New book published about 1874 ax murders near Millstadt

News-DemocratJanuary 11, 2014 

As a child growing up in Millstadt, Nicholas J.C. Pistor remembers being scared when hearing tales about the Saxtown ax murders.

"It had often kept me awake as a boy," he writes in the introduction to his new book.

It took him 10 years and a lot of effort but he may have exorcised those fears with "The Ax Murders of Saxtown."

Pistor wrote the book about the 1874 murders of a family in a small unincorporated community a couple of miles south of Millstadt during his time off from working as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It's part of the true crime genre.

"I had heard stories about this while I was growing up," he said. "There were a lot of ghost stories."

But it wasn't until his senior year in college in 2003 at St. Louis University when he was taking a class on demonic Christianity with the Rev. Francis X. Cleary that the subject came to mind again.

Pistor said he was talking to Cleary, who had been a student during the renowned exorcism in St. Louis that became the basis for the movie "The Exorcist."

When Pistor mentioned he was from Millstadt, Cleary brought up the subject of the Saxtown murders.

"I decided to find out everything I could about them," he said. "It quickly became a daunting task."

He has a large binder full of everything he could find that was ever written about the case.

The murders occurred on March 19, 1874, late at night. Carl Stelzriede, 65, his son, Fritz, Fritz's wife, Anna and their 3-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter were bludgeoned to death with an ax.

Pistor said the more he found about the murders, the more interesting the subject became.

"I didn't realize the grip it had on the area at the time, and for years afterward," he said. "It frightened an entire neighborhood. Everyone was worried that this killer might strike again. It went on for years."

The story made national headlines, Pistor said, and at one time was considered the biggest crime since the assassination of President Lincoln. It continued to occupy peoples' imaginations for a long time.

A reward of $1,000 was offered by St. Clair County and the neighborhood came up with another $1,000 to add to it.

"People came from all over the country to try and earn it," Pistor said. "Some even moved to the community."

The effect was to totally muddle up everything, he said.

The most frightening thing was that the killer, or killers, probably were local.

"It was out in the middle of nowhere. It was almost impossible to get there," Pistor said. "The roads were nearly impassible. The family appears to have been targeted."

Suspicion fell on the man who discovered the murders the next day, then on relatives, then on a number of other people. No one was ever convicted.

Pistor said the grand jury records were either lost or stolen, but he did have recourse to some lawsuits filed for slander by various people who had been accused of things.

What also sets the murders apart is that they occurred at a time when newspapers started acting like newspapers as we know them now, he said.

"They were sending out reporters, interviewing witnesses and writing facts instead of just speculation," he said.

He said files of all the German language newspapers at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield were invaluable.

"I found all these files. I was so excited. My excitement abated when I realized they were all in German. I had to kind of read through them looking for key words like Saxtown."

He had them translated and was excited again to find some details that weren't available in the English press.

"All the farmers were German. Some didn't even speak English," he said. "The German newspapers were able to get more out of them."

The book is published by Lyons Press and is available in hardcover from bookstores and online.

Pister will be signing copies of his book at 2 p.m., Jan. 18 at the Barnes & Noble store in Fairview Heights.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com

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