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With An Axe An interview with
True Crime author
H. Paul Jeffers

16 Horrific Accounts
of Real-Life Axe Murders
Pinnacle Books

Imagine our surprise to discover acknowledged in the opening pages of a mass market paperback on ax murders. You know the kind. The lurid red cover with the embossed letters shows a two-fisted killer choking up on the handle of a bloody hatchet like a World Series slugger. Standing in the grocery checkout line, you can't help but thumb a copy. "The First Cut is Always the Deepest" the back cover blares, and among the shocking tales, is our own Smuttynose murderer Louis Wagner.

"With an Axe" chronologically traces 16 crimes of passion committed from 1831 up to 1998. From the brother of gun maker Samuel Colt, to Lizzie Borden (including an 80-page trial transcript) and the assassin of Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky, true crime author H. Paul Jeffers offers the gory details with a practiced delivery. We first met Jeffers via e-mail while he was researching the Isles of Shoals murder on this web site. How, we wondered, would our famous local tale compare to that of Karla Fay Tucker, who like Louis Wagner, found religion in prison. Despite her appeals for mercy, Tucker was among the many death row inmates executed during the administration of former Texas governor, now President George W. Bush.

A quick trip to proves that author Jeffers has an impressive catalog of fiction and nonfiction work under his belt. We contacted the former broadcast newsman at his home in New York City and every word of our conversation -- without a single cut --- follows for your edification -- JDR

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Author of "With an Axe"
Click to Buy the Book
What led you to an all-ax murder book? It seems a gruesome topic.

H. Paul Jeffers:
The book was suggested by my agent, Jake Elwell, who's from New Hampshire and knows all about the murders on Smutty Nose, so it was that event which was the inspiration for the book.
What made you work with the older British spelling of the word "axe" rather than the shorter modern two-letter spelling?

H. Paul Jeffers:
I debated which form to use, but I'd learned the AXE spelling in school, and chose to go with it. I also think AXE sounds more sinister and brutal than AX. I half-expected the publisher's copy editor to challenge AXE, and was pleased that it didn't happen.
From your cross-sectional study of ax murder cases, did you draw any new perspective on the Smuttynose Murder case?

H. Paul Jeffers:
Of the 16 axe murders in the book, the Smutty Nose killings are fascinating because of their savagery and aftermath: the discovery, the investigation, tracking down Wagner, and all the legal proceedings that resulted. And the continuing interest in the controversy. Before my agent told me about these murders I hadn't known much beyond what I'd read in a book on the general subject of sensational murders. Consequently, I did not appreciate the continuing local interest in the case and that it had been dealt with at some length by other writers.
Can you make comparisons among the cases?

H. Paul Jeffers:
The commonality in most of the cases is the attention they received by the national press. I attribute this entirely to the killers' choice of weapon. Had the murders on Smutty Nose, and the others in the book, been committed with a knife, gun, or even by strangulation, they would have been of little, if any, interest beyond the immediate area. Smutty Nose was also different because of the " foreigner" element, which reinforced the belief among many Americans at the time that immigrants were to be regarded with suspicion. The case also differed from other axe murders in the book in that someone survived to provide eyewitness testimony.
Do you believe Louis Wagner was the killer, or are you inclined toward a conspiracy theory?

H. Paul Jeffers:
I believe Louis did it. My opinion is based both on the circumstantial and eyewitness evidence. I am not a "conspiracies." I also believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only gunman shooting at John F. Kennedy in Dallas. That Wagner got out of town in a hurry is compelling evidence of his guilt.
Why? What about the other theories or the fictional ideas in the novel "Weight of Water" that points to Maren Hontvet as the killer?

H. Paul Jeffers:
I find no evidence to support that notion. However, if I had decided to write a novel based on the murders, I might have looked to Maren. But to pin the killings on her on the basis of the facts would have been quite a stretch. One of the virtues of "true crime" writing is that I don't have to invent plots and characters.

With An Axe
Would your murder fiction characters, say John Bogdanovic, have handled the case differently?

H. Paul Jeffers:
If the murders occurred today, forensic science, fingerprints, DNA, etc. would leave no doubt as to the perpetrator. It seems to me that the authorities handled the case as well as possible at the time and that they deserve credit for nabbing Wagner as quickly as they did. But I would hope that law enforcement characters in a novel of mine would not suffer the embarrassment of letting the suspect escape! I would also hope that in coming up with such a plot, I would be clever enough to imagine a finish to the story as dramatic as Wagner's hanging, and to create dialogue as snappy as the jailhouse exchange between Wagner and Governor Dingley.
Do you imagine the research that went into WITH AN AXE working their way into a future fictional crime story of yours?

H. Paul Jeffers:
Being an author who tries to make as much use of research material as possible, I did, in fact, include references to the Smutty Nose murders in a paperback novel. Written with the pseudonym Harry Paul Lonsdale and published in the spring of 2000 by Avon books, it's titled "Smoking Out a Killer" and involves a murder plot on a nearby island at the present time. At the end of the book one of the characters, who is a mystery writer and an expert on sensational murders, pays a visit to Smutty Nose to see the scene of the crime.
Be a profiler. Can you describe the "typical" ax murderer from your research?

H. Paul Jeffers:
The typical axe murderer acts on impulse. The axe is the weapon that happens to be there. In today's criminological terminology, the axe murderer is "disorganized," in that the deed is not planned. Some of the cases in my book were planned, as in the Lizzie Borden case and in the murder of Helen Jewett. Axe murders are rare these days because it's easier and far less messy to use a gun.

With An Axe
Can you tell us about your writing technique? You've produced dozens of books on topics from cigars to Santa Claus, biographies from Sal Mineo to Mideast spies. How does your writing day go?

H. Paul Jeffers:
When I'm working on a book, I write every day from about 9:00 AM to early afternoon and I aim for 1500-2000 words. I use a Compaq computer and Word Perfect. My interests have been "true crime" and mystery novels, but I have developed a reputation for biography. My books in that genre include two on Theodore Roosevelt ("Commissioner Roosevelt" and "Colonel Roosevelt") and a full biography of President Grover Cleveland ("An Honest President." I also published (November 2000) a biography of 1950s movie star Sal Mineo, who was murdered in 1976. Several of my books were suggested by my agent and/or editors who worked with me on various projects.
You appear to be one of the few financially successful freelance writers. Tips for struggling writers who also want to make a living? Is a good agent the critical factor?

H. Paul Jeffers:
Anyone who seeks a career writing should write every day. Writing books is a business, so a literary agent is a must in terms of knowing the marketplace, what editors are looking for what kinds of books, negotiating contracts...and collecting your money. An agent can also come up with ideas. And tell you which are bad.

With An Axe
You've written often about Roosevelt. Not only did he "rediscover" the body of our "local" hero John Paul Jones, but he won the Nobel Prize for his handling of the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905. Any insights on the man and his character?

H. Paul Jeffers:
Since publication of "Commissioner Roosevelt," I seem to have become a veritable Theodore Roosevelt industry. In addition to the two biographical works, I published "The Bully Pulpit," a Teddy Roosevelt quotation book. I am now writing a biography of his son, Ted, who was a hero of D-Day and as a Brigadier General led troops ashore on Utah Beach (the only general who went in with the first wave of troops), for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, only to die a month later of a heart attack. My Roosevelt spree will continue in 2002 with the publication of "Explorer Roosevelt," dealing with TR's post-presidency explorations in Africa and in the Brazilian jungles.
What's next for H. Paul Jeffers?

H. Paul Jeffers:
My next book to be published is a biography of Diamond Jim Brady (Autumn 2001). Thanks for your interest in my work.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.

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