Growing up as a boy in Millstadt, Ill. Nicholas Pistor heard ghost stories about an ax murderer who killed an entire family in nearby Saxtown more than a century ago.
As a student at Saint Louis University, a conversation with Father Francis Cleary turned his childhood fears into curiosity about the truth behind the story. He began to track down newspaper articles written at the time of the murders, later returning to his research when he became a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“The Ax Murders of Saxtown” is the result of Pistor’s ten year investigation into the unsolved crime.
It tells the story of a close-knit German immigrant community eking an existence out of farming the land in the midst of an economic depression. One day in 1874, a neighbor entered the Stelzriede family cabin after noticing the cows hadn’t been milked. He found the entire family –grandfather, father, mother, and children - brutally murdered with an ax.
The crime struck a chord with the nation because of its gruesome nature and lack of suspects, Pistor said. It was particularly unnerving for the people of Saxtown, however. Saxtown was a hamlet made up of German immigrant farmers near Millstadt.
“Not only did they know this family very well, but the person who did it most likely was living amongst them. And it set off this horrible suspicion among everyone, thinking someone with an ax is out there and he might come and try and kill me,” Pistor said.
At the time of the murders, police work was in its infancy.
“Right after 1874 you begin to see all the technological innovations that have changed police work but also changed society. It’s two years removed from the invention of the telephone. It’s before finger printing was used. It’s before any idea of forensic science, or even crime scene photography,” Pistor said.
Instead, police would interrogate a suspect, hoping to browbeat them into a confession.
In the case of the Saxtown murders, the investigation was further confused by the sheriff’s offer of reward money. Private investigators came from all over hoping for the reward - and making all sorts of allegations.
In the end, the murderer was never found. The sheriff arrested eight suspects but later released them. Pistor believes that the case would have been solved if it had occurred today, but with the passage of time and the loss of the grand jury investigative reports, it is impossible to know for sure who committed the crime.
Much of Pistor’s book details the history of the hamlet of Saxton and the Stelzriede family, as well as the multiple theories of who could have killed them.
For Pistor, the suspect that seems most likely is a brother-in-law who moved to Nebraska and changed his name after the murders. It was commonly believed that the motivation for the murders was inheritance - either stealing it or clearing the way to inherit money from the Stelzriede family.
“It’s hard to point the finger in one direction because there are so many suspects and you could make a case for any of them,” Pistor said, before adding that “the man from Nebraska, I do believe he hired someone. That’s the best case I can come up with. That a hired hand came in and killed the family.”
The strength and motion of the ax swings in the cabin led some to believe that the murderer was a “grubber” - a hired hand that removed tree stumps from farm land.
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