“When the legend becomes fact…print the legend”

“When the legend becomes fact…print the legend”:
The tragic death of Johann Conrad “JC” Muehleisen

By Jacqueline L. Starkey

Photo 1 Melcena Irvin Millison ca 1889
Melcena Irvine Millison, 1889 – from family collection

My feisty, opinionated grandmother detested her middle name.  That name was Melcena, given to her in honor of her grandmother, Melcena Millison.  As a child, I was fascinated by this name that appeared to be handed down to unwilling recipients and was thankful that my parents did not follow family naming traditions.


When I began researching my maternal line, Melcena’s life was a focus area.  I quickly found that to understand Melcena, I had to learn about her father, my third-great-grandfather, then known as Unknown Millison.  Since no family researchers had yet identified him, he was a true brick wall.  My research to break down that wall led me on a virtual journey starting in Germany and ending in Deadwood, South Dakota.  Along the way, I made a startling discovery: “Unknown Millison” was the source of an extended family legend.  His story is one that simply must be told; it is my sincere hope that this analysis will cement his status as a legend, but in a completely unexpected way.

1 A Shocking Surname Change

Photo 2 Gabriella Buckingham 1889
Gabriella O’Neill Muehleisen Buckingham, 1889 – from family collection

Preliminary inspection of census and directory records revealed an immediate surprise.  Melcena’s family name was not Millison or Millicine, as my family had believed for four generations[1], but Muehleisen.  She was the daughter of Johann Conrad “JC” Muehleisen, a German immigrant who worked as a barber in Chicago in the late 1860’s through 1871.  JC probably married Melcena’s mother, Gabriella O’Neill, sometime between June 1870 and October 1871.  He appears in the 1870 Chicago census on 21 June 1870 as a single barber[2], so they probably married after that date.  Melcena was probably born immediately before the Great Chicago Fire, as directory listings show JC and Gabriella both living at 149 West Harrison Street at that time, where Gabriella‘s mother and brothers also resided[3].  Because the couple lived in Chicago during the fire, any official marriage and birth records were almost certainly destroyed.

Directory listings after the Great Chicago Fire show that Gabriella continued living with her mother, Melcena Irvine O’Neill, in Ohio and Indiana[4].  In most of these records, she is listed as a widow. It was probably easy for others to assume that JC had perished in the Great Chicago Fire.  Indeed, if we look at maps of the affected area and cross-reference the address of Gabriella and JC[5], we find that the couple lived less than one mile from where the fire started and were directly in the path of the worst destruction[6].

2 The “First Death” of JC Muehleisen

Photo 3 Great Chicago Fire
Great Chicago Fire photo, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets

The assumption that JC had met an untimely and tragic death in the Great Chicago Fire is certainly fodder for a family legend or two.  The young widow left to raise an infant after her husband perishes in an infamous disaster would elicit much sympathy and result in few questions about marital status.  But that assumption seemed too simplistic, given other details of the O’Neill/Irvine family history.  I suspected Gabriella had been less than honest in her claims that she was a widow and was not surprised to find JC (very much alive) in the 1880 Chicago census. According to that record, he was living with Gabriella, Melcena, and Gabriella‘s family, and still working as a barber[7].  It was odd to note his absence in other records where the O’Neill family was listed, including directories; it seemed JC existed only on the day the census was taken!  Additionally, by 1887, “widow” Gabriella had remarried[8] [9].  She lived the rest of her life with my grandmother’s family and was referred to as Grandma Buckingham[10] until her death in 1921[11].

The big question remained: What happened to JC after 1880?  Find-a-Grave lists a John C. Muehleisen buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota[12].  He died in 1885 at the age of 34.  There had never been talk of an ancestor living in Deadwood, but since the age and surname matched, I decided to dig a little deeper for answers.

3 The JC that Gabriella Never Knew


Photo 4 Deadwood 1880s
Deadwood, 1880’s

According to census records, JC Muehleisen’s immediate family settled in St. Joseph, Missouri[13], and that is where he lived for a time after leaving Chicago.  St. Joseph newspapers contain references to a successful barber named “Conrad” Muehleisen[14]. Conrad had several brothers, many of whom had “Johann” in their first names[15].  One brother in St. Joseph was named Johann John, so it seems that Conrad only went by John or JC when he was away from his St. Joe family.  Back home, he was known as Conrad, the barber who left a successful Edmond Street barbershop to seek his fortune in the Black Hills.

Lawrence County, South Dakota, records also revealed crucial clues about the identity of JC.  First was the discovery of a John Muehleisen in the Deadwood 1880 census, listed as a single barber from Germany[16].  Could this be the same person as the JC Muehleisen “living” in Chicago in 1880?  According to news articles and census records, Deadwood resident John Muehleisen (who also went by JC or John C)[17] was the same age as Gabriella’s husband JC Muehleisen.  Our Deadwood JC was also a barber, and he also had family in St. Joseph, Missouri[18]. But it was one final item that finally broke down the brick wall.  A Black Hills Daily Times article from 7 February 1883 reported that a divorce was granted to opposing parties John Muehleisen and none other than “widowed” spouse Gabriella Muehleisen[19].

Photo 5A Muehleisen Chicago 1880 census record
1880 U.S. Census for John C Muehleisen, Chicago, Illinois
Photo 5B Muehleisen Deadwood 1880 census deadwood
1880 U. S. Census for John C Muehleisen, Deadwood, Dakota Territory

4 A Secret Divorce, a New Life, a Mysterious Illness

My theory that JC Muehleisen was my third-great-grandfather seemed to be correct but buried in generations of family secrets.  JC apparently kept his marriage (and his daughter’s existence) a secret from his family, as no Muehleisen family histories document any descendants for JC.  Perhaps he married Gabriella to avoid a court case, or perhaps Gabriella refused to accompany him to Deadwood, and they agreed to live separate lives to avoid the scandal of a divorce.  While the personal details will probably never be known, DNA tests provide additional support for my theory.  Several DNA matches for me and other close family members show JC’s father, Johann Friederich (Fred) Muehleisen, as a shared fourth-great-grandfather.

More of JC’s story was revealed when a simple Google search led to an unexpected breakthrough in the form of a Rootsweb page dedicated to Fred Muehleisen’s descendants[20].  Page author Gary Dix wrote that “…some of the [Muehleisen] brothers were gold miners; family history says that one of them lost his way in a snowstorm and froze to death in the Black Hills.”  Since there are confirmed death dates and locations for the other Muehleisen brothers, the individual alluded to in the family story is indeed JC. But did he die in a snowstorm, as stated?  That answer turned out to be more complicated, and sadly, much more tragic.

JC remarried shortly after divorcing Gabriella[21].  Deadwood papers shared a charming story about the birth of his son, Carl, in October of 1883[22], and the little family seemed to live a happy life for a time.    But JC was in failing health, and he experienced worsening neurological symptoms that finally forced him to seek treatment in Hot Springs, Arkansas[23].

5 A Tragic Death Creates a Family Legend


JC left for Hot Springs on 2 February 1885[24]; it was a bitterly-cold stagecoach journey that would ultimately end in tragedy. The 14 February 1885 edition of The Black Hills Weekly Times reported his death with the headline: “Sad Ending – John Muehleisen in a fit of insanity, abandons the coach, wanders for a day over the prairie, and dies from exposure.”[25]

Photo 6 Muehleisen death headline
The Black Hills Weekly Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 14 February 1885, p. 3, col. 3

The news regarding JC’s death was as sensationalized as it was detailed, and the story was run in a variety of newspapers in February of 1885[26].  The tragedy was even revisited some 30 years later in the 12 February 1915 edition of the Weekly Pioneer Times[27].

True to the writing style of the time, news articles were almost macabre in their detailed descriptions of JC’s final hours.  One such report appeared in the 14 February 1885 edition of the Black Hills Weekly Times. Based on eyewitness interviews, the story described JC at the start of the journey as, “…in good spirits, chatting freely…but…incoherently.” He later grew agitated and began having hallucinations of dead bodies, which left him “cowering in the corner” of the coach. Still later, he was “…possessed of an insane freak [and] began slashing at the stage curtains and the canvass partition…all of which, as well as the driver’s clothing, were…mutilated.”  The driver was apparently able to subdue JC, but at some point, he “quietly slipped from the coach and was not missed until Red Willow was reached.”  The search for JC lasted nearly 24 hours; sadly, he died within hours of being found.[28]

An article in the 8 February 1885 edition of the Black Hills Daily Times provides similar details of the gruesome death.  The article featured an interview with eyewitness L. Solinsky of Texarkana, Arkansas, in which Solinsky gave the following statement:

“About 11 o’clock…the driver stopped his team remarking ‘that must be the crazy man.’  His eyes were open and glared wildly, while an incessant jargon of unintelligible words issued from between his firmly set teeth. He wore no coat.  A cap was drawn closely over his head; his vest was unbuttoned; one overshoe was missing…his purse contained $20 in gold and some greenbacks.  His watch was in his vest pocket with the chain dangling.  [He] had been on the prairie from very early in the morning until 11 at night, exposed throughout one of the coldest days I ever experienced.  No, he recognized no one, realized nothing. Reason was entirely gone. He was dying when we found him.”[29]

An obituary for JC called him “a good man” with a sense of humor who would assist anyone in need.[30]  A few months before his death, he had been elected Chancellor Commander of the Marco Bozzaris Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, and the lodge issued an official proclamation of mourning after his death[31].  According to probate records, the Knights of Pythias also paid his funeral expenses, including burial in Mt. Moriah Cemetery[32] [33].

6 A Legend Based in Fact?

A short life, a promising future, and a tragic death – that was the life of JC.  But was his “legend” true?  That answer is yes – with a lot of added drama.  His is a story where fact is stranger than fiction, and those facts only lead to more questions.  The very reason that JC was traveling in such harsh conditions invites speculation about his life expectancy, had he survived the journey to Hot Springs.

An interview with Dr. Douglas Stuart of the MS Center of Atlanta resulted in a theory that JC’s symptoms were from secondary syphilis, a common (and deadly) illness at that time [34].  However, a “genetic disorder” theory may be more plausible, given the abundance of neurological issues in JC’s family.  His daughter[35], granddaughter, mother, and several extended family members died young, with neurological issues often listed as a contributing factor of death[36].

Then there is the curious case of Bob Baumann, JC’s one-time barbershop partner in Deadwood[37].  Three years before JC’s death, an article in the Black Hills Daily Times reported that Baumann was suffering from neurological symptoms eerily similar to those reported by JC[38].  Both men developed symptoms while working in a job that involved the use of hazardous substances, and both men were prospecting for gold and, quite possibly, uranium.  Could neurotoxin exposure have caused their symptoms?  That question has yet to be answered.  For now, we can say that JC’s legend is true, but warrants further research to determine the “real” rest of the story!

Genealogists tend to approach family legends with a healthy amount of skepticism, and I was no different at the start of my journey to find JC.  Part of his story has finally been revealed, 133 years after his tragic death, and he can claim his place in my family tree.  His story should remind us that we should always seek to prove – and then print – the legends we learn about our ancestors.  Because sometimes, the facts are even better than the legends.

[1] Marriage license for daughter Gertrude Baugh, “Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDHQ-FQS : 10 December 2017), Charles H Hansen and Gertrude V Baugh, 05 Dec 1908; citing Porter, Indiana, United States, various county clerk offices, Indiana; FHL microfilm 1,686,212. See also marriage license for Melcena Millison, “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XL3Y-Q2D: 10 March 2018),  William Everett Baugle and Melcena Millison, 04 Jul 1887; citing p. 257, Records Office, Washington D.C.; FHL microfilm 2,107,969.

[2] Ancestry.com, 1870 United States Federal Census, Year: 1870; Census Place: Chicago Ward 1, Cook, Illinois; Roll: M593_198; Page: 43B; Family History Library Film: 545697.

[3] U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Chicago City Directory, 1870, pp. 590 and 626.

[4] U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Cleveland, Ohio, City Directory, 1871, pp. 314 and 327; Cincinnati, Ohio, City Directory, 1872, p. 666; Fort Wayne, Indiana City Directory, 1873, pp. 146 and 159.

[5] Chicagology. (n.d.) 1871 Chicago Fire. Retrieved from https://chicagology.com/chicago-fire/.

[6] Thompson, C. (10 Oct 2017). My Great-Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s Greatest Challenge: The Chicago Fire. Retrieved from http://www.chicagomag.com/city-life/October-2017/Chicago-Fire-Mayor-Roswell-B-Mason/ .

[7] Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, Year: 1880; Census Place: Chicago, Cook County, Illinois; Roll: 191; Page: 485B; Enumeration District: 081.

[8] “Illinois Marriages, 1815-1935,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2LG-85B : 10 February 2018), George A. D. S. Buckingham and Gabriella R. Muehleisen, 07 Oct 1887; citing, Cook, Illinois; FHL microfilm 1,030,167.

[9] Marriage Licenses, The Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 8 Oct 1887, p. 8, col. 2.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[10] Shirley A. Lilly and Jacqueline L. Starkey.  Series of informal oral interviews and review of family photos, March 2017.

[11] Death certificate for Gabriella Buckingham, 2 Mar 1921, Certificate no. 6009, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author.

[12] Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Original data: Find A Grave.

[13] Ancestry.com, 1870 United States Federal Census, Year: 1870; Census Place: St Joseph Ward 2, Buchanan, Missouri; Roll: M593_762; Page: 474B; Image: 334086; Family History Library Film: 552261.

[14] For one example, see “Death of an Old Citizen,“ St. Joseph Weekly Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 12 Feb 1885, Page 2, col. 1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[15] An example of JC’s full name can be found in Wuerttemberg, Germany, Baptisms and Burials, Bortlingen u Zell, Taufen, Heiraten u Tote, p. 81. Retrieved from Ancestry.com. Württemberg, Germany, Lutheran Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials, 1500-1985 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.Original data: Lutherische Kirchenbücher, 1500-1985. Various sources.  Five of his brothers had given names that also began with Johann.

[16] Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, Year: 1880; Census Place: Deadwood, Lawrence, Dakota Territory; Roll: 113; Family History Film: 1254113; Page: 50D; Enumeration District: 120; Image: 0220.

[17] Knights of Pythias, The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 28 June 1884, p. 2 col. 3.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[18] The Weekly Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 14 May 1880, p. 4, col. 2.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[19] District Court, The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 7 Feb 1883, p. 3, col. 5.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com. (Note: A summons was issued to Mrs. Muehleisen just prior to the granting of the divorce, but she probably did not receive that summons in time to appear in court.)

[20] Dix, Gary. Dix/Muehleisen Genealogy Database, The Ancestors of Gary and Karen Dix. Retrieved from  http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gdix/muehleisen/fam_fredrich_muehleisen.htm.

[21] Ancestry.com. North Dakota and South Dakota, Wills and Probate Records, 1878-1928 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. (Note that a marriage record has been not found for JC and Carrie Olson.  However, she is listed as his widow in his probate record.)

[22] The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 5 Oct 1883, p. 4.  (Note: Carl died of typhoid at age 4, and is buried in Whitewood, South Dakota.  His story, and that of his mother, Carrie Olson, will be the shared in a separate write-up.)

[23] January 27, 1885, The Weekly Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, p. 3, col. 1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[24] The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 1 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 3.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[25] Sad Ending, The Black Hills Weekly Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 14 February 1885, p. 3, col. 3.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[26] A Crazy Passenger, The Nebraska State Journal, 11 February 1885, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.  (Note that many other examples were found that followed this story’s format.)

[27] February 7, 1885, The Weekly Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 12 February 1915, p. 6, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[28] Sad Ending, The Black Hills Weekly Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 14 February 1885, p. 3, col. 3.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[29] John Mulheisen, The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 February 1885, p. 3, col. 4.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[30] A Good Man, The Black Hills Weekly Times, 14 February 1885, p. 3, col. 3.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[31] The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 7 March 1885, p. 3, col. 2.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[32] Ancestry.com. North Dakota and South Dakota, Wills and Probate Records, 1878-1928 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

[33] Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota, Section 3, Plot 88, Unique ID 0-3-88, burial date 15 February 1885, Muehleison, John C., age 35 years.

[34] Stuart, Doug, MD, and Jacqueline Starkey, Informal interview, 25 Aug 2017, MS Center of Atlanta, Atlanta, GA.

[35] Chicago Examiner, Chicago, Illinois, 14 May 1914, p. 15, col. 7.  Retrieved from The Chicago Public Library Digital Collections (http://digital.chipublib.org/digital/collection/examiner/id/57145/rec/1 ).

[36] Starkey, Jacqueline, personal genealogical files and records.  Files in possession of author.

[37] The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 September 1881, p. 4, col. 4.  Retrieved from Newspapers.com.

[38] Unfortunate, The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 8, July 1882, p. 3, col. 3.

3 thoughts on ““When the legend becomes fact…print the legend”

Add yours

  1. I am a Nurse and a genealogist. In reading this story the first diagnosis that came to mind was Huntington’s Chorea, the symptoms, family history and particularly his age fit perfectly. Check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

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