Robertson’s Account of Radelmüller’s Murder

Newspaper publisher and historian John Ross Robertson was the first to record the tale of John Paul Radelmüller’s murder, as told to him by long-time lighthouse keeper George Durnan. First printed in the Toronto Evening Telegram, Robertson’s account of the legend was subsequently featured in the Fifth Series of his Landmarks of Toronto, published in 1908.

George Durnan being interviewed by John Ross Robertson (right)

Though writing a century later based on Durnan family oral tradition, Robertson provides the only account of the circumstances of Radelmüller’s death on the evening of 2 January 1815. However, as discussed in New Light on Toronto’s Oldest Cold Case, the corroboration of several facets of Robertson’s version of events by surviving evidence certainly bodes well for the overall reliability of the tale related to him by Durnan.

Robertson is also the sole source for the common belief that Radelmüller was a bootlegger. However, his claim that the keeper’s beer was bought from a ‘brewery near Lewiston, N. Y.’ and somehow smuggled across the lake to York seems far-fetched in light of the ongoing War of 1812. It is more plausible to suggest that Radelmüller, taking advantage of his isolation at the lighthouse, operated his own liquor still, supplementing his income by selling the beer he produced to the garrison of the Gibraltar Point Blockhouse.

Relevant passages concerning Radelmüller from Landmarks of Toronto (pages 378-85) are reproduced below; a scan of the original book can be found here.

Eamonn O’Keeffe
March 2016

Want to learn more about Radelmüller’s murder? Check out New Light on Toronto’s Oldest Cold Case.

The first keeper of the lighthouse was a man named Muller or Miller, a German by birth, a quiet, inoffensive man,[1] who attended to his duties faithfully.

He occupied the house erected in 1808, which stands directly west of the present keeper’s dwelling. It is a frame house of uncommon construction, for it is built of three-inch planks with a frame of plank timbers, and the outside is clapboarded. It is 18 x 26 in size, and had two rooms, 9 x 15  and 11 x 15, used as a kitchen and living room, living room, and an attic, 16 x 24. It is the oldest house in Toronto.[2] […]

Over the fireplace are brackets which supported the shelf on which Muller, the first light keeper, a German, stood his “steins,” so says a well founded tradition…

This house has been for forty years used for the storage of the oil used for the lamps. Muller, true to the customs of his Fatherland, always liked a glass of beer, and by way of improving his stipend as lighthouse keeper, he always kept a spare keg on hand for his friends. It is understood that the beer was obtained from a brewery near Lewiston, N. Y. […]


Gibraltar Point Blockhouse
Plan of the Gibraltar Point Blockhouse, rebuilt after the 1813 Battle of York (Kevin Hebib)

In 1794-1818 there was a blockhouse erected by Governor Simcoe at Gibraltar Point, in which two guns were mounted, the battery being guarded by a detachment of soldiers, who came over every week from the fort at York. There were soldiers at this Blockhouse up to the year 1815 the close of the American war. The soldiers often rowed down Blockhouse Bay in small boats to visit the light house keeper, and when they could not get a boat, they walked to the point. Muller always made them welcome. But one day a group of three who had been drinking in York, came over from the town and called on Muller to produce his beer keg. This he readily did, and when he saw that his military friends were having more than was good for them, he refused a further supply. The refusal ended in a fight and the fight ended in the death of Muller, for the soldiers finally beat him to death with their belts and with a stick that was convenient.

This is the story that has been handed down from generation to generation. There is no doubt that it has been garnished in the telling.  It may be a fairy tale – and the writer is inclined to think it is made out of whole cloth – but Mr. George Durnan, the late light keeper, states that he heard the story from his father, and that he, the son, with his uncle Joe Durnan, found in 1893, bits of a coffin and part of the jaw bone of a man, four feet beneath the sand and about five hundred feet west of the present keeper’s house.  It was always claimed that Muller was buried west of the lighthouse, near the lagoon at the south end of Blockhouse Bay, and in order to verify the story, Mr. Durnan made the search with the above result.

There is no record of a trial of soldiers for murder between 1808-17,  nor is there any mention of such an happening in the Upper Canada Gazette published weekly in York, a paper which generally chronicled news of importance.[3] Nor is there any reference to it in the Simcoe correspondence, civil or military, nor is there any document, manuscript or printed form which contains even a reference to it, so there is no absolute proof that the murder ever took place.  The Montreal papers often published Upper Canada news, but in neither the Gazette nor Herald is there any reference to such an event.

In 1903 two young men, who said they were nephews of Muller, called upon Mr. George Durnan, and made enquiries about their relative and this story of his sad end. Mr. Durnan told them what he gave to the writer, nothing more. Mr. Muller was keeper of the lighthouse from 1808 until 1815, a period of eight years.[4]

[1] This is corroborated by the York Gazette, which notes Radelmüller’s ‘inoffensive and benevolent character’.
[2] The Scadding Cabin, now located at the Exhibition Place, is actually Toronto’s oldest building, first erected in 1794.
[3] This is false; Radelmüller’s murder is indeed recorded in the York Gazette, also known as the Upper Canada Gazette depending on the year of publication.
[4] Radelmüller was actually appointed keeper on 24 July 1809.

Cover photo: Window of the 1809 Gibraltar Point Lighthouse Keeper’s House, c. 1908.
Toronto Public Library, Baillie Room, TEC 632B.

These transcriptions © Eamonn O’Keeffe 2016