Saturday, March 19, 2016


History & Mystery of the Millstadt Ax Murders

The small town of Millstadt is located just a few miles from Belleville, a long-established and prosperous town that is located 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 there 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 – and a haunting that continues today. 

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 home, he found that the area was eerily still. The horses and cattle that were fenced in the front lot had not been watered or fed and no one was taking care of 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 for him 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 small 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 that he had 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 many times, 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 been struck down as he attempted to come to the aid of his family. 
As Schneider looked frantically around, he realized that blood was on the floor, had sprayed wildly onto the walls, and even stained the ceiling of the house. 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 killers, was someone known to the family. They also believed that the killer entered the house through a rear door, killing Anna and the children first. 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 had been murdered after a hand-to-hand struggle with the murderer.
Schneider quickly left and summoned help. The authorities called to nearby Belleville for assistance and several sheriff’s deputies and detectives answered the call. 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 that were cobbled with heavy nails, making them very distinctive. Hughes also found indentions in the ground that looked as though they had been made by someone dragging a heavy ax. He followed the tracks for about a mile and at the end of the trail, he found a pouch of partially chewed tobacco that was 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, a popular folk remedy that 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 worked named John Afken, who had once worked for the Steltzenreide family and who also 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, as well as other hand tools, and was feared by many because of his quick temper. He also possessed another characteristic that was of interest to the investigators – he had a full head of light red hair.

Carl Steltzenreide had died clutching a handful of hair that was exactly 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 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 badly 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, located just a few miles from their home on Saxtown Road. The news of the horror 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 the 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 was unable to indict them. They believed there was insufficient evidence to connect them to the murders. Both suspects were released a week later. 

Although the authorities had been unable to indict their main suspects in the case, the investigation into the two men’s activities and motives did not come to an 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 of 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 at the time he broke the news and he was seen carrying a large willow basket that was 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 were never able to make it stick.

Boeltz later brought suit against the Steltzenreide estate in an effort 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 legend has it 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 that appeared in the Millstadt Enterprise newspaper at the time, the owners of the property, 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. 

A more recent owner of the property, and a house that stands at the site, was Randy Eckert. 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 one morning when he and his wife were awakened by strange noises. 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, which had been 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 own 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.” Nauman, startled by the sounds, 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 taken place 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. It’s a lonely, isolated area and, if the stories are to be believed, a haunted one. 

But what ghosts still walk in this place? Are they the tragic spirits of the Steltzenreides, still mourning the fact that their deaths have never been avenged? Or do the phantom footsteps and spectral knockings signal the presence of the killer’s wicked wraith, perhaps forced to remain here as a penance for the crime that he never answered to while among the living?
We may never really know, but for now, the haunting continues and the people of Millstadt continue to remember the day when horror visited their little town.

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