Sometime during the night of March 19, 1874, a murderer entered the Stelzriede family's home in an unincorporated area outside of Millstadt called Saxtown, about 9 nine miles south of Belleville.
Five bodies were discovered the next day, March 20, 1874, by a neighbor who stopped by to borrow some potato seed, according to the Belleville Weekly Advocate — later called the Belleville Daily Advocate.
The dead were Carl Stelzriede, age 70; his son Friederic "Fritz" Stelzriede, age 25; Fritz's wife, Anna Stelzriede; and their children, Karl, age 3; and Anna, 7 months old.
The small German farming community was horrified. The national press ran the story in its headlines. An account of the murders ran on the front page of the New York Times.
According to author Nicholas J.C. Pistor, who wrote a book about the event called "The Ax Murders of Saxtown," at the time of the murders, it was considered the biggest crime since the assassination of President Lincoln.
"Several times have we been called on to record deeds of blood and villainy," the Belleville Advocate reported in 1874. "And now we undertake to record the most appalling crime that has occurred in this State in a number of years."
The neighbor, who the Belleville Advocate simply called "Snyder," told the paper he entered and saw "Fritz lying on the floor with his skull crushed and his throat cut."
Snyder ran to get help from the neighbors, all of whom were too frightened to enter the home. Millstadt sent a messenger to Belleville for assistance.
A St. Clair County deputy and coroner were sent to examine the crime scene.
"An investigation by that official revealed a scene that would make the stoutest heart quail," reported the Belleville Advocate.
Fritz Stelzriede lay just within the door "weltering in a pool of blood." Three of his fingers had been cut off in the struggle with the killer and were laying nearby.
In the same room, Anna Stelzriede's body was on the bed. Her skull had been crushed and her throat cut.
The body of her 7-month-old girl was in her arms. The Advocate described the infant as having "flaxen hair and blue eyes, its head cut open." They appeared to have died while sleeping.
Karl Stelzriede, age 3, lay next to his mother and sister. "His face unrecognizable by the mass of blood which covered it," the Belleville Advocate reported.
Carl Stelzriede, the grandfather, was found in the next room. He had been struck so violently "his head was almost severed from his body."
"Nearly one hundred dollars in cash, which was known to be in the house, is missing," said the paper.
In the yard, marks made by a dragging ax and footprints made by "boot heels shod with nails" were found.
Some tobacco covered in blood was discovered as well. Authorities believed the killer received an injury in the fight and used the tobacco to staunch the blood by pressing it against the wound.
Neighbors blamed each other. Fingers began pointing at Frederick Boeltz, who had been married to the sister of Anna Stelzriede.
They said he must have committed the crime because "he bore a bad name in the neighborhood" and had been fighting over money he had borrowed from the Stelzriede family.
Also, the blood-covered tobacco had been located in the direction of Boeltz's farm.
Boeltz was dragged before a jury and, when he looked at the bodies, "almost fainted at the ghastly sight." Boeltz was declared not guilty after the jury examined all the evidence against him.
The Belleville Advocate noted, "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."
After the Stelzriede family was buried in a funeral attended by more than 1,000 people, Boeltz was arrested again. This time, a farmhand named John Afkhen was arrested too.
Afkhen had worked for Fritz Stelzriede in the past and was a member of the German Methodist Church in Belleville.
"He is said to be a good Christian to all outward appearances by those who know him," reported the Belleville Advocate.
Once in prison, the men were placed in two separate cells.
Boeltz requested a Bible. Afkhen seemed unconcerned "apparently unconscious of the nature of the crime for which he is held in charge."
The excited populace
The paper reported the evidence on which the two men were arrested was circumstantial and was based on the fact they had both quarreled with the family and "had shown great trepidation when forced to look upon the murdered people."
Authorities searched the houses of both of the suspects and found nothing to tie either man to the crime.
"If nothing further develops to point them as the possible criminals or accessories they will probably be released in a few days," reported the Belleville Advocate. And they were.
Another male relative of the Stelzriede family was questioned by police because "he had a bad reputation and was seen in the vicinity of the murder." However, he had an alibi and was released.
Two separate rewards of $1,000 each were offered for information leading to the person responsible for the crime. Nothing was ever discovered.
The Belleville Advocate said the public had an insatiable appetite for information about the murders, leading to questionable reporting by local papers. "The most improbable stories are told and eagerly devoured," it reported.
Ghosts of the past
The Stelzriede's original home is gone, but the new owners of the property have reported strange sounds in the night. In Pistor's book, they said weird things occur on or near the anniversary of the murder.
In an interview with BND reporter Wally Spiers, Pistor, who completed extensive research to write his book, said, "It was out in the middle of nowhere. It was almost impossible to get there. The roads were nearly impossible. The family appears to have been targeted."
As the Belleville Advocate predicted in 1874: "The Saxtown murder will pass into history with the additional word 'mystery' pinned to the name."
BND reporters Roger Schlueter and Wally Spiers contributed to this story.