Benjamin Franklin and the Quaker Murders

Written by John Harmon McElroy
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

Captain James Jamison, a Revolutionary War veteran, is summoned one evening in 1785 to the home of Benjamin Franklin. A recent murder in Philadelphia has intrigued the elderly statesman. A stone-cutter named Jacob Maul has been arrested for the murder of his sister-in-law, Elizabeth, her body found wrapped in canvas and stuffed down an abandoned necessary (toilet). Years before, Maul’s wife was discovered dead beside her sleeping husband, but he was never tried for that suspected crime. Maul, a Quaker who refused to assist in the revolution due to his beliefs, is an unpopular man, though many say he is gentle and kind. Franklin knew Maul and can’t accept the accusation. In failing health, Franklin asks James to be his “legs” in the investigation. Franklin also attempts to solve the death of Maul’s wife. James learns that Elizabeth was a flirt, and several men—including two Hessian soldiers quartered at the Maul residence during the war—become suspects in her demise.

The novel starts out with long lectures and telling of events, which slows the narrative, but once the inquiry begins, the intricate plot and descriptions of 18th-century Philadelphia drew me in. While Jamison should have had more doubts at being turned into a detective, Franklin, his astute deductions, and his quirky home, Franklin Court, are fascinating. Most characters, except Maul himself, are well-fleshed out. And some of Jamison’s travel details could have been omitted, as they have nothing to do with the story. McElroy’s excellent research, Franklin’s wit, the events leading up to the murder of Elizabeth, and the suspicious death of Maul’s wife should keep readers engaged.