Slaughter in Saxtown: The brutal axe murder of an entire family remains the coldest case in the region

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MILLSTADT, Ill. (KMOV.com) -- The Belleville Advocate was the newspaper of record in 1874. 

When they went to print on Friday, March 27 of that year, their story read:

"Several times have we been called on to record deeds of blood and villainy. And now we undertake to record the most appalling crime that has occurred in this State in a number of years. An investigation by an official revealed a scene that would make the stoutest heart quail, Could 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."

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The Stelzriede family immigrated to southern Illinois, like many others, from Germany.

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

Saxtown in 1874 was a tiny, close-knit collection of families trying to survive by farming the land in the midst of 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.

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The original barn that stood on the Stelzriede land has remained on the land since it was built.

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 laying 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.

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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 that 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 the big money, giving police tips on nearly everyone.

There was one survivor to the carnage of Saxtown, the family dog, Monk. He was found lying on the floor, quietly keeping watch 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.

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The original home was torn down in the 1950s. This is the house that stands in its place today.

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

Boeltz was married to Anna Stelzriede's sister, and had borrowed $200 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.

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Police then turned to a second suspect. A friend of Boeltz named John Afken, who 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 perhaps 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.

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

Shortly thereafter, 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.

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The family was buried in unmarked graves next to a family member who had died years earlier. No headstones were ever placed to mark where they were laid to rest. 

But when a grave digger showed up 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 of them rendered unreadable by the erosion of time.

That cemetery is where Stelzriede 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 made the decision that 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 still 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. "In fact, I decided to live in the house for a couple of years."

That did not last long.

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

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 very small 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 has since decided to rent the home out.

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

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

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Randy Eckert bought the land that once held the Stelzriede family home in 1986. He still owns it today.

Many of them reported strange occurrences, always 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 hasn't had any experiences that rival 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."

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

Copyright 2019 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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