When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

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 was apparently handed down to unwilling recipients, and I was pretty darn thankful that my parents didn’t follow family naming traditions! That said, when I began researching my maternal line, I immediately focused on Melcena. Who was this mysterious ancestor with the strange name? The answers weren’t easy to find.

What I did find was that, to understand Melcena, I first had to learn about her father, my third-great-grandfather. The search for his name led me on a virtual journey that began in Germany and ended with a shocking discovery in Deadwood, South Dakota.

My third-great-grandfather – the one we called Unknown Millison – was a legend.

The Marriage of Gabriella and Mr. Millison

The surprises started immediately, and they just kept on coming.

Gabriella O’Neill in 1889 [family collection]

What was this? Melcena’s maiden name wasn’t Millison, as my family believed, but Muehleisen [1]. She was the daughter of Johann Conrad “J.C.” Muehleisen, a German immigrant who worked as a barber in Chicago from about 1868 through 1871. 

J.C. probably married my third-great-grandmother, Gabriella O’Neill, sometime after 21 June 1870, since he appears in the 1870 Chicago census as a single barber on that date [2]. 

Melcena was probably born shortly before the Great Chicago Fire; directory listings show J.C. and Gabriella living with Gabriella’s mother and brothers at 149 West Harrison Street at that time [3]. Because the couple lived in Chicago during the fire, any official marriage and birth records were almost certainly destroyed in the disaster.

After the fire, Gabriella lived with her mother, Melcena Irvine O’Neill, in Ohio and Indiana [4]. In most directory records, she is listed as a widow. It was probably easy for Gabriella to let people assume that her husband perished in the Great Chicago Fire. A look at the map of the affected area shows that she lived less than one mile from where the blaze began, and her family members were undoubtedly in the path of the fire’s worst destruction [5].

How did any of the family members survive at all? At first glance, it seemed that at least some of them didn’t.

Or maybe – just maybe – some of them wanted people to assume just such a thing.

The First Death of J.C. Muehleisen

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

The assumption that J.C. met a tragic end in the Great Chicago Fire is certainly fodder for a family legend or two. A young widow raising an infant alone after her husband perished in an infamous disaster would definitely elicit sympathy from others, and honestly, who would dare to question a grieving widow about her marital status?

But Gabriella’s story seemed too simplistic, given a few details in her family history. I suspected she’d been less than honest in her claims that she was a widow, so I wasn’t surprised to find J.C. (very much alive) in the 1880 Chicago census. According to that record, he was living with Gabriella, his daughter Melcena, and his in-laws, and he was still working as a barber [6]. It was odd, though, that he was absent from other records, including directory listings. It almost seemed as if J.C. existed only on the day the census was taken! 

By 1887, the “widowed” Gabriella had remarried [7]. For the rest of her life, she would reside with my grandmother’s family, and she would be referred to as Grandma Buckingham until her death in 1921 [8].

Still, the question remained: What happened to Grandma Buckingham’s “deceased” first husband after 1880? 

Find-A-Grave includes a memorial for a man named John C. Muehleisen who died in 1885 at age 34 and was buried in Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery [9]. No one in my family knew about an ancestor living in Deadwood, but since the age and surname matched, I decided to dig a little deeper for answers.

And once I started digging? I struck gold…in Deadwood, of course.

The Man Gabriella Never Knew

Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1880s [Public domain image]

According to census records, J.C. Muehleisen’s family settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, and that is where he lived for a time after leaving Chicago [10]. References to a successful barber named Conrad Muehleisen appear often in St. Joseph newspapers from the early 1870s [11].

J.C. had six brothers, five of whom also had the first name Johann [12]. One brother was named Johann John, and perhaps that is why Conrad went by John or J.C. only when he was living away from his St. Joseph family. Back home, he was known as Conrad, the young man who left a successful Edmond Street barbershop to seek his fortune in the Black Hills.

Lawrence County, South Dakota, records revealed crucial clues about J.C.’s identity. First was the discovery of a John C. Muehleisen in the Deadwood 1880 census, listed as a single barber from Germany [13]. 

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

Was this man the same person as the John C. Muehleisen “living” in Chicago in 1880?

Census record for 1880 for John C. Muehleisen in Chicago, Illinois

According to records, Deadwood resident John Muehleisen (who also went by J.C. or John C.) was the same age as Gabriella’s husband [14]. Our Deadwood J.C. also had family in St. Joseph, Missouri [15].

One final item broke down the brick wall [16]. A Deadwood court report from 7 February 1883 noted that a divorce was granted to opposing parties John Muehleisen…and to his “widowed” spouse Gabriella!

Missing puzzle piece in the Black Hills Daily Times!

My theory that J.C. was my third-great-grandfather seemed to be correct, but I wondered about all the secrecy. Did J.C. marry Gabriella to avoid a family scandal? Did Gabriella refuse to accompany him to Deadwood? Did they agree to simply live separate lives to avoid the stigma of a divorce?

While the details will probably never be known, DNA results provided plenty of additional support for my theory. Several cousin matches for me and other family members point to J.C.’s father, Johann Friedrich (Fred) Muehleisen, as our common ancestor.

I discovered more details of J.C.’s story when a Google search led to an unexpected breakthrough: a Rootsweb page dedicated to Fred Muehleisen’s descendants [17]. 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 story was probably J.C. But did he die in a snowstorm?

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 film 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 film 2,107,969.)
  2. Ancestry.com, 1870 United States Federal Census, Chicago Ward 1, Cook, Illinois; Roll: M593_198; Page: 43B; FHL 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 & 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 & 327; Cincinnati, Ohio, City Directory, 1872, p. 666; Fort Wayne, Indiana City Directory, 1873, pp. 146 & 159.
  5. Chicagology. (n.d.) 1871 Chicago Fire. Retrieved from https://chicagology.com/chicago-fire/. (See also: 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/.)
  6. Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, Deadwood, Lawrence, Dakota Territory; Roll: 113; FHL film: 1254113; Page: 250D; Enumeration District: 120; Image: 0220.
  7. 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 film 1,030,167. (See also: “Marriage Licenses,” The Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 8 Oct 1887, p. 8, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.)
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Ancestry.com, 1870 United States Federal Census, St Joseph Ward 2, Buchanan, Missouri; Roll: M593_762; Page: 474B; Image: 334086; FHL Film: 552261.
  11. “Death of an Old Citizen,” St. Joseph Weekly Herald, St. Joseph, Missouri, 12 Feb 1885, p. 2, col. 1. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
  12. 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.  
  13. Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880 United States Federal Census, Deadwood, Lawrence, Dakota Territory; Roll: 113; FHL Film: 1254113; Page: 50D; Enumeration District: 120; Image: 0220.
  14. “Knights of Pythias,” The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 28 Jun 1884, p. 2 col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
  15. The Weekly Pioneer-Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 14 May 1880, p. 4, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
  16. “District Court,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 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.)
  17. 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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