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Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case on the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873 Hardcover – November 18, 2014
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"Most New Englanders think they know all about the brutal Smuttynose Island ax murders. I know I did. But once I began Robinson's new book, I truly couldn't put it down. The massive amount of new details he has uncovered are not only wonderfully horrific but are skillfully woven into a fascinating look at that time in our history. This is a superb piece of work." Judson D. Hale, Sr., editor-in-chief, Yankee Magazine
"J. Dennis Robinson opens one of history's most compelling cold cases and solves it with aplomb. This a gripping page-turner that will keep you up nightsso vibrant you can smell the brine and the blood and see the island shores. Lizzie Borden's got nothing on Louis Wagner." Andrew Vietze, bestselling author of Boon Island
"J. Dennis Robinson unravels history and mystery into one of the most entertaining and informative books I've read in years." Ernest Hebert, award-winning author of the Darby Chronicles
"Robinson’s book is thoroughly captivating. Why, Robinson asks, can we not let stories about murder end? This question cuts to the heart of genre. His meticulous study of the Smuttynose murders is an exceptional entry in the canon of American true crime literature." Elizabeth Hewitt, associate professor of American literature and popular culture at The Ohio State University
"Robinson places the Smuttynose murders in a wide historical context, encompassing a time when small fishing villages gave way to summer resort hotels and when a national press reported and fed rampant rumors. In this telling, the author considers how fact informed rumor and gossip informed fact as the accused, local residents, the authorities, and the press created multiple narratives of this infamous crime." Elizabeth De Wolfe, Professor of History, University of New England, and author of The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories
"Robinson's book has the scope and sweep of a great novelexcept that every word is true." Rodman Philbrick, award-winning author
"Many authors have written about the infamous Smuttynose murders, but none has delved as deep as J. Dennis Robinson. The reader is transported to the rough side of Portsmouth in 1873 and learns how police work and justice were carried out. An impressive work!" Peter E. Randall, award-winning publisher and author
"Case closed! J. Dennis Robinson’s meticulously detailed account solves the famous Smuttynose Murders once and for all. It is entertaining, fascinating, and horrifying, all at the same time." Emerson W. Baker, History Professor at Salem State University and author of The Devil of Great Island and A Storm of Witchcraft
"Enjoyed every page! This book is a reader’s delight, combining the thrills of a murder mystery with the intrigue of a courtroom dramaall of it played out against a colorful backdrop of nineteenth-century New England fishing communities and island resort hotels." Carolyn Gage, Maine playwright
"For decades there have been many questions about the murderous events that took place on the historic Isles of Shoals back in 1873taking the lives of two innocent womenbut J. Dennis Robinson expertly and skillfully peels away the legends and myths to get to what really happened. Highly recommended." Brendan DuBois, award-winning mystery author of Fatal Harbor
"Spoiler Alert! 'This book is not a whodunit. We know who did it.' So says author J. Dennis Robinson, whose reexamination of the Smuttynose murders is a form of the finest forensic journalism. Much like Truman Capote, Vincent Bugliosi and Joe McGinniss, he elevates the true crime genre to the realm of literature." John Clayton, author of You Know You're in New Hampshire When...
"Eighteenth-century history with twenty-first century cultural sensibility . . . a riveting tale told by a truly gifted and graceful teller of tales. I loved it!" Rebecca Rule, New Hampshirebased author
"An outstanding book. I predict this will become the gold standard for works about the historic Isles of Shoals." Jane E. Vallier, author of Poet On Demand: The Life, Letters and Works of Celia Thaxter
About the Author
J. Dennis Robinson is to the seacoast area as Nathaniel Philbrick is to Nantucket. He is the foremost historian on the area and has published numerous books on local history, lectures frequently and operates seacoastnh.com, a popular website on local news and history. He resides in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
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Top Customer Reviews
Robinson begins by reviewing the history of the various theories and myths that have emerged years after the murder of two Norwegian immigrant women, Karen and Anne Christiansen by a Prussian immigrant, Louis Wagner. The author points to the novel and Hollywood film that distort the facts of the case, but a significant part of the public seems to accept as truth. For Robinson the alternative history of events is incorrect and he takes on the task of setting the historical record straight. In his examination of events and evidence, Robinson leaves no stone unturned in uncovering the truth. Since a key part of the story involves the ability of someone to row from the mainland to Smuttynose Island, a considerable distance in 1873, Robinson provides numerous historical examples to prove that the distance traveled by Wagner the evening of the murder was easily accomplished. In fact, during his talk last week, he introduced a seventy five year old fisherman who had accomplished the task last June.
Robinson's monograph is more than a history of the murder of the two Norwegian women. It explores the pre-crime activities of the characters involved, the arrest, trial, and execution of the murderer. It is a history of the seacoast region as far north as Thomaston, Maine and south to the Portsmouth region. The author takes the reader back 6000 years when Native Americans thrived in the waters that make up the Gulf of Maine. He describes how glaciers created the nine islands that make up the Isles of Shoals among the 3000 or more islands that are located along the jagged coast of Maine. (13) Robinson describes the arrival of John Smith in 1614 and the settlement of New Hampshire in 1623. Robinson's history obviously concentrates on the history of the then "crime of the century" and the characters involved, but he also takes on the lives of the participants in the story after Wagner's execution following them until they pass on.
Robinson focuses on immigration, the development of the islands, and the state of fishing in the region as he sets the stage for the reader. The most important characters are Louis Wagner the perpetrator of the crime and his victims. But Robinson also spends a great deal of time developing the other main characters that include John and Maren Hontvets, whom Wagner was trying to rob before his victims got in the way, with Maren escaping and emerging as the most important witness at the trial. The reader is also introduced to the local politicians involved, the prosecution and defense attorneys, key witnesses, prison officials, and many more. In doing so the reader gets to know all involved and because of Robinson's captivating prose they almost feel they have become part of the story. Throughout, Robinson has a fine eye for detail, be it discussing the history of the murder weapon, an ax that in part resides in the Portsmouth Atheneum, an old membership library on Market Square in Portsmouth. Robinson goes on to provide a history of the ax as tool in American history, as well as showing that the use of one as a murder weapon was not unique. This is the type of detail that the author repeatedly interjects into the narrative enhancing the reader's experience.
For the layman who is interested in the plight of the New England fishing industry during the second half of the nineteenth century, Robinson lays out the problems that the industry faced in detail. He explores how the sources of fish were being depleted and the need to locate new fishing grounds which drove fisherman up and down the coast to locate new sources. The problem was that those regions grew scarcer and scarcer necessitating the use of larger and larger boats that local fisherman could ill afford. One of the few who could was John Hontvets, who purchased long trawl lines and built a sturdy schooner in order to survive. It was the jealousy that Wagner felt towards John Hontvets that probably drove him on the night of March 5, 1873 to steal a dory and row out to the Hontvets' home on Smuttynose Island expecting to find only three women present to steal what he thought was between $600 and $1000 hidden somewhere on the premises. Robinson describes in minute detail the murder and succeeding events leading up to Wagner's capture in Boston. Robinson zeroes in on the conversations that Wagner had before and after the crime throughout the book. It reflects an inordinate amount of research and command of the material. What is interesting is that Wagner repeatedly provided oral snippets of what Robinson describes as "confessional outbursts," that puts the reader inside Wagner's thought processes and leads us to believe he subconsciously wanted to be caught and convicted.
Robinson plays special attention to the personalities of the attorneys involved and the strategies they pursued. The trial is reviewed very carefully and the material that is available from the trial transcript is mined very carefully by Robinson as he integrates a degree of sarcasm and humor as he dissects the myths and alternate histories that emerged after Wagner's conviction. Robinson takes the reader into Wagner's jail cell, his escape and recapture, and after all the legal wrangling dealing with the death penalty and which state, Maine or New Hampshire had jurisdiction over the case, to the execution of Louis Wagner on June 25, 1875.
For those interested in the economic development of the Isles of Shoals at this time great detail is provided. The building of tourist hotels, the attraction of Boston literary types and the wealthy are delineated carefully, particularly Cecilia Thaxter who grew up and lived on Smutty nose, who gained fame as a poet and writer. Her article in the Atlantic Magazine, "A Memorable Murder," "was something risky and powerful when it appeared in 1875," but she has been "credited as a founder of true crime literature." (301) "Like a great poet, the crime writer must also replicate the tempest that rages inside the mind of the killer tapping into his jealousy, vengeance, ambition, and hatred," as nineteenth century essayist, Thomas De Quincy has written, something that Thaxter easily accomplished. According to Robinson, her article could have served as a model for Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.
Robinson concludes the last section of the monograph by following the history of the main characters after Wagner's execution. The reader learns of the fate of Celia Thaxter, the legacy of the Hontvets family and Ivan Christiansen whose wife was murdered, as well as the deathbed confession hoax that tried to shift the blame for the crime onto Maren Hontvets. Not to be excluded are a number of key witnesses as well as the prosecution team of George Yeaton and Attorney General Harris M. Plaisted and Wagner's intrepid lawyer Judge Rufus Tapley.
As the books comes to a close, Robinson dissects the pseudo-historical novel based on the murders, Anita Shreve's Weight on the Water and the Hollywood film of the same name based on the book. Despite the presence of Sean Penn and a $16 million budget, the film was essentially a flop, though it seems to be downloaded more and more today by those interested. However, for Shreve the novel made her a literary talent as she has a film based on her book added to her many publications. Lastly, Robinson includes extensive author's notes that are a treasure trove of information that for those interested, can lead to wonderful new discoveries. Overall, considering that many people who are drawn to this subject matter are already privy to the story and its outcome, Robinson has done a remarkable job of synthesis creating an interesting compilation of information some old, but much that is new. I recommend it highly for those who are interested in a scintillating murder story, but more so an overall history of the seacoast region in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
There's truth in the legend, but it's not the whole truth. The reality is that most immigrants faced economic hardship and sometimes discrimination and persecution. Fear of immigrants (and the politicians who feed on it) is as old as our country. Sometimes it was just a matter of the New World being "over-sold." Immigrants wrote home with glowing tales of their easy lives and financial success. When their relatives joined them, the real situation was sometimes far different than they pictured. It was common for new immigrants (bewildered and not speaking English) to be ripped off by countrymen who had preceded them by a few years. The success stories were proudly repeated. The failures died quietly or crept back home in silence and disappointment.
The middle of the 19th century saw waves of immigration from the Scandinavian countries. Many "Squareheads" were successful. Accustomed to harsh conditions in their cold, rocky homelands, they never expected an easy life or great wealth. They spread out across New England and on to the Great Plains, supported their families, and worked hard to achieve the American dream.
In 1873, on tiny Smuttynose Island off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Hontvet/Christensen family fished for cod as they had in their native Norway. Three couples, united by blood and marriage, they shared a modest rented house on the isolated island. In a sense, their way of life was already doomed. Fishing was gradually giving way to the much more profitable tourism. Running a large resort hotel is hard work, but it pales beside the harshness and dangers of ocean fishing. But it was the trade that they knew and they managed to survive, if not thrive. The family members seem to have been compatible and their lives may have been slightly easier than in the Old World. The men fished and sold the fish; the women worked seasonally as maids in the island hotels.
Then the three men had to be away overnight. During the night, the three women were attacked. Two died and one escaped. According to her story, which was consistent with the evidence, a former employee had rowed to the island and attacked them. His motivation (apparently) was his belief that there was $600 hidden in the house. He left with $16 and left behind the corpses of two young women who had been strangled and hacked to death with an ax.
Years ago, I read another account of these murders (COLD WATER CROSSING: AN ACCOUNT OF THE MURDERS AT THE ISLES OF SHOALS) and it's a story that I've never forgotten. Robinson deals with the murders in greater depth, but comes to the same conclusions. I found it fascinating to re-visit this subject and see it through the eyes of another writer.
This is one of the most celebrated (in the sense of being written and talked about) murders in New England history, but there are still so many questions left unanswered. I can understand the men failing to repair the broken lock on the house's door. Their lives as fishermen were ones of constant hard work, with little or no time for anything but what brought in a few more dollars. But why did the three women not barricade themselves in on a night when their men were absent? Indoor plumbing was not the norm at the time and there would have been an "outhouse" but few people then used the privy at night. The "chamberpot" under every bed was used at night and emptied in the morning.
Built-in kitchen cabinets are a modern invention. Older kitchens had one or more "dressers" - huge, heavy pieces of furniture used for storing dishes, silverware, etc. One of those pulled across the door would have kept the intruder out long enough to give the women a fighting chance. He wasn't armed with a gun and these were three strong, healthy women who were accustomed to physical work. Only the fact that they were surprised in their sleep made them easy marks. Awake, they could have put up a good fight.
Why was there so much mis-information about the murders? It was before the days when police departments and district attorney's offices carefully controlled the dissemination of "inside" information. It was also a time when every town had several newspapers and they fought for readers by trying to out-do each other in gristly, sensational stories. Truth was of secondary consideration. And, of course, the murder of two young women is a stunning event at any time. Still....
Finally, why was there so much reluctance to accept the guilt of angry former-employee Louis Wagner? According to this author, the police did a thorough job of investigating the murders, given the primitive state of "forensics" at that time. Wagner was represented respectably. Was it that he was an attractive, charismatic man who captured the imagination of at least some of the public, who wanted to believe him innocent? He passionately maintained his innocence up to the time he was executed, but he had nothing to lose by doing so. A confession would have still meant the rope. Up until his execution, he could continue to tell his version of the "truth." The dead women were unable to speak and their family was too heart-broken and bewildered to speak for them.
It's a fascinating story and I think the author tells it well. There's a LOT of detail, maybe too much for some readers, but I think you have to remember that he's dealing with a story that has been rehashed many times with (as frequently happens) lies and misinformation mixed in freely. He's trying to clear the record and he's pitting himself against other writers who have chosen to twist the story to suit their own purposes.
Does it matter who killed Karen and Anethe and tried to kill Maren? I think the truth ALWAYS matters and so does this writer. This is not a quick read, but it takes the reader back in time in a very convincing way. If you're interested in American social history, this book is worth your time.