A full 17 newspaper reporters witnessed the executions, then described the lurid scene to their readers — in detail.
Two headlines in Bangor's Whig & Courier newspaper, published three months apart in 1873, blare the news about multiple murders committed by ax-wielding Maine criminals. Both of the guilty men, Louis Wagner and John Gordon, were executed in 1875. Credit: BDN Archive

On June 25, 1875, two ax murderers, convicted of slaughtering five people between them, were hanged inside the state prison yard in Thomaston.

One man was already near death, though. John True Gordon, who hacked his brother, sister-in-law and one of their children to death, stabbed himself in a suicide attempt the night before he faced the gallows. Still bleeding and seated on a box because he lacked the strength to stand, Gordon appeared unconscious when the sheriff sprung the trap door beneath him.

The other man didn’t die right away. Louis H. F. Wagner, a Prussian immigrant who murdered two women on Smutty Nose Island, met his fate beside Gordon that day. Wagner dropped between 5 and 9 feet before rebounding a few feet as the rope around his neck fetched up, halting his descent. However, his heart was still racing at 100 beats per minute when a doctor attempted to declare him dead eight minutes later.

Maine professor L.C. Bateman called the executions, “The most outrageous acts of brutality ever committed in our state, a scene which I trust may never be witnessed again.”

Bateman was only partly correct, as it turned out.

A full 17 newspaper reporters witnessed the executions, then described the lurid scene to their readers — in detail.

The public was horrified.

The very next year, in 1876, the governor and Legislature outlawed capital punishment after 50 years of debating its merits. The opposing arguments were both based on divergent biblical interpretations.

More gruesome history

Gordon and Wagner had much in common though neither man knew the other.

Both were 28 years old at the time of their crimes. Likewise, Gordon and Wagner each knew their victims well and murdered them in their sleep.

“Both men were large, muscular and powerful but considered lazy and shiftless by those that knew them,” wrote J. Dennis Robinson in his 2014 book, “Mystery on the Isle of Shoals.”

The killers also left crucial eyewitnesses alive at their crime scenes who later fingered them in court.

Wagner committed his crimes first.

On March 6, 1873, John Honvet rowed 10 miles across the ocean from his home on Smutty Nose Island to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, attending to some business. The tiny island speck is on the Maine-administered side of a group of low islands known as the Isle of Shoals.

Honvet left his wife, Maren Honvet, and two relatives, Anethe and Karen Christiansen, alone on the isolated island.

Wagner heard John Honvet was staying on the mainland for the night and, propelled by a powerful tide, rowed to Smutty Nose in a stolen dory. He was convinced John Honvet had left behind as much as $500 saved up toward buying a new fishing boat.

Wagner knew the Honvet house well, having boarded there and worked for the family.

At 1 a.m. on March 7, he entered the small dwelling.

Karen Christiansen awoke first, and Wagner struck her with a chair. Maren Honvet then grappled with Wagner long enough to pull herself, her sister and Anthe Christiansen into a locked bedroom.

All three women then attempted to escape through a window, but only Maren Honvet managed to get away before Wagner busted down the door with an ax.

Running away but yet not out of earshot, Maren Honvet heard the other two women’s death screams. Wagner’s blows were so forceful, he broke the ax head off its handle.

Afterwards, he searched the island but could find neither Maren Honvet nor her husband’s money.

Wagner ransacked the house, left behind incriminating, bloody boot prints and ate a meal before rowing back to the mainland empty handed.

Hypothermic and weak, Maren Honvet flagged down a passing fishing boat in the morning. Police were soon on the hunt for Wagner and caught him in Boston the same day. When brought back to Portsmouth, a riotous mob attempted to lynch him.

He was eventually tried and found guilty by a jury in York County. But while awaiting sentence, Wagner escaped by picking the lock on his Alfred jail cell.

He was captured a few days later after begging for a meal at a Farmington, New Hampshire, farmer’s door and asking for directions to Canada. Wagner’s escape was front page news all over New England, and his thick German accent gave him away immediately.

One perplexed Portland newspaper reporter then described the lock-picking murderer as possibly sly, perhaps crafty but most definitely an “idiot.”

Gordon committed his similar crimes in Thorndike, three months after Wagner.

Miffed that his younger brother Almon Gordon was going to inherit half his parents’ considerable estate, Gordon decided to kill him — and his whole family — then make it look like an accident.

Gordon also held a grudge against his sister-in-law, Emma Gordon. He believed she’d sent anonymous letters disparaging his character to a local woman he wished to marry.

Gordon went to his brother’s house on the night of June 9, 1873, while all were asleep.

“In the slaughter that followed, Almon Gordon and his wife were both slain,” wrote Daniel Allen Hearn in his book, “Legal Executions in New England,” published in 1999. “So was the infant child of theirs which shared the same bed with them that night.”

Gordon bashed their heads with an ax where they lay, penetrating their skulls and entering the gray matter beneath.

He didn’t stop there, next attacking his 7-year-old niece, Anna, with the same bloody instrument of destruction and leaving her for dead. Gordon proceeded to splash kerosene around the house and light it on fire in an apparent attempt to hide his crime and make the deaths appear accidental.

historical maine deaths

Neighbors soon arrived, though, rescuing the still-living girl. They also found Gordon, covered in blood, busy saving pieces of good furniture from the flames — instead of his relatives. The Good Samaratins put the flames out and dragged the obviously murdered and severely charred corpses outside.

They also found the empty kerosene can.

Further sealing Gordon’s fate, his niece told onlookers her “Uncle Johnny” was the culprit.

He was put on trial and convicted in November that year. It took the jury 90 minutes to render a guilty verdict.

The night before his execution in 1875, a friend likely passed Gordon a knife while saying goodbye. The condemned man slashed his femoral artery and also drove the knife deep into his own chest.

Gordon’s jab missed his heart but, when found bleeding in the morning, a doctor said he didn’t have long to live. Prison officials were determined to carry out the death warrant and hanged him, and Wagner, a few minutes early, at 11:49 a.m.

The scheduled appointment had been for noon.

“Those who saw the miserable wretch Gordon upon that trap will always remember it,” wrote a reporter for the Portland Daily Press. “That ghastly face with the bright sun showing up its hideousness, the deep groans, the bloody limp form held up by the officers, made up a picture of such utter horror and despair as is rarely seen even in the fiercest conflicts of war.”

When hanged, Gordon was covered in his own blood. One newspaper thought it appropriate.

“It was horribly suggestive that Gordon should die with his hands covered in blood,” wrote Portland’s Eastern Argus, “the same as they were the night he committed his horrible crime for which he has died.”

more from this series

Many newspaper accounts then went on to describe how many minutes it took for each man’s heart to stop beating. It took Wagner almost 20 minutes to die.

The dead men’s faces were described in great detail, including color and countenance.

Gordon’s body was buried in the same hometown cemetery as those he killed, though at some distance.

“Wagner’s will undoubtedly find its way to some dissecting room,” the Argus noted.

There is a small plaque commemorating Wagner in the state prison cemetery, but it’s unclear if he’s actually buried beneath it. At the time, by state statute, all unclaimed dead prison inmates were shipped to the medical school at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, for use as cadavers.

Their ghastly crimes aside, vivid newspaper accounts of Gordon and Wagner’s deaths helped finally sway public opinion toward abolishing Maine’s death penalty.

A battle had long raged in the legislature between Baptists and Congregationalists, who adhered to the Old Testament concept of an “eye for an eye” in punishment, and Universalists who wanted Maine law to reflect Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

In that sermon, as the book of Matthew records it, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The Universalists won the argument. The Maine Legislature passed a bill doing away with hangings the next year, in 1876, and Gov. Nelson Dingley signed it into law. Maine was the fourth state to do so.

But the prohibition on state-sponsored death dealing was short lived. Capital punishment was reinstated in 1883 before final abolition four years — and three more executions — later.

This story is part of an ongoing series examining Maine’s historic use of the death penalty.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.