Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island
One year passed and John’s business continued to grow, so he hired Louis Wagner in June 1872. Wagner was also given a room in the Hontvets’ house and seemed more like part of the family than ever. But in October of that year John was to find himself with more help than he needed. His brother Matthew came from Norway to live on Smuttynose. With Matthew was Maren’s brother, Ivan Christensen, and his wife Anethe. Ivan was tall and well proportioned, and his wife was beautiful, with blue eyes, bright teeth, and thick blonde hair that swept across her delicate face and fell to her knees when not braided. They had been married since Christmas.
The new arrivals were welcomed by John and Maren and the five lived together in the cottage. Ivan and Matthew went to work for John and Anethe helped Maren keep house. Louis Wagner stayed on with the Hontvets for five weeks after Matthew, Ivan, and Anethe arrived, then booked passage as a hand on another fishing schooner, the Addison Gilbert, and left Smuttynose in November. The Hontvets surely felt secure in the knowledge that they had helped Louis get on his feet. But Wagner’s luck took a turn for the worse. The Addison Gilbert was wrecked and Louis was reduced to working along the Portsmouth wharves. He earned so little he barely managed to pay board to the Jonsens, with whom he lived. By March 1873 he was destitute. His shoes were worn, his clothes tattered, and he owed three weeks rent.
After a long, severe winter, spring was finally in the air and the sun rose steadily in the clear sky as John, Matthew, and Ivan set sail on the morning of March 5, 1873. When the trawl lines were in they planned to sell the catch in Portsmouth and buy bait arriving on the early train from Boston. At sea they met a neighbor and asked him to stop at Smuttynose and tell the women the winds had changed in favor of sailing directly to the mainland, so they wouldn’t be stopping to leave one of the men on the island, as was their custom. They’d be home later that evening.
It was late afternoon when the women got the message. They had already prepared supper and decided to keep it hot until the men came home. Karen was now living on Smuttynose also. She had left her position to take a job as a seamstress in Boston, but was visiting with the family before moving.
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.