Tuesday, April 24, 2012


An albumen print by 19th c. photographer L.V. Newell showing the east end of Star Island with Smuttynose Island in the background.

"Smuttynose" is the strange name of an island (coordinates 44° 13' 15.29"N 68° 31' 18.08"W) with a violent claim to fame: a double-murder in 1873. The 2 Norwegian women who were killed, sisters-in-law Karen and Anethe Christensen, lived on one of the Isles of Shoals, which are part of Maine but located 6mi off the coast of New Hampshire. The crime - carried out with a hatchet - was blamed on German fisherman Louis Wagner, who was caught, imprisoned, condemned, recaptured after escaping, and hanged. Wagner had been identified by the only witness and the case was considered airtight, but he had protested so strongly that some believed him to be innocent. The story of the murders was told shortly afterward by a onetime island resident and has been revisited several times since:

Celia Thaxter
"A Memorable Murder"
"I find the women and children with frightened faces at the little cottage; as I go into the room where Maren lies, she catches my hands, crying, "Oh, I so glad to see you! I so glad I save my life!" and with her dry lips she tells me all the story as I have told it here. Poor little creature, holding me with those wild, glittering, dilated eyes, she cannot tell me rapidly enough the whole horrible tale. Upon her cheek is yet the blood-stain from the blow he struck her with a chair, and she shows me 2 more upon her shoulder, and her torn feet....What a mockery seems to me the "jocund day" as I emerge into the sun shine, and looking across the space of blue, sparkling water, see the house wherein all that horror lies!" (Read the whole thing here)

John Perrault 
"The Ballad of Louis Wagner"
"Fire racing through my brain, explosions in my eyes
Anethe lying on the floor and Karen screaming: 'Why?'
The axe, the blood, the sky, the moon, the pounding of the sea
the howling of the crazy wind, the wind or was it me?
" (Read the whole thing here)

Anita Shreve
The Weight of Water
"Sometimes I think that if it were possible to tell a story often enough to make the hurt ease up, to make the words slide away from me and down my arms like water, I would tell that story a thousand times..." (Preview and reviews here)

Mark Bastoni
"Horror on Smuttynose Island (Isle of Shoals)"
Yankee Magazine
"At the house Karen was trying to escape through a window when Wagner burst into the room. He swung the axe wildly at the feeble figure, first on the mark, then missing, splitting the sill, and breaking the handle. Karen's listless form melted into the room where Wagner twisted a handkerchief around her throat and pulled mightily until he was sure his deed was final."
(Read article here)

Emeric Spooner
Return to Smuttynose Island: And Other Maine Axe Murders
"Wagner’s evil deeds should be remembered and not lost to time, or covered up by those that wish to keep this knowledge secret." (Article in the Bangor Daily News)

The grave markers of the Christensen in South Cemetery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Thanks to Sue, who used to live in New Hampshire and has been to Smuttynose Island, for telling me about this.
Previous posts on the subject of murder:

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