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Unseen 1870s Painting
of Hontvet Murder House
by Sarah Haven Foster

Hontvet Murder House

1999 Portsmouth Public Library
Special Collections Dept.
All rights reserved

For much of her 73 years, Sarah Haven Foster painted. Nearly 1,000 of her tiny watercolors lie in the archives of the Portsmouth Public Library, glued into scrapbooks and labeled, most likely, in her own hand.

Known primarily as the author of the "Portsmouth Guide Book" (1876), the city's first historic walking tour, Foster's work is little known today. The volume and scope of the paintings she produced, including scores of pictures of local houses, is even more obscure.

So imagine our surprise to find what may be the most lively and detailed color image of the Hontvet House, site of the infamous 1873 Smuttynose Murder. We have as yet no indication when the painting was made out at the Isles of Shoals, but it must have been composed in the short time before the house burned. Foster's handwritten notation lists it as the "Wagner Murder House." It is one of only four Isles of Shoals images in her collection.

The picture shows the familiar bare duplex on barren Smuttynose Island, but is enlivened by the addition of a clothes line to the right and a "fish flakes" drying rack, familiar on the Shoals from the 1600s and possibly before. The figure of a woman in the foreground may be accurate or symbolic, perhaps, of the murder victims Karen and Anethe, or survivor Maren Hontvet.

Assuming this image was drawn from life and not from reports or memory (which Foster did in some cases), it adds a wealth of detail to the stark photographs from the era including this one from the Davis Brothers collection. This photo from the Portsmouth Library collection also shows a single female figure in the doorway. This photo also indicates a porch on the neighboring house which does not appear in Sarah Foster's sketch.

Smuttynose Murder scholars will also want to compare this newly discovered image with the map of the island hand drawn by old "Shoaler" John W. Downs who lived in the Hontvet House as a boy directly after the murder. Is that, then, his mother in the foreground? Inquiring minds want to know.

Readers not familiar with the story of the island homicide should start with our article entitled "Anatomy of an Axe Murder."

"Learn more about aritst Sarah Foster"

By J. Dennis Robinson with research assistance by Sarah Hartwell and Maryellen Burke.

© 1999

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