In the mid 1860s, married couple John and Maren Hontvet emigrated from Norway to Boston, hoping to find a better life. Being from sparsely populated Norway, they found city life in Boston to be too chaotic, so they saved up and bought a house on Smuttynose Island in Maine.
After their move, John bought a boat and became a fisherman. His business did so well that he decided to hire help. He took on a man named Louis Wagner in 1872, a German immigrant, and paid him by giving him free room and board. Wagner had been struggling to get by, so he accepted the job even though he did not receive any pay.
Hiring Wagner would prove to be a fateful mistake for the Hontvets.
In the fall of 1873, a large contingent of Hontvet relatives joined John and Maren on Smuttynose Island. With so much family available to work, Wagner was not needed anymore. He was dismissed from his job.
On a fishing trip to the city of Portsmouth on March 5, 1873, John and his crew ran into Wagner again. They needed temporary help with their current job and offered him the work. He agreed but did not show up for work the next day.
Meanwhile, Maren Hontvet, her sister Karen, and her sister-in-law Anethe were staying together at the Hontvet’s house while their husbands were away in Portsmouth. The Hontvet house was the only occupied residence on Smuttynose at the time, so Maren was probably lonely.
In the middle of the night, somebody came into the house through the kitchen door. Karen, who was sleeping on a cot in the kitchen, surprised the intruder, who probably did not expect to find anyone there. Whoever it was, he picked up a kitchen chair and started beating her with it. Karen was screaming, “John is killing me!” the whole time, probably because the only person she expected to come through that door was John Hontvet.
Maren and Anethe were sleeping in the bedroom when they heard the commotion. Maren managed to drag Karen into the bedroom and lock the door. Knowing that the intruder would break down the door eventually, Anethe tried to escape through the window. Unfortunately, the intruder had also left the house and had found the Hontvet’s ice-chopping axe.
Maren heard Anethe shout the name “Louis” before the man killed her with the axe. He then came back into the house and began breaking down the bedroom door. After trying and failing to rouse the beaten Karen, Maren climbed out the window alone just as the killer burst through the bedroom door. Maren heard Karen give one final scream as the man killed her, too, with the axe.
Maren ran in her nightgown, barefoot and carrying the family dog, until she found a place under a rock to hide. She stayed there all night in the freezing weather. At dawn, she crossed a breakwater to the island of Malaga. She was rescued there.
Louis Wagner was accused of the murder. It was discovered that a rowboat had been stolen from Portsmouth the night before. The authorities believed that he rowed from Portsmouth to Smuttynose, committed the murders, and then fled to Boston, where he was arrested.
After a nine-day trial, Wagner was convicted of the murders. A bloody shirt and a button from one of Maren’s shirts was found among his possessions. That, and the fact that Anethe apparently recognized him before he killed her was enough evidence to convict him.
Despite an escape attempt that ended in his recapture, Louis Wagner eventually paid the ultimate price for his crimes. He was hanged on March 26, 1875. He professed his innocence until the end.
Even though Wagner was convicted of the crime, some people still doubt his guilt to this day. Some say that Maren Hontvet was the killer, since she was the only living eyewitness. Some also accuse John Hontvet, since Karen seemed to think John was the person attacking her with the chair. Those who believe this theory say that Maven was simply covering for him.
Though most believe that the right man was convicted, the Smuttynose murders continue to be seen by many as one the greatest unsolved American murder mysteries.