Six miles off the coast of New Hampshire, but actually belonging to the state of Maine, Smuttynose Island is one of the Isles of Shoals. Named by fishermen who thought all of the seaweed that surrounding the island looked like, upon approach, the “smutty nose” of a giant sea creature, Smuttynose Island is best known not for its name but for two gruesome murders that occurred there in 1873.
On March 6, 1873, two Norwegian women were murdered by an ax-wielding assailant. A third woman was able to escape and hid from the attacker on a part of the island now named after her. The only witness to the murders, the third woman, Maren Hontvet, was able to identify a German fisherman as the killer. Louis Wagner was tried, convicted, and hanged - but he maintained his innocence throughout the process.
Wagner was hunted down and found in Boston after fleeing the island. Ten thousand angry townspeople were waiting for him at the train station on his way to the Portsmouth Police Station. The mob followed Wagner to the station, shouting “Lynch him, kill him!” all the way. Despite this, though, there were several who believed Wagner was innocent, even after he escaped from his jail cell and had to be brought back. Although Wagner lived in Portsmouth, NH and was initially jailed there, he was tried and convicted in Maine. The ax Wagner used still exists and is kept at the Portsmouth Athenaeum.
The story was immortalized in an 1875 story in The Atlantic by Celia Thaxter, “A Memorable Murder.” A fictionalized account was also featured in the novel The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, who weaved the tale of the murders with a present day and troubled family out on a sailing trip from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to the Isles of Shoals.
Know Before You Go
Smutynose Island is privately owned. Visitors are allowed to walk the island during daylight hours when following the rules posted at the cove. There are no public restrooms, no dock, no indoor facilities, no camping, no dogs, no smoking, no removing items from the island or leaving items behind. Volunteer stewards are on island seasonally to answer questions. There is a walking trail during the summer season, but visitors should wear sturdy shoes, long pants, and be wary and respectful of protected seabirds especially during the spring and summer hatching and growth seasons.