Book: Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of
Author: Harold Schechter
Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: True crime will always have a tinge of the odd or bizarre about it for those of us who are definitely not the serial killer type.
Availability: Published by Ballantine Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Harold Schechter is one of my favorite true crime authors. I have several of his books covering the crimes of Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Jesse Pomeroy and others and one day hope to find myself with time to read some of his fiction. He writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible and manages to speak about the unspeakable without the bombast and disgust that I am sure would mar my writing were I ever to try to write about killers.
So given his skills, I should not have been so smug as to think this book had little to teach me. I’ve stated on this site before that up until 2000 or so, I knew about almost all serial killers, and I did know quite a bit. But I certainly knew far less than I thought I did because in this book of more obscure American killers, some of whom are serial killers or mass murderers, I only knew of three killers out of the thirty-one presented. Among poisoners, sex killers, lonely hearts murderers and family annihilators, I knew of the Smutty Nose Killer, an angry seaman who killed a house full of women for money; Carlyle Harris, a despicable seducer and poisoner; and William Edward Hickman, a kidnapper and mutilator. I had sort of heard of Andrew Kehoe, having come across his name in reference to school mass murderers, but had never read about him in any depth.
Since I am attempting to write quickly for Halloween, I’m going to write about the two murders I know best, and hope I can give justice to this compendium as I do it. A lot of the true crime encyclopedias out there are tiresome cash grabs, covering the same ground over and over and discussing intricate and fascinating murders in so little detail that the reader finds herself longing for text at least as comprehensive as Wikipedia. Not so with Schechter, and even if my discussion doesn’t resonate, you should look into him if his name is new to you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s probably my fault.
I hate to call any of these murders my “favorite” but I find the Smutty Nose murders absolutely fascinating. This may be the murders most casual true crime readers know the best because it was written about in a fiction novel by Anita Shreve (called The Weight of Water) and the book was adapted into a film of the same name that featured Sarah Polley, Sean Penn and the amazing British actress, Katrin Cartlidge, who died too young from peritonitis.
The Smutty Nose murders get their name from the location of the killing – off the coast of New Hampshire there is a series of small islands that are pretty much the last place anyone would want to live but in 1873 some hearty folk decided to live on these islands and a Norwegian family lived on one of the islands called Smutty Nose. Quoting Anita Shreve, Schechter tells us the island got its name from “a clump of seaweed on the nose of a rock extending into the ocean.” On this island lived Maren Hontvet, a 26 year old woman; her husband John; Maren’s older sister Karen; Maren and Karen’s brother Ivan; Ivan’s wife Anethe; and John’s brother Matthew. The three men were commercial fishermen and occasionally worked with other fishermen in the area. They lived in a relatively small house, yet they took in boarders periodically, notably Louis Wagner, the 28 year old Prussian immigrant who would eventually slay everyone he found in the house on Smutty Island.
Louis Wagner was angry because he did not earn enough money and decided to rob the Hontvets.
Wagner was intimately familiar with the Hontvets, their financial circumstances, and the layout of their little home, having boarded with them for several months. By his own later admission, they had always treated him “like a brother.” During one of his recurrent bouts of illness, he had been nursed back to health by the women, who, in his words, “were most kind to him.” He would repay that kindness with the sort of atrocious cruelty that defies easy psychological explanation and tempts even rationalists to speak of pure evil.
Schechter isn’t being hyperbolic – what Wagner did to those women was appalling. Striking on March 3, 1873, Wagner knew the men of the house would be out. He had met them in Portsmouth and they told him they were delayed and would not go back to the small island until the morning. Wagner seized his chance. He stole a boat and rowed his way to the island. It was after ten pm when he reached the house, and all the women had gone to bed. Karen was sleeping on a cot in the warm kitchen, while Maren and Anethe slept in a bed in a nearby room. Around midnight Wagner burst into the house and launched an attack so quickly and without warning that Maren had no idea what was happening. She died believing that her brother-in-law John had snapped and was bludgeoning her – Wagner used a kitchen chair to beat her.
Maren heard her sister screaming and could not get the latch on the door to work and was unable to get to her sister to help her. Karen ran to the door and hitting the door she dislodged the latch and Maren was able to let her wounded sister inside, but Wagner made it inside the room too and began to beat the two women with a long piece of wood from the chair he broke over Karen. Somehow Maren got her sister inside and shut and locked the door with Wagner outside. Anethe ran for the window to escape and Maren told her to scream in the hopes people on nearby islands might hear her and send help. But Anethe was scared to the point that she couldn’t utter a sound. Wagner found her outside the house and Anethe finally was able to say something. Recognizing her killer, she said, “Louis! Louis!” letting Maren know who was waging this attack. Maren had made it to the window just in time to see Wagner pick up an axe leaning on the side of the house and strike her with it.
Maren had a dire choice to make – stay and try to defend herself and her mortally wounded sister, because Karen was too injured to flee, or run away on her own and leave her sister to die. As she heard Wagner reenter the house, Maren had to act quickly.
Now it was either flee or die for Maren. Grabbing the nearest garment, a skirt, she threw it over her shoulders, climbed out the window, hurried past the slaughtered corpse of Anethe and – with the little dog, Ringe, following close on her heels – searched desperately for a hiding place.
As she ran, she was able to hear Wagner killing Karen. She made her way to the far end of the island, she wedged herself between two rocks and she and the little dog huddled together for warmth. She could barely breathe as she heard Wagner searching for her.
It was a situation so nightmarish that it has become a staple of horror movies: an implacable monster hunting for a young woman who huddles nearby in absolute terror, barely daring to breathe for fear her hiding place would be discovered.
Wagner could not find her and knowing that he was running out of time – the men of Smutty Nose would be returning that morning – he ransacked the house, expecting to find $600. He found only $20. Then, in one of the creepier moves a killer can make, he made himself some breakfast and a pot of tea before he returned to his rowboat to leave the little island. When the sun finally rose, Maren screamed until neighbors on a close-by island heard her shouts and came to help. They took her back to the other island where she was tended to while the men searched for the killer, whose name Maren gave to authorities.
When caught and put on trial, Wagner wept piteously, insisting he was not the killer, insisting John Hontvet must have done it because he was tired of caring for all his wife’s relatives. He was convicted but boasted he would escape, which he actually managed, but he didn’t plan it well and was seemingly relieved when captured because he had subsisted on nothing but berries for a few days. When he was eventually hanged, the outcome was so awful that Maine (where Wagner was tried due to some technicality) abolished the death penalty not soon after, but it’s hard to feel too bad for Wagner – if anyone deserved a terrible death, it was the man who killed two women who had shown him nothing but kindness and warmth.
Again, it’s hard to type that this case is one of my favorites but this story has kept with me years and years after first reading it. Carlyle Harris was such a cad and a complete psychopath, and yet even those who knew who he was and some of the terrible things he did let the mores of the time dictate their behaviors rather than using common sense and accepting that perhaps a bad reputation was not as bad as death.
Carlyle Harris grew up with a suffocating mother who kept her son away from other children, which may have fueled his loathing of women, but you’d have to be pretty Freudian to put the blame at his mother’s feet for the things her son would do. Carlyle liked sex. He liked sex with different women and he liked sex with women of both ill-repute and spotless reputation. It was his taste for the latter that saw him to the gallows.
After entering New York College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1888 (specializing in obstetrics and gynecology), Harris was at first glance an excellent prospective husband for any young woman. In the summer of 1889, Harris met Helen Neilson Potts, daughter of George, who made a small fortune in railroad construction, and Cynthia, a woman who held much store by social customs. They were initially very happy that their daughter was seeing a man with such great prospects, unaware that Helen spent much of her time with Harris fighting off his increasingly aggressive sexual advances. In the fall of 1889, the Potts family rented an apartment in Manhattan so that Helen could attend music school, and being so close to Harris meant they saw a lot of him when he came to visit Helen.
He came by so often that Cynthia Potts confronted him twice, letting him know that she worried about her daughter’s reputation and that he could take disadvantage of her clearly-besotted daughter. Harris feigned shock and even mentioned marriage but Cynthia Potts shot that down, telling him Helen, who was eighteen or nineteen at the time, was far too young for an engagement. Harris promised he would obey such wishes and call on Helen only as a friend. So when Harris came around, even though she was uneasy, Cynthia trusted his word as a gentleman. She was quite relieved when the friendship between the two began to cool and she saw far less of Harris.
He came by the Potts family summer home unexpectedly one evening in June, asking to take Helen on a walk. Helen came back pale and ill. Cynthia Potts took her daughter to see her uncle, Dr Treverton, who was a doctor. When he determined that Helen was pregnant, the whole sordid story came out – during one of Harris’ visits in February, he and Helen had gotten married and spent the afternoon on a “honeymoon.” After that sole sexual encounter, Harris’s ardor cooled. His return to see Helen in June was to perform, rather poorly, an abortion procedure. Helen eventually expelled a four month old fetus with a hole in its skull. When confronted Harris showed his true colors.
Treverton immediately dashed off an indignant note to Harris, summoning him to Scranton at once. When Harris arrived by train a few days later, he displayed none of the emotions – worry, guilt, contrition – Treverton expected. He spoke as if the secret marriage and subsequent abortion were the most natural things in the world and breezily explained that he had performed the same procedure on five previous girlfriends, all of whom had recovered “very nicely.” He was surprised to learn that Helen was unwell. Though “there was a good deal of hemorrhage at the time” of the operation, he “thought that he had removed everything that was there” and assumed “this matter of her sickness was all over.”
Treverton was taken aback by the young man’s blase tone, especially after Harris declared that he had brought along his valise of surgical instruments in anticipation of doing a follow-up procedure on Helen.
Her uncle forbid this but the family did find out that Harris boasted of bedding many women, and drugging or intoxicating those who showed resistance. Additionally, Helen was not his first wife – he had married, bedded and abandoned another nice young woman before he met Helen. The Potts did not know about the other marriage, but they knew that Harris was a scoundrel who had almost killed their daughter while boasting of his prowess as an illegal abortion provider and his tendencies to engage in the 1890s equivalent of drugging drinks in order to rape women. So their reaction will never stop stunning me.
When Mrs Potts found out about all of this, she demanded a meeting with Harris.
Over lunch in a downtown restaurant, she demanded to know why Carl had married her daughter in such an underhanded fashion. His explanation was so outrageous that, for a moment, Mrs. Potts merely gaped at him in dumbfounded silence.
“I did it that way for this reason,” he said, with his usual nonchalance. “I thought we might someday get tired of each other, and if we were married under false names, we could just drop the matter and no one would be the wiser.”
“With my daughter!” Mrs. Potts finally sputtered. “You were going to drop the matter once you got bored with her? I call that legalized prostitution! I insist that you be made a legitimate marriage under your right names.”
Harris assured his mother-in-law that he would obey her wishes, though he asked for a brief delay since he was just beginning his new semester at the medical college and had to concentrate on his studies. In the meantime, he urged Mrs. Potts to bring Helen to New York City and enroll her at the select Comstock School for Girls… He “expected to make a good position in New York,” Carl explained, and Comstock would “train Helen for the society he hoped they would live in.”
And she did as he asked, this man who had engaged in lies to bed her daughter and nearly killed her with an abortion. She delivered Helen into the arms of this fiend because it was less embarrassing and far more fitting for the customs of young, upper class women for Helen to marry the man who had deflowered her. As Mr. OTC helpfully mentioned, too bad Helen hadn’t been raised in Texas – surely Harris would have ended that lunch with a brutal visit later from the menfolk, beat if he was lucky, hanged if he wasn’t.
As soon as the meeting was over with Mrs. Potts, Harris obtained the drugs he used to kill Helen. He gave her pills that contained quinine and morphine, allegedly for her headaches, and she complained the pills made her ill. She had one pill left and did not want to take it but her good mother urged her to do it. She did and Helen died from poisoning that night, probably from a morphine overdose in the capsules Harris prepared for her. He was found guilty of murder and went to the electric chair. His mother, who may have contributed to his psychopathy, was angry to the end and had his gravestone engraved with the following:
MURDERED MAY 8TH 1893
This is such an excellent book for anyone interested in true crime, and will give a great overview into cases that, for most readers, will be unknown before reading. That was nice for me, especially the attention Schechter gave female killers. There are seven different women given a close look in this book, most of them poisoners, which to me is some of the coldest killing one can engage in. Female poisoners in my book are worse than people who shoot or stab because most of the time the women who used the poison on loved ones then nursed those loved ones, or put on a show of nursing them as they died from the poison their caretakers were giving them. For every woman, like Jane Toppan, who started poisoning and grew to like it enough that she could not stop, there are dozens, if not hundreds more women who managed self-control. During a time when influenza and typhoid were still common killers, they ridded themselves of husbands or children, collected the insurance money, and never offended again. Women can be just as evil as men and so often my sex gets away with it.
If you read this book, let me know what cases stayed with you. I deliberately chose not to discuss the case of William Edward Hickman and Marion Parker, the little girl he kidnapped, because I can recall clearly the horror I felt the first time I read about it so many years ago and do not want to deny anyone the same experience in one of my wordy discussions. And I did not discuss Andrew Kehoe, one of the worst mass murderers in human history. Given the recent events in Las Vegas I think fellow travelers in true crime would like to read that story and compare it to what we think we know about the Las Vegas shooter. This is a substantial book, checking in at almost 400 pages, so it definitely is going to give even the seasoned true crime scholar bang for their buck. Highly recommended, and perfect for those who like to think of death and mayhem around Halloween.