When the legend becomes fact…print the legend (Pt. I)

The short life and tragic death of Johann Conrad Muehleisen, Part I

By J. L. Starkey

Melcena Irvin Millison in 1889

My feisty, opinionated grandmother detested her middle name.  That name was Melcena, bestowed upon 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. Who was this woman with the strange name? The answers were not easy to find, however. What I did find was that to understand Melcena, I had to first learn about her father, my third-great-grandfather, simply 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 must be told; it is my sincere hope that this analysis will cement his status as a legend.

The marriage of Gabriella and “Unknown” Millison

Preliminary inspection of census and directory records revealed an immediate surprise.  Melcena’s maiden name was not Millison or Millicine, as my family had believed [1], but Muehleisen.  She was the daughter of Johann Conrad “J.C.” Muehleisen, a German immigrant who worked as a barber in Chicago in the late 1860’s through 1871.  J.C. 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. 

Gabriella O’Neill Muehleisen Buckingham, 1889

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 J.C. 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 J.C. [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]. 

The first death of J.C. Muehleisen

Great Chicago Fire, corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets [Public domain photo]

The assumption that J.C. had met an untimely and tragic end 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 J.C. (very much alive) in the Chicago 1880 census. According to that record, he was living with Gabriella, Melcena, and his in-laws, 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 J.C. 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 J.C. 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.

The J.C. that Gabriella never knew

According to census records, J.C. Muehleisen’s 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 six brothers, five of whom had “Johann” in their first names [15].  One brother was named Johann John, and perhaps because of this fact, Conrad only went by John or J.C. when he was living away from his St. Joseph 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. 

There’s gold in them thar hills!

Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1880’s[Public domain photo]

Lawrence County, South Dakota, records revealed crucial clues about J.C.’s identity.  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 J.C. Muehleisen “living” in Chicago in 1880?  According to news articles and census records, Deadwood resident and gold prospector John Muehleisen (who also went by J.C. or John C.) [17] was the same age as Gabriella’s husband, J.C. Muehleisen.  Our Deadwood J.C. also had family in St. Joseph, Missouri [18].

One final item 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].

Census record for 1880 for John C. Muehleisen, Chicago, Illinois
Census record for 1880 for John C. Muehleisen, Deadwood, Dakota Territory

My theory that J.C. Muehleisen was my third-great-grandfather seemed to be correct but buried in generations of family secrets.  J.C. apparently kept his marriage (and his daughter Melcena’s existence) a secret from his family, as no Muehleisen family histories document any descendants for him.  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 details will probably never be known, DNA tests provide additional support for my theory.  Several cousin matches for me and other close family members show J.C.’s father, Johann Friederich (Fred) Muehleisen, as a shared fourth-great-grandfather. 

More of J.C.’s story was revealed when a simple Google search led to an unexpected breakthrough: a Rootsweb page dedicated to Fred Muehleisen’s descendants [20].  Page author Gary Dix wrote “…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 probably J.C. But did he die in a snowstorm, as stated? 

That answer turned out to be more complicated, and sadly, much more tragic. 

Next: A secret divorce, a desperate journey, a tragic death


  1. Indiana Marriages, 1811-2007, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:KDHQ-FQS : 10 Dec 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: District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:XL3Y-Q2D: 10 Mar 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, 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, Deadwood, Lawrence, Dakota Territory; Roll: 113; Family History Film: 1254113; Page: 250D; Enumeration District: 120; Image: 0220.
  8. Illinois Marriages, 1815-1935, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2LG-85B : 10 Feb 2018), George A. D. S. Buckingham and Gabriella R. Muehleisen, 07 Oct 1887; 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. Series of informal interviews, Mar 2017.
  11. Death certificate, 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, St Joseph Ward 2, Buchanan, Missouri; Roll: M593_762; Page: 474B; Image: 334086; Family History Library Film: 552261.
  14. “Death of an Old Citizen,” St. Joseph Weekly Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 12 Feb 1885, Page 2, col. 1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
  15. 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.  
  16. Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, 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 Jun 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 prior to the granting of the divorce, but she probably did not receive it in time to appear.)
  20. Dix, Gary. “Dix/Muehleisen Genealogy Database, The Ancestors of Gary and Karen Dix,” http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gdix/muehleisen/fam_fredrich_muehleisen.htm.

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