The short life and tragic death of Johann Conrad Muehleisen
By J. L. Starkey
A Divorce, A New Life, A Mysterious Illness
Shortly after his February 1883 divorce from Gabriella, 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 1883, a Deadwood newspaper 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 . In December of that year, he worked on the Knights’ Fourth Annual Ball with none other than Deadwood Sheriff Seth Bullock .
But J.C.’s health was failing, and he experienced worsening neurological issues over the next two years. A Deadwood paper described his symptoms in painful detail in a story that ran two years to the day after his divorce from Gabriella was finalized:
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…– The Black Hills Daily Times, 7 February 1885
The report detailed J.C.’s attempts to find a treatment or cure for his symptoms and noted that he finally sought help in Hot Springs, Arkansas :
Deceased was in poor health during the last year or more, and although he tried many remedies…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…– The Black Hills Daily Times, 7 February 1885
Tragic Death Creates a Family Legend
J.C. left for Hot Springs on 3 February 1885 . It was a bitterly-cold stagecoach journey, and it would end in a tragedy that would make headlines from Deadwood to St. Joseph.
The news regarding J.C.’s death was as sensationalized as it was detailed, and the tragic events would even be revisited thirty years later, in the 12 February 1915 edition of the Weekly Pioneer Times .
True to the writing style of the time, reports were almost macabre in their descriptions of J.C.’s final hours. One such account 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 next described how J.C.’s health declined 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.– The Black Hills Daily Times, 14 February 1885
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.
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.– L. Solinsky, 8 February 1885
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, J.C. 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 in his honor . According to probate records, the Knights also paid his funeral expenses, including burial in 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 Atlanta Neuroscience Institute led to 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 the Muehleisen family. J.C.’s mother, daughter, a granddaughter, and several extended family members died young, with neurological issues often listed as a cause or contributing factor of death .
And then there is the curious case of Bob Bauman, J.C.’s former business partner . Three years before J.C.’s death, a Deadwood paper 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.
Did neurotoxin exposure cause Bob and J.C.’s symptoms? That question has yet to be answered. For now, I’ll say that J.C.’s legend is true, but it warrants further research to discover 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. His tragic story should remind us that, as genealogists, we should first prove – and then preserve – those amazing family legends.
Because sometimes, the facts are even better than the legends.
Note: All newspaper articles retrieved from newspapers.com.
- 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 Daily Deadwood Pioneer Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 9 Sep 1881, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Deadwood, Lawrence County, South Dakota. Sanborn Map Company, Oct 1885. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/sanborn08223_001/>.
- Daily Deadwood Pioneer Times, 5 Oct 1883, p. 4, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Installation,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 6 Jan 1883, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Fourth Annual Ball,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 11 Dec 1883, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Sad Ending,” Black Hills Times, 7 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Arrivals and Departures,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 3 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “A Crazy Passenger,” The Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, 11 Feb 1885, p. 1, col. 7. Retrieved from Newspapers.com. (See also: The Weekly Pioneer Times, Deadwood, South Dakota, 12 Feb 1915, p. 6, col. 2. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.)
- “John Mulheisen,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “A Good Man,” The Black Hills Weekly Times, 14 Feb 1885, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 Feb 1885, 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 Feb 1885, Muehleison, John C., age 35 years.)
- Stuart, Douglas, MD, Informal interview, The Atlanta Neuroscience Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 25 Aug 2017.
- 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. (See also: Family history and genealogy files and records in possession of author.)
- The Black Hills Daily Times, 8 Sept 1881, p. 4, col. 4. Retrieved from Newspapers.com.
- “Unfortunate,” The Black Hills Daily Times, 8, Jul 1882, p. 3, col. 3.