This diabolical murder was committed by Ehlert, the mate of the Norwegian brigantine Phoenix, upon John Frederick Berkhalt, captain of the vessel, while she lay in the river at Sunderland. The atrocious transaction was first brought to light by the discovery of the murdered remains of Berkhalt in the river at Sunderland, on Friday the 14th of June 1839, with such appearances upon his body as left no doubt that his life had been taken away by violent means; and suspicion at once attached to the crew of his vessel. They were all secured, protesting their ignorance of the murder, and alleging that the captain had gone ashore on the night of the previous Tuesday, since which they had seen nothing of him; but the discovery of marks of blood in his cabin left little doubt of his having been murdered on board the Phoenix, and then thrown into the river, in order that his death might be concealed. This belief was speedily confirmed by the confession of a boy named Daniel Frederick Muller, aged nineteen, who was employed in the ship, and who now voluntarily disclosed the whole of the circumstances of the horrible crime, implicating Ehlert the mate.
His statement was to the following effect:-- On the night of Tuesday the 11th of June, he had the twelve-o'clock watch, and at about half-past one Ehlert came on deck and called him below. He asked what he was wanted for, but he was desired to ask no questions, but to follow whither he was led. The mate had a hammer and a lantern in his hand, and he went into the captain's cabin. When there he gave the lantern to Muller and desired him to hold it, and then he directly raised his hammer and dealt three tremendous blows on the head of Berkhalt as he lay asleep. The unfortunate man scarcely moved; but Muller, terrified beyond measure, exclaimed, "Mate, what are you doing? "and tried to run away. In this, however, the mate prevented his succeeding, and seizing him by his arm, he said that he must remain. The mate then took the body from the bed and slung a rope round the neck, and he partially clothed it in a pair of stockings and trousers, and then drew a canvas bag over it. The boy now again attempted to escape, but the mate threatened to murder him if he went away, and drew a clasp-knife from his pocket, as if to put his threat into execution; but he told him that if he remained he would give him 300l., for that there was plenty of money in the captain's cabin. The boy soon after went on deck and wept bitterly, and while he was there the mate came to him and took the skylight off the captain's cabin. He then cut a long cord off the gear, and going below again he tied it round the body, so that he could raise it by that means through the skylight. On his again reaching the deck, he ordered Muller to bring the boat round to the side, and while he was doing so, the boy saw him throw the body over the stern. Both then entered the boat, the mate holding the rope which was attached to the body of the deceased, and they rowed away to the opposite side of the river. The mate there picked up a large stone, and they pulled some distance up against the tide. As they went along the trousers and bag slipped from the body. At length they stopped, and then the mate fixing the stone upon the body let it go, and it sank to the bottom. They now returned to the ship, and Ehlert having called the next watch retired to rest, telling the boy that at four o'clock, the conclusion of the present watch, he would call him up as if to take the captain ashore, so that the crew might suppose that he did so. This was done, and he rowed away the boat as if he had the captain in her. The night of the murder was dark and rainy. The boy added, that he had done nothing himself in the way of assisting in the murder, but that he had tried very much to get away. The mate had, however, threatened him a great deal so as to prevent his escape, and having compelled him to aid him in the transaction, had given him instructions what to say in the event of his being questioned.
Upon this statement, Ehlert was committed to take his trial; and the boy was also detained in jail to ensure his attendance as a witness.
On Saturday the 27th of July, the prisoner Ehlert was put upon his trial at the assizes. The evidence of the boy was corroborated by that of other witnesses in many material particulars, and a verdict of "Guilty "was returned by the jury.
Sentence of death was instantly passed, amidst the unavailing protestations of the wretched convict of his innocence. Between this period and the day of his execution, Ehlert continued firm in his denial of his participation in the murder, and imputed the whole guilt of the transaction to Muller, who he said had destroyed the captain under the very circumstances which he had detailed, as having been those under which he had committed the foul crime. He said he had discovered the completion of the deed, and out of compassion for the boy had omitted to give him up to justice. Muller, however, persisted in the truth of his tale, and on the 16th of August the miserable convict was executed.