the snow surrounding every building on the island in a vain attempt to forever silence the last person who could identify him. He searched as long as he could but knew he had to abandon hopes of finding Maren if he were to escape under cover of darkness. He went back to the house and dragged Anethe’s body by the feet into the kitchen. Exhausted, he then brewed a pot of tea, leaving blood stains on the handle, and ate some food he had brought with him using a plate, knife, and fork from the Hontvets’ kitchen. After ransacking the house and finding only $15 he departed, leaving Anethe’s body on the floor beside a clock that had been knocked off the mantel in the struggle and stopped at seven minutes past one.

It was almost eight the next morning before Maren dared leave hiding. Unable to gain the attention of workmen on a neighboring island she staggered on frozen feet across the breakwater connecting Smuttynose and Malaga and waved her arms to the children of Jorge Ingerbredsen who were playing outside their home on Appledore. Once alerted, Jorge rowed the quarter mile to Maren’s rescue. He returned her to the care of his wife then gathered men with guns to search Smuttynose. When the party landed on the small island they discovered Wagner’s deed horribly documented.

Finding no one on Smuttynose the men returned to Appledore and searched there also. A few hours later the Clara Bella was spotted on the horizon, her sails spread majestically, gliding through the warming sunshine on the icy sea. Seeing a signal on shore, Matthew and Ivan rowed a tender to Appledore and John sailed the schooner to its mooring on Smuttynose. When the tender landed the men were told of “some trouble on Smuttynose.” They rushed to the Ingerbredsen house where they found Maren in a deplorable state.

Updated Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

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4 Responses to Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island

  1. Julia March 31, 2015 at 9:30 pm #

    I have read everything I can for the last decade on the murders at Smuttynose. Everything seems to agree that the entire set of events hinged on whether or not the Hontvet men could get bait that night in Portsmouth. If the bait train was late, and then even later, forcing them to stay the night, where did the bait come from that Louis Wagner was said be using? He claims he was on a boat baiting trolls until late at night. Was there ANY bait in Portsmouth that night?

    • Robin McRae July 29, 2015 at 12:13 am #

      There was a movie, ‘The Weight Of Water’ with Sean Pen & Elizabeth Hurley. This had a distinct set of circumstances. In it, Marin had an incestuous relationship with her brother. Her sister saw this, told their father who then arranged a marriage between Marin & John. They married & moved to Smuttynose. Upon learning of her fathers death, the letter further stated that Karen would be coming to America. After mildly objecting to John, that they didn’t have room for her, he assures her it would be no problem. Marin is not happy about this. You can tell she holds contempt towards Karin as you learn later about her part in the arranged marriage. When Ivan & Anethe arrive, Marin is unpleasantly surprised by the marriage as she still has deep feelings for her brother. Long story short, 2 yrs after Wagner is convicted & 3 weeks prior to his hanging, she goes to the prosecutor & makes a formal confession to killing her sister & sister in law & further, asks Gods forgiveness for letting an innocent man die. After the movie, there’s a statement saying that the circumstances surrounding the murders has been debated for over a century. The story here is pretty cut & dry. The statement Marin made to the prosecuter was written, as in what a court reporter would do in today’s time. My comment and/or question is,was any of the movie version accurate ? The movie represented that it was in fact Marin, not Wagner. Motive; Karin finds Marin sharing the bed with Anethe, Karin accuses Marin of being more depraved & tells Anethe about Ivan & Marin as children and the relationship. Marin then grabs the chair hitting & disabling Karin then follows Anethe outside, grabs the axe & apologizes, telling her she never wanted her to know that she (Marin) loved Ivan as she ( Anethe) did & strikes her, killing her with the axe. She then grabs a doiley, under the clock, pulling it down & breaking it then strangles her sister. This was made very clear in the movie, friction with Wagner, Marin testifying against him, you also discover he was making unwanted advances toward her & a very slight possible interest Marin had Wagner. He came off as a ‘masher’ and/or womanizer. So, is any of the movie version true ?

  2. Elizabeth June 30, 2015 at 2:13 pm #

    Was Maren the granddaughter of Celia Thaxter

  3. Bonne Foulds July 1, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    I wonder if Louis came upon the scene after Maren killed the woman? Maren could have heard him coming, taken off and Louis saw his chance to rob them. Looking around to see what happened, before he took off.
    It read more like a crime of passion than a robbery gone bad.

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