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Smuttynose Fever Spreads

If Louis Wagner did it 125 years
ago, why all the fuss today?

Louis Wagner Whenever someone asks, and they often do, I tell them straight out, "I think Louis Wagner did it!"

The interviewer recoils. This is not what she wants to hear. The woman who came all the way from Orono, Maine a couple of weeks back moved uncomfortably in the green stuffed chair in my office. The fidgeting told me she was still in the early stages of Smuttynose Fever.

"What do you think about the Maren theory?" she asked, pulling a tiny tape recorder from a giant canvas bag and testing the batteries.

"I don't think there is a Maren theory," I said, or something like that. I'm much more comfortable on the taping end of those machines than on the talking end. A year ago, I was asking the questions in order to create a Smuttynose Murder web site. The reaction was frighteningly swift. Thousands and thousands of Internet readers devoured the info. Now the tables, and the microphones, have turned.

"What about the 'Weight of Water?'" the University of Maine grad student asks. She has already taped an interview with Anita Shreve, the Massachusetts author of the New York Times bestseller on the Smuttynose murders, now out in paperback. She has interviewed John Perrault who wrote "The Ballad of Louis Wagner." She has interviewed Gary Samson who made the short film of John's ballad. I suggest she talk to Bob Tuttle, an Isles historian and Jeff Symes of Exeter, who recently released a play on the infamous 1873 axe murderer. There's also Bob Whittaker, captain of the Thomas Laighton ferry. I probably know less than any of these artists and researchers, and my opinions are the dullest. But the victim of Smuttynose Fever must ingest great quantities of data about the murder or suffer the maddening doubts of an itching brain. This Maine student's interview will go in a book of essays about the murder, I'm told. This fever spreads through books, and ballads, films and web sites. I am a victim and a carrier.

"Anita's book is fiction," I explain, stating the obvious. "It's imaginary. Louis did it. Nobody really thinks Maren killed her own sister and sister in law with an axe in the middle of the night."

For those who have been living in a media-proof booth for the last 125 years, the story is a classic of gothic horror. Three women are alone on a rocky spit of an island near Star and Appledore, 10 miles from the mainland. Two of the women, Maren and Anethe, are married to a pair of fisherman, John and Ivan, who spend one single March night in Portsmouth. A third woman, Karen, Maren's sister, is visiting and sleeping in the kitchen of the tiny house rented from the Thaxter family who own the big hotel on nearby Appledore. When the men return the next day, Karen and Athethe have been slaughtered and Maren, who has spent the winter night outdoors in her night clothes, is in shock.

Maren identifies the killer as a poor fisherman Louis Wagner who recently lived on the island. Louis is pursued to Boston and immediately captured and returned to a hanging mob in the streets of Portsmouth. Louis protests his innocence to the end and is hung in 1875. But the story simply refuses to die.

"Why do you think the story refuses to die?" It's a week later and a couple of media students from Emerson College are twisting lights in my face and stuffing a microphone cord up my shirt. The punishment is just. As a video producer, I've done this to hundreds of "talking heads." These guys are even more modern. They are rounding up the usual suspects for a Smuttynose Murder CD-rom.

"The story is perfect," I tell them, and it is. Louis de Rochemont desperately wanted to make a movie of it. Oliver Stone is planning one based on Anita's novel. Okay, I've even got a script in progress, and so does filmmaker Bill Rogers. There's a mysterious island, a rowboat, bloody footsteps in the snow, innocent victims, an axe, a surviving victim who identifies the killer, a trial, a denial, an escape and recapture, a hanging. Since all the victims were Norweigan and the killer was Prussian, there is a tinge of 19th century racism. There is implied sex. (Did Karen love Louis and Louis adore Anethe?)

You avoid Smuttynose Fever by accepting the facts as they stand. Louis was broke, lazy, jealous that he had been forced out of his comfy free bedroom on Smuttynose when Anethe and Ivan arrived from Norway. He knew John had money for a new boat hidden in the trunk. He knew the women were alone that night. He knew where to find the axe used to chop ice off the well. Louis did not know Karen was asleep in the kitchen. He hadn't counted on the barking dog. The money was not where he imagined. He was tired, hungry, destitute, filled with rage and fear of discovery.

That's all you need to know. Don't ask how a man could row ten miles on a dark winter night (Louis was a dory fisherman.) Don't wonder if another ship passed by that night, or whether Celia Thaxter's son Karl had a hand in it all. Forget that there was a hotel war going on between the new Oceanic on Star, the Thaxter hotel on Appledore and the new Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle. Stop wondering if John conspired with Louis to murder his wife. Forget that Louis denied his guilt to the end. These are blank and dangerous alleys you do not want to tread.

Last fall I spent four days on Star Island with a gang of creative types, writers and photographers. Almost every one in the group had the fever, which is understandable considering the contagion there. At lunch one afternoon, Gary Samson, Bob Tuttle, John Perrault and Anita Shreve were all settled in at the same table. We tried to talk about the weather, but it was impossible. Ghosts of the murderer and murdered sat among us, mouths gaping, bloody fingers pointing. Perhaps they were trying to tell us something, to impart a missing secret. Perhaps they just wanted someone to pass the salt.

Later we all rowed over to Smuttynose Island from Star. We pulled ashore in the same cove where the killer stowed his dory. We crept up to the site where the murder house stood until 19th century tourists ravished it for souvenirs and it burned itself to the ground. We searched among the guano-stained rocks for Maren's cave where she reportedly survived the night.

I've read all the accounts, from the 1875 Atlantic Monthly essay by Celia Thaxter who was first on the scene, to Edmund Pearson's 1926 true detective version. I carried the definitive thin Lyman Ruttledge booklet like a bible. The books, the song, the novel, the play all flashed through my mind as I waited, there in Mecca, for the truth to be confirmed.

I stood, with the others, in a fever-warm white glare and let the stone silence of the Isles fall over me. The chill of another bleak Smuttynose winter was approaching and I tried to think of anything except the murder of those two women. I concentrated myself right into a headache. A gull let lose a stabbing shriek.

If you ask no more questions, you will be safe. Click off this web site and forget the whole damn thing. Louis did it. Sure the evidence was circumstantial, but the motive was clear. His alibi in the trial transcript was a complex fib. He was seen walking into town the morning after the murder, haggard and furtive. He had not been home that night. They found the boat with the worn oarlocks nearby. He suddenly had a few dollars. He ran to Boston. When arrested, Louis Wagner never even asked why.

Learn from Louis. I implore you. Don't even ask why this story is so arresting. Go on about your business.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
J. Dennis Robinson

For much more information, see our detailed

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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