Episode 12: USA – The Smuttynose Murders

  • 2:04:24
  • March 14, 2022
  • Explicit Content

In this episode

The Smuttynose Murders

Welcome to episode 12!

Elnaz Hajtamiri is still missing… It’s been 60 days, so please keep your eyes out for her, and your ears open for any information about her, her abduction, everything. Last week in episode 11 we covered this case and delivered all the information currently available, so make sure you listen to that episode to familiarize yourself with her story and help bring her home.

I’m axe-cited to tell you a story recommended by Steven of Spoils of Horror!


3 women were staying together in the only occupied residence on Smuttynose Island in the Isle of Shoals, 10 miles from the coast of Maine. In the winter, the population was usually 6, but with their husbands stuck on the mainland that night, the 3 women were alone. Until an intruder entered the home in the middle of the night and beat Karen. When Anethe and Maren heard the commotion, they went to investigate, saw the beaten Karen, and dragged her to the bedroom and locked the door. They knew they didn’t have long before the intruder would come for them. Anethe escaped through the first-floor bedroom window, but the intruder was waiting for her outside and killed her with an axe. Maren tried to rouse Karen, but the killer was at the bedroom door now, trying to break it down. Maren escaped out the window too and fled into the freezing night in bare feet and a nightgown. She heard one final scream from Karen, and then the island went silent.

This is the story of the Smuttynose Island Axe Murders.

Q: If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?

A: Pilgrims

Ready for some New England history?

Isle of Shoals

Smuttynose Island is located off the New England coast in the United States and is one of a small group of 9 rocky islands known as the Isle of Shoals. There’s a long stretch of rock to the southeast of the island that looks like a smudged or “smutty” nose and that’s where the island gets its name.

Appledore Island

Appledore Island is the biggest island in the Isle of Shoals. Today, it has a marine lab and research facility.

Star Island

Star Island is the second biggest and has the only commercial boat service from the mainland because the island is home to the Oceanic Hotel, the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ which make use of the Gosport House, a 200-year-old chapel and several other buildings dating back to the original village of Gosport.

Smuttynose Island

Today, Smuttynose Island isn’t really populated but there’s 2 small historical homes on the island – one is called the Samuel Haley house, once believed to be the oldest structure in Maine – a group of volunteer individuals and families, known as the Stewards of Smuttynose Island, take care and upkeep the 2 historic homes and their grounds by rotating week-long stays on the island to do maintenance, greet visitors, and conduct tours. The island is privately owned and there are no public facilities available. The stewards also maintain a rocky walking trail that leads to the uninhabited part of the island which is a bird sanctuary.

Seavey and White Islands

A 2-island cluster connected by a bridge (when the tide is low).

White Island is dominated by the Isles of Shoals Light House (automated) and the keeper’s house, which are owned by the state of New Hampshire. It hosts a coastal weather station which frequently records sustained hurricane-force winds from Nor’easter coastal storms in the winter, due to the exposed nature of the island. The lighthouse tower was restored in 2005 as the result of the efforts of a group of seventh graders in nearby North Hampton, known as the Lighthouse Kids.

Other islands

Then the remaining of the 9 islands are privately owned really small islands with private homes.

Duck Island was once used as a bombing range for the US Navy. It was sold by the Star Island Corporation to Maine Coast Heritage Trust in 2002 and was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003. Now it’s a wildlife sanctuary that’s home to a seal colony and the island has never supported a human population.


That’s just where the islands are at today, but they have a history going back over 400 years, which has been a rollercoaster ride filled with prosperity, war, and murder. Here’s a quick rundown:

Some of the islands were used as seasonal fishing camps by Indigenous peoples until the 17th century, most likely 1623, when British explorer Captain Christopher Levett and his 300 fishermen came upon them and found them to be mostly uninhabited.

The first town, “Apledoore”, was incorporated on May 22, 1661. The town grew and changed names a few times and by 1680 the town moved to Star Island. Again, it changed names a few more times and by 1715 it was known as Gosport. Gosport was prosperous until 1778 when most people were evacuated to New Hampshire because of the Revolutionary War, few people stayed, but pretty much every island was abandoned.

By the 1840s, Thomas Laighton, his wife, their 2 sons Oscar and Cedric, their daughter Celia, and Thomas’s friend Levi Thaxter moved to Appledore Island and opened a popular summer hotel. In its heyday, the Appledore Hotel could accommodate 500 guests and had up to 100 staff in service. Thomas Laighton originally pictured the island resort as a sanatorium for “invalids” due to the cool, health-giving sea air that continually flows over the Isles of Shoals, but it remained a standard tourist-esque hotel. His daughter, Celia, married Levi Thaxter and she’d go on to become the most popular American female poet of the 19th century. She hosted an arts community on the island, and she’d hang out with famous artists, musicians, and authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Today, there is a garden named after her on Appledore Island.

Finally, we arrive in 1873 when the brutal murders of two women occur on the isolated island of Smuttynose.


John Hontvet came to America from Norway and settled in Boston.

I’ve been working on a Scandinavian joke. It would be Swede if I could Finnish it, but right now there’s just Norway.

Being from a small town in Norway, he found city life in Boston too chaotic, so by 1868 he had saved up enough money and rented a two-storey duplex on Smuttynose Island in Maine from the Laighton family, Celia Thaxter’s family, who owned the big tourist hotel on the neighbouring Appledore Island. After he moved to the island, John bought a schooner, the Clara Bella, and became a fisherman.

Q: Do you know why Norway has barcodes on their military boats?

A: So they can Scandinavian.

Over the next few years, he had built up a successful trawl fishing business and was able to pay the passage for a woman named Maren Christensen to join him. Maren was a few years older than John, so it’s speculated it was most likely an arranged marriage.

John appears to have also paid passage for his brother Matthew who arrived to work on the Clara Bella with John. Maren’s sister Karen followed, she was described as “a dour and homesick woman of 35”, and she found lodging and work as a maid at the Appledore Hotel. By 1872, John’s business was doing well, and he decided to hire help. He hired 28-year-old Louis Wagner, a handsome and brawny but down-and-out German fisherman, who worked for them in exchange for free room and board at their duplex on Smuttynose Island. They treated him well, making sure he was good meals well and had good clothes to wear. Wagner lodged with the Hontvets from roughly April to November of 1872. He occupied the left side of the duplex until Maren’s brother Ivan and his wife Anethe arrived. The Hontvet family set up Wagner with another fishing job and he found cheap housing at the Johnson Boarding House on Water Street in the “gritty” south end of Portsmouth, NH. Wagner found work on a fishing boat called the Addison Gilbert, but the schooner sank, leaving him out of work and in debt.

Desperate for money, he started brainstorming ways to get some quick cash. Reportedly, he’d told people that he knew where to get some money, but “one might have to commit murder to get it”. (3 fishermen later testified that Wagner said he knew where to find money on the island). Wagner found what he believed to be the perfect opportunity.

On the afternoon of March 5, 1873, Wagner was on the docks in Portsmouth when John, Ivan, and Matthew arrived. They were at the docks for work, but the train carrying bait from Boston was late, so the 3 men were forced to wait until midnight before they’d be able to bait hundreds of hooks. Wagner stuck around and chatted with the men, asking John 3 times if Maren and Anethe would be left alone on the island. Then, knowing John was stuck working on the mainland for the night, Wagner decided this was the perfect chance to rob the Hontvet home. He knew John was saving up for a new boat and believed he had as much as $500.00 hidden away at the house. (3x Wagner’s annual income) ($11,714.50 USD today) And with that, he slipped away from the docks and stole a fishing dory. With luck, he could rob the house while the women were sleeping and be back before anyone suspected anything. Catching the powerful Piscataqua (piss-cat-ah-kwah) River tide, Wagner rowed the 10 miles in the darkness to Smuttynose Island to rob the home.


Wagner knew the island and the house well having lived there for months. He knew that the two women, Maren Hontvet and her sister-in-law Anethe, would be alone. He likely didn’t know that Maren’s sister Karen was sleeping in the kitchen because she rarely visited and typically lodged at the Appledore Hotel where she worked.

When Wagner entered the house and Karen woke up, he struck her with a chair before he could be recognized. Hearing Karen’s cries, Maren and Anethe ran to her aid and managed to drag Karen into the bedroom and lock the door. But now all 3 women were trapped. Maren tried to help Karen, who was going in and out of consciousness, but the women feared the intruder would be back any second. Anethe climbed out the window to escape, but the intruder was outside. He had gone to retrieve a nearby axe when he saw her making a run for it. Maren heard Anethe scream “Louis!” before he killed her with the axe. Maren tried again to rouse Karen, but the intruder was at the bedroom door now, using the axe to break in. She fled out the window and ran for her life barefoot in the snow in only a nightgown. As she ran into the darkness, she heard one last scream from Karen, and then the island went silent. Wagner had murdered Karen with the axe, too.

She kept running and found a small place to hide under a rock. She stayed there motionless and terrified as she listened to Wagner searching for her. Everywhere he went, he left size-11 boot prints in the snow. Having only the moonlight as he searched for Maren, he gave up and returned to the Hontvet house. He ransacked the house for money, ate a meal in their kitchen, then rowed from the island back to the mainland.

Maren hid all night under the rock. At dawn, she crossed a breakwater to the island of Malaga where she was rescued by a man named Jorges Ingebrigtsen. He took her to Appledore Island for safety and recovery. Celia Thaxter, whose family owned the hotel Karen worked at, was first to aid Maren, who was terrified and in shock.


It was 6:45 pm on March 6 by the time the coroner’s team began their journey to Smuttynose Island. A team of at least 15 men including doctors, reporters, law enforcement officers, and various observers boarded the USS Mayflower to make the hour-long trek to the Isle of Shoals.

Creepy: The Mayflower followed the route the suspected killer had taken the night before.

Aboard the USS Mayflower, reporters representing various newspapers, mostly from Boston, learned John Hontvet was the man who rented the only house occupied year-round on Smuttynose Island and it was his wife, Maren, who had survived the attack and who had named Louis Wagner as the killer. And it was John, his brother, Matthew, and his brother-in-law, Ivan, who had discovered the bodies of the slaughtered women that same morning when they finally arrived home on Smuttynose Island.

It was 8:00 pm when the captain of the Mayflower guided his ship into the rocky inlet below the Appledore Hotel. With the exception of the tugboat lamps and moonlight, it was dark. One by one, everyone disembarked the Mayflower and loaded into a tiny fleet of fishing boats. It was only half a mile, around the tip of Appledore Island and across a fast-flowing channel to Gosport Harbor and into Smuttynose Cove.

The men arrived and secured the boats against the stone pier. It was eerily silent, with no light from any of the buildings around the cove.

Using their lanterns, the coroner’s team followed John toward the duplex. The snow was flattened all around the house by those who had first visited the murder scene earlier that day.

They found bloody towels left at the island well where the killer had washed up. The well is just a small, low ring of rocks that anyone unfamiliar with the island wouldn’t have seen (in the moonlight).

An axe, the key piece of evidence, still lay in the snow by the front of the house, its handle broken, and the blade covered with frozen blood and gore. A large flat rock not far from the corner of the house was also coated with frozen blood. A long streak of blood trailed from the rock to a door marked with a bloody handprint. John ushered the first of the observers through the narrow doorway on the right side of the duplex, through a cramped entranceway, and into the kitchen, lit only by lanterns. Anethe’s half-frozen body lay face up in the center of the kitchen floor near the stove. Her lower half was unclothed but covered with a stray garment, a cloth or napkin was tied tightly around her neck and one hand was clenched.

The doctor and a couple of others on the coroner’s team placed Anethe onto a wooden plank and lifted it onto the kitchen table for a hasty medical examination. They had to clear aside the blood-stained dishes where the killer had eaten a meal of tea and cake before making his escape. Anethe’s face was savagely beaten beyond recognition, her skull crushed by a powerful blow.

A member of the coroner’s team later testified in court: “The head was, as you might say, all battered to pieces… her body was covered with wounds, and in the vicinity of the right ear, two or three cuts broke through the skull so that the brains could be seen running through them.”

As the doctors worked and the reporters scribbled in their notepads, the policemen searched the ransacked rooms by lamplight. The only unopened trunk in the house had belonged to Karen. This was the same trunk that had been in the room Wagner lodged in when he lived with the family (he likely knew nothing was in it).

In the other half of the duplex, the officers found Karen. Her body was partially naked and thrust under a bed. A scarf was wrapped so tightly around the woman’s neck that her tongue protruded, and her eyes bulged. Her feet were straightened out “as if she had been in great agony.”

It was past 2:00 am on March 7 before the coroner’s men boarded the USS Mayflower to return to Portsmouth Harbor. It was dawn before the Boston and New York reporters could telegraph the gory details to their editors. By the afternoon, readers up and down the Atlantic coast knew all about the bloody axe with the broken handle, the smashed furniture, the mangled bodies, and Maren Hontvet’s miraculous escape. They were amazed by the news that a clock, apparently smashed during the island attack, had stopped precisely at 1:07 am, capturing the approximate time of the murders.

By the next morning, the streets were thick with hundreds of shocked and angry citizens. The alleged killer had apparently been apprehended in Boston and was headed back to Portsmouth by train under police guard. Armed with bricks and snowballs, the mob gathered at the city’s eastern railroad depot and waited for Louis Wagner, the former employee of John Hontvet. As soon as the police arrived with him, the angry mob chanted, “Lynch him! Kill him! String him up!”

Back on Smuttynose Island, Anethe and Karen still occupied the silent house where the coroner’s team had left them. They would lie there another full day until the undertakers arrived from Portsmouth with their coffins. They were later buried side by side in South Cemetery.

Victorian policemen were not trained detectives. Analysis of fingerprints and bloodstains was still in the future. Lacking an eyewitness or confessions, criminal cases then, as now, were mostly solved with circumstantial evidence. Police in Boston quickly identified Louis Wagner from his description and Portsmouth police arrived in Boston on the night of the murders with photographs of the suspect and the search for the fugitive ensued.


Let’s rewind back to the night of the murders.

After searching in vain for Maren Hontvet and eating a meal of tea and cake, Wagner rowed back to the mainland on the morning of March 6, 1873. He was spotted by at least 7 witnesses after stashing his stolen boat in New Castle, NH and walking the last few miles to the south end of Portsmouth, NH.  Wind-burned, wild-eyed, cut, and seemingly distracted, Wagner spoke quickly with fellow tenants at the Johnson Boarding House where he boarded. Although disheveled and groggy from lack of sleep, Wagner decided to hop the morning train to Boston. Penniless the day before, he now had about $16.00 ($387.79), exactly the sum stolen from Smuttynose Island the night before. In Boston, he shaved, bought new clothes and boots, and was again broke when he stopped into the Brown’s Boarding House in the city’s North End. Boston police quickly spotted the fugitive and brought him to the station house. Wagner never asked why he was being taken in. After a night in jail, the prisoner was sent back to Portsmouth, NH under police escort where that lynch mob was waiting. Officers Thomas Entwistle and Frank Johnson had to protect him from the angry, armed mob.

Wagner was sent from Portsmouth, NH, to South Berwick, Maine, where he was arraigned, went to Saco, Maine, to Portland, Maine, and finally to Alfred, Maine where the trial was to take place. Hundreds of curious citizens were allowed to observe the prisoner in his cell. Wagner was housed in a brand-new modern brick jail just a short walk from the courthouse.


Yeaton and Harris M. Plaisted created a strong case against Wagner who was defended by former judge Rufus Tapley and by a Boston attorney named Max Fischacher. Wagner had to be protected AGAIN from an angry lynch mob. (He was treated pretty well by law enforcement, especially, given the time, for an impoverished immigrant fisherman accused of a double homicide).

Wagner’s trial took place in York County in the quiet, rural town of Alfred, Maine in the summer of 1873. Every available room was rented to reporters, witnesses, and spectators. Others traveled by train and trolley daily.

Prosecutors lined up a “hailstorm of evidence” in a circumstantial case featuring over 40 witnesses. Having nothing except Wagner’s alibi, defense attorneys argued, without success, that Smuttynose Island was not in the jurisdiction of York County and attempted to move the trial. Clerk of York Country Court later testified that Smuttynose Island is in the jurisdiction of Maine.

The trial lasted 9 days and was so popular that farmers ditched their jobs (their livelihood) and dozens of young ladies packed lunches in order to view the handsome prisoner in the packed courtroom. During the trial, the prosecution presented over 40 witnesses and Wagner’s defense team was unable to offer a single witness to dispute their evidence.

Key Trial Witnesses & The Case Against Wagner

Motive: He was penniless, behind on his rent, and jealous of his former employer’s success.

Although she had not seen his face, Maren Hontvet immediately named Wagner as the killer when she was rescued by Jorges Ingebrigtsen and never changed her story. She testified that she heard her sister-in-law Anethe scream Wagner’s name as he struck her with the axe. If even one person had seen Wagner in the 11 hours he was missing, her accusation would have reasonable doubt.

Wagner had lived with the family and intimately knew the house, the family, and the island.

He wore a size 11 shoe.

He knew that John, Matthew, and Ivan would have to remain in Portsmouth on the night of the murders.

John Hontvet testified that he told Wagner the women were alone on the island and that he had saved at least $500 to buy a new fishing schooner.

Although he agreed to return to help the 3 men bait trawls around midnight, he didn’t return. John searched the docks for Wagner and couldn’t find him and he was unaccounted for until the following morning – missing for roughly 11 hours. He was last seen in a Portsmouth bar at 7:30 pm on March 5, 1873, and not one witness could support his alibi or testify to his whereabouts during this 11-hour period.

A fishing dory that Wagner had used previously was reported missing from Pickering’s Wharf at 8:30 pm and reappeared abandoned a few miles away the following morning.

The thole pins (wooden oarlocks) on the dory had recently been replaced but they were now worn as if someone had rowed heavily in the boat for hours.

John testified that he personally had made the trip by rowboat from Smuttynose to the mainland and back many times. Depending on the weather, it could be dangerous, but it wasn’t an uncommon or astonishing feat.

Wagner was in good shape. He was young, powerfully built, and capable of rowing the 20-mile round-trip to the island and back to the mainland.

The killer knew not to leave his boat in the cove where it could be seen.

The killer was familiar enough with the Hontvet House to light the oil lamps, pull down the shades, make tea, and eat a meal before returning to the mainland, all with Anethe’s body beside him.

The only unopened trunk in the house was the same trunk that had been in Wagner’s room during the summer when he had lived with the family.

The bloody towels at the island well.

A figure dressed like Wagner was seen at Little Harbor in New Castle by a series of witnesses around 6:45 the following morning. He was disheveled and his pants wet and covered in ice. He seemed to be getting his bearings and then began walking toward Portsmouth. One witness even knew him by name.

At a washed-out bridge, unwilling to wait for a ferry, Wagner hurriedly crossed the expanse by throwing over a plank of wood, assisted by two men who spoke to him and later testified in court.

Ann Johnson, Wagner’s landlady, testified that Wagner uncharacteristically did not spend the night in his room on the night of the murders and arrived at the boarding house around 7 am the next morning. She testified when he finally showed up, he was agitated, wind-burned, his clothes were wet and spotted with blood, and his hands were badly scratched and blistered.

He shared a room with two other men, who testified he was not at the boarding house on the night of the murders.

Wagner told Mrs. Johnson and her daughter, Mary, that he had slept on a sofa in the boarding house after coming in through the back door drunk and sick around 3 a.m., and then later went out for a walk early that morning.

But the Johnsons testified that they had locked the back door the previous midnight and that another man had been sleeping on the downstairs sofa that Wagner claimed he used.

Mary Johnson testified that she saw Wagner carry a bundle under his arm from his room to the privy (outhouse) in the backyard.

A torn and bloody shirt was later found in the vault of the privy.

Mary Johnson identified the shirt from the privy as one she had often mended and laundered for Wagner.

Wagner spent roughly $16.00 on his train ticket and clothing; the same amount of money stolen from the Hontvet House.

Wagner made strange confessional statements to his former Boston landlady, a Boston shopkeeper, and a sex worker who testified at his trial.`

The former landlady, Mrs. Brown, testified to Wagner’s strange behavior and lies when he arrived in Boston at her boarding house.

Wagner had his beard shaved, and bought new clothes and boots, discarding his old clothing. Mr. Todtman, the Boston storekeeper, testified to Wagner’s behavior, odd comments, and purchases in his shop.

Emma Miller, the sex worker, related Wagner’s strange semi-confessional statements about killing two people and intending to kill a third.

A Portsmouth bartender testified that he sold Wagner a drink before 8 pm.

Boston policemen testified to Wagner’s actions after his capture – not questioning why he was being arrested. When searched, the police found a white button, reportedly matching one that had been in the murder victim’s purse, was found in his pocket. When asked of his whereabouts, he claimed he had been in a downtown bar but could not name it. He claimed he had baited trawls for a fishing boat that night, but could not name the boat, the captain of the boat paid him in cash, but he didn’t know the captains name, and he didn’t know the name of the dock he was working on. He claimed after working, he had fallen down sick for over an hour near a pump downtown, but officers patrolling that area that night testified no one was there.

At no time did Wagner show any emotion over the death of the two women or compassion for the Hontvet family whom he called his “best friends.” Instead, he blamed the Hontvets for the murder.


In June 1873, the jury of 12 white men from rural Maine took less than an hour to render a guilty verdict, which meant the death sentence. The same night he was found guilty, he escaped from his jail cell in Alfred, Maine with 2 accomplices. Wagner was able to pick the new high security lock with a wooden toothbrush and the three convicts climbed onto the roof and then lowered themselves into the empty warden’s quarters, down the stairs, and out the back door.

They wandered the countryside for 3 days before being captured in Farmington, NH. Wagner was transferred to the state prison in Thomaston, Maine to await his execution.

Thomaston is infamous for its early cruel conditions and treatment of prisoners. Thomaston had originally housed its prisoners in deep holes and forced them to work hard labor in a rock quarry. By the time Wagner was sent there in 1873, Thomaston was a modern facility where prisoners worked in a variety of occupations, from making shoes to carriages. Thomaston was actually an inspiration for Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.

After being captured, brought back to prison, and condemned to hang, Wagner frequently accused Maren Hontvet, the surviving victim, of being the killer. She was, after all, the only other surviving person on the island. He also blamed her husband John for being part of the murder plot with his wife. Wagner suggested Hontvet wanted to kill the women because they were costing him too much money in food and rent (ridiculous). If people didn’t buy that story, Wagner would accuse someone else.

During the time Wagner was on death row, Maine was on the verge of abolishing capital punishment, so Wagner’s attorney Rufus Tapley was working tirelessly to prevent his execution. Wagner befriended another 28-year-old axe murderer, also on death row, named John True Gordon, and the two men were described as model prisoners. Wagner carried his Bible around with him everywhere he went, he professed to be reborn, and proclaimed that, “God won’t kill an innocent man.” Hoping for a reprieve he met Maine Governor Nelson Dingley and asked him, “Do I look like a man who would commit such a crime?” The governor responded, “You look to me like a man that got himself into a corner and murdered his way out.” But that didn’t phase Wagner, who endlessly protested he was innocent.


June 25, 1875, arrived – the day of Louis Wagner and his BFF John True Gordon’s execution. JT Gordon had attempted suicide minutes before his execution in the prison yard, but it failed, and he was sent to be hanged anyway.

Some people attribute Wagner as the last man to be hanged in Maine, but he was not. Some people even add on to that theory by saying Maine abolished its death penalty because of Wagner’s innocence, which is also false.

Wagner was actually one of the last men executed before capital punishment was abolished in Maine, and the state was already on the verge of abolishment. There was 4 or 5 men executed after him.

Maine abolished the death penalty in 1876, re-established it for murder in 1883, and finally abolished it completely in 1887.

His proclamations of innocence right up to the end led to rumors that persist today, and his comments that someone else murdered the women have fueled conspiracy theories for generations.

Fictions, Lies, & Conspiracy Theories

Circumstantial Evidence

Wagner was convicted on circumstantial evidence *eye roll*

Almost all evidence is circumstantial. Circumstantial evidence is evidence that was not observed but could be inferred. Example: footprints in the snow, DNA at the crime scene

Direct evidence is evidence which a person actually observes. Example: You saw Joe Blow pull the trigger.

Someone Else on the Island

Someone else could have made their way to the island that night, but nobody had reported seeing a mysterious boat.

The only other people nearby was a group of carpenters on Star Island who were building the Oceanic Hotel across Gosport Harbor. When Maren had finally ran from her hiding place, she heard their hammers and waved at them. The distant workmen only waved back, unaware of her dilemma. No one on Star Island reported any of their crew missing.

A local ferryboat captain once suggested that Karl Thaxter, Celia’s son, might have done the deed. Karl was at the Appledore Hotel with Celia that night. Karl was known to be a difficult child because he had an intellectual disability, but there’s no evidence that he was ever violent, and he didn’t have a criminal history. Later in life, he became an accomplished photographer, taking images of the Norwegian immigrants living at the Isles of Shoals.

Ultimately, no theory of an alternate suspect can explain away the weight of evidence against Louis Wagner.

The Maren Deathbed Confession Hoax

A widely reprinted article in 1876 (one year after Wagner’s execution) newspaper reported that a woman formerly of Smuttynose Island had confessed on her death bed that she killed her sister and sister-in-law with an axe, but the story was false and believed to be a hoax perpetrated by an opponent of the death penalty in Maine.

Maren was still alive and healthy when the hoax article appeared. She lived another 11 years, passing away in 1877, when there was no deathbed confession, yet historians searched for the deathbed confession for generations just to be certain. Edmund Pearson, author of Murder at Smutty Nose (1926) searched for the origin of the story without success but labeled it as nothing more than idle gossip, but the origin of the story comes from Wagner himself, who frequently said the real murderer was Maren Hontvet.

The original story was retracted by the press the day after it appeared in 1876, but some people think the popular novel Weight of Water written by Anita Shreve helped fuel the theory that Maren was the killer in present-day because in the book she writes about a deathbed confession that drives the plot of the story.

Something else that potentially helps drive the theory that Maren was the killer is Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an axe. That case was highly publicized and may very well contribute to fueling the “Maren theory” in the present day because a lot of people believe Lizzie did commit the murders, regardless of her acquittal, so it shows a woman is capable.

Don’t accept friend requests from Lizzie Borden. You’ll get hacked… and she’ll say it was an axe-ident.

To me, none if these theories hold water, they seem relatively baseless, and I think Louis Wagner was guilty of murdering Karen and Anethe. What do you think?


After the murders, Maren and John Hontvet moved from Smuttynose to Water Street in Portsmouth, NH. John continued to be a successful fisherman on a series of schooners, surviving two wrecks. They had one child. Maren later moved back to Norway where she died, after which John remarried and eventually turned from fishing to farming.

The Hontvet House on Smuttynose burned down in the early 20th century and is marked only by a ring of foundation stones and a hand-made sign in the tall grass. (Visitors often mistake the 1770s-era Haley Cottage, home to the island stewards in season, for the murder house).

The murder weapon, the axe, is now in the collection of the Portsmouth Athenaeum (a·thuh·nee·uhm), an independent membership library, gallery, and museum in Portsmouth, NH.

[music – stunning cinema]

Sign Off

Now, I must axe you a question… Did you enjoy that old-timey case?!

Thank you everyone for tuning in to this week’s episode on the Smuttynose Murders. Make sure you rate and subscribe to the show! Follow us on Instagram @darkadaptationpodcast, on Twitter @darkadaptpod, like us on Facebook and be sure to share the show!

Thank you, Steven and Leo from Spoils of Horror for sharing our promo in your recent episode, “Never Hike Alone”. EVERYONE GO LISTEN TO SPOILS OF HORROR RIGHT NOW. My favourite… fucking love those guys…

Thank you everyone for your kind words, support, encouragement, everything. We’ll catch you on the dark side.

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