Celia Laighton Thaxter (1835-1894) was in her lifetime one of the most famous women poets in the United States. She grew up on an archipelago owned by her family which straddled the border between New Hampshire and Maine, and she took as her inspiration the stark beauty of the sea and rocky isles. Many of New England’s famous literati were drawn to the world she painted in words and summered at her family’s Appledore Hotel. Celia Thaxter also studied birds and gardening; in addition to her poetry, she painted and wrote a book celebrating her landscape design, An Island Garden, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1894. (Her garden on Appledore Island, characterized by poppies that drift from white to pink to coral to rose, still exists and is available for tours.) Her poetry also celebrated the residents of the islands, including the Norwegians who worked at the Appledore Hotel and rented homes on nearby islands from her family.
But in 1873, the poetess's world of beauty was stained with blood. On Smuttynose Island, two Norwegian women she knew were found murdered in their home while their men-folk were away. A third woman who escaped the abbatoir told the horrifying tale of a thief who broke into the house and, when discovered and recognized, responded with an axe.
Celia Thaxter was among the first people to visit the island and to speak to Maren (Marie) Hontvet, the lone survivor of the attack. Days later, she wrote a letter to a friend describing the people involved and what happened on Smuttynose:
Those dear, lovely Norwegian people had a settlement over there; there was John Hontvet and his wife Marie, and Karen Christiansen, Marie's sister, and Ivan Christiansen her brother, and Anethe his wife; the two had been married but a year and only came from Norway last fall. Anethe, everybody says, was a regular fair beauty, young and strong, with splendid thick yellow hair, so long she could sit on it. Both husbands, John and Ivan, were devotedly fond of their wives, and their little home was so bright and happy and neat and delightful they never ceased congratulating themselves upon having found such a place to live in.
She went on to describe the man arrested for the killings the next day:
Louis Wagner, the Prussian devil who murdered them, had lived with them all summer, but was in Portsmouth working at nothing in particular for the last month (those three women had been heavenly good to him, nursed him in sickness, and supposed him to be a friend). The two husbands went to Portsmouth Tuesday to sell their fish, leaving the three women, as they often had done before, alone, as we on this island have often been. In Portsmouth, they found Louis and asked him to come baiting trawls with them. He pretendcd assent, but knowing the three women had been left alone and thinking Karen, who had just left mother's service, had money with her, he took a dory and rowed twelve miles out here in the calm night lit by a young moon, landed on Smutty a little after midnight, broke into the house in the dark and hacked and hewed those poor women till he killed two of them by sheer force of blows, chopping off Anethe's ear and smashing her skull. She had twenty wounds where he had blundered at her haphazard, in the dark! Marie told me all about it.
Celia Thaxter went on in her letter to relay the details of the murders, the horror that all three women experienced at the hands of a slow and clumsy killer, and hints at the shock and sadness that would burden her for years.
The case would also cause a great deal of agitation throughout New England; Louis Wagner was eventually tried and convicted and hanged in Maine. But his would be the last execution in that state before the death penalty was banned there, and naysayers cast doubt upon his guilt despite the overwhelming evidence against him -- including, but not limited to, the testimony of the lone survivor of the attack, Wagner's lack of a credible alibi, his obliquely incriminating statements, and clear evidence that the unemployed layabout had come into a small sum of money that he spent the day after the murders that happened to exactly coincide with the sum stolen from the murder house.
In 1875, Thaxter wrote of the murders for the second and final time. Her essay, "A Memorable Murder," was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly. It has been reprinted many times and in many forums since then. Curiously, it has often been mistaken for a work of fiction and described as such when anthologized. The essay is the most famous ever written about the Smuttynose murders, and even Edmund Lester Pearson could not top it (though he tried, in Murder at Smutty Nose and Other Murders (Sun Dial Press, 1938)); indeed, Thaxter's is one of the most powerful essays ever written in the true crime genre.
Since then, the Smuttynose murders have actually been translated into fiction. Author Anita Shreve wrote an account of the case in her bestseller "The Weight of Water." Alas, she changed the identity of the killer in the novel with unfortunate and immoderate results. Louis Wagner was innocent in Shreve's version of the story, and the murderer, per Shreve, was the lone survivor of the attack -- Maren Hontvet. It was an unfortunate result because the truth should have been sufficient for dramatic purposes and immoderate because it is impossible to improve upon Celia Thaxter's moving account.