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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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The author has painstakingly researched this bloody crime, and has made every effort to present all he has learned in a fair, unbiased manner. When he expresses his own opinion, he does so clearly and with substantial backing. He carefully paints the scene, describing the typical lives of these hardscrabble fishing people, and through careful research gives brief histories of the region, the peoples (native and immigrant), the livelihoods. The reader feels embedded in this 19th century area, the pertinent towns of Portsmouth, N.H., Boston, Massachusetts, and Isles of Shoals, where the murders took place. By learning the history of the fishing industry with the subsequent decline of the fish, Robinson shows us the likely reasons for the murders, which probably were never intended but happened during the course of a burglary. The author brings together thousands of pieces of the puzzle as well as much careful research, and in the end we have a vivid idea of how and why the two women were murdered, why the one woman who managed to survive couldn't possibly have been the "secret" murderer as portrayed in the novel, and most importantly, we get a concise idea of what kind of man the murderer Louis Wagner really was. Robinson describes the meticulous way that Wagner throws out ever-changing stories to "prove" his supposed innocence, and shows why so many people even today, almost 150 years later, still think Wagner was indeed innocent.
"Mystery on the Isles of Shoals" proves that old crimes are just as fascinating as those from today.
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.