Isles of Shoals Murders | Horror on Smuttynose Island
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.