George Müller: The Guardian of Bristol’s Orphans

Chapter 1
A Common Thief

Crash! A flowerpot toppled over onto the sidewalk beneath George Müller as he stretched his foot out to reach the ground. George was climbing out the back window of the inn where he had been staying, and when he heard the crash, he froze. After he was satisfied no one had heard him, he lowered one foot softly onto the cobbled pavement, then the other. Sixteen-year-old George pulled his tall, lanky body up to its full height and looked around. “Good,” he muttered to himself under his breath. “I’m safe. Now to get out of here.”

A moment later George realized he’d spoken too soon. Police officers appeared at either end of the street and began running towards him. George swung around, desperately looking for some way to escape, but there was none. Before he knew it, the strong hands of a policeman had grabbed his arm and were dragging him roughly along the cobblestone street in the direction of the jail.

An hour later, George was waiting for his name to be called. The backless wooden bench he sat on was hard and uncomfortable, and the chains around his slender wrists and ankles bit at his flesh.

As he waited, George thought about how shocked his father would be to see him in shackles. Then again, his father probably wouldn’t be any more shocked than George was right then. George had done dishonest things many times before, but this was the first time he’d been caught. That is, the first time he’d been caught by the police. When he was ten years old, he’d been caught by his father, and it turned out to be a painful and humiliating experience. His father, Johann Müller, was a tax collector for the Prussian government, and he often left large sums of money in the house. Mr. Müller often complained that small amounts of this money were missing, but George, like his younger brother, passionately declared he knew nothing about it.

One day George was called into his father’s office, where his father had laid a trap for him. Mr. Müller had counted out a number of coins and left them on the corner of his desk. When George arrived at the office, his father pretended he needed to go into another room. Alone in the office, George saw the pile of coins on his father’s desk and thought of all the wonderful things he could do with the money. It seemed such a shame to put all of the coins into the official black leather pouch his father used for collecting tax money and hand the money over to some government official. So George crept up to the desk and quietly lifted three coins from the top of the pile. Who would miss them? George quickly dropped the coins inside his right sock.

When Johann Müller returned to the office, much to George’s dismay, he looked straight at the pile of coins. “How strange,” he said in a low, constrained voice George had come to fear. “I thought there were more coins there than that. Let me count them.”

George could feel his cheeks becoming hot and flushed. His heart began to race. The cold coins pressed against his ankle inside his sock.

“Empty your pockets,” said Mr. Müller evenly, looking his son in the eye.

“But Papa…,” George began and then thought better of it. Obediently, he emptied his pockets onto the desk. There were a quill nib, three glass marbles, and a foot-long piece of string. George turned his pockets inside out so that his father could see that they were empty.

“Now take off your shirt.”

George was horrified. How far would his father go before he believed his oldest son?

“And your pants.”

George began to fret. Things were not looking good. If his father found the coins in his sock, George would be beaten. And from previous experience, George knew that a boy without his pants on made an especially good target.

“Now your socks,” continued his father in a determined voice.

George inched them off his feet, first the left and then the right, being careful to gather the coins in such a way that they wouldn’t clink together.

“Hand them over,” demanded his father.

George’s heart raced even faster. His face felt like it was on fire now. George lowered his eyes as he gave the socks to his father.

A second later his father exploded. “My son, a common thief! How dare you disgrace the name of Müller. Come here now.” He reached for the cane that stood propped in the corner of his office.

Crack! Crack! Crack! The caning seemed to go on forever. The pain was excruciating. Eventually George felt his legs begin to buckle under him, just as his father’s temper subsided and the punishment came to an end.

“Don’t ever steal again. Do you hear?” said Johann Müller, shaking his son’s shoulders to emphasize each word.

“Yes,” stuttered George.

“Now get out of my sight,” roared his father, pointing at the door.

George gathered his clothes and half walked, half crawled to the door, not even stopping to dress. Right then he didn’t care who saw him; his bottom was throbbing too much. He made his way up to his second-floor bedroom, where he locked the door behind him. Safe inside, he collapsed onto the bed and began to sob his heart out. “As long as I live, I’ll never do that again,” he promised himself between sobs, at the same time running his fingers over the welts on his legs and buttocks.

George wasn’t promising himself he wouldn’t steal again. No, he loved the thrill and adventure of stealing too much for that, not to mention its rewards. What George Müller promised himself was that he would never get caught again. Stealing was exciting, but getting caught was painful and humiliating!

Now, six years later, he had allowed himself to get caught again. How could he have been so stupid? He asked himself the question over and over as he sat on the hard wooden bench in the police station.

“You!” a police officer said, pointing at George. “Come here, and hurry up about it.”

“Yes, sir,” George replied, getting to his feet as best he could with the chains wrapped around him. As he shuffled over to the desk, he held his head up high and tried to look like an obedient young man who had been wrongly accused.

“Name?” asked the police officer.

“Müller, sir, George Müller.”

The police officer wrote it down in a huge leather-bound book. “Date and place of birth,” he asked when he’d finished writing.

“September 27, 1805, in Kroppenstaedt, Prussia.”

The police officer began writing in the book again, stopping only to redip his quill pen in a bottle of India ink. As he watched, George wondered how much the police actually knew. Did they know he had spent a week at an inn in Brunswick and left there without paying before coming to Wolfenbüttel?

If they didn’t know, George determined to keep his wits about him and not give away any more information than he absolutely had to. After three hours of relentless questioning, though, he confessed to all his crimes. Yes, he had spent a week in an expensive inn at Brunswick and left without paying the bill. Yes, he was trying to do the same thing in Wolfenbüttel by escaping through the window of the inn. No, he did not have the money to pay for the rooms. And no, he could not think of one good reason why he should not be sent to jail to await trial.

The next day, George sat in his cell humming a Christmas carol. It was Christmas Day, but what did that matter now? George had spent the previous five Christmases at the Cathedral Classical School at Halberstadt, where he had studied Latin, French, the German classics, and arithmetic. Everything had been so simple there; his teachers were easy to fool. From the time he was twelve he’d been able to escape school at night and go to beer-drinking parties, card games, and local entertainment houses to play the piano and the guitar. After graduating, instead of going home, George had decided to take a short trip. And that’s how his present troubles had started. He had written his father that he’d been asked to stay two weeks longer at school to sing at a special church service. Then he had hit the road without any money to tour Lower Saxony, which in turn had landed him in jail.

How could he have been so stupid? He had plenty of time to think about the answer. Days went by, and the only thing he had to look forward to was the black bread and salty vegetable gruel he was fed twice a day. By the time he’d been in the cell a week, he knew every inch of it, from the initials T. W. carved in the stone above his bed to the groove in the wall that ran parallel with the bars in the window to the nail on the middle hinge of the thick wooden door that was shinier than the others. George also wondered whether his father had received a letter from the authorities informing him where his son was.

George kept count of the days he’d spent in jail by scratching a mark on the wall each time the early morning sunlight crept through the cell window. It was January 16. He had now been imprisoned for twenty-four days. For all he knew, he could be there for another twenty-four, or even two hundred twenty-four, days. At midmorning, he heard a promising sound. Keys jangled in the lock, and his cell door creaked open. Two policemen walked in and yanked George to his feet.

“Your father has come to get you out, but I wouldn’t say you’re free!”

As the policeman laughed at his own joke, George groaned. His father would be in a terrible mood. And he was. He paid George’s debt to the two innkeepers and another sum to cover the cost of George’s keep while in jail. George was then released into his father’s care.

As father and son climbed into a horse-drawn coach for the journey home, Johann Müller hissed at George. “What would your mother think of her oldest son? Answer me that.” For the rest of the trip he sat in stony silence.

George couldn’t answer the question. His mother had died suddenly two years before, but he’d been so busy with his friends he hardly missed her. He wished he felt bad about disappointing her—and disappointing his father—but he didn’t. He was just sorry he’d been caught. He was also sorry about what was going to happen when they arrived home!

After traveling all day, the coach pulled to a halt in front of the Müller home. George climbed out, trying to control his trembling hands. As he walked inside, his father pointed towards his office. George’s shoulders slumped. George had expected the worst, and sure enough, he received the longest and harshest beating he had ever endured. It was days before he could walk properly again.

About a week later, Johann Müller called his son into his office and told him it was time to grow up and make something of himself. To that end he had enrolled George in the University of Halle. George’s heart skipped a beat. That was exactly where he’d dreamed of going! But his father was not finished. Yes, George would be going to Halle, one of the best universities in Europe, to study the classics, but his father had arranged for him to have a personal tutor while he was there. This tutor, whom Mr. Müller had already selected, would stick to George like glue. George would report to him before and after all his classes. And the tutor would study with George each evening and on the weekends. He would also send a weekly report home on George’s progress.

George could hardly believe it. A tutor! How could his father do that to him? It would be as bad as being in jail. All the other young men would be out enjoying themselves, and he would be stuck in his room studying. There had to be some way around it.

There was, but it involved a lot of lying and scheming. George decided it was unthinkable to go to the University of Halle with a personal tutor, so without his father’s knowledge he made a secret trip to the town of Nordhausen, where he applied to a smaller pre-university school. Since he had always made good grades no matter how little he studied, he was quickly accepted into the school.

Then he began wondering how he would tell his father of his plans. Each night as he lay in bed, George promised himself that tomorrow would be the right time to break the news. But when tomorrow came, something always seemed to get in the way. The months rolled by. The morning of September 30 dawned, the day before George was due to leave for the University of Halle. George took a deep breath; it was now or never.