Or, how the dishonesty of ancestors turned me into a skeptic
By J. L. Starkey
The 52 Ancestors prompt taunted me: “Surprise.” That was the topic. Surprise? After a while, does anything surprise a family historian or genealogist? Maybe we stop being surprised after discovering that great-grandma had two names and two birth certificates (although she wasn’t a twin), or maybe it happens when we learn that “great-grandma-Brown-who-said-her-father-John-emigrated-from-England” wasn’t from England at all…nor was her father named John, but I digress.
Had it happened to me? Had I lost the element of surprise?
The answer is no…not even close. Genealogy will always hold surprises because of one basic human truth: people lie.
Most of us have “that” branch in our family tree. You know the one…it’s where you find the ancestors who turned stretching the truth into an art form. You want to look away, but you can’t, because learning about their lives is like watching bad reality TV. Maybe you wonder if they really lied that often, since telling the truth is a basic conversational maxim .
It seems that some people never got that memo about telling the truth, and today, I present Exhibit A:
My third-great-grandmother, Gabriella O’Neill-Royce-Muehleisen-Buckingham.
I’ve often written of my fascination with Gabriella’s daughter, my great-great-grandmother, Melcena . She with the unusual name was a source of frustration from the start, and her photo now graces my website as a reminder to always dig a little deeper for the truth. But what was it about her that turned me into a skeptic? With all due respect, I blame her mother.
Researching the first lie
Gabriella was a puzzle to me, and no one in my family seemed to know anything about her, either. The youngest child of Melcena Irvine and George P. O’Neill, she was born in Mount Vernon, Knox County, Ohio, in 1849 . That part was easy. After that, things got…weird.
According to census and directory records, George O’Neill died before 1860, leaving his widow to raise five children with the help of her family . The Irvines were well-known in Knox County; they lived close to one another, their names appeared in the newspapers regularly, and they maintained a family plot in the local cemetery . Given those facts, it was strange that there appeared to be no obituary, burial record, or probate record for Melcena Irvine O’Neill’s husband, George. He was trained as a lawyer, and yet he died without a will? He married into a prominent family, yet his untimely death didn’t warrant an obituary? Something didn’t add up.
Fortunately, the Irvine Clan website offered some answers. There, a description of George planted the first seeds of skepticism. According to Adrian Irvine, George O’Neill:
“…came from Ireland as a boy and was possess [sic] of an irritable disposition, was quarrelsome and short tempered. He studied law at Kenyon College, wore a queue and was thoroughly improvident. Deserted his wife and 5 children when he returned to Ireland.” 
There was the first lie, but it was not surprising. Gabriella’s mother was not a widow, but a single mother struggling to support her family. At the time, separation and divorce were scandalous, so Melcena may have created her tale of widowhood to protect her family.
A pattern of half-truths
I then researched Melcena’s children, and my skepticism sprouted and put down roots. It seemed that the children followed their mother’s storytelling example in their own marriages…often.
Son John K. O’Neill married Emma Hughes in 1864 , and by 1870, they were living in Memphis and working as actors (a career which seemed strangely fitting in this family) . By 1872, John had remarried and was living in Dayton, Ohio  . He relocated to Chicago by 1880, where he shared a residence with his brothers. Despite his two marriages, John was listed as single on that year’s census .
John’s brother George Payne O’Neill married Alberta (“Bertie”) Baker in March 1880 , but by June of that year, he was listed as single on the census . In reality, George and Bertie divorced in 1882, on the grounds of George’s cruelty to his spouse . George never remarried, and perhaps wanted to forget about Bertie, thus the “single” status on all documents…except one. The skeptic in me wondered why “single” George O’Neill was listed as “widowed” on his 1914 death record .
Sibling Mary T. O’Neill upped the matrimonial ante, and married three times. Her first husband, James Miller, was a painter who lived with the O’Neill family at the time of the 1860 census . They married in June 1860 , but by 1870, the widowed Mary was living in Chicago with her mother and siblings . In 1874, she married Charles Inman , but by 1880, she was again widowed . She remarried after 1885, and became Mary T. Monroe. At this point, it did not surprise the skeptic in me when I found that, by 1900, Mary was once again widowed .
If you’re keeping track, the family racked up at least seven marriages among Melcena and three of her children. Several spouses died young, at least according to their widows. The skeptic in me was shaking her head in disbelief. What were the odds of so much bad luck befalling one family? Did it really happen that way, or did they lie?
Which brings us back to…Gabriella O’Neill
I knew that Gabriella had lied about her divorce from J.C. Muehleisen , but now it seemed that she was not alone in her dishonest ways. The question nagged at me: Was it possible that she was hiding another marriage…or two?
Indeed, she was.
Gabriella’s path to true love did not begin with J.C., the dashing young barber-turned-prospector. It actually began with John Royce, whom she married in Buffalo, New York, in 1867 .
No further records have yet been found for John Royce, but given the family history, I theorized that the couple quietly divorced prior to 1870. Gabriella married J.C. Muehleisen after 1870, and that marriage also ended in divorce.
The question remained: What happened to my third-great-grandmother?
Hints from my mother
I spoke with my mother several times about the O’Neill family’s drama; an eavesdropper would have heard something like this:
Mom: So who was the O’Neill my mom mentioned?
Me: Well…there was Melcena O’Neill, and there was Gabriella O’Neill. She married J.C….you know…Gabriella and J.C. were Melcena’s parents? Are you sure that Grandma never mentioned Gabriella?
Mom: I remember the name O’Neill, but not Gabriella. But I do have a picture here of a Grandma Buckingham. Who is that?
The skeptic in me whispered, “Maybe it’s Gabriella.” But…but…that would mean there was another marriage yet to be found. The skeptic in me noted that reality television had nothing on the O’Neill family.
An identity revealed
Finally, the missing piece of the matrimonial puzzle was found. In 1885, the “widowed” Gabriella O’Neill-Royce-Muehleisen remarried. Her spouse was named George (yep…you guessed it…) Buckingham . So it was that she became Grandma Buckingham.
It’s purely conjecture, but I think that Gabriella met her match in George Buckingham. He was also widowed, or so he said. He was born in Michigan, or California, or maybe Chicago, depending on which form he was completing that day . Sadly, (at least according to Grandma Buckingham), he died prior to the 1910 census, adding yet another widow to the O’Neill family .
I heard it now. It was the skeptic in me, and she was screaming, “He did not! Check again!”
Indeed, the rest of the story differs from Gabriella’s account. According to records, George actually died as a widower in 1918. True, he did not marry again after he married Gabriella, and she DID outlive him by three years…but this family never was overly concerned with facts .
Perhaps the only truth was found in George’s cause of death, which was quite a surprise. The document notes that death occurred after “…the whacking loose of a clot of blood from about an abscess…caused by a bullet fired into his back…at a dance in Mexico many years ago .”
My eyes widened as I read the words, and then read them again. Surprises? Yes, they are everywhere in genealogy.
With their many marriages and poor track record of keeping spouses alive, the O’Neill family constantly surprised me. Obviously, we will never know the “why” behind their lies. Maybe they spun their tales to keep up appearances, or maybe their mother advised them to create these stories. For whatever reason, their half-truths are now a favorite source of surprises for this family historian-turned-skeptic.
And it’s funny, but all of my O’Neill calls to mom now begin with, “You are not going to believe this one!”
- Grice, Paul. Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Starkey, J. L., When the legend becomes fact, print the legend, parts I & II, https://jacquelineage.com/2019/01/17/when-the-legend-becomes-factprint-the-legend/; https://jacquelineage.com/2019/01/22/when-the-legend-becomes-fact-print-the-legend/.
- United States Census, 1850; Mount Vernon Ward 1, Knox, Ohio; Roll: M432_700; Page: 231A; Image: 57. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- United States Census, 1860; Census Place: Mount Vernon, Knox, Ohio; Roll: M653_994; Page: 47; Family History Library Film: 803994.
- For an example, see Thomas Irvine, Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.
- IrvineClan.com, http://www.irvineclan.com/meli1818htm.
- “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:9392-S536-PR?cc=1614804&wc=Q6SP-J39%3A121352001%2C124075001 : 15 July 2014), Knox County marriage records 1860-1868, vol. 1, image 146 of 332; county courthouses, Ohio.
- United States Census, 1870; Census Place: Memphis Ward 3, Shelby, Tennessee; Roll: M593_1562; Page: 105A; Family History Library Film: 553061.
- “Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939K-BJ9R-LD?cc=1614804&wc=Q6SP-7RG%3A121347401%2C121497801 : 15 July 2014), Holmes County marriage records 1868-1877, vol. 5, image 153 of 319; county courthouses, Ohio.
- “Personal,” 20 Sep 1874, Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Ancestry.com, 1880 United States Federal Census, Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Roll: 191; Page: 485B; Enumeration District: 081.
- Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871-1920, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N7XG-394:10 March 2018), George P. O’Neill and Alberta Baker, 21 Mar 1880.
- Divorces, 2 Jun 1882, Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, p. 12, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1994, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:N7C8-R9G: 8 March 2018), George Payne Oneill, 30 Nov 1914; Cook, Illinois, United States, cn. 31113, record number 288, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,287,511.
- Ohio, County Marriages, 1789-2013, database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939K-BV1Y-S?cc=1614804&wc=Q6SP-NDY%3A121352001%2C123493201 : 15 July 2014), Knox County marriage certificates, 1860, image 120 of 275; county courthouses, Ohio.
- Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Chicago, Illinois, City Directory, 1870, p. 574, col. 1.
- Ancestry.com. Illinois, Marriage Index, 1860-1920 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. (Original data: Illinois State Marriage Records. Online index. Illinois State Public Record Offices.)
- United States Federal Census, 1900, Chicago Ward 30, Cook, Illinois; Page: 15; Enumeration District: 0945; FHL microfilm: 1240283.
- Presbyterian Historical Society; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Book Title: Register 1858-1885; Accession Number: Vault BX 9211 .N74202 C32 v.1.
- Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871–1920. Index, FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2010. Illinois Department of Public Health records, “Marriage Records, 1871–present,” Division of Vital Records, Springfield, Illinois.
- Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916–1947. Index. FamilySearch, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2010.
- 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.
- Death Certificate, George Buckingham, 15 May 1918, Certificate no. 14917, State of Illinois Department of Public Health – Division of Vital Statistics. Genealogical-purpose-only copy in possession of author.