The Moonlight Murders on the Isles of Shoals

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The Moonlight Murders, Page 1

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Caption #1: Houses on Smutty Nose, one of the Isles of Shoals as they were at the time of the murders in 1875. It was in the third house from the left that this awful crime was committed shortly after midnight.

Caption #2: Map showing Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and position to the mainland of the Isles of Shoals, scene of one of New England’s most historic and most horrible tragedies.

At half-past seven a fisherman, James Burks, rowed his dory up to the wharf at the foot of Pickering Street. He made fast the boat, and clumped off through the March evening, into the town of Portsmouth.

He was hardly out of sight before another man slipped out of the shadow in which he had been hiding; seated himself in Burks’s boat, and silently rowed down the river and away into the darkness.

He had been waiting for this chance for weeks.

“If I could get a boat and go to the Shoals,” he had said, “I could get money enough.”

His name was Louis Wagner. He had been hard-up nearly all winter, ever since the fishing schooner Addison Gilbert was wrecked. Even before that, while he was drawing pay as a fisherman on the Gilbert, he thought he ought to have more money. It was a pity that he should have to wear torn shoes, and sometimes need tobacco, when he knew where there were hundreds of dollars stored away in a trunk.

True, this money belonged to some Norwegian fisherpeople, but, ach, what were they? How would they ever spend it? He, Louis Wagner, wanted it for better clothes, for an occasional drink, and for the girls who liked him so well, the girls in the places politely called boarding-houses, along the water-front.

“Look at these shoes of mine!” he told one of his mates on the schooner, a young fellow named Ingerbredsen. “Look at these shoes! This won’t do any longer. I am bound to have money in three months, if I have to do murder for it.”

That was in December. About the same time, while the schooner was at Rollins’ Wharf, he spoke to Jim Lee, another shipmate, and said there was money enough at the Shoals, if he could only get a boat. To John Hontvet, who lived on the Shoals, and with whom he had fished, and to Charles Johnson he said that his money was gone, his clothes were wearing out, and that he was going to have money if he had to commit murder.

They stared at him, but said nothing much. They knew Louis Wagner; sometimes shy and silent, sometimes loose-mouthed and fond of telling what a wicked devil he had been. The girls were very fond of him, while men, he said, had to fear him. Always, one idea was uppermost in his mind: he, Louis Wagner, must not suffer, nor want for money.

When the Gilbert was wrecked, it meant the loss of their jobs to Ingerbredsen, Lee, and others as well as Wagner. He did not waste time thinking of that. It did not matter. If he, Louis Wagner, were poor, then the world was upside down, and somebody had better get out of the way. There was no justice on earth, if he didn’t have good clothes and money in his pocket.

He felt very, very sorry for himself; so sorry he could cry — and sometimes did. Like most people who pity themselves overmuch, he had no pity left for others. He was twenty-eight, a powerful man with well-developed muscles. For six or seven years, ever since he had been in America, he had lived along-shore, hauling trawls on a fishing-boat, or pulling the oars of a dory, as he was doing now. There were no little motors to make the work easy, and to send the boat chugging along of itself, for this was the year 1873.


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Caption #1: Louis Wagner, the central figure in the tragedy that took the lives of two of his friends amid scenes of crimson.

Caption #2: The point of black rocks on the tragic island which gives to this one of the Isles of Shoals group the name of Smutty Nose.

Wagner’s slow, stupid face could light up with a good-natured smile, when he was pleased, or when the girls were kittenish with him. He could even look dreamy and almost romantic, when he was being sorry for himself. And he could also look sulky, especially when he remembered how people were wronging him — by keeping their money locked up.

In February, he had met a man named Lars Nelson, and touched him for a loan. He had no tobacco, and no money — so he said — to buy any. What kind of a country was this? Nelson, who was a fisherman, and not exactly rolling in riches, felt sorry for Wagner, with his whining and blubbering, and gave him thirty-five cents.

Now, it was the first week in March. He had earned a little, here and there, by odd jobs along the river-front of Portsmouth. Not enough for his needs though. The three months he had set as a limit were up. He knew where there were at least six hundred dollars. Wealth. Why, if he could hold of that, he might even pay his landlady the fifteen dollars he owed her for three weeks’ board. Although it was unreasonable of her to expect it, since he was so popular at his boarding-house at 25 Water Street. It pleased Mary Johnson and her sister so much, when he gave them a kiss — that for him to be expected to pay board as well, was too much.

This afternoon, at 4 o’clock, had come his opportunity. Loading along the wharves, brooding over that money in the trunk, out at the Shoals, he saw the Clara Bella, a little fishing schooner belonging to John Hontvet. And Hontvet owned more than that — his were the six hundred dollars in the trunk. Aboard the Clara Bella were Hontvet’s partners: his brother Matthew, and Ivan Christensen, his brother-in-law.

Here was something to be inquired into. The three men lived at the Isles of Shoals, on the one called Smutty Nose. With John’s wife and her sister, and the wife of Ivan, the family of six formed the entire population of the island this winter. There were five other houses there, but they were all empty.

Wagner knew all these people well. He knew their houses and the island; only last year he had lived with the Hontvets for seven months. He had been crippled with rheumatism, and the women had taken care of him. Their ways and habits were familiar to him. He had heard Hontvet — his former employer — talk about the profits of his fishing schooner, and his distrust of banks. But he also knew that it was not usual for all the men to be away at night. He walked down the wharf.

“Hullo!” he said. “How are you? You all right? You going back to the Shoals tonight?”

“No,” said John Hontvet. “We don’t go back tonight. We got bait coming down from Boston, on the train at eleven tonight. You want a yob? Come to Yosson’s and help us bait trawls, when our bait comes in.”

“What?” returned Wagner. “You not going back to de Shoals tonight?”

“I told you, no,” said the skipper. “You want come round and help bait trawls, yes?”

“Goot; I be dere, I think,” said Wagner, slowly.

Then he talked to one of the other men a few minutes, and Hontvet heard him ask, for the third time.

“You going back to de Shoals tonight?”

And again he was told that all three men were going to stay in Portsmouth all night.

Wagner spent the rest of the afternoon in a few preparations.


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Caption #1: Picture of the murderer taken on his recapture at Farmington, N.H., after his escape from jail at Alfred, Maine.

Caption #2: Well on the island of Smutty Nose, where the murderer washed the crimson stains from his hands and face after the brutal crime.

All he needed was to make sure of a boat. It was nearly high water now, at half past four, and by six — no, six was too early, it was still light then. By 7 o’clock the tide would be flowing out strong, and would take him down the river to Fort Point in less than an hour, and with no work at all. From Fort Point to the Shoals was seven or eight miles; most every fisherman in that vicinity had ofter rowed out there. It could be done, in clear weather, like this, and with favoring wind and tide, in two hours. A little unusual, perhaps, to row out at night, but nothing to terrify a fisherman used to being on the water before dawn and after nightfall. This did not promise to be a dark night, and the course was plain. Once he was off the mouth of the river, the light of the Shoals, on White Island, marked a clear course.

He had his supper early, and put some food in his pocket. A 7 o’clock he went up to a barroom on Congress Street, and had a drink. It was dark now; the sun had set about six. Shortly after seven he started out on his prowl along the wharves, until, half an hour later, he was rewarded by the sight of Burke rowing up to the foot of Pickering Street. In a few minutes Wagner was off in the stolen boat.

This expedition to sea is still discussed by old people who recall that long-ago March night. Everything about it has a peculiar horror. The cool deliberation with which it was planned; the ruthless bestiality of it; the solitary man in the boat; the dar miles of sea.

There was a glimmer over the land, for the ground was covered with a light snow. The stars were clear and sharp and by 9 o’clock the moon, in its first quarter, was well up in the sky.

At the river’s mouth he passed between the two lights, one on Fort Point, and the lighthouse on Whale’s Back Ledge. He could not see the shadowy forms of the eight rocky islands ahead of him, but the light on White Island was as familiar as his own hand.

On only four of the Isles of Shoals were any people living that night, but on Appledore, the largest island, lived Celia Thaxter, poet, and also historian of this region. She knew most of the people concerned in these events, and later was to write the most somber and impressive account of an actual murder yet composed by any American author. Except for De Quincey’s description of the murders committed by John Williams, I know of nothgin with which to compare it.

Mrs. Thaxter was careful with details, and all later investigators (including myself) who have questioned the accuracy of any of her statements, have learned that she knew her facts. As for the effect of her narrative, her friend Laurence Hutton once wrote:

“I have seen her auditors literally moved to hysterics as she related the story of the ‘Murder at Smutty Nose’ — which I consider one of the strongest pieces of prose in the English language.”

She pictures Wagner moving across the dark water, and passing, “first the tower at Fort Point, then the taller one at Whale’s Back, steadfastly holding aloft their warning fires. There was no signal from the warning bell as he rowed by, though a danger more subtle, more deadly than fog, or hurricane, or pelting storm was passing beneath it.”

“Unchallenged by anything in earth or heaven, he kept on his way and gained the great outer ocean . . . Slowly he makes his way; it seems to take an eternity of time. And now he is midway between the islands and the coast. That little toy of a boat is with its one occupant in the midst of the awful, black, heaving sea! The vast dim ocean whispers with a thousand waves; against the boat’s side the ripples lightly tap, and pass and are lost; the air is so full of fine, mysterious voices of winds and waters. Has he no fear, alone there on the midnight sea with such a purpose in his heart? The moonlight sends a long golden track across the waves; it touches his dark face and figure, it glitters on his dripping oars . . . .”

“Steadily the oars click in the rowlocks; stroke after stroke fo the broad blades draws him away from the lessening line of land, over the wavering floor of the ocean, nearer the lonely rocks. Slowly the coast lights fade, and now the roar of the sea among the lonely ledges of the Shoals salutes his ear . . . . Between the islands he passes; they are full of chilly gleams and glooms. There is no scene more weird than those snow-covered rocks in winter, more shudderful and strange; the moonlight touching them with mystic glamour, the black water breaking about them, and the vast shadowy spaces of the sea stretching to the horizon on every side, full of vague sounds, of half lights and shadows, of fear, and of mystery. The island he seeks lies before him, lone and still; there


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Caption #1: Looking from Smutty Nose across the water to the Isle of Appledore: Maren, one of the women, hid from the murderer in one of these rocky inlets, and when daylight came, called and signalled across this stretch of water.

Caption #2: House on Smutty Nose in which the murders took place. The lower window at the end is the one through which Anethe, one of the victims, climbed in her attempt to escape.

is no gleam in any window, there is no help near, nothing upon which the women can call for succor.”

Thus did Mrs. Thaxter describe Wagner’s passage to the islands. It is tempting to quote from her poetical narrative, but I had better return, for most of my account, to more matter-of-fact records.

He could easily have been off Appledore at half-past ten. He rowed around to the south of that island, and probably examined the little cove, in front of the houses on the island of Smutty Nose. It is a tiny pool of clear salt water; I have looked into it two or three times in the last few years. It is shown, in one of the pictures illustrating this article, with a ruined stone breakwater on one side, and two or three boats drawn up on shore. The kind of place around which children love to play, for the bottom is covered with curious pebbles, shells, seaweed, small fish, little crabs, and other amusing creatures. To the left appears a bit of open water, between Smutty Nose and Cedar Island.

Wagner must have made sure that by no possible chance had the Clara Bella returned ahead of him, that no other boat was there, that might contain men. His valor as a fighter, his terror-inspiring qualities, of which he had bragged, and was still to brag, did not extend to men. The islands were silent and dark. No lights, except the beacon on White Island, nearly a mile away. Even the settlement on Star, where there now lived a colony of carpenters engaged in building a hotel, had gone to bed. Quiet everywhere. In the cove, bits of ice, at the water’s edge, fell now and then with a thin tinkling sound, as the ripples touched them. And half a mile distant, on the easterly point of the island, the seaward side, the low, continuous murmur of the surf.

He knew too much to land in the cove, and leave his boat for possible discovery while he was at his work. Instead, he rowed around to the south side of the island. The sea wall of rocks on this side was, in 1873, in ruins, just as it has been damaged again, in this present year, by a storm. There was water enough for a light boat, and Louis Wagner knew a good place to hide the dory. Perhaps as early as 11 o’clock he was on Smutty Nose, stepping softly on its great heaps of rocks. He had on rubber boots, which gave him a firm foothold, and made it easy to move with stealth.

The three fishermen, when they sailed from the island, early that morning, had not intended to leave their women folk alone all night. But a head wind, and the late arrival of their bait into Portsmouth, made it impossible for them to get back. These things played into the hands of the man who was now tip-toeing around the dark house and trying to peer in at the windows.

The women, who were thus deserted by Heaven and Earth, were, Maren, the wife of John Hontvet; Karen Christiansen, her sister; and Anethe, the youthful bride of Ivan Christiansen. They were from a little Norwegian seaport, called Larvik. Maren and her husband had been in America five years; Anethe and Ivan only about a year.

Everyone spoke in the highest terms of these people; as honest, kindly folk, utterly averse


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to violence, or even rudeness of any kind. This reputation has never, in the slightest degree, been belied. Their courtesy, said Mrs. Thaxter, “put our ruder Yankee manners to shame.” She knew them all; Karen had lived in the Thaxter household for two years as a domestic servant. Scrupulously neat, gentle and faithful, she was different from the slatterns who, at that time, often officiated in New England kitchens as “hired help.”

Maren was a little woman; her age, I think, was somewhere in the thirties. She was gentle and courteous, with an intelligent face, and pleasing gray eyes. Her sister, Karen, was older; about thirty-eight. She was inclined to be melancholy; was said to have outlived an unfortunate love affair; and certainly had great difficulties with English, which she understood imperfectly.

Young Anethe, the bride, was “fair and merry, with thick, bright, sunny hair, which was so long it reached, when unbraided, nearly to her knees; blue-eyed, with brilliant teeth and clear, fresh complexion; beautiful, and beloved beyond expression by her young husband, Ivan.”

Of all these women, the fate of Maren was the most cruel. While she lived, she suffered the terror of being hunted as if she were a wild beast. Since her death, she has been slandered by ignorant and trivial gossip.

Late in the afternoon the trivial gossip from young Ingerbredsen of Appledore, who had spoken the Clara Bella on the fishing grounds, that the men would be delayed, but expected to return late that night. It was only when Hontvet reached Portsmouth, and found that the bait would not be in until eleven, that he knew they must stay there for the night.

Their failure to return in the afternoon, before they ran over to the mainland, disappointed Karen of an expected trip. She was going to Portsmouth for some shopping. Among other errands, Maren had asked her to buy some buttons of an unusual kind, and had given her one as a sample. Karen put the button in her pocket.

The three women, with Maren’s little dog, Rings, sat around the fire in the evening. They talked together, and went to bed at 10 o’clock. Maren and Anethe shared a room together, while a bed was made up for Karen in the kitchen, so that she need not be alone, upstairs. They did not lower the window shades nor lock the door.

The island was again silent, and not even the beat of the oars was heard as Wagner approached. It is reasonable to suppose that he came peering and spying around the house before midnight, but not until one in the morning, when the moon was declining in the west, did he make his presence known.

Two hours later the moon was quite down, and the night was darker as Louis Wagner hurried over the rocks to his boat. He was panting with exertion and fatigue — and perhaps also with excitement. He climbed into the dory, and began his long pull across the open water to the mainland. Behind him, now burned the morning star, the red planet Mars. On his hands, on his clothes, were stains of crimson. He looked over his shoulder at the island; toward the scene of horror he had left there; and I hope he was sick with terror.

From fright, no doubt, he did suffer, for he had left a witness behind him. From remorse, we can be sure, he had never a moment’s uneasiness. He was the type that pitied himself greatly, and pitied no one else. Besides, as Victor Hugo said of another murderer, his ferocity was explained by his stupidity; he was a beast, and like a beast, ferocious.

He had need to hurry now; he must not be found near the islands, not with the boat in his possession. So he laid his course, not for the river and for Portsmouth, but for a nearer point: the south side of Great Island, as it is called on the map. It is usually called Newcastle.

As he rowed across those miles of water, the oars wore the new hole pins of the boat a quarter of an inch deep, and raised blood blisters on both his hands. The east turned gray before he reached the shore; the blood-red star behind him faded into the rest of the sunrise. Like Cain hiding from the accusing Voice; like Macbeth as his dead friend rose in his own place at the table; like John Wilkes Booth riding through the night and trying to persuade himself that he is a patriot, Louis Wagner landed at Newcastle in the blinding glare of a winter’s morning. He climbed ashore and his figure was black against those snowy fields. For all the hours of the night he had been a dark figure moving in the dark; now, suddenly, he was conspicuous — a black form on the dazzling snow, like a bloated spider crawling over an Easter lily.

For ten or twelve hours, ever since he had taken that drink in the Congress Street saloon last night, he had been seen by no man. Although he said, and swore, that he had been in Portsmouth all night; although he said he went among men and talked with men, no man could ever be found who saw him where he said he was. But now he was seen and recognized by many.

Charles Campbell, a watchman at the Navy Yard, together with his wife, saw Wagner at Newcastle, toiling back toward Portsmouth. He was conspicuous as a stranger in a place, which at this hour, shortly after 6 am, was unfrequented. Israel Fletcher, another watchman, also saw him, and both he and Campbell observed the unusual tracks which his rubber boots made in the snow. Wagner wore boots with peculiar shanks, the tap running back to the heel. Joshua Frasell, going from his house in Newcastle to Portsmouth, knew Wagner, and saw him at the bridge. Frasell was waiting for the ferry, as part of the bridge had been carried away, but Wagner, in his furious hurry, crossed by means of a plank. Two other men corroborated this testimony, while another man and a woman, both of whom knew Wagner by sight, saw him further along the road to Portsmouth.

With singular stupidity, he was going back to his boarding-house. Instead of using the few hours’ start he had, and taking an early train out of Portsmouth, he was making the first of many blunders. It must be remembered that although he could be sly, and at times seem almost clever, he was really stupid, dull, brutal. The horror of his act was strong upon him; he wanted to go among friendly people and familiar sights. With one side of his child’s mind he wanted this, with another he knew the necessity of escape. And there was also the strange desire to boast of his deed. This showed itself later in the day. And now, had he fallen


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into the hands of an ordinarily clever police officer, a confession would have resulted in an hour or two.

He suddenly appeared at Johnson’s, at half past seven. He looked fatigued and disordered; his clothes were covered with ice, where the water had frozen on them. Mary Johnson saw the scratches and and scars on his knuckles, and wondered at his appearance. He burst out weeping, and said:

“I have got myself into trouble.”

To her parents he added:

“I feel as if I were going to be taken!”

One of the men in the house stared at him, and said:

“Well, you look like the devil! Have you been out tramping all night?”

Wagner went upstairs and changed some of his clothes. Mary Johnson met him coming downstairs, and on his way out to the backyard. He held something concealed under his jumper. Later, the shirt he had been wearing the day before was found in a vault in the yard. It was covered with human blood.

Finally, he started on his flight again. He went downstairs; bought some food, and about 9 o’clock took a train for Boston. It was too late.

At seven that morning, the Ingerbredsen children were playing outside their home on the south side of Appledore. This looks across a channel, narrow but deep, to the island of Smutty Nose. There are some rocks, once known as Malaga, and counted as a separate island, but for many years connected with Smutty Nose by a breakwater. One these rocks, to their surprise, the children saw a woman, clad in white, waving her hands, gesticulating and calling. They went indoors and called old Mr. Ingerbredsen, who realized that these were signals of distress.

The old man got his boat, and rowed across the narrow channel. He was amazed to find Maren Hontvet, clothed only in her nightdress, talking and shouting incoherently. Her hair was streaming, her eyes glittering. She was wounded on the face and shoulder; her feet were torn from the rocks, and her nightgown was stained crimson. Her neighbor took her to Appledore, where she was given care and put to bed. Her feet were so badly frozen that it was thought for a time that they would have to be amputated. She could say little at first, except that Louis Wagner had been there, and that both the other women were dead.

Men were called, and arming themselves with guns, went across to Smutty Nose. They expected to find the murderer on the island. They looked into the house and came out — literally sick.

During the day a careful investigation was made; the house and the island were examined. No especially gifted detective was needed. These men and the officers who arrived later could read the story. It was written in the snow and the tracks of these peculiar boots — and it was also written in human blood. The marks of the beast were plain.

Maren told them the story of the night. In no material point did she ever deviate from this story, even when cross-examined. Every circumstance, every last minute detail testified to its absolute truth; nothing, in all these years, has been discovered which would be considered by any intelligent person as having the slightest value to do other than corroborate her account. Arguing from what is known of the physical strength of Maren and of Louis Wagner; arguing from every circumstance of the case, she was proven beyond doubt to be truthful, and he was shown to be a desperate perjurer, struggling hard, but clumsily, to save his neck.

This was what Maren saw and heard.

At about 1 o’clock she was awakened by the dog barking. Almost at the same instant, she heard Karen, from her bed in the kitchen, cry out:

“John, is that you?”

Karen had been aroused by hearing a man moving about her room. She was startled out of her sleep, but supposed that the fishermen had returned and that this was her brother-in-law, just entering the house. Maren called from the next room:

“What’s the matter?”

She heard her sister, still deceived in the dark, reply:

“John scared me.”

At this moment, the intruder picked up a chair, rushed at Karen, and began to deal heavy blows at her as she lay in bed. He wounded her with one of these blows, and also knocked down and stopped a clock, which had stood on a shelf over her head. It was found, stopped at seven minutes past one. The desperate, furious blows continued, and now Karen called out in terror:

“John is killing me!”

Maren rushed to the door between the two rooms, but found that it had been closed, and barred with a stick of wood. Karen got out of bed and staggered across the room, but fell under the rain of blows. Her fall, or one of the blows, dislodged the bar, and the door came open. Maren tried to drag her sister into the bedroom. She saw a tall man outlined against a window. He rushed at them, and struck again, awkwardly, with the chair. He never uttered a word; his voice would have given him away — to his friends.

He drew back for a minute, and the women managed to get into the other room and close the door. Anethe was shivering with fright, but Maren told her to climb out the window and shout for help to the people on Star Island. The terrified girl did get out by the window, but there she stood, helpless, in her nightdress, her feet bare in the snow. Told again to scream for help, she could only murmur:

“I cannot make a sound.”

Nor could she run. Maren screamed as loudly as she could, out of the window, but there was no one to hear. The stranger heard his victims escaping by the window, and as he could not get at them through the door, went out of the house, and confronted Anethe in the moonlight. Maren saw him through the window. Both recognized him at the same moment, and Anethe shrieked,

“Louis! Louis!”

He heaved up the axe and clove her skull. She fell in the snow at his feet. Twice again he struck the dying girl. Maren, who saw this, and knew that their turn was next, tried to rouse Karen, who had sunk to the floor, overcome by her injuries and by fear. She urged her to get up and run with her. But the older woman could not move. She was helpless.

Maren wound a skirt around her shoulders, and climbed out a rear window. The dog followed her. She intended to run and hide in a cellar under the henhouse, but it struck her that if she stayed so near the house, Wagner would hunt her out, and the dog would betray her by barking. So she went to the cove to look for a boat. Not finding any, she decided to go to another part of the island, and hide in a cleft of rocks near the water.

She slipped, stumbled and fell as she tried to run over the icy rocks. The dog got in her way and she fell again. As she paused for breath, she looked back at the house. There was a light. Wagner had lighted a lamp to aid him in finding the rest of the people he was determined to slaughter.

Karen had at last got on her feet, cautiously opened the door, and gone into another room, whence she tried to escape through the window. Wagner caught her, and began his work with the axe. Maren, looking back from the rocks, heard her sister screaming. The murderer, finding her caught and helpless, went outside again, where he could swing his weapon with better effect.

One of his blows struck on the window sill and sunk deep into the wood. I have talked with an old man who, on that same day, saw that gashed and battered window frame and noted the enormous physical strength which must have been behind the blow. It would have been idle to tell him that the blow was struck by anyone other than an exceptionally strong man.

Karen was slow in dying, so Wagner took a scarf, wound it about her throat, and strangled her. He must run the slightest risk of leaving a living witness behind him. Then he went to Anethe, where she lay in the moonlight; tied something around her neck to choke out any life which might remain; seized her by the feet, and dragged her into the kitchen.

Then, in feverish haste, he set out on his hunt for Maren; for the one victim who had escaped him; for the witness who might send him to the gallows. No one who could harm Louis Wagner must be left alive. And in this hunt the men who came the next day could trace him because he had walked over and around the two dead women.

They found his tracks the next day, crimson tracks in the snow. He went to all the buildings round about the house, peering into the empty sheds and hen-houses, hunting in the cellars, searching the shadows on the dark, moonless sides of the houses for the frail, little woman, cowering somewhere, almost naked among the icy rocks, freezing in the snow, trembling in her terror, with the screams of her sister ringing in her ears. The hellish cruelty of those moments surpasses anything which happened that night.

It was the first of the huntings, in which Maren Hontvet was the quarry.

She had eluded him, and in rage and fear he came back to the house. He must now find the money for which he had planned so long, worked so hard, and damned himself here and hereafter. He ransacked the house. He broke open trunks and boxes, pulled out drawers, upset furniture. He must have all the [????] of all this blood. Only one trunk did he fail to open: that belonging to Karen, in the room which he had once occupied. He knew, from former investigations, that this contained nothing of value. There was, as a matter of fact, only one large sum in the house. A trunk in John Hontvet’s room contained $135 hidden between two sheets at the bottom. He broke this open, fumbled among the sheets, leaving the stains of his bloody hands, but failed to find the money.

He discovered two or three pocketbooks. One contained some foreign and Canadian coins, which he left behind.


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From the others he took three five-dollar bills, and, in addition, rifled from Karen’s purse, a silver half-dollar, two smaller silver pieces, some copper cents, and mixed with this change, that peculiar white agate button.

His hunt for money was a failure. He had slaughtered two women — his kindly friends — for a total sum of about sixteen dollars. But he must eat and refresh himself before he started on his toilsome journey to the mainland. He made tea in the kitchen; the handle of the teapot bore the marks of his crimson-stained fingers. He ate the food which he brought with him; fragments were found the next day. And as he sat there to eat and drink, there lay on floor beside him the body of the gentle girl who had been his friend; his nurse, when he was ill and disabled.

Then he took a basin and towels, went to the well, and washed some of the stains from his hands and face. There was no curb or cover on the well at that time, but next morning the basin, with the clouded water, was found at the edge of the well.

After that, he went to his boat, probably passing near the place in the rocks where Maren was hidden. She stayed there until nearly seven, until broad daylight, before she dared to move.

The Clara Bella returned to the shoals at 10 o’clock. The men on board were signaled from Appledore and warned that something serious had happened. When they brought the schooner in, and landed, it appears that John and Ivan were allowed to enter the house. Nothing had been touched; the bodies had been left as they were, awaiting th coroner. The two men went in and looked at that appalling sight for an instant. Then they staggered out and fell fainting in the snow.

At about the time that Ivan was looking at his dead wife, at about 11 o’clock in the morning, Wagner’s train reached Boston. He made one feeble effort to find a ship, but lacked the resolution to persist. He went to a barber’s, had his three weeks’ beard shaved and his hair cut. Then he bought a new suit of clothes and a hat — paying for them with some of the stolen five-dollar bills. He had never been known to have bills of that size before. His next visit was at the shoe shop of an old acquaintance, Jacob Todtman, at 39 Fleet Street. He bought a pair of shoes, and changed his clothes. Todtman sat down at his cobbler’s bench to finish his work on a boot. Wagner watched him. When the boot was finished, and thrown on the floor, Wagner spoke. He pointed at the floor, and said:

“I have seen a woman lie as still as that boot!”

Todtman merely grunted that that was nonsense. “When my wife is asleep, she lies as still as that boot,” said he.

Wagner checked himself and said no more. His childishness was overcoming him; he must boast of what he had done. Well, he would go where it was safer to brag. So he went to a sailors’ boarding house, kept by a man and woman named Brown, at 295 North Street. Here there was a barroom, and girls. Seated in the bar, and making himself comfortable, he was startled to be called by his own name:

“Good afternoon, Louis!”

So his change in appearance had not disguised him after all! He answered in a huff:

“I guess you are mistaken.”

But the girl, whose name was Emma Miller, advanced into the room, saying:

“Louis may not be your name, but it’s the one you had before. You used to be Louis Ludwig…. But you look awful bad. What’s the matter with you?”

Here was one he could impress. So he answered:

“I have just murdered two sailors, coming from New York. The mate put me ashore in a boat; I ran away and came to Boston. I had my whiskers shaved off in New York, so that the officers would not know me. There is another girl I want to murder, and then I am ready to go.”

It is easy enough to see the workings of his simple, brutal mind in this story. It had some of the truth in it, and satisfied his fondness for big talk; it had about as much invention as he could contrive until he had more time to think. Besides, he was tired; he wanted to doze by the fire, and this he did for the rest of the afternoon. Mrs. Brown, when she came in, spoke about his strange looks. To her, he said he had had some misfortune; had been “cast away,” and had a hard time of it.

Early in the afternoon the Clara Bella had carried the news of the murders to Portsmouth. Wagner’s haunts in Boston were known to his acquaintances, and the Portsmouth police were soon talking to Boston by telegraph. At nightfall, police were at Brown’s and Wagner was told that he was wanted. He expressed no surprise, and gave no trouble. His story was not made up.

Next morning, on his way to the station, he was followed by a hooting mob; crowds gathered at railway stations on the route, and thousands of people greeted him at Portsmouth. The details of the crime were known, and Portsmouth showed a desire for immediate vengeance. They shouted, “Kill him!” “Hang him!” and so on, but were kept back by the police, with revolvers and by a company of marines from the Navy Yard.

A few days later it was found that he must be tried in Maine; Smutty Nose is one of the Isles of Shoals which is in Maine, not New Hampshire. As the prisoner was being transferred at midnight, he was followed to the train by a furious mob, including three hundred fishermen who had arrived in Portsmouth full of enthusiasm for a lynching. At a later date Wagner made much of the fact that he had almost been hit by a stone, and that one citizen had struck him with his fist. The officers actually were hit by stones, but they protected their man, and got him safely to the Saco jail.

Wagner was beginning to build up the legend of “poor Louis Wagner”; to make his characteristic of self-pity serve his need; to adopt a gentle whine; and to draw about himself what was aptly called “the detestable garment of sanctimoniousness.” This impressed very few people at the time.

He was confronted in jail by John and Maren Hontvet. She was made to see him, for purposes of identification, and turned away in horror. Wagner glanced up at them, as he sat in his cell, and then looked meekly down.

The mask of piety worn henceforth by Wagner was something entirely new for him, but, of course, a thread-bare device of the trapped criminal.

It is hard, today, to find out exactly what Wagner told the police when he was first arrested; how he accounted for his time on the night of the murders; and how he tried to escape from the overwhelming mass of evidence as to his guilt. It is known that, on his arrival to Johnson’s in Portsmouth, he made admissions which were almost confessions of guilt. Three or four persons, who had no


The Moonlight Murders, Page 8

motive to falsify, testified to this. And that, in Boston, on the sworn testimony of other witnesses, he boasted of a crime he had just committed. When arrested, he showed no great surprise; plainly, he expected it.

After he had three or four months to think it over, after he knew exactly the evidence against him, after his courage had returned and he had conferred with counsel, he managed to concoct what he put forward as an alibi. It was as full of holes as a colander, and was utterly rejected by all who heard it. The story was as follows:

He had not been at the Shoals since December fifteen months before the murders; he had no ill-will toward the folk there; they were his only friends. As for the events of the 5th to 6th of March, he explained his questions to the crew of the Clara Bella, about going back to the Shoals, on the grounds that he was trying to get passage for a woman named “Johannsch.” He said that what he really asked Hontvet was if he didn’t need a bigger vessel. Hontvet said he did; but having a house full of women, he had to use all his money “for grub.”

This was the beginning of Wagner’s contention that Hontvet and Maren, one or both of them, planned the massacre in order to save money which was being spent for food!

On the night of March 5th, according to Wagner’s story, he went, soon after supper, to Pier Wharf, near Carwell & Randall’s store. A man came to ask his help in putting some boxes of fish in a cart. In doing this, he bruised his knuckles — the wounds observed by Mary Johnson. Then he went up to Congress Street and had a glass of ale — the only event of the night to which he could produce a witness. Again he went down to a wharf. A man came to him and asked him to bait trawls. He was paid in advance for the work, which occupied him until ten o’clock. Then he went again to Congress Street, where he had two glasses of ale. On his way home he was sick; so very sick that he had to stop at the corner of Court Street for half an hour.

Attempting to walk, he slipped on the ice and fell. Here he lay helpless and insensible until three in the morning. It was beside a little pump, on the sidewalk, that this stalwart man absolutely passed out, and lay dead to the world for nearly five hours, as the result of drinking two glasses of ale! When he revived, at 3 a.m., he went home, entered a lower room at Johnson’s and fell asleep on a sofa. This was in the room next to the one in which Hontvet and his crew were working on their trawls. At 5 a.m., he arose and walked down to the wharves again — to shake off the terrible effects of the two drinks. This walk and his return to the house at 7 o’clock, represented his version of the return from Newcastle.

He also gave an account of his expedition to Boston, without explaining why he, who was so hard up, should suddenly have taken the trip. He disputed all the Boston witnesses. They were all of them, Todtman, the shoemaker, Emma Miller, and Mrs. Brown, liars and perjurers — that is, if you believed Wagner. So were all the Portsmouth witnesses. He was the only truthful person at Court — or so he and his lawyers had to ask the jury to believe.

Cross-examined as to this story he was asked:

Who was this “Johannsch” whose passage he wanted to secure on the Clara Bella? What was her other name? Where did she come from and where had she gone?

He did not know.

Who was the man who asked his help in loading fish on the cart.

He did not know.

Who was the man who asked him to bait trawls?

Again, he did not know.

Wagner, a stranger, was paid by this man, in advance for the work?

Yes.

On what wharf was this?

He did not know.

The name of the schooner?

He did not know.

In whose saloon did he have the two drinks at 10 o’clock?

This he did not know.

As for the pump on the sidewalk where he lay insensible for five hours in the bright moonlight, the Government produced three policemen who constantly passed by that pump. They testified that nobody was there at that time. They would have noticed and roused a drunken man.

Why did he not go upstairs to bed at Johnson’s, as he usually did, instead of dropping on the couch downstairs?

He could give no answer.

Four witnesses, Hontvet, Ivan Christensen, and two men named Lowd and Kenniston, swore to the falsity of the statement about the couch. Lowd, himself, was sleeping there most of the time, and Kenniston confirmed the fact.

The women of the house testified that the door by which Wagner said he entered at 3 a.m. was locked all night.

Silver coins were scarce and noticeable in 1873. Karen had had a half dollar, a silver five-cent piece (they used to have them), a number of coppers and that white agate button in her purse. Three such silver pieces, thirteen coppers, and the identical agate button were found in Wagner’s pockets when he was arrested. David Burke testified about missing his dory; and Charles Place described picking up the same dory adrift on the Newcastle shore, not far from the present site of the Hotel Wentworth.

Maren Hontvet told, on oath, her story of the events of that night on the island, and everyone who saw and heard her, everyone who knew her, knew that she told the truth. As long as she lived and so long as they lived, no doubt of it was ever raised. The fact that she admitted that Karen, at first, mistook the intruder for John, showed Maren to be truthful. If she had been guilty, either as principal or as accessory, she would not have invented that incident.

Some people, who were unfamiliar with the region, the times, and the fishermen of that region, have left doubts as to the possibility of Wagner rowing so far in one night. If there is any strength in this objection, then the place to look for it is in the case for the defense. Did Wagner’s lawyers even raise the point, and thus try to put a doubt in the minds of the jury? Not a word of it appears in the record. The State showed, by several witnesses, speaking from experience, that the feat was not incredible, and nothing more was heard about it.

Wagner’s lawyers spent a great amount of time arguing two technical points: that Smutty Nose was not in the jurisdiction of Maine, and that Anethe’s name was misspelled in the indictment. This does not indicate that they had a very high opinion of their case as touching (??) the innocence of their client.

As to Wagner’s contention that the murders had been done by the Hontvets, this remained entirely in the realm of cheap gossip. Neither he nor his lawyers had the effrontery to suggest it in Court. No one living at the time would have paid any attention to a charge at once so silly and so cruel. Hontvet’s presence all night in Portsmouth was clearly established by three members of the Johnson family, and by the three fishermen with whom he was working.

Wagner’s final accusation, that frail Maren Hontvet had carried out this ghastly slaughter of her own sister and sister-in-law, for no reason whatsoever, remained for many years a matter of backstairs tattle. It did not get into print, even in a sensational newspaper. It was an old wives’ tale, and coupled with that mouldy fake: the story of a “death-bed confession.” Wherever it is repeated or revived it is born of only one thing: ignorance. The people who give it credence are those who despise authentic records and legal evidence, and put their faith in something they heard somebody tell, somewhere, some time or other.

To seek to clear Louis Wagner at the expense of Maren Hontvet is to engage in a second hunting of that wretched woman; it is only a little less despicable than the pursuit which took place over the rocks of the island on that winter night.

Wagner’s trial was at Alfred, Maine, in June 1873. Attorney General Plaisted prosecuted; while the prisoner was defended by Judge Raifus Tapley, an able lawyer, assisted by an attorney of the prisoner’s own nationality, Max Fischauer, of Boston. The hearing lasted nine days and Wagner himself testified at great length.

The jury found him guilty in less than an hour. The higher courts maintained the verdict. No person competent to judge, who has dealt with fact rather than rumor, has ever doubted the justice of the verdict. The Law’s delays protracted Wagner’s career for two years after the trial. During this time he gave the people of Maine some excitement by escaping from jail and wandering about the country for a week, before he was recaptured at Farmington, New Hampshire.

In June 1875, together with another brutal murderer — one Gordon, who had slain three persons with an axe — Wagner was brought to the gallows in the State Prison at Thomaston. Wagner had by this time perfected his manner of speech, and rehearsed his utterances so long as to impress a few of those who saw him in his last days. It was only his demeanor that impressed them, however; they did not doubt the facts which had been brought out in Court. From time immemorial, the most brutal murderers have often had the strange ability to appear sweet, gentle, and forgiving in their dying moments.

Out of 430 murderers, observed by a prison doctor, only three disclosed the slightest remorse for their crime. So we need not feel that Wagner’s protestations of innocence have any power remove the weight of proof against him.

On the island of Smutty Nose, now, all the houses are gone but one. It is, in summer, a beautiful and desolate spot.

“But in the weirdness of the winter midnight,” wrote Celia Thaxter, “something is added, a vision of two dim, reproachful shades who watch while an agonized ghost prowls eternally about the dilapidated houses at the beach’s edge, close by the black, whispering water, seeking for the woman who has escaped him — escaped to bring upon him the death he deserves, whom he never, never can find, though his distracted spirit may search till man shall vanish off the face of the earth, and time shall be no more.”

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