Sunday, June 4, 2023

The Story of the 1874 Millstadt Illinois Ax Murders on Saxtown Road.

The small Village of Millstadt is located just a few miles from Belleville, a long-established and prosperous town across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Millstadt has always been known as a quiet community. It was settled long ago by German immigrants who came to America to work hard, be industrious, and keep to themselves. It was a place where nothing bad could ever really happen, or at least that's what the residents in the latter part of the nineteenth century believed. However, the murders that occurred on Saxtown Road forever shattered that illusion. When a local German family was brutally slaughtered in 1874, it created a dark, unsolved mystery.

On March 19, 1874, Carl Stelzenreide, age 70, his son, Frederick, 35, Frederick's wife, Anna, 28, and their children, Carl, 3, and Anna, 8 months, were found brutally murdered in their home on Saxton Road, located outside of Millstadt. The grisly crime was discovered by a neighbor, Benjamin Schneider, who had arrived at the Stelzenreide home early that morning to collect some potato seeds from Carl Steltzenreide. As he approached the house, he found that the area was eerily still. The horses and cattle fenced in the front lot had not been watered or fed, and no one cared for the morning chores.

Schneider knocked on the front door, but no one answered. He called out and looked in the window, but it was too dark inside the house to see anything. Finally, he turned the knob and pushed the door open. As he stepped in, he looked down and saw the body of Frederick Steltzenreide on the floor, lying in a large pool of blood. The young man had been savagely beaten, and his throat had been cut. Three of his fingers had been severed. Panicked, Schneider began looking for the other members of the family. He found Anna and her children lying on a bed. All of them had been bludgeoned to death, and Anna's throat had been cut. Her infant daughter, Baby Anna, was lying across her chest, her tiny arms wrapped around her mother's neck. Her son, Carl, was found next to her. His facial features were unrecognizable because of the brutal blows he sustained to his head. All three of them had apparently been murdered as they slept. In a separate bedroom, Schneider found Carl Steltzenreide. He had been struck so often, apparently with an ax, that he was nearly decapitated. His body was sprawled on the bloodstained floor, and it was later surmised that he had been roused from his bed by noises in the house and struck down as he attempted to come to the aid of his family.

As Schneider looked frantically around, he realized blood was on the floor, spraying wildly onto the walls and staining the room's ceiling. He saw chips and indentions in the plaster that were later determined to have been made by a "Maddox," a combination tool with the head of an ax and a large blade resembling a garden hoe. 

The only survivor of the carnage was the family dog, Monk. He was found lying on the floor next to Anna's bed, keeping watch over the bodies of the mother and her children. Monk was known to be very protective of the family and downright vicious toward strangers. This fact would lead investigators to believe that the killer, or killer, was someone known to the family. They also thought the killer entered the house through a rear door, first killing Anna and the children. Carl was killed when he heard the struggles in the bedroom, and Frederick was killed last. He had been sleeping on a lounge near the front of the house and was murdered after a hand-to-hand struggle with the murderer.

Schneider quickly left and summoned help. The authorities called nearby Belleville for assistance, and several sheriff's deputies and detectives answered. Soon after arriving, Deputy Sheriff Hughes discovered footsteps leading away from the house. As they were examined, it was noted that the prints had been made by boots cobbled with heavy nails, making them very distinctive. Hughes also found indentions in the ground that looked like someone dragging a heavy ax had made them. He followed the tracks for about a mile, and at the end of the trail, he found a pouch of partially chewed tobacco covered with blood. He deduced that the killer had been wounded during his attack on the family and had attempted to stem the bleeding with chewing tobacco. This popular folk remedy was believed to draw the infection from a cut. The footprints, and the bloody tobacco pouch, led the police to the home of Frederick Boeltz, the brother-in-law of Frederick Steltzenreide. 

Boeltz was married to Anna Stelzenreide's sister, and there had been a dispute between Boeltz and Frederick Steltzenreide because $200 that Boeltz had borrowed and never repaid. The two had quarreled over the debt several times. Boeltz was friends with an itinerant farm worker named John Afken, who had once worked for the Steltzenreide family and harbored a grudge against Frederick. Afken was a large and powerful man who made his living as a "grubber," a backbreaking occupation that involved clearing trees and rocks from farm lots. He was considered an expert with an ax and other hand tools and was feared by many because of his quick temper. He also possessed another characteristic of interest to the investigators – he had a full head of light red hair.

Carl Steltzenreide had died clutching a handful of hair precisely the same color.

The bodies of the Steltzenreide family were prepared for burial by ladies from the Zion United Church of Christ in Millstadt. This gruesome task was carried out in the Steltzenreide barn, which still stands on the property today. 
The original barn stands on the Stelzriede land since it was built.

The corpses were in such horrific condition that a number of the women became sick while washing them and had to be relieved. The killer had savaged the bodies so severely with his ax that the adults were nearly decapitated, and the children were bloodied and pummeled beyond recognition. It was brutality like nothing these small-town folks had ever seen before.

The family was laid to rest on Sunday, March 22, at Frievogel Cemetery, just a few miles from their home on Saxtown Road. The news of the massacre spread across the region in newspaper accounts and even appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The terror and curiosity that gripped the area brought more than 1,000 people to Stelzenreide's funeral service.

Immediately after the burial, Deputy Hughes arrested Frederick Boeltz and John Afken on suspicion of murder. Boeltz initially resisted arrest but then demanded to be provided with a bible while locked away in the Belleville city jail. Afken, on the other hand, was said to have displayed an uncanny lack of emotion. He accompanied the officers to jail and remained silent while in custody. During the Coroner's inquest that followed the arrest, Boeltz refused to face the jury, and when shown photographs of the victims' bodies, he refused to look at them. The two men were brought before a grand jury in April 1874, but the jury could not indict them. They believed there was insufficient evidence to connect them to the murders. Both suspects were released a week later. 

Although the authorities could not indict their main suspects, the investigation into the two men's activities and motives did not end. Investigators believed more strongly than ever that Boeltz was somehow involved in the murders, and they based this on the fact that the cash and valuables inside the Steltzenreide house had been undisturbed. They believed there was a motive that was darker than mere robbery for the crime – and that Boeltz was definitely involved.

Just a few days before he was killed, on March 16, Frederick Steltzenreide confided to some friends and neighbors that he had just received a substantial inheritance from relatives in Germany. He was at an auction when he broke the news and was seen carrying a large willow basket covered with an oilcloth. Rumor had it that the basket contained the inheritance, which Frederick had collected at the bank just before attending the auction. 

The Steltzenreide estate was reportedly worth several thousand dollars at the time of the murder. Investigators surmised that the wholesale slaughter of the family might have been an attempt to wipe out all of the immediate heirs to the estate. They believed that Frederick Boeltz, motivated by his dislike for Frederick Steltzenreide and his belief that he would inherit the money because of his marriage to Anna's sister, had hired John Afken to commit the murders. It was a viable theory to explain the massacre, but the police could never make it stick.

Boeltz later brought suit against the Steltzenreide estate to collect whatever money he could. He was eventually awarded $400, and soon after, he and his family moved away from the area and vanished into history.

John Afken remained in the Millstadt area, and the legend is that he was often seen carrying a gold pocket watch. When asked where he had gotten such an impressive timepiece because it seemed much nicer than anything he could afford, Afken would only smile. Some whispered that the pocket watch looked exactly like one that Carl Steltzenreide once owned.

The Steltzenreide home was torn down in August 1954. According to a report in the Millstadt Enterprise newspaper, the property owners, Leslie Jines and his family, were "glad to tuck the tale out of the way with whatever ghosts are there." The owners found it easy to get rid of the cursed, old house, but the ghosts that lingered there were not so easily dismissed. 

Randy Eckert was a more recent owner of the property and a house that stands at the site. In 2004, he told a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he believed the land where the murders took place was haunted. His first experience occurred when strange noises awakened him and his wife one morning. They both heard the sounds of doors opening and closing in the house, although nothing was disturbed. They weren't the only ones to hear something. The family dog, sleeping at the foot of the bed, was also awakened by the mysterious sounds and was terrified and shaking. Eckert added that the sounds were repeated many times over the years, always around the anniversary of the murders.

Chris Nauman, who rented the house from Eckert in the early 1990s, reported his chilling occurrences: "It was 6 o'clock in the morning, and there was a loud knock on the door. At the same time, my girlfriend heard someone walking up the steps in our basement." Al startled by the sounds, Nauman quickly checked the front door and the basement stairs but found no sign of visitors or intruders. The next day, he shared his story with Randy Eckert, asking him about the anniversary of the Steltzenreide murders. Eckert confirmed it for him – the ghostly happenings had occurred on March 19, the anniversary of the murders.

Nauman still remembers the effect this had on him, "A cold shiver ran up my spine."

To this day, the slaughter of the Steltzenreide family remains unsolved. While many suspects have been suggested over the years, there is no clear answer to the mystery. The area where the house once stood along Saxtown Road has changed very little since 1874, and it's not hard to imagine the sheer terror of those who lived nearby after news of the murders began to spread.

HOW MILLSTADT GOT ITS NAME.  Although the village name was officially spelled as “Centerville” in the records of the Recorder of Deeds of St. Clair County, the German settlers usually used the European spelling of “Centreville.” George Kuntz was appointed the town’s first postmaster on June 7, 1843. When the application was first made for a post office at “Centreville,” that name was rejected in Washington, DC, since there was already a post office in Centreville in Wabash County, Illinois. 

It is reported that the petitioners then translated the name “Centreville” into German and came up with the name 'Mittlestadt' or 'Middlestadt.' Either the writing was not clear, or the officials in Washington could not read the German writing because the name that was approved was “Millstadt."

Thus from 1843-1878, the people in town lived in Centreville but got their mail at the Millstadt Post Office. On September 14, 1878, the Board of Trustees of the Village of Centreville passed a revised ordinance to change the village's name to the ‘Village of Millstadt,” so the village name and the post office name were the same. 

"Several times have we been called on to record deeds of blood and villainy. And now, we undertake to record the most appalling crime in this State in several years. An investigation by an official revealed a scene that would make the stoutest heart quail. Should the discovery of the murderer have been made by the neighbors of the murdered family assembled around the bodies at the Coroner's inquest, there would have been no need for a judge or jury, for the excited populace would surely have torn them limb from limb."

Like many others, the Stelzriede family immigrated to southern Illinois from Germany.

They settled in a small rural track of land known as Saxtown, about five miles south of today's Millstadt, which remains steeped in German heritage today.

Saxtown in 1874 was a small, close-knit collection of families trying to survive by farming the land amid an economic depression.

On March 17, 1874, when Benjamin Schneider needed to borrow some potato seeds, he ventured to his neighbor's small log cabin home.

Schneider noticed the Stelzriede land was quiet. Nobody was bustling around doing the family chores. The horses and cattle had not been watered or fed. Schneider knocked on the front door.

There was no answer.

He looked in the windows. Nothing. Schneider went back to the front door and walked inside. What he found was the aftermath of a crime so gruesome it would eventually captivate the entire nation.

65-year-old Carl Stelzriede was lying in a large pool of blood, throat cut from ear to ear, his body nearly decapitated.

In the next room was his 36-year-old son Frederich, skull crushed and throat slashed.

Next to him was his 28-year-old wife Anna and their children, three-year-old Karl and eight-month-old Anna. All had been bludgeoned to death, believed to be by an axe.

The bodies were all found cold.

Word of the Saxtown murders blared on the front page of the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the small German farming community was horrified.

So what happened that horrific day in Saxtown? Police began looking backward.

About six weeks before the Stelzriede family was brutally murdered, a German farmer was shot and killed in broad daylight. Later, another farmer was nearly beaten to death in his wagon.

Before the murders, Frederick Stelzriede told some friends he had just received a substantial inheritance from Germany.

The Stelzriede estate was reportedly worth several thousand dollars at the time of the murder. Police now tied themselves to the theory that the murder of the family was intended to eliminate all heirs to the estate.

Police discovered that very little was taken from the home, leading them to believe the motive was personal.

Two separate rewards of $1,000 were offered to solve the crime, but that caused more problems. Private investigators soon flocked to Saxtown, hoping to claim big money, giving police tips on nearly everyone.

There was one survivor of the carnage of Saxtown, the family dog, Monk. He was found lying on the floor, quietly watching over the bodies.

Monk was said to be vicious toward strangers, so police believed the murderer was someone who was friends with the family.

And there were suspects.

Frederick Boeltz, who had a poor reputation in Saxton before the Stelzriede family's slaughter, was the first name on the list.

Boeltz was married to Anna Stelzriede's sister and had borrowed $200 ($5,325 today) from the Stelzriede family and never paid it back. That debt led to a long-standing feud with Frederich Stelzriede.

Police theorized Boeltz believed he would inherit the family farm and money if he was the only living relative, which gave him motive.

Inside the home, police found blood-covered tobacco. Outside, they discovered footprints leading away from the house.

Next to the footprints were large marks in the ground, which officers speculated had been made by someone dragging an axe as they walked.

For more than a mile, police tracked the prints to see where they led.

Along the trail, they found a pouch of tobacco covered with blood. They walked and walked until the footprints came to a stop right at Boeltz's front door.

After initially resisting arrest, Boeltz was charged with murder. At his trial, according to the paper, he "almost fainted at the ghastly sight" when shown pictures of the bodies.

For reasons lost to history, the jury found Boeltz not guilty. He later sued the Stelzriede estate and was awarded $400. He moved away from Saxtown and was never seen again.

Police then turned to a second suspect. A friend of Boeltz named John Afken also occasionally worked for the Stelzriede family.

Like Boeltz, he had a long-running grudge against Frederich Stelzriede. Afken was a large and powerful man who made his living with an axe.

He also had a bad temper and was feared by many in Saxtown. But he had one other characteristic that interested the police the most: He had the brightest red hair in town.

In fact, it was the exact same color as a clump of hair Carl Stelzriede was found clutching as he lay dead in a pool of blood.

Afken was taken to jail but was later released for reasons unknown.

Unlike Boeltz, he stayed in Saxtown. Legend says from then on, he would always carry an expensive gold pocket watch with him. If he was asked where he acquired such an impressive piece on his small salary, Afken just smiled.

Carl Stelzriede once owned an identical pocket watch.

Eight more suspects would eventually be arrested. All ended up being released.

On March 22, 1874, more than 1,000 people attended the Stelzriede family's burial.

Shortly after that, money came from relatives in Germany to have the family's remains moved to the more well-kept Walnut Hill Cemetery in Belleville, where an obelisk was being constructed in the family's memory.

But when a grave digger appeared to move the bodies, Saxtown residents rushed to the scene and blocked his path. And they brought their weapons, which may have included an axe. The grave digger left empty-handed.

There is no Saxtown today, just a short, winding country road. If you head west from Millstadt, Freivoel cemetery will be on a hill to your right. There you'll find tombstones from the 1800s, many rendered unreadable by the erosion of time.

That cemetery is where Stelzriede's family was buried, but you won't be able to find them.

They are in five unmarked graves, next to a family member who died years earlier.

Meanwhile, 10 miles away at the Walnut Hill Cemetery, the nine-foot obelisk towers over the grounds paying tribute to the slain family.

Incredibly, after the Saxtown murders, the log cabin stood. Longtime Millstadt resident Butch Hettenhausen had family grow up in the house.

"I have a picture of my mother in the house," he said. "It's dated 1905, so she would have been about five years old."

The cabin stood until 1954 when it was torn down. According to Millstadt Enterprise, Leslie Jines was the owner and decided enough was enough. "We are glad to tuck the tale out of the way with whatever ghosts are there," Jines said.

But the barn that hosted the horses and cattle on that gruesome night still stands tall, with hatchet marks visible in the wood.

In 1986, Randy Eckert, who lives nearby, bought the land and built a small house on the cabin site. Eckert, who was raised in Millstadt, was always intrigued by the legend of Saxtown.

"I always wanted to buy that farm," Eckert said. "I decided to live in the house for a couple of  years."

That did not last long.

Eckert said he and his wife noticed strange things happening every year around the anniversary of the killings.

One event has never left his mind.

"We were sleeping, and we had this small dog, and the dog woke us up. It was just shivering like crazy," he said. "My wife got up and said, 'Do you hear something?' and I said, 'Yeah.' Then all of a sudden, we heard a dog howling from like 100 years ago."

Then it got stranger.

"Then we heard someone pounding on the door. The door to the house has glass windows, and it's a tiny house. One step out of the bedroom, and you can see the door, and that door was bounding. Somebody was beating on that door," he said. "I walked straight to the door, never seeing anybody out the window, and the closer I got, the sound disappeared. When I got to the door, there was nobody anywhere."

That was enough for Eckert, who moved out and decided to rent the house.

"I always tell renters the house's history," he said. "You must be in the right frame of mind to live there."

For some reason, the renters don't stay long. Eckert said he's probably had a dozen people move out.

Many reported strange occurrences around the anniversary of the killings, even if they didn't know the date.

But some love the history of the place.

Spencer Shaw is the latest resident.

"I love it here," Shaw said. "When we were looking at moving in, Mr. Eckert told us the history of the house, and we were like, 'Oh my God, that's so cool!'"

Shaw says despite being so far out in the country, his front yard is a busy place. "Cars are driving past the house all the time. They slow down and take pictures. It's like I live in a famous place."

So far, Shaw has yet to experience anything that rivals Eckert's. But he knows the big test is in March.

"The anniversary. That's when everything is supposed to happen around here. I plan on staying. Of course, my mind could be changed."

The Belleville Advocate wrote 1874: "The Saxtown murder will pass into history with the additional word 'mystery' pinned to the name."

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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