The anniversary of the murders is upon us. Return to Smuttynose Island and other Maine Axe Murders has been out for almost a year. The intent with that book was to rally Maine around the memory of the murders and how it involved towns across Southern Maine, as well as Thomaston, Augusta, and others.
Sunday, May 2, 1976
Quaint Isle Famed For Ax Murder
Smuttynose Island. Maine ---Tourists know this quaintly named member of the Isles of Shoals as a scenic gem. Crime fans know it as the site of one of the most gruesome murders in New England history.
The Maine-New Hampshire boundary dispute over lobster fishing rights in the waters between Portsmouth Harbor and the Isles has lingered for centuries and is about to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court. The late Aristotle Onassis tried in vain two years ago to use the Isles as an oil tank farm.
But two axe murders committed more than a century ago remain in the minds of murder buffs as the most memorable event in the island's past.
On a windy late winter/early spring night in 1873, Louis Wagner, 28, traveled to Smuttynose, about 10 miles off the coast of Portsmouth N.H., searching for $600 he had heard was being saved by residents to buy a schooner. He found only $20 and apparently because of his disappointment, murdered two of the island's six residents.
The day before the murders Matthew Hontvet, John Hontvet and Ivan Christensen left their home on Smuttynose to haul in their fishing nets. They planned to return to pick up Karen Christensen, Ivan's sister. But turbulent seas forced them to go to Portsmouth to sell their catch and buy bait.
Karen joined Anethe Christensen and Maren Hontvet in preparing a meal for the men, anticipating their return that night. But the men did not return and the woman faced their first night alone on Smuttynose.
The women went to bed "so confident of their isolated security they neither drew the shades nor tried to fasten the door." Lyman Rutledge wrote in "Moonlight Murder at Smuttnose." One of several books describing the slayings.
Named for a nose-like appendage on the island "smutted with dark seaweed," Smuttynose joined the eight other Shoals Islands in "going to sleep with no premonition of the role it was to play in the gruesome train of events now beginning," Rutledge wrote.
Wagner, who once lived on one of the other islands and knew the fishermen, saw them in Portsmouth that afternoon. He heard them discussing the $600 they had saved for a new boat. So the penniless Prussian stole a rowboat and made his way to Smuttynose, arriving around 11 p.m.
When the fishermen returned home the next morning, they found Karen and Anethe dead, beaten and bludgeoned by an ax. Maren managed to escape and hid under a boulder on the other side of the island for six hours before summoning up the courage to go for help.
Maren said she was awakened by Karen's screams in time to witness Wagner butcher Anethe. Before leaving, Wagner even had time for a midnight snack, prepared by the women he killed for the men he had come to rob.
Arrested the next night by Boston police on a description provided by Portsmouth authorities, Wagner was publicly derided and even stoned when he returned to Portsmouth the next morning.
"No one knows how many thousands of people greeted the returning murderer, but their demonstrations of anger seemed at the time to have no parallel in American history," Rutledge said.
During his trial in Alfred, Maine, the most damning piece of evidence was a white button belonging to Karen that was in Wagner's possession when he was arrested. Combined with Maren's identification, the jury took only 55 minutes and returned a verdict of guilty for first degree murder.
A series of reprieves followed, but Wagner joined another convicted murderer on the gallows at Thomaston State Prison June 25, 1875. He professed his innocence up to the moment he died, and many had come to believe him.
No positive evidence has been uncovered to support Wagner's contention. But, as the defense said at the trial, if three experienced fishermen couldn't make it back to Smuttynose that night in a schooner, how could Wagner got out and return in a rowboat?