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Bookmark this page! We've assembled all the key resources for "weight of Water" detectives who want all the facts (and legends) about the 1873 Smuttynose Murders.

The Movie / The Crime / The Books / The News / The Novel / Film & Video / The Trial / The Website / The Photos / The Ax / The Graves / The Island / The House / The Well / Maren's Rock / Wagner Cove / The Ballad

The Movie

The Movie website The film version of "Weight of Water" was shot in Nova Scotia in 1999 and premiered in September 2000 at the Toronoto Film Festical. It stars Elizabeth Hurlety and Sean Penn. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel, Point Break, Strange Days) the film was finally released in the USA in November 2003 in just 27 theaters. Critical reaction was not highly favorable and distributor Lion's Gate Films has so far offered it in few cinemas. A showing at the Portsmouth Music Hall in New Hampshire led, however, to the two top film grossing days in the history of the thater. A test web site was released August 30, 2000 and focused on details of the real Smuttynose Murder story. That web site, which largely linked here to SeacoastNH.com, was discontinued and replaced by one from Lion's Gate Films.  Stay tuned to this web site for future developments on the release of the video and DVD..


The Crime

murder book Near midnight on March 6, 1873 Anethe and Karen Christensen, Norwegian immigrants, were murdered on Smuttynose Island at the Isles of Shoals in Maine. Both women were strangled and one had also been hit with an ax. Survivor Maren Hontvet, the only other person on the island that night, named the killer as Louis Wagner, a German fisherman who had previously stayed at the island house when ill with rheumatism. Wagner had worked for Maren's husband John Hontvet, Anethe's husband Ivan, Wagnerhad been seen earlier that very evening in Portsmouth, NH where the Smuttynose fishermen were waiting for a load of fish bait to arrive by train. Wagner learned that the women were alone on the island and knew John was saving money there to buy a new fishing boat. He reportedly rowed to the island to rob the house. Wagner fled to Boston by train and was captured there the next day. He was tried for the double murder, convicted on circumstantial evidence, and hanged in 1875. The story was covered extensively by the press and has been reported and sensationalized in books and magazines - and now on film - ever since. Wagner, who had no alibi, maintained his innocence to the end, prompting a number of alternate, but unsubstantiated theories of the murder. Anita Shreve's bestselling novel "Weight of Water" turns on a fictionalized account of the murder that supposes Maren as an alternate killer.


The Books

murder book Besides newspaper accounts and the trial transcript (see below), four key nonfiction publications tell the story in detail. The first was poet Celia Thaxter's "Memorable Murder" published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1875. The next major treatment was a lengthy detective article by Edmund Pearson, republished in 1927 as "Murder at Smuttynose and Other Murders" and now unfortunately out of print. (It later appeared as an article in True Detective Mysteries, October 1931). Another crime story version was published in 1942 by Richard Dempewolff "Famous Old New England Murders." Shoals historian Lyman Ruttledge published a pamphlet version in 1959 called "Moonlight Murder at Smuttynose," which is still available from the Star Island Corporation that owns and operates Star Island summer conferences. An anthology of student essays from the University of Maine is reportedly awaiting publication.

An anthology of student essays from the University of Maine is reportedly awaiting publication, and in the new paperback "With an Axe" true crime writer HP Jeffers reviews 16 famous ax murders through history.


The News

news clip The murder, trial and resulting execution of Louis Wagner was a top news story from 1873-75. Often erroneous and biased, news accounts in local papers still tell the Smuttynose story best. Extensive research by Robert Whittaker, Dot Tuttle, Richard Winslow and others locally have unearthed many newspaper accounts with clippings on file in local libraries. Reproductions and transcripts of many of these newspaper and magazine reports are currently being transferred to the Internet by SeacoastNH.com.


The Novel

Weight of Water Novelist Anita Shreve of Massachusetts became interested in the story of the murders and published a short story based on them in the 1970s. Two decades later she expanded the story into the novel "The Weight of Water" which became a popular best seller. Well researched, the novel includes intertwining plots -- the murder story from 1873 and a contemporary account of a woman journalist and her family on a cruise to Smuttynose Island. After researching articles postulating that Louis Wagner was perhaps not the murderer, Shreve "reimagined" the actual history in her novel. Using an imaginary letter from Maren Hontvet, Shreve built her novel around the story of the alternate murderer. "Weight" has been turned into a Hollywood film and is one of a number of Shreve novels set in the Seacoast area of New Hampshire and Maine.


Video & Film

filming Although local producer Louis de Rochemont often spoke of filming his version of the Smuttynose Murders, a short film was not made until 1977. Filmmaker Gary Sampson recreated the murder and trial in a 10 minute color 16mm film set to the "Ballad of Louis Wagner" by Kittery musician John Perrault. In the fall of 2000, Boston's nightly newsmagaine Chronicle will release a 30-minute report on the murder. A documentary to be used as a teaching tool is currently in production at the University of New Hampshire funded by a NH Humanities Council grant. A Hollywood production of the novel of Anita Shreve's novel " The Weight of Water" was filmed in Canada two years ago and is slated for release this fall or winter.


The Websites

Smuttynose website You've found that already. www.SeacoastNH.com/smuttynose offers the largest collection of online data about the "crime of the century" including secondary sources, illustrations, essays, maps, commentary and photographs. You can also reach our site via this memorable address: www.weight-of-water.com. And stay tuned for more coverage of the film and facts as they become available. You can also find a nice site with lots of details from the University of Maine.


The Art

smuttynose poster People seem compelled to tell the tragic murder story in artists ways. Besides a bestselling novel, the story has been artistically adapted into any number of media. Jeff Symes of Exeter, NH recently staged a theatrical version that includes the ghost of Blackbear's 14th wife and "the butcher" Phillip Babb. John Perrault's popular ballad version has just been re-released on CD. UNH professor Larry Robertson adapted the story into a ballet with composer Christopher Kies.


The Photos

Hontvet house Don't get excited. Very little photo documentation of the events exist. Two supposed pictures of Louis Wagner have been circulated for over a century without authentication. There are a number of early photographs of the house on Smuttynose Island. Photos of what may be Maren and John Hontvet have been widely used, but there are no known images of the murder victims Karen and Anethe.


The Trial

Louis Wagner Because Smuttynose Island is in Maine, Louis Wagner was transferred to prison in York Country where the trial was held. A partial transcript of the June 1873 trial exists. It runs about 150 pages and is filled with missing pieces and inconsistencies, thus fueling the theory that Wagner was not given a fair trail. The jury, however, deliberated less than an hour and convicted Wagner on circumstantial evidence. He was hanged in 1875, among the last men to die of a capital crime in the state of Maine. A paper copy of the transcript can be found in the York Country records in Maine, at the Portsmouth Public Library among other sites.
Maren's Actual Testimony


The Ax

Louis Wagner Historians believe the original murder weapon used in evidence in the 1873 trial still exists and was donated recently to the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Market Square in Portsmouth, NH. This is the same private library where novelist Anita Shreve's fictional heroine finds an imaginary letter from Maren in the novel "Weight of Water." The ax is not currently on display or accessible to the public. The ax was given to the Athenaeum by "Midge" Flanders of Dover. She discovered it years ago in the antique shop of Reginald Frost from York, Maine. He had purchased it from the estate of NH Judge James Edgerly, who reportedly had a collection of murder weapons. Donor Midge Flanders has first heard the murder story from her grandmother who as a child, she says, had met Louis Wagner.


The Graves

Louis Wagner Karen and Anethe Christensen were buried in Portsmouth, NH, not on the island as some visitors presume. Their bodies lay in state in open coffins at St. John's Church before they were laid to rest in Harmony Grove in South Cemetery. Visitors who want to do a little research may find the tombstones there today. Louis Wagner was executed in 1875 and is buried in Maine. Maren Hontvet and Anethe's husband Ivan returned to Norway. Maren's husband John remained in Portsmouth and remarried. He and his daughter are also buried in Portsmouth, NH.


The Island

map Smuttynose Island is one of the nine Isles of Shoals, five of them in Maine. The New Hampshire and Maine border runs between Smuttynose and nearby Star Island. The island is privately owned , protected in season by a series of stewards who reside at the Haley House. Visitors may tour the island from dawn to dusk in season. There is no way to reach the island via ferry and commercial tours are not allowed. Visitors must reach the island cove by small private boats, or Star Island conferees may be allowed to take rowboats during summer conference days. Overnight camping and fires and unleased dogs are not permitted and there are no public restrooms or fresh water available.


The Hontvet House

map The murder house, sometimes called the "Red House" for its paint color, burned in 1885 and is not standing on the island. (See 1870s photos above in The Photos) Visitors today may see the foundation of the house among the high grass and weeds. The Hontvet House, named for occupants John and Maren Hontvet (who survived the attack) was located close to the Samuel Haley house that stands today at the top of the rise above Haley's Cove. The house was a duplex occupied at the tome of the murder by six Norweigan immigrant fishing families.


The Well

Maren's well Straight back behind the Haley House, past the outhouse and "Buoy Woods" is a stone-circle well. It is currently not used, but once brought fresh water to the island. The ax used in the murder had reportedly been used to crack the ice in this well to get water in the winter. According to John Hontvet, the murderer washed up at this well after the crime and a bloody bowl of water was seen there the following day. Turn of the century pictures show a well with a wooden pump top.


Maren's Rock

Maren's rock Maren Hontvet survived the attack that killed Karen and Anethe, she said, by hiding under a large rock at the end of the island. To avoid Louis Wagner, she reported, she stayed outdoors all night on March 6, 1873 in the carved out area there with her dog Ringe. Legend has it that Maren's Rock is the large trapezoidal one at the southeasterly tip of Smuttynose Island -- but this is total speculation. It can take 20-30 minutes to hike the quarter mile across the island from the murder site even on a good day in the daylight. Maren was wearing her nightclothes and was barefooted when discovered by an Appledore fisherman early the next morning, back at the end of the island where the murder took place.


Wagner's Cove

Wagner's Cove Historians speculate that Louis Wagner did not row into Haley's Cove for fear of being seen on the moonlit night of March 5, 1873. Maren reported that she looked there for a boat in which to escape and did not find one. Instead, he may have landed at a rocky cove just beyond the rocky breakwater that connects Smuttynose and Cedar islands. The breakwater was built later at the turn of the 20th century. The site is marked today by painted wooden plaque surrounded in summer by thick piles of poison ivy.


The Ballad

John Perrault After meeting Rosamund Thaxter, Celia's grand-daughter in the 1970s, John Perrault became interested in the life of Louis Wagner. Besides being a popular Seacoast folksinger, Perrault is also a criminal lawyer. His ballad was used as the soundtrack for an early short film of the murder story and remains an evocative song today.

Copyright 2000-2003 SeacoastNH.com
Click on photos to see photo credits. Photos by J. Dennis Robinson. Other images courtesy Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth Public Library and SeacoastNH.com Image Library.

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