J. Dennis Robinson is a local author and revered historian with a number of books to his name. Mystery on the Isles of Shoals is narrative nonfiction that carefully reconstructs a notorious crime in 19th century New England using all of the evidence, the hearsay and conspiracy theories (and their origins) – a crime that is still hotly debated today. The byline of the book is Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873, and there can be no doubt to this accomplishment upon reading. Skyhorse Publishing | November, 2014 | Hardcover | 448 pp
The Smuttynose murders have fascinated the area for over a century and continue to spawn debate and theories well into the new millennium. At the time of the murders, it was the most sensational story to hit New England and the entire country. The gossip that ensued began an avalanche of misinformation, even among the educated, and people were easily swayed by half-truths and complete fabrications. This happened in part through the simultaneous birth of tabloid journalism and sensationalism which was a direct byproduct of the heinous crime itself.
“It is easy to question Wagner’s guilt if you do not know the facts, and until now, those facts have been hard to come by.”
In 1873, the Hontvets, a Norwegian family, were settling in for the night in their home on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals archipelago off the coast of Portsmouth, NH. It is a small island, and they were the only occupants. Three women were in the home: Maren Hontvet, her sister Karen, and her sister-in-law Anethe – the men were stuck in Portsmouth for the night having missed a boat back. A man rowed in silently and in an attempt to rob the homestead, ended up killing two of the women in brutal fashion with an ax. The third woman ran out into the frigid night, hid under a rock, and flagged down help in the morning. Maren Hontvet named the killer: a local Prussian immigrant by the name of Louis Wagner.
The murders of these beloved women set off an explosion of events in Portsmouth and across the country. Mobs of men formed; they wanted to lynch Wagner without a trial. When he was caught by local authorities, these mobs persisted until he was in jail. It was the story of the century and people wanted to know everything they could about Louis Wagner. And even with all of the vitriol directed at Wagner, and because of his self-professed innocence until the very day he walked up to the hangman’s noose, other theories emerged.
A multitude of essays, articles, and books have been penned about the murders. The most well-known book being The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve (a work of historical fiction) which promotes Wagner’s innocence and suggests that Maren was the killer. The book was so popular that a major motion picture was made and now much of that readership actually believes that Wagner is innocent and that Maren was a jealous murderer who perpetrated the crime – a disastrous consequence, and a very sad legacy for one of our innocent own. When you read through the insurmountable evidence Robinson lays at your feet, you realize how wrong this is. Another crime has been committed against poor Maren.
“Even in death, even today, her reputation continues to erode against an endless repeating tide of popular fiction and false rumors. As we run screaming from dangerous men like Louis Wagner, we must, in all conscience, rush to the rescue of the historical Maren Hontvet. At the very least, we owe her battered soul a reprieve.”
I’d read The Weight of Water and enjoyed it. But it wasn’t until I read Mystery on the Isles of Shoals when I realized the injustice committed against Maren by being falsely accused in pop culture. Even if it was fiction, the story has repercussions by altering the views of the ignorant. And it was a great dishonor to Maren Hontvet’s family.
Mystery on the Isles of Shoals puts everything into perspective – everything. Written in the style of The Devil in the White City, Robinson presents all of the facts in the case and goes much further to express the way of thinking and the milieu of the time period and locale. We read about how this infamous crime gave rise to tabloid journalism which, in turn, began to sway popular opinion. We are given the facts of the case and about Wagner, the blow-by-blow of the ensuing trial, and the multitude of witnesses who testified against Wagner. The proof of his guilt is absolutely incontestable – from timeline, to motive, to capture – incontestable. Yet – people are still swayed by misinformation, something they saw on television, and/or their degree from Google University.
“The visitor learned the truth, I’m told, from a novel or saw it in a movie or read about it online. Sometimes I argue back. Sometimes I bite my lip until I can taste the blood.”
The murder of the two women and Wagner’s demise mirrors another sort of death in the community which Robinson uses in juxtaposition and to illustrate the intense camaraderie between family fishermen in the area. Gosport was a booming town of fishermen in the Isles but when the families began to suffer from overfishing, a wealthy group began to buy up all of the titles in Gosport. All of the land was bought except for two holdouts, and a giant hotel was erected – the Oceanic. The fishing village of Gosport was destroyed and the displaced fishermen soon regretted selling out. The Hontvets on nearby Smuttynose Island were not affected, and remained well known throughout the community. When the men and women of Portsmouth, many formerly of Gosport, found out about the murders, it was as if their own family members had been slain.
The history lessons in this book are astounding and simply captivating. I have learned more about my home town through reading Mystery on the Isles of Shoals than I have ever learned from any other source. But this isn’t a book just for locals or history buffs. This is a crime that affected a fledgling nation of immigrants and should be read (and enjoyed!) by all.