June 25, 2010

Thaxter: A Memorable Murder

Convicted murderer Louis Wagner was executed on June 25, 1875. In March of that year on the Isles of Shoals (Smuttynose, specifically), two young Norwegian women were bludgeoned to death. Wagner, a 28-year old Prussian immigrant, seemed to have no real motive for killing the two women.

Local resident Celia Thaxter, horrified by the ordeal in the relative quiet of the islands, tried to cope by writing about the incident. She spent hours reading newspaper accounts before writing "A Memorable Murder." She completed the manuscript shortly before Wagner's execution. As she waited for that day, she became concerned that an account of a true murder was in poor taste. She wrote to Annie Adams Fields:

I am only waiting for Wagner to be hung or not (next Friday is the day appointed for his execution) to rush to your threshold with my manuscript and read it to you and J. T. F. [James T. Fields] that you may tell me if I offend against good taste or the proprieties of existence. For it is a delicate subject to handle, so notorious, so ghastly and dreadful - and I would not dare to send it to [William Dean] Howells without asking Mr. Fields first.

Apparently both James and Annie Fields approved, as did William Dean Howells, who published it in The Atlantic Monthly. In the essay, Thaxter offered something the newspapers lacked. "The sickening details of the double murder are well known," she wrote, "...but the pathos of the story is not realized." Thaxter focused on the gentle, innocent lives of the two women, allowing them more than merely serving the role of victims.

So they abode in peace and quiet, with not an evil thought in their minds, kind and considerate toward each other... till out of the perfectly cloudless sky one day a bolt descended, without a whisper of warning, and brought ruin and desolation into that peaceful home.

Her description of the murderer Louis Wagner was quite different: "He was always lurking in corners, lingering, looking, listening, and he would look no man straight in the eyes."

*Much of the information in this post comes from Norma H. Mandel's The Garden Gate: The Life of Celia Laighton Thaxter.

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