caption for more info on each suspect.
Did Louis Wagner Really Do It?
Despite Maren Hontvet's eye witness testimony, clear motive and a hoard of circumstantial evidence, some armchair criminologists still believe Louis Wagner wasn't guilty. Did the state of Maine hang an innocent man in June 1875 for the brutal Smuttynose ax murder and strangling? Wagner insisted that he was blameless to the end and swayed a sizable loyal following to his side. Still, his elaborate detailed alibi was never supported. No other suspect was ever pursued and his repeated efforts to have his sentence commuted were denied. (JDR)
Alternate Suspect Theories
The night of the murder was the only time the three women had been left alone on Smuttynose Island and critics of Maren's testimony have searched a century for "holes" in her story. They point out that:
But in reality, Maren did identify Louis Wagner immediately upon her rescue. How could she, isolated on an island with no connection to the mainland, know that Wagner would have no alibi to explain his 11 hour disappearance during the time of the murder? And what about motive? Was Maren fearful of losing her status as female head of the household? No solid explanation has been offered.
John Hontvet had spent the previous day fishing aboard the Clara Bella and the previous night in Portsmouth baiting trawls, always in the company of his brother Matthew and brother-in-law Ivan whose newlywed wife Anethe was murdered. The three fishermen arrived home on Smuttynose at about 10 a.m. the morning after the murders. John was enraged by the events, but Ivan was emotionally crushed by his wife's death and soon after the trial returned to Norway. No reasonable motive for a conspiracy is known.
It has even been suggested that John baited Wagner into committing murder by revealing to him that the women were alone on the island. If he was coerced or hired to commit murder, Wagner seems to have forgotten, since he did not offer this possibility during his trial.
20th century filmmaker Louis de Rochemont blamed inept media coverage in the late 1800s for publicizing Wagner's unfounded accusations of John and Maren Hontvet. It was this "yellow journalism," he reasoned, that made such rumors appear equivalent to facts, giving false credence to the myths and legends of Smuttynose that persist today. De Rochemont's attempt to tell the "true" story on film, however, was never completed.
Just a few days before the murders, the "island poet" had brought her son Karl to Appledore. Celia normally wintered in Massachusetts with her husband Levi, but had come this winter to nurse her aging mother. Karl, described as retarded and occasionally violent, was under his mother's care all his life.
Robert Whittaker, captain of the Isles of Shoals ferry Thomas Laighton (named for Celia's father) has advanced the theory that Karl or someone other than Wagner may have been responsible. Whittaker has completed a novel, as yet unpublished, based on the details of the murder. He has traveled to Norway to research the Hontvet family and to Eukermundy, Germany to examine Wagner's birth records.
"You cannot dissect the murders separately from the era," Whittaker says. "This was a very volatile time for the Thaxters...They had had a monopoly on tourism in the area for 20 years. All that was changing."
" My whole idea changed when I read the trial transcript. I would never want to rewrite history...but when you distill the whole thing down -- there's nothing! Everything was suspect and circumstantial and poorly put together."
Among them, Tuttle says, is a passage about a reported conversation between Wagner and John Hontvet. There is mention of another schooner that passed by the Isles the night of the murder. This idea of a mysterious schooner has raised the possibility that others with access to the island and knowledge of the Hontvet money may have slipped in and out unseen.
The most conspicuous newcomers that season were construction workers on Star Island. Ironically, this was the year that entrepreneur John Poor had chosen to built a rival hotel across Gosport Harbor from the Thaxters. The giant Oceanic hotel on the tiny island was due to open in the summer and benefited greatly by the crush of tourists drawn by lurid stories of the Smuttynose murders. In her trial testimony, Maren says she came out of her hiding place the morning after the murders when she first heard the hammers of the workers on Star. She frantically tried to attract their attention, then moved to the other side of Smuttynose and flagged down some children on Appledore.
The Case Against Louis Wagner
Maren testified that Anethe shouted "Louis. Louis. Louis" when the killer confronted her in the moonlight outside the house. Maren then said she saw Wagner's face in the half-moonlight when he murdered Anethe with an ax just outside her bedroom window. When Maren noted she might not have seen his face clearly, Louis Wagner's defense attorney did not object or question her further.
This kind of detail has led many to doubt the fairness of the trial. Yet the trial was held in Maine, miles away from Portsmouth where an angry mob of thousands had waited to see "the murderer" on the day of his capture. Trainloads of curious NH visitors did attend the nine day trail. Was it possible to get an acquittal with such media scrutiny? Did Wagner's attorney sleep walk through the trial. Still, the accumulated evidence is compelling.
"I don't have the faintest idea if justice was done," says Shoals history buff Bob Tuttle, "but if it was, it was done poorly. If I'd been on the jury and seen what was presented, I probably would have voted guilty too. But did they see the facts? And was there reasonable doubt by today's standards?"
The jury took less than an hour to ended a verdict. Here a few items that weighed against Louis Wagner:
By J. Dennis Robinson
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