Louis Wagner Beats the Press
"The man who never looks into a newspaper is more informed than he who reads them. "
The media killed Louis Wagner, sure enough. The fisherman hanged for the 1873 ax murders on the Isles of Shoals was tried and executed in the local newspapers, even before he was captured. Based only on circumstantial evidence and one "ear" witness who heard a victim call his name, Wagner was convicted by a jury that deliberated just 55 minutes. If Wagner had committed the Smuttynose murders in this day and age, he'd likely be off playing celebrity golf and selling his autographs online.
Both the Wagner and O.J. Simpson courtroom dramas were billed by the media as "The Trial of the Century." I wanted to ask O.J. whether he could see any parallels between his murder trial and Wagner's, but it cost $9.95 this week to attend the live online chat session on Simpson's web site (www.askoj.com). Both men had terrible alibis and plenty of motive. Both made a media-drenched flight for freedom and were captured. Both tried on a bloody garment that had shrunk and no longer fit. Both proclaimed their innocence, claimed they were railroaded by the media. Both said they were framed, Simpson by the Los Angeles Police Department, Wagner by Maren Hontvet.
Yes, that's where the Maren theory began - with Wagner himself. Those who don't know the story from Anita's Shreve's bestselling novel "Weight of Water" will know it this fall in the Hollywood movie of the same name. Maren's husband John, a fisherman who had employed and housed Wagner, was unable to get home to Smuttynose Island one moonlit March night in 1873. Wagner reportedly rowed to the island hoping to rob the Hontvets, but was surprised and in panic or passion, killed two of the three women living there. Maren heard her sister-in-law Anethe cry out "Louis! Louis! Louis!" before she was felled by a dark figure with an ax. Her sister Karen was beaten to death and strangled while Maren hid among the icy rocks until morning.
Although Wagner shaved his beard and disappeared on a train to Boston the day after the crime, he was named as the murderer (never a "suspect") by the press from the start. Local papers reported that lynch mobs were hoping to save the jury the trouble and interviewed members of the mob who came bearing guns hoping to shoot Wagner on sight. He was a "precious villain" to the Portsmouth paper. Island poet Celia Thaxter, one of the first to interview Maren after the murder described Wagner in her published account as "a creature accursed, a blot on the face of the day."
Although she never actually saw Wagner, Maren's testimony and the biased media nailed his coffin shut from the start. Now, ironically, it is the media that wants to pry open Wagner's grave and give him a second chance. The "Weight of Water" turns on the possibility that Wagner may have been innocent. Maybe the surviving woman went a little crazy that bloody night in March. Maybe Maren, instead, had an ax to grind. It's fiction, of course, "re-imagined history" author Shreve calls it. But the line between fact and fiction is like a line drawn in sand. What began as Wagner's desperate attempt to turn his surviving victim into a monster is on the verge of becoming the plot of a blockbuster movie.
Cut to Smuttynose island last week. It's a sizzling summer day on the Isles of Shoals. The clouds streak the blue sky like they were drawn with the side of a chalk stick. The skiff from the tour boat Uncle Oscar chugs into Haley's Cove at low tide bearing Isles historian Bob Tuttle, yours truly and the video production crew from Chronicle. The popular Boston TV show team, drawn by Shreve's story, has come to unravel the complex mystery of the Smuttynose murders. They are not the first, and will not be the last to try.
Mary Richardson, co-host of the nightly feature news show since 1984 steps ashore and climbs to the peak of the island to survey the scene. It's perfect! A dozen old buildings, including the murder house and a wharf have disappeared, leaving only the ancient Haley House and a one-room cottage build by Celia Thaxter's great-grand daughter "Rozzie." We greet the Smuttynose stewards who stay without electricity or well water to protect the privately-owned island during tourist season. We drink in the view of the neighboring isles and adjust our hearing to the incessant clamor of gulls. Even in the summer heat of this blinding day, the isolation and the harshness of the island ring through. How far from the world it must have been at midnight on March 5, 1873. I can see the movie posters now - On Smuttynose, no one can hear you scream!
"Tell us the story of the murders," Mary asks Bob. They are sitting in lawn chairs overlooking Malaga, Appledore, Cedar and Star islands. We are just a few feet from the site of the Hontvet House. It burned in 1885. According to one newspaper report, by 1874, a year before Wagner was hanged in Maine, the floors and walls of the house were honeycombed by the saws of relic hunters who cut away blood spattered bits of wood. The murder trial was a national sensation. Within days of the preliminary trial hearing, photographers advertised pictures of Louis Wagner for sale for twenty-five cents.
Bob Tuttle tells the familiar gruesome tale for the camera. We are sitting on the grass just yards from where the murders took place. When Bob is done, producer Kathy Bickimer says the sunglasses he is wearing make him look a bit sinister. Bob removes his sunglasses while cameraman Steve replaces his tape and battery pack. Bob tells the whole bloody tale again.
So many people have told the story in so many ways -- novel, ballad, ballet, poem, web site, essay, lesson plan, play, CD-rom, documentary. Once a staunch member of the Louis-did-it camp, Bob is leaning lately toward the Maren conspiracy theory. The camera rolls on. Louis Wagner's time is coming. Poor Maren's time is short.
"Do you think Louis would be convicted of this crime today?" Mary Richardson asks. Now I am in the hot seat and feeling a nasty sunburn coming on. He would not, I tell her. I use my sound-bite about Wagner playing celebrity golf. I get a flash of that horrible night -- of Karen and Anethe and bloody boot prints in the snow -- and I resolve not to be glib.
The Chronicle crew is working hard, doing their homework. Over the next week they will interview maybe two dozen local people who know the murder story well. They seem determined to get the details right. It will be a month or two before the half hour show is ready to air on Channel 5.
"Do you think Maren did it?" Mary Richardson is asking. It's the question I came all this way to answer, yet it seems to come from another dimension. It's like wondering if Nicole Brown Simpson's sister staged the California tragedy.
No, I don't think Maren Hontvet chopped and beat her two closest relatives on the only night the three men at Smuttynose were away from the island. I don't think she strangled them both and lifted their night dresses to expose their lower torsos. I don't think she stole $15 from her own family, leaving $300 still hidden and marched around the frozen yard leaving scores of bloody boot prints in the snow. I don't think she washed up by the well where a bloody bowl was found because she was covered in blood the next morning. I don't think she spent part of a March night on an open island in her bare feet and night shirt. I don't think she planted evidence in Louis Wagner's pockets or convinced him to flee Portsmouth on the day after the murder or made up a complex story of how she escaped the dark murderer in the night, then faked a good case of shock and exposure the following morning.
She could have done all that, I guess, in a fit of rage over Anethe's beauty or Karen's dependency. But one fact always hangs me up on that theory. Why, I ask myself, would Maren risk naming Louis Wagner as the killer on the morning of her rescue? She said this to Celia and Jorge Edvardt Ingebertsen, the Appledore fisherman who fetched her from the island, long before her husband John and Anethe's husband Ivan and their friend Mathew arrived back from the night in Portsmouth. If Louis Wagner had even one minute of alibi that night -- had he gone to the saloon he suggested, or baited trawls with john as he promised, or even shown up at his boarding house on Water Street as usual that night -- Maren's case would have fallen to pieces.
Cut back to Portsmouth, NH. O.J. Simpson is online on my office computer explaining why he could not possibly have murdered his wife. The L.A.P.D., he reasons, cannot be trusted, therefore they must have framed him. Mark Fuhrman is a racist. Nicole was hanging around with a bad crowd of friends. That, he says, is the real truth. O.J.'s web site flashes a quote from Thomas Jefferson to the effect that anyone who believes what he reads in a newspaper is an idiot. I wonder what Jefferson would have said about the Internet. O.J.'s companion web site offers me $100,000 for evidence leading to the arrest and conviction of the real killer of Nicole Brown Simpson.
It is all smoke and mirrors and the kind of logic that proves you stole my wallet because my wallet is missing and you have a dollar bill. After his trial Louis Wagner made a point of carrying a bible wherever he went, though he had never been seen to carry one before. The truth, Louis told the press, was that he was a very religious man.
Remember the courtroom scene in the film "A Few Good Men" where actor Tom Cruise screamed at Jack Nicholson: "I want answers! I want the truth!" Solid as stone, with his familiar fearsome glare, Nicholson shot back -- "You can't handle the truth!" - and perhaps he was right. There are too many truths and they are all hot and slippery creatures.
"The Weight of Water" I keep reminding people is mostly fiction, compelling fiction, but it's as improbable as Louis Wagner's alibi. If it leads more people to discover the fascinating facts of 1873, then the novel and film have served us well. The central fact is that two innocent women died. That is the balancing point. This is the sad sad tale of Anethe and Karen anne Christensen. If we can't handle that simple truth amid all the clever words and intricate theories, then Thomas Jefferson was right and Louis and O.J. are as pure as the driven snow.
By J. Dennis Robinson
Images: The image of askwagner.com was conceived by J. Dennis Robinson and created by Tim Dubuque from an image courtesy of Portsmouth Athenaeum. Supposed images of Maren and John Hontvet and newspaper clipping courtesy of Portsmouth Public Library. Photos by J. Dennis Robinson.
Copyright © 2000 SeacoastNH.com
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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