By J. L. Starkey
A divorce, a new life, and a mysterious illness
Shortly after his divorce from Gabriella O’Neill in February 1883 , Johann Conrad (J.C.) Muehleisen married Wisconsin-born Carrie Olson. He parted ways with his barbershop partner and opened a shop next to “Ed’s Place,” a popular saloon owned by Ed Wardner . As he continued prospecting for gold, J.C. appeared to be on track to become a Deadwood success story.
In October of 1883, the Daily Deadwood-Pioneer Times shared a charming story about the birth of J.C. and Carrie’s son, Carl . Life was good for the young family.
Newspaper articles painted J.C. as a respected citizen with an eye toward community service and philanthropy. An active member of Knights of Pythias, in 1883 he was elected Master at Arms of the Marco Bozzaris Lodge . Notable members of the lodge included famed Deadwood sheriff Seth Bullock; that December, J.C. and Sheriff Bullock worked together on the Knights’ Fourth Annual Ball .
But J.C.’s health was failing, and his neurological symptoms worsened over the next two years. A Deadwood paper described these symptoms in painful detail:
“That he was a sick man, in body and mind, was apparent to all who knew him, but that disease had taken such deep root…was suspected by no one. At times he had been ‘flighty,’ forgetful, despondent, and occasionally petulant and impetuous, but at no time passionate or violently demonstrative. With his friends he conversed about his condition…even to admitting that reason was somewhat impaired…”
That article detailed J.C.’s attempts to find a treatment or cure for his symptoms, and noted that he finally decided to seek help in Hot Springs, Arkansas :
“Deceased was in poor health during the last year or more, and although he tried many remedies, including the climate and water of Hot Springs (Fall River), little or no relief was obtained. For the last six months a steady impairment of mental faculties was discernible, and grave apprehensions were entertained by those who watched its progress. Acting upon the advice of friends, he resolved to test the virtues of the water and climate of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and to this end departed on Monday…”
Desperate Journey Turns Deadly
J.C. left for Hot Springs on 3 February 1885 ; 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 .”
Tragic death creates a family legend
The news regarding J.C.’s death was as sensationalized as it was detailed, and the story ran in a variety of papers in 1885 . The tragedy was even revisited some 30 years later in the 12 February 1915 edition of the Weekly Pioneer Times .
True to the writing style of the time, news accounts were almost macabre in their descriptions of J.C.’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 J.C. at the start of the journey as, “…chatting freely and pleasantly but so incoherently that…suspicions…were aroused that [he] was not in his right mind. ” In chilling detail, the article then described J.C.’s decline in a matter of hours as the journey continued.
“At Spring Creek, John became greatly excited by the fancied presence of dead bodies and cowering in the corner implored [passenger] Mr. Billings to protect him. The latter succeeded in tranquilizing his companion who remained quiet until Hot Springs was reached…John continuing his journey alone, apparently rational and in good spirits. When near Cheyenne River, the unfortunate man was again possessed of an insane freak, and, drawing a razor began slashing at the stage curtains and the canvass partition in rear of the driver, all of which, as well as the driver’s clothing, were more or less mutilated.”
According to the article, the driver subdued J.C., but at some point, he “quietly slipped from the coach and was not missed until Red Willow was reached.” The search for J.C. lasted nearly 24 hours; sadly, he died within hours of being found.
An article in the 8 February 1885 Black Hills Daily Times featured an interview with eyewitness L. Solinsky of Texarkana, Arkansas, who 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.” 
That J.C. was a beloved member of the Deadwood community was obvious in the tributes written for him. An obituary called him “a good man” with a sense of humor who would assist anyone in need . A few months before his death, he had been elected Chancellor Commander of the Marco Bozzaris Lodge of Knights of Pythias. In a show of respect, the Knights issued an official proclamation of mourning after his death . According to probate records, the Knights also paid his funeral expenses, including burial in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery .
Answers, but still more questions
A short life, a promising future, and a tragic death – that was the life of J.C. 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 the facts only lead to more questions. The very reason that J.C. 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 J.C.’s symptoms resulted from advanced syphilis, a common (and deadly) illness at that time . However, a “genetic disorder” theory may be more plausible, given the abundance of neurological issues in J.’C.’s family. His mother, daughter , a granddaughter, and several extended family members died young, with neurological issues often listed as a cause or contributing factor of death .
Then there is the curious case of Bob Bauman, J.C.’s former barbershop partner . Three years before J.C.’s death, an article in The Black Hills Daily Times reported that Bauman was suffering from symptoms eerily similar to those reported by J.C. . Both men developed symptoms while working in a job that involved the use of hazardous substances. Additionally, 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 J.C.’s legend is true, but warrants further research to determine the 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 J.C. Part of his story has finally been revealed, over 130 years after his tragic death. His story should remind us that we should seek to prove – and then preserve – the legends we learn about our ancestors. Because sometimes, the facts are even better than the legends.
- The Family of Johann Friedrich and Regina Muehleisen, http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~gdix/genealogy/muehleisen/fam_fredrich_muehleisen.htm#conrad.
- The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 1 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 2 Sep 1881, p. 4, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota. Sanborn Map Company, Oct, 1885. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/sanborn08223_001/>.
- October 5, 1883, Daily Deadwood Pioneer Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, p. 4, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com. (Note: Although a marriage record has not been located for J.C. and Carrie Olson, she is listed as his widow in his probate record and in news articles pertaining to his death.)
- “Installation,” The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 6 Jan 1883, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Fourth Annual Ball,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 11 December 1883, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Sad Ending,” Black Hills Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 7 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Arrivals and Departures,” The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 3 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “A Crazy Passenger,” The Nebraska State Journal, 11 Feb 1885, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- February 12, 1915, The Weekly Pioneer Times, p. 6, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “John Mulheisen,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 February 1885, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “A Good Man,” The Black Hills Weekly Times, 14 February 1885, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- 8 February 1885, The Black Hills Daily Times, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- Ancestry.com. North Dakota and South Dakota, Wills and Probate Records, 1878-1928 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. (See also: 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.)
- Stuart, Douglas, MD, Informal interview, 25 Aug 2017, MS Center of Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia.
- 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.
- Personal genealogical files and records in possession of author.
- The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 September 1881, p. 4, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Unfortunate,” The Black Hills Daily Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 8, July 1882, p. 3, col. 3.