Smuttynose Island – rich in history

The Haley House stands near the site of the Red House on Smuttynose Island where itinerant fisherman Louis Wagner murdered two women in 1873. Photo by Jack Farrell

Winter 2023

By Jack Farrell
For Points East

The late December gale that blew through the Piscataqua Region with hurricane-force winds and historic storm surge caused surprisingly little damage at Star Island, the unofficial capital of the Isles of Shoals. During a caretaker supply mission one beautiful afternoon in mid-January, the wrack line from that storm was still visible above the shore road with an array of sand, rocks, driftwood, fishing gear, seaweed and plastic trash higher up on the adjacent lawn than I had ever seen before. The caretakers told of the stone pier being swept by waves at high tide as the winds gusted to near 70 mph. Broken bits of roof shingle and wood siding littered the still-green grass, torn by the winds from scores of areas that had sustained some minor damage. But there were no major structural failures or losses of critical equipment – this time: just more evidence of the relentless cumulative impacts of the increasingly harsh and changing environment against which the mostly wooden island structures have never been a match.

The king tide driven shoreward to America (as the Old Shoalers called the mainland) by the December gale was also higher than I have seen it along the Portsmouth waterfront. At the height of that tide, I went down to check the boats to witness the river flowing a foot above the deck of the dock house at our Market Street depot, under the storage sheds, and along the edges of the parking lot; striking evidence of a changing climate.

This past year was the fourth consecutive one of record rises in global ocean temperatures. The documented warming at the poles and resulting glacial melting is constantly in the news. It is widely thought by climate scientists to be too late to reverse what now seem to be inevitable impacts of a warming climate: increasingly severe storms, eroding shoreline, critical infrastructure damage, fisheries disruption, and perhaps even social and political upheaval. In spite of this, coal remains the largest source of fuel for electric power generation worldwide as millions continue to strive toward the first world life that we enjoy. Peak oil consumption is still estimated to be years away. Even as renewable energy sources are on the rise (now cheaper to build than fossil fuel generation plants), it will take decades to reverse the trends that we are witnessing now. Our coast and our landscape are changing in real time. We all must decide what we can do to limit the damage, as well as how we can adapt to survive the already irreversible impacts.

Returning from the recent supply run a few weeks ago, I swung over by Smuttynose Island on the way out of Gosport Harbor. I’ve been lately re-reading the early history of Smuttynose. This stark and lonesome island is perhaps the most beguiling of the Shoals islands – with its history of early offshore enterprise, smuggling, shipwreck and murder.

As part of summer tours on the Shining Star, I routinely swing by Maren’s Rock, a six-foot high boulder on the southeastern tip of Smuttynose. We idle down just off the breaker line to relate the story of the Smuttynose murders of March, 1873 in its shadow. Maren Hontvet was the sole survivor of the three women left alone that winter night in what was called the red house on Smuttynose. Sometime around midnight, a bungled robbery quickly turned to murder. The intruder had failed to plan for Maren’s barking dog whose alarm alerted the sleeping inhabitants. Only Maren escaped the panicked wrath of the murderous Louis Wagner. As he searched for the woman who would soon provide the testimony that lead to his arrest, she hid on the ocean side of the boulder which bears her name, barefoot in the snow and accompanied by the barking dog until well after sunrise. During the long hours of that night, as the Smuttynose murder tragedy unfolded, workers completing the new Oceanic Hotel at Star Island slept peacefully across the harbor, unaware of the mayhem in their midst.

Louis Wagner was an itinerant fisherman and former deckhand for the Smuttynose fishermen who were known to be staying on the mainland that night. According to the story, which I first learned from a pamphlet by Star Island legend Lyman Rutledge titled “Moonlight Murder on Smuttynose,” Wagner thought he knew where the men had hidden five hundred dollars they were saving for construction of a new boat. When he learned that the men would not be on the island that night, he stole a dory and rowed downriver with the Piscataqua tide, past the lighthouses and out to Smuttynose where he bungled the robbery, brutally killed two women, and spent hours unsuccessfully tracking the third. Maren had run from the red house through the snow to cower beneath the kelp-strewn boulder for hours while trying to keep the little dog quiet until an exhausted Wagner finally gave up hope of finding her and rowed back across six miles of Bigelow Bight to America. Wagner left part of his story in telltale bloody boot-prints traversing the snowy length of the mile-long island. A rescued Maren told the world the rest of it.

Once uncertainty over jurisdiction in the case was resolved (early responders from New Hampshire were unaware that Smuttynose Island is actually in Maine), Wagner was convicted of the murders at the York County Court in Alfred, and was one of the last two men executed by hanging in the State of Maine. But controversy persists to the present day over whether Wagner was the actual perpetrator. Many still question the possibility of rowing alone to the Shoals and back. But those of us who row know that a professional nineteenth century fisherman could have easily made that trip on a good night, especially when taking advantage of the strong tidal currents. At Star we regularly see the trip made by kayakers. Last summer a fleet of paddle boarders made the round trip from Rye Harbor on a Sunday morning. I hosted a man on the boat last year who makes midwinter fundraising swims to the Shoals from Portsmouth. A capable dory fisherman would have had little trouble with that crossing on a reasonably calm night with the tide on his side.

The Smuttynose murder controversy is put to rest once and for all by Portsmouth author J. Dennis Robinson in his book “Mystery on the Isles of Shoals: Closing the Case of the Smuttynose Ax Murders of 1873.” Robinson’s story is in general agreement with the rendition by Lyman Rutledge made decades earlier. I highly recommend both of these.

All was peaceful on a deserted Smuttynose Island that January afternoon as my wake ranged along the ledges and ran into the cobbled shore of the cove. The ancient Haley house, so close to the spot where the murder house stood before it burned years after the murders, appeared undamaged from the December storm. The sight of Smuttynose always takes me back to childhood trips to the islands and my father’s versions of the stories of ghosts and pirates which left us spellbound on summer evenings by bonfires on the beach. On the back cover of my father’s copy of “Moonlight Murder on Smuttynose” is a haunting photo of the murder ax which I find chilling to this day.

I have made the run from Portsmouth to the Shoals literally thousands of times by power and sail over the past forty-five years. I have no doubt that Wagner could have made that trip in a good rowboat. I have a good rowboat, and one of these days I hope to make the trip that way myself.

Jack was the manager at Star Island for many years. He currently manages major construction and utility projects there and provides all-season boat service to the island (average 250 trips per year) for luggage, food, employees, supplies and guests. He also runs Seacoast Maritime Charters, LLC providing year-round private charter boat service and marine logistics to the general public, now in the Shining Star. He still enjoys cruising in his classic Ted Hood sloop, Aloft, and teaching skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.