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Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island

Yankee Plus Dec 2015


Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island
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Horror on Smuttynose Spread
Photo/Art by Yankee Magazine
Excerpt from “Horror on Smuttynose,” Yankee Magazine, March 1980

Louis Wagner was working alone, barely scratching out a living fishing the Maine and New Hampshire waters off the Isles of Shoals, when he had the good fortune to meet John Hontvet and his wife Maren. For two years John and Maren took a personal interest in seeing that Wagner was never in need of food or clothing, and even went so far as to include him in John’s prosperous fishing business.

The Hontvets’ trust in and kindness toward Wagner proved to be a mistake. On the morning of March 6,1873, they discovered, much to their woe, how they were to be repaid.

When John Hontvet and Maren arrived from Norway in 1868, they were the only people living on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals. At dawn each day John would navigate his schooner, the Clara Bella, to the fishing grounds and draw his trawl lines, then sail to market in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After selling the fish he would buy bait, then sail for home in late afternoon. His industriousness earned the tall, light-haired man much respect from his friends and neighbors on other islands, whose numbers rarely reached above 50. Business was good and in a short time the Hontvets prospered and lived comfortably in their island domain.

Maren Hontvet was a small woman, but not frail, with a gentle manner, especially in company of others. She provided a fine household for her hardworking husband, applying her decorative touch by using bright paint and paper in their cottage. And she always kept the sunny window shelves filled with an assortment of plants.

Although quite content with their new lives, the Hontvets missed their families in Norway. Maren cherished their small red house, standing in contrast to the run-down fish sheds scattered on the whitened ledges of the island. But often her only companion while John fished was her small dog, Ringe, who ran over the treeless landscape through the low thickets of wild rose and bayberry.

The Hontvets lived on Smuttynose about two years before Louis Wagner came into their lives. Wagner was a dark, muscular 28-year-old Prussian with a thick accent. He seemed friendly enough to the Hontvets but others viewed him less congenially. He never spoke of his shrouded past, and some had the impression he was always lurking and listening from the corner of the room, pretending not to hear the conversation.

Wagner fished alone from Star, Malaga, and Cedar Islands, which are connected to Smuttynose by seawalls and breakwaters. The Hontvets would have been hard pressed to avoid so close a neighbor for, although second-largest in the Isles of Shoals, Smuttynose is only one-half mile long and not quite as wide. The three became close friends over the two years of their acquaintance — as close, it is said, as brothers and sister.

In May 1871 Maren’s happiness swelled with the arrival of her sister, Karen Christensen, from Norway. The circumstances of Karen’s arrival were somewhat grievous – she had lost a lover in Norway for whom she continually pined — but Maren was certain she could help her sister overcome her melancholy and build a new life. Several weeks after she came, Karen got a position as a live-in maid with a family on Appledore Island, largest of the Isles of Shoals.

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.

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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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