By Eamonn O’Keeffe
The murder of John Paul Radelmüller is one of Toronto’s oldest mysteries and the city’s most enduring ghost story. Radelmüller’s restless apparition supposedly haunts the Gibraltar Point Lighthouse on the Toronto Islands, seeking justice for a long-ago crime.
Most who grew up in Toronto can recall the tale of the first lighthouse keeper’s demise:
On the evening of 2 January 1815, soldiers from Fort York paid Radelmüller a visit for his bootlegged beer, sold to supplement his modest income. A dispute broke out, quickly escalated, and Radelmüller was murdered. The drunken soldiers, anxious to hide their crime, dismembered the corpse and concealed his remains near the lighthouse.
A dramatic story, but is it true? Newspaper publisher and historian John Ross Robertson was the first to record the legend nearly a century later in Landmarks of Toronto, as recounted to him by long-time keeper George Durnan, whose father had taken charge of the lighthouse in 1832. But Robertson himself harboured doubts and suspected the whole yarn was a ‘fairy tale’. Though Durnan claimed to have discovered fragments of a coffin and part of a jawbone near the lighthouse in 1893, it was impossible to prove a link with his unfortunate predecessor.
Much ink has been spilled on the case since, serving more to embellish this urban myth than to ascertain its veracity. This article aims to establish the story of Radelmüller’s demise as history, not hearsay. His ghost may or may not haunt the 13th step of the lighthouse stairs, but the fundamental details of the legend are fact, not fable.
Born in Anspach in modern-day Bavaria circa 1757-1763, John Paul Radelmüller had brown hair, blue eyes, and stood 5’10”. He immigrated to England as a young man, serving for sixteen years as a ‘Chamber Hussar’ or personal attendant to one of George III’s brothers, Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester. Radelmüller travelled around Europe with the duke but left his service in 1798, intending to reunite with his relatives and settle down as farmer in Germany. However, the chaos caused by the ongoing French Revolutionary Wars prompted him to return to Britain after a few months. Radelmüller re-joined the Royal Household as a porter to Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent and future father of Queen Victoria. He accompanied his new master to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1799, where the duke briefly served as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Radelmüller subsequently worked as a steward for Sir John Wentworth, Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. But wishing to ‘redire [sic] a little before I die’, the ageing German quit and sought a land grant in Upper Canada, arriving at York (now Toronto) on New Year’s Day 1804.
Yet events did not go according to plan and his requests for Crown Reserve land in Markham amongst fellow German homesteaders were denied. Despite this setback, Radelmüller served as an interpreter for the German community in Upper Canada and established a school to teach English to the children of these settlers. While based in Markham, he penned the German translation of an 1806 government-sponsored agricultural tract encouraging farmers to cultivate hemp for export to Britain, where it was used to make rope for the Royal Navy. On 24 July 1809, Radelmüller was appointed as the first keeper of the lighthouse on Gibraltar Point.
John Paul Radelmüller married a young German woman named Magdalene Burkholder in 1810 and had one daughter, Arabella. He served at the lighthouse throughout the War of 1812, maintaining the lamp and keeping watch for approaching vessels. Far from the unscrupulous bootlegger of popular legend, this former servant of royalty was well-regarded for his ‘inoffensive and benevolent character’. But whatever his personality, Radelmüller’s life came to a tragic end on the evening of 2 January 1815.
Twelve days later, the weekly York Gazette brought news of the ‘horrid crime’, noting that the circumstances afforded ‘every moral proof’ of Radelmüller’s ‘most barbarous and inhuman’ murder. The notice added: ‘The parties last with him are the supposed perpetrators, and are imprisoned.’
But who were the alleged killers? According to court minute books, John ‘Blowman’ and John Henry were tried for murder on 31 March, with Chief Justice Thomas Scott presiding. Regimental pay lists prove that the accused were indeed soldiers: John Blueman and John Henry, both of the Glengarry Light Infantry, a unit that saw heavy action during the War of 1812. These men were not however the redcoats of myth: their regiment wore green uniforms modelled on those of the celebrated 95th Rifles.
Irish-born Blueman joined the Glengarries first, enlisting for three years on 9 March 1812. He served in the war’s bitter Niagara campaign and probably fought at the Battle of Fort George in May 1813.
Henry by contrast was a comparatively new recruit who likely never saw action. He was attested on 6 July 1814 at Montreal for three years’ service. A sailor born in Antrim, Ireland, Henry was 18 years old at enlistment. He had blue eyes, brown hair, a fair complexion and stood 5’4” in height.
At the time of the alleged murder, Blueman and Henry may have been posted at the lonely blockhouse on Gibraltar Point, which guarded entry to York’s harbour. Robertson claimed that the small detachment garrisoned there often visited the keeper for drinks. The men stationed at this isolated post enjoyed much less supervision than their counterparts across the harbour at Fort York and were just over a mile’s walk along the sandbar from Radelmüller’s beer keg.
In the dock on 31 March, both Blueman and Henry pled not guilty. The prosecution called seven witnesses, including David Thomson, a forefather of the billionaire Thomson media family and a mason who helped rebuild Fort York. Coroner Thomas Cooper also testified, filling in for his businessman father William, the official coroner for the Home District. At least three and probably four of the other Crown witnesses were privates of the Glengarry Light Infantry, presumably summoned to give evidence on the actions or whereabouts of Blueman and Henry on January 2nd.
Unfortunately, history has not graced us with the proceedings of the trial, only the outcome: both men were acquitted of murder. Perhaps innocence was proven or mitigating circumstances established; there may simply have been insufficient evidence to secure a guilty verdict. On 15 April, the York Gazette tersely announced: ‘No conviction of the supposed murderers of the late J.P. Raddelmuller.’
Many of the details surrounding the keeper’s demise will forever be left to the imagination. The whereabouts of Magdalene and Arabella on the evening of 2 January, for example, remain unclear, and his widow did not testify at trial.
The death of a foreign-born lighthouse keeper across the harbour apparently merited scant attention from the people of York. Not much correspondence has been found discussing the case; even the usually comprehensive diarist Ely Playter failed to mention the apparent murder. Though writing almost a century later, Robertson provides the only account of the night’s events. According to Durnan family tradition, he recorded, the keeper was beaten to death for refusing to give the inebriated soldiers another round of drinks.
In the absence of further contemporary evidence, the central question of precisely how Radelmüller met his end can never be answered with certainty. That said, the corroboration of other facets of Robertson’s account, including the basic fact of the keeper’s violent death and the involvement of soldiers from the garrison, certainly bodes well for the overall reliability of the tale related to him by Durnan.
Neither contemporary documentation nor Robertson’s account provide details on the precise location of the alleged murder. Spine-chilling stories of blood oozing from the 13th step notwithstanding, Radelmüller would surely have hosted the soldiers in his keeper’s cottage, not in the lighthouse’s cramped staircase. Constructed alongside the lighthouse in 1809, this cozy cabin – a more likely setting for the night’s events – stood until about 1950.
The account in Landmarks of Toronto is the sole source for the common belief that the lighthouse keeper doubled as a bootlegger. Yet Robertson’s claim that Radelmüller’s beer was purchased from a ‘brewery near Lewiston, N. Y.’ and smuggled across the lake to York seems far-fetched in light of the ongoing War of 1812, as patrolling warships would have made such long-distance rum-running hazardous in the extreme. If he was indeed a bootlegger, it is more plausible to suggest that the keeper, taking advantage of his isolation at the lighthouse, operated his own liquor still, supplementing his income by selling beer and spirits to the garrison of the Gibraltar Point Blockhouse.
But while investigation has supported much of the traditional legend, rumours of the gruesome fate of Radelmüller’s corpse appear to be completely unfounded. Although a missing body makes for a better ghost story, no contemporary sources describe the killers mutilating and concealing the keeper’s remains or even claim that Radelmüller disappeared at all. In fact, reports of the time laconically note his ‘unfortunate death’ without displaying any of the uncertainty that would inevitably have arisen in the absence of a body. Letters of administration for the estate of the late keeper (who left no will) were also promptly granted to Radelmüller’s brother-in-law on 17 January 1815. A close reading of Robertson’s account provides the final nail in the coffin, so to speak, as it clearly suggests that Durnan believed that Radelmüller’s corpse had been respectfully buried, not hacked to pieces and scattered. The discovery of coffin fragments found alongside a jawbone in 1893, if indeed linked to Radelmüller, would support such a conclusion, but does not tally with a hasty burial by fugitive killers. Contrary to oft-repeated claims that the keeper was ‘never seen again’, all evidence suggests that Radelmüller’s body did not vanish in the first place, but was found, examined by the coroner and laid to rest near the lighthouse.
Although Blueman and Henry escaped the death penalty, neither remained in the army for long. His term of enlistment complete, Blueman was discharged on 28 April 1815 while Henry deserted from the Glengarry Light Infantry on 30 June. Like many former soldiers, Blueman received a location ticket in 1816 for 100 acres in Sophiasburgh, Prince Edward County as a reward for his service. Although he never settled there permanently, the veteran later had second thoughts on homesteading. Blueman’s 1830 petition for another land grant was approved though no lot was apparently ever assigned to him.
In 1816, John Paul Radelmüller’s widow and brother-in-law, Michael Burkholder, secured title for 200 acres in Reach Township in trust for Arabella in posthumous fulfillment of her father’s 1805 land petition. Just four or five years old at the time of her father’s murder, Arabella grew up, married, and had seven children before her own death in 1844, aged 34.
The story of John Paul Radelmüller’s unfortunate demise has become one of Toronto’s most cherished myths. The tale has no doubt been ‘garnished in the telling’, as Robertson warned, but nonetheless remains firmly rooted in fact. We may never know precisely how Radelmüller gave up the ghost on 2 January 1815, nor whether that ghost still haunts the Gibraltar Point lighthouse. But perhaps it does – if not in search of its dismembered corpse then at least in pursuit of its pilfered jawbone!
This article was nominated for the 2016 Heritage Toronto Awards
Written and researched by Eamonn O’Keeffe
The author is grateful to Steve Otto, Ron W. Shaw, Ruth Burkholder, Chris McKay and Winston Johnston for their advice and assistance.
Want to get in touch? Click here to contact the author.
New Light on Toronto’s Oldest Cold Case first appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Fife and Drum, published by the Friends of Fort York.
The research outlined above was featured in the 8 August 2021 edition of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation newspaper. Reporter Peter Edwards described the tall tales surrounding the lighthouse and my efforts to distinguish fact from fiction. The story is available on the Star’s website here.
Note: John Paul Radelmüller’s name is spelled several different ways in both contemporary documents and secondary sources. John Ross Robertson termed him ‘Muller’ while the York Gazette called him ‘J.P. Rademuller’ and ‘J.P. Raddelmuller’. Other variants include Radan Muller, Radelmuller, Radenmuller, Rattelmullar or Radelmiller. However, as proven by his surviving signatures, the man signed his own name as J.P. Radelmüller.
 John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Fifth Series (Toronto: 1908), pp. 378-85.
 Ibid, p. 383.
 Phyllis H. White, Oaths of Allegiance sworn before William Willcocks, J.P. 1800-1806 and Robert Baldwin, 1800-1812, (Toronto: 1993), p. 14. See also manuscript Oaths of Allegiance, No. 82, John Paul Rattelmullar, sworn 14 May 1805, Toronto Reference Library Special Collections and Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Moderns Grand Lodge, 1768-1813, Register of Members, London, vol. i, Bedford Lodge, p.318 (available on Ancestry).
 1 January 1808, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 7, p. 2789. The Royal Archives at Windsor Castle were contacted in October 2015 in an effort to confirm Radelmüller’s royal service. Unfortunately, the archivists were unable to offer assistance as they held few records on the households of the Duke of Gloucester or the Duke of Kent for this period. But a register of members of the Bedford Lodge of Freemasons in London describes John Paul Radelmüller in 1797 as a forty-year-old ‘gentleman’ living in Upper Grosvenor Street, the location of Gloucester House, the Duke of Gloucester’s London residence. See Library and Museum of Freemasonry, Moderns Grand Lodge, 1768-1813, Register of Members, London, vol. i, Bedford Lodge, p.318 (available on Ancestry).
 1 January 1808, LAC, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 7, p. 2789-90.
 Ibid, p. 2791.
 Ibid, p. 2793 and 4 August 1804, LAC, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 3, pp. 1209-1212.
 For his date of appointment, see 7 August 1809, LAC, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 10, p. 4152. Regarding Remarks on the culture and preparation of Hemp in Canada (1806), Radelmüller spent eight days in York assisting the printer and correcting the work; he was paid £4 6s for his services. See J. Dilevko, “Printing for New Communities in German and Gaelic” in P.L. Fleming, G. Gallichan and Y. Lamonde, History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), p.290 and p.449, n.77.
 They were married on 20 March 1810 in St James’ Church (now Cathedral), York. See St. James’ Marriages, 1807-1908 (Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch, 1986). This was not Radelmüller’s first marriage: he wed Charlotte Horatia Sharp on 31 May 1792 at the church of St George’s, Hanover Square in London while still serving the Duke of Gloucester. The pair’s daughter, Jemima Barbara, was born on 16 January 1794. Radelmüller does not mention them in his lengthy petitions in Upper Canada. Petitioners of this era typically invoked the need to care for their wives and children when seeking government favour, suggesting that Radelmüller’s first wife and child had by then had died or become estranged. See City of Westminster Archives, STA/PR/1/7, St George Hanover Square marriages for 1792 and CCDS/PR/3/4, St George Hanover Square baptisms for June 1794 (both available on Ancestry).
 The York Gazette, 14 January 1815, Toronto Reference Library microfilm.
 Archives of Ontario (AO), Court of Queen’s [sic–King’s] Bench assize minute books, Criminal Assize 1810-1819, RG 22-134-0-4, microfilm MS 530, reel 2, pp. 190, 192. The men were indicted by a grand jury on 29 March 1815 and tried by a petit jury on 31 March.
 The National Archives (UK) (TNA), WO 12/10800, Glengarry Light Infantry Pay Lists. The December-March 1815 entries for both Blueman and Henry note: ‘Detained by the Civil Power, York, Acquitted’.
 TNA, WO 25/579, Glengarry Light Infantry Description Book, p. 5, and 9 February 1830, LAC, Upper Canada Land Petitions RG 1, L 3, vol. 51, p. 29.
 TNA, WO 164/556, Niagara Frontier 1813 Prize List, p. 127.
 TNA, WO 25/579, Glengarry Light Infantry Description Book, p. 81, and WO 25/2201, Glengarry Light Infantry Casualty Returns, No. 19, June-July 1815. The former source claims Henry was a labourer, while the latter records him as a sailor.
 Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Fifth Series (Toronto: 1908), p. 383.
 While the number of men posted at the blockhouse in early 1815 was not noted in the Glengarry Light Infantry’s monthly returns, the Canadian Regiment’s returns record that Serjeant Donald Fraser and twenty men garrisoned Gibraltar Point on 25 April 1815. See TNA, WO 17/298, Glengarry Light Infantry and Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry Monthly Returns, and WO 12/10526, Canadian Regiment Pay Lists, March-June 1815.
 AO, RG 22-134-0-4, microfilm MS 530, reel 2, p. 192. The witnesses from the Glengarry Light Infantry were Privates John Moore, Joshua Pitt, Thomas Plested and ‘Lewis Newor’ – presumably Private Louis Naddeau. See TNA, WO 12/10800, Glengarry Light Infantry Pay Lists and Winston Johnston, The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812-1816 (Charlottetown: Benson, 2011).
 AO, RG 22-134-0-4, microfilm MS 530, reel 2, p. 192.
 The York Gazette, 15 April 1815, Toronto Reference Library microfilm.
 AO, Ely Playter fonds, F 556-0-0-10, microfilm reel MS 87.
 See 5 January 1815, LAC, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 22, p. 9229-30, and 6 January 1815, p. 9236. For the letters of administration, see 17 January 1815, AO, York County Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-305, MS 638 reel 97.
 Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Fifth Series (Toronto: 1908), p. 383.
 TNA, WO 12/10800, Glengarry Light Infantry Pay Lists, June-September 1815, and WO 25/2201, Glengarry Light Infantry Casualty Returns, No. 19, June-July 1815.
 21 May 1816, LAC, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 28, p. 12894.
 9 February 1830, LAC, Upper Canada Land Petitions RG 1, L 3, vol. 51, p. 29, and AO, Registers of warrants for land grants – military, RG 1-160-2-1, MS 693 reel 139, p. 49.
 AO, Second Heir and Devisee Commission, RG 40-0259, MS 657 reel 17, Claim of Arabella Radelmüller, and 14 May 1805, LAC, Upper Canada Land Petitions, RG 1, L 3, vol. 425, p. 24-24c.
 Arabella Radelmüller married Adam Rupert and died on 19 September 1844. She is buried under the name Ann Miller with her husband in the Maple United Cemetery in Vaughan, Ontario. I am grateful to Ruth Burkholder for sharing the results of her genealogical research into Arabella’s family.
 Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Fifth Series (Toronto: 1908), p. 383.
The National Archives (TNA) Kew, London (UK)
WO 12/10800, Glengarry Light Infantry Pay Lists, 1815.
WO 25/579, Glengarry Light Infantry Description Book, pp. 5, 81.
WO 25/2201, Glengarry Light Infantry Casualty Returns, No. 19, June-July 1815.
WO 164/556, Niagara Frontier 1813 Prize List, Glengarry Light Infantry, p. 127.
Library and Archives Canada (LAC)
4 August 1804, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 3, pp. 1209-12.
1 January 1808, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 7, pp. 2789-95.
7 August 1809, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 10, pp. 4152-54.
5 January 1815, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 22, pp. 9229-30.
6 January 1815, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 22, p. 9236.
21 May 1816, Upper Canada Sundries, RG 5, A 1, vol. 28, p. 12894.
14 May 1805, Upper Canada Land Petitions, RG 1, L 3, vol. 425, pp. 24-24c.
9 February 1830, Upper Canada Land Petitions RG 1, L 3, vol. 51, p. 29.
Archives of Ontario (AO)
Court of Queen’s Bench assize minute books, Criminal Assize 1810-1819, RG 22-134-0-4, microfilm MS 530, reel 2, pp. 190, 192.
Ely Playter fonds, 1815 diary, F 556-0-0-10, microfilm MS 87.
Registers of warrants for land grants – military, RG 1-160-2-1, microfilm MS 693 reel 139, p. 49.
Second Heir and Devisee Commission, RG 40-0259, microfilm MS 657 reel 17, Claim of Arabella Radelmüller.
York County Surrogate Court estate files, RG 22-305, microfilm MS 638 reel 97, John Paul Radelmüller, 17 January 1815.
Toronto Reference Library (TRL)
Manuscript Oaths of Allegiance, Special Collections, No. 82, John Paul Rattelmullar, sworn 14 May 1805.
The York Gazette, microfilm, 14 January and 15 April 1815.
Library and Museum of Freemasonry, London (UK)
Moderns Grand Lodge, 1768-1813, Register of Members, London, vol i, Bedford Lodge, p.318, recording members who became masons between 1796 and 1802 [available on Ancestry].
City of Westminster Archives, London (UK)
STA/PR/1/7, St George Hanover Square marriages for 1792
CCDS/PR/3/4, St George Hanover Square baptisms for June 1794
P.L. Fleming, G. Gallichan and Y. Lamonde, History of the Book in Canada, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1840 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Winston Johnston, The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812-1816 (Charlottetown: Benson, 2011).
John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Fifth Series (Toronto: 1908), pp. 378-385.
Phyllis H. White, Oaths of Allegiance sworn before William Willcocks, J.P. 1800-1806 and Robert Baldwin, 1800-1812, (Toronto: 1993), p. 14.
St. James’ Marriages, 1807-1908 (Toronto: Ontario Genealogical Society, Toronto Branch, 1986)