How “just one more” newspaper search solved a decades-old family mystery
By J. L. Starkey
Understand what I’ve become.– Dolores O’Riordan & Noel Hogan
It wasn’t my design.
The portrait was taken in 1897, but I didn’t know that when I was six years old. What I did know was that the scary old lady was my great-great-grandmother, Melcena Millison.
When we were children, my sister and I wondered about Melcena’s portrait. We thought she looked angry, or maybe a little surprised? Oh, and scary. Definitely that. But as we grew up, our opinions changed.
Hmm…she wasn’t really that old, was she? Come to think of it, she wasn’t really that scary, either. She actually just looked…sad.
And that assessment? That one was probably correct.
Building a Mystery
Born in Chicago around 1871, Melcena Angeline Millison was the only child of Gabriella O’Neill and Johann Conrad (J.C.) Muehleisen. The surname variation was one of the first things I learned about her, and it complicated the search for records. I also discovered that her middle name was originally Irvin, a nod to her grandmother’s maiden name. On some documents, though, she used the middle name Angeline, perhaps in a show of solidarity with her great-aunt, Angeline Irvine .
Melcena’s parents separated when she was an infant (or perhaps before she was born), and her childhood followed a chaotic path served with a side of family drama. I’ve written of the O’Neill family’s many marriages and half-truths, but looking at the situation from a child’s viewpoint changed things. How sad to think that she was raised in such chaos, and how tragic to think that she grew up not knowing her father.
Perhaps Melcena was looking for stability when she married William shortly after she turned sixteen . I grew up with a visual reminder of that fact; my mother inherited the crystal goblets that Melcena received as a sixteen-year-old bride.
By 1890, William and Melcena were living in Chicago and raising two daughters; in 1897, she posed for the “scary” portrait at George F. England’s studio .
And after that? Melcena disappeared.
She was not living with William at the time of the 1900 census, nor was her name included as his spouse in directory listings . William and his daughters were in the news occasionally, but Melcena’s name was never mentioned. A 1907 example of this seemed especially odd to me. That year, William took a month-long trip to visit his family in Richmond . His daughter Florence traveled with him.
His wife, however, did not.
I could hear the practical side of me saying, “Oh, come on! It’s not that odd to find nothing about an ancestor in newspapers and records.” But the skeptic in me argued, “This is different. I know this family!” Their names appeared regularly in newspapers, they maintained updated directory listings, and they participated in censuses (though their honesty was somewhat lacking).
Yes, there were plenty of places where I should have seen Melcena’s name.
And yet…she was just not there.
After an eleven-year absence, Melcena reappeared in 1908. According to her daughter’s marriage license application, she was again living with William in Chicago . But by 1910, William was listed as “widowed” on the census, and was living with his mother-in-law, Gabriella (O’Neill) Buckingham .
Hold on! Widowed? Did I read that correctly?
There was another untimely spouse death in my O’Neill line? But that would raise the total to eleven! How unlucky could one family get? It just couldn’t be true, could it?
So where was Melcena hiding?
Clues in the News
William Baugh never remarried, so I assumed that he was buried next to Melcena. Therefore, a search of cemetery records should have led straight to her death date, right?
Oh, William, what did you do? Did you learn nothing from your mother-in-law’s family? If you want to hide marital strife by saying your spouse died, it is best not to “bury” that spouse in a cemetery that doesn’t exist yet!
William was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Evergreen Park, Illinois . However, that cemetery was not licensed to open until June 1910 . According to the 1910 census, Melcena died prior to April of that year. Sure, she may have been buried elsewhere, but that didn’t seem likely.
The question taunted me: Where did she go? I continued searching records and newspapers, but found only dead ends. In frustration, I decided to put the project aside…right after I completed just one more newspaper search. I entered a search string and waited for the now-familiar “your search produced 0 results” message.
But this time, there was one result . And that result changed everything.
Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
“I found her!” I yelled in jubilation. Then I texted my husband with the news…and I might have emailed my sister. Oh, and I may have shared the news with an online genealogy group. Then I read the obituary again. No…wait…one more time.
Yes, it was her! This was an amazing find!
Suddenly, I stopped celebrating.
Something didn’t add up. Actually, a lot of somethings didn’t add up. Why was Melcena over 150 miles from home at the time of her death? Where had she been hiding from 1910 to 1914? How did she die at such a young age?
But those questions paled in comparison to the most disturbing one of all: why did her family lie about her death?
I was about to learn that everything we thought we knew…was wrong.
- For examples of Melcena’s middle name, see 1880 United States Federal Census listing for Melcena Irvin Muehleisen, Chicago, Cook, Illinois; Roll: 191; Page: 485B; Enumeration District: 081. Retrieved from ancestry.com. (See also: District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950, database with images, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QK9B-P6SX: 11 Feb 2018), William Everitt Bough and Malcena Angeline Millison, 04 July 1887; citing p. 10432, Records Office, Washington D.C.; FHL Film 2,025,891.)
- “Marriages” The Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 6 Jul 1887, p. 3, col. 5. Retrieved from genealogybank.com. (See also: “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-4N9K?cc=1803979&wc=3FT6-PTP%3A1584493301 : 26 May 2015, 004281821 > image 1699 of 1771; Records Office, Washington D.C., and Tazewell County, Illinois, Record of Death Reports, Mrs. W. Baugh, Vol. 6, p, 330, digital image 305 of 651, 2 May 1914, https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-99V5-PJ5P?i=304&cat=120944.)
- Chicago Photographers 1847-1900. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1958. (Note: George F. England had three addresses in Chicago from 1895-1900. The 1897 address appears in the corner of Melcena’s photo.)
- United States Federal Census, 1900, Chicago Ward 34, Cook, Illinois; Page: 1; Enumeration District: 1093; FHL Film: 1240289. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- The Times Dispatch, 2 Aug 1907, p. 10, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- 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.
- United States Federal Census, 1910, Chicago Ward 31, Cook, Illinois; Roll: T624_277; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 1345; FHL Film: 1374290. Retrieved from ancestry.com.
- Illinois Deaths and Stillbirths, 1916-1947, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NQSZ-5HJ : 9 March 2018), William Baugh, 10 Feb 1937; Public Board of Health, Archives, Springfield; FHL Film 1,952,628.
- “New Incorporations,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 9 Jun 1910, p. 14, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Deaths,” Chicago Examiner, Chicago, Illinois, Vol. 12, No. 114, 4 May 1914, p. 15, col. 7. Retrieved from Chicago Public Library Digital Collections.