Bangor native Helena Wood Smith was a talented landscape painter, and in 1910 had set up among the creative glitterati of Carmel-by-the-Sea, a bohemian enclave near Monterey, California, hobnobbing with the likes of writers Jack London and Upton Sinclair and painter William Merritt Chase.

But Smith would only enjoy a few years in the seemingly idyllic artistic community. Her life was cut short in 1914 at age 49 when she was murdered by her lover, photographer George Kodani, who was later convicted of strangling her and burying her body on the beach in Carmel.

Before she was living la vie boheme in California, she was the daughter of a well-to-do Bangor family that valued and encouraged creativity. Her father, Ruel Smith, was the longtime court clerk for Penobscot County, and her younger brother, Perley, would grow up to be an editor for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper, and also write the popular Rival Camper series of boy’s books, all set in Maine.

Smith went to Bangor High School, and after graduating taught art classes to local students. She was among the first students at the Pratt Institute in New York, which was founded in 1887, and also studied with Boston painter Charles Woodbury. Her work was exhibited in art shows in Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

An untitled painting by Helena Wood Smith, one of several up for auction at the Downeast Art & Antiques Show this year.

Around 1904, Smith left Bangor and moved to New York, where she taught for a time at the Pratt Institute. She then moved to Minneapolis before heading to California in 1909, eventually settling in Carmel-by-the-Sea. She received a large inheritance when her father died in 1908 that allowed her to buy a bungalow in Carmel, which she transformed into an art studio where she entertained fellow artists and many guests from Bangor. She taught classes at the famed Carmel Arts and Crafts Club.

It was in this creative, freewheeling environment that Smith first met Kodani, son of a prominent Japanese American family in Monterey. While many details of their relationship will never be known, it seems clear that they had a romantic connection. While Kodani was a well-known local photographer who had become a part of the Carmel art scene, California had a long history of anti-Asian racism, and miscegenation laws made it illegal for people of two different races to be together or marry.

There was much speculation around the time of Smith’s murder, but there are some undisputed facts about the crime. On Aug. 12, 1914, Smith went missing from her Carmel home, last seen that afternoon with Kodani. Her dog was also missing. Kodani was questioned by the police, but maintained he’d simply visited with her for a short time and then left. A note was later found floating in the driveway, purportedly written by Smith but possibly written by Kodani, claiming she was out of town for a few days.

BDN clipping from Aug. 25, 1914.

Carmel residents began combing the area for signs of Smith, and Kodani was nowhere to be found. Local newspapers printed lurid, racist headlines that all but convicted Kodani, and reporters even tried to connect him to an attempted murder earlier that year, also in Carmel. Kodani was finally arrested on Aug. 22, and on Aug. 23, a search party discovered Smith’s body on the beach. She had been bludgeoned in the face, a rope was tightly wound around her neck, and she was wrapped in a rug and buried in the sand.

After being presented with photos of Smith’s body, Kodani confessed to murdering her, claiming they had had a “lover’s quarrel” and he then snapped and attacked her. He went to trial in October — incredibly quickly by today’s standards — and was sentenced to life in prison. He spent the next 32 years at Folsom State Prison, before being paroled in 1946.

Back home in Maine, the Bangor Daily News extensively covered Smith’s murder and the subsequent murder trial. Over the past century, her paintings have occasionally been displayed in Maine, including a large exhibition of female painters from Bangor, held in 1993 by the Bangor Historical Society and the Maine Humanities Council.

Her paintings remained popular with wealthy Mainers for many decades. Several of those paintings ended up in the hands of Newburgh rare bookseller and art collector Gary Woolson, who for years collected works by Maine artists. When Woolson died in January, Scott DeWolfe and Frank Wood, rare book and antique sellers based in Alfred, bought his collection, including four paintings by Smith.

Those Smith paintings will be up for auction this weekend at the Downeast Art & Antiques Show in Blue Hill, Aug. 2-4.

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.