Friday, March 26, 2010

A Memorable Murder

Celia Thaxter (1835–1894)
From True Crime: An American Anthology

In a letter to her son dated March 27, 1873, the poet Celia Thaxter exclaims, “O John, my dear, we have had the fiend’s own month of March! Such a disastrous four weeks was never known in our experience at the Shoals.” She then describes at length a violent storm off the coast of New Hampshire, where a “brig struck on the outer rocks of White Island, a breaker carried away a portion of her stern and drowned five men then and there. Then the breakers pitched her upon Londoners [now Lunging Island], drove her fairly over and over, smashed her all up, broke her in two halves, drowned three more men, and there left her. The mate alone escaped of a crew of nine.”

What she doesn’t mention in this particular letter—nor does she need to—is the gruesome double murder of two women three weeks earlier, a crime that captured the attention of the entire nation and dominated newspaper headlines. She knew the victims and their families and was among the first to arrive at the side of the lone surviving witness. Two years later, Thaxter published in the
Atlantic Monthly her account, one of the milestones in American true-crime writing. The story served as the basis for The Weight of Water, Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel that was subsequently turned into a 2000 motion picture directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Sean Penn, Elizabeth Hurley, and Sarah Polley.

At the Isles of Shoals, on the 5th of March in the year 1873, occurred one of the most monstrous tragedies ever enacted on this planet. The sickening details of the double murder are well known; the newspapers teemed with them for months: but the pathos of the story is not realized; the world does not know how gentle a life these poor people led, how innocently happy were their quiet days. They were all Norwegians. The more I see of the natives of this far-off land, the more I admire the fine qualities which seem to characterize them as a race. Gentle, faithful, intelligent, God-fearing human beings, they daily use such courtesy toward each other and all who come in contact with them, as puts our ruder Yankee manners to shame. The men and women living on this lonely island were like the sweet, honest, simple folk we read of in Björnson’s charming Norwegian stories, full of kindly thoughts and ways. The murdered Anethe might have been the Eli of Björnson’s beautiful Arne or the Ragnhild of Boyesen’s lovely romance. They rejoiced to find a home just such as they desired in this peaceful place; the women took such pleasure in the little house which they kept so neat and bright, in their flock of hens, their little dog Ringe, and all their humble belongings! The Norwegians are an exceptionally affectionate people; family ties are very strong and precious among them. Let me tell the story of their sorrow as simply as may be.

Louis Wagner murdered Anethe and Karen Christensen at midnight on the 5th of March, two years ago this spring. The whole affair shows the calmness of a practiced hand; there was no malice in the deed, no heat; it was one of the coolest instances of deliberation ever chronicled in the annals of crime. He admits that these people had shown him nothing but kindness. He says in so many words, “They were my best friends.”. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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